CHAPTER 32. The Potteries

As soon as breakfast was over we packed up and started for the potteries. I had letters of introduction from a Wellington friend to Messrs. S. Fielding & Co. Ltd. who make the well known “Crown Devon” ware and the Wedgwood Co. which is world famous. As the Crown Devon people were only a couple of minutes from the North Stafford Hotel where we stayed the night and the Wedgwood were at Henley, a couple of miles further on, we decided to visit the former first.

World Tour 1938
Typical road on our tour of England

Mr. R.R. Fielding gave me a very hearty welcome and sent a messenger out to the car for the three ladies. He then put aside his work so that he could personally take us through the works. This was greatly appreciated, as a partner and director was able to show us more than the usual guide. In many places he stopped the work in order to let us see what was done and we were taken to places which were not usually shown to the ordinary visitors.

We first went outside to the heaps of raw material. These consisted of “Marl Bank”, which is the name give to the local clay, Flint stones from France, a china stone from Cornwall, and a Ball clay from Dorset. The flint stones are the common stones we see on the sea shore. In fact, they are picked up on the sea shore in France and shipped to England.

These materials are ground for days until they are as fine as flour. In the form of a liquid they are passed over magnets which extract any metallic substances from them. The water is then squeezed out by means of very large presses. The putty like material is then subjected to another process in what is called the Pug Mill. This is a cylinder which chops up the clay like a sausage machine and forces it through a small aperture so that there is no air left in it. It is then cut into suitable lengths ready to go to the other departments, where it is moulded into shape in several different ways ready for the first baking. These processes were most interesting and we had a couple of articles specially made for us. One man was taken from his ordinary work to give us a demonstration. In a few minutes he had made all sorts and sizes of articles, from the same piece of clay. Two of these are to be fired and finished for us and will be sent to us in London if they are completed before we leave for America.

We then passed on to where modelling was done. We saw toy dogs being made in sections and afterwards joined together. We were taken to the department where moulds were made. This is special work which requires a great deal of skill and experience. For instance, a mould for a jug might consist of half a dozen pieces. We afterwards saw the moulds being used and girls could turn out cups and saucers by the hundred in a very short time. I say cups and saucers, but I would specially mention that it appears to be the rule of the factory that an employee should do only one job and do that job properly. Some of the workmen had been doing the same job for 40 years.

We saw them making the Saggars – large fireclay boxes in which the pieces are placed during the firing. We watched them packing in the pieces very carefully and afterwards stack them one above the other in the large ovens. It was wonderful how the men carried these filled saggars on the top of the head without holding them while they climbed a ladder in the oven to get to the top of the stack. I tried to lift one of these and it was just about as much as I could do, but they seemed to lift and carry them without any trouble.

The firing is carried on for between three and four days and the pieces are then in what is called the “biscuit” stage. They are then ready for printing or decorating in some way. The printing is done by first making a transfer from a copper plate. It is transferred to the china from the tissue paper on which it is taken and any colouring can then be done either by hand or air spray.

Once more the pieces are put through the oven, but the heat is not quite so fierce. When they are again cooled down they are ready for glazing. It takes about seven years to properly learn how to dip into the glazing solution. In this factory one man dips every piece which is made. He develops a very sensitive touch and can immediately “feel” whether the china requires a strong or a weak solution. In an oven carrying thousands of pieces at one time it is impossible to give them all an even temperature. Consequently, some get baked more than others and require a different finish.

After glazing, they come into the ovens once more for the third baking. This time they are passed through a furnace of a different type. Instead of being stacked up in an oven which is heated up for four days or more, they are put on trucks of fire clay and these are started on a journey through a long oven, the hottest part of which is in the centre. They start with a comparatively mild heat and go on until they pass through the hottest part and by the time they reach the other end of the oven, a period of several days, they have cooled down sufficiently to be taken out without breaking.

Of course, there are many small intermediate jobs and departments, such as trying, testing, smoothing and other very necessary jobs which take time and labour, but the above gives a very brief description of the work we saw done.

We were then taken to the showroom where samples were kept for visitors and others to see. This should have been left out, for the unavoidable happened and we had to make some purchases to be sent home. It was all so interesting that we did not realise how the time was going until we saw the workmen returning from their lunch. Mr. Fielding did not mind finishing the job of showing us round and it was ten minutes to three before we left him to go to his lunch. Fortunately, we had all partaken of a good breakfast and as we wanted to see the Wedgwood factory we decided to go to a restaurant and have a cup of tea and a scone so that we would not be too late.

World Tour 1938
Wedgwood pottery Stoke on Trent

We were not very long over it, for it was just 3.30 when we arrived at the office of the company at Henley. Mr. Simpson, the man for whom I had the letter of introduction, was engaged, but we were started on a trip through their factory by another man. He later caught us up and took us to the oldest part of their factory where Mr. Josiah Wedgwood actually worked nearly 200 years ago.

Here we saw an old man and an old woman working side by side at an old lathe. They had been together for over 30 years. They showed us their work and to the delight of Elizabeth and Lois they gave them both an opportunity of doing part of the work of making a vase. When it was finished they signed their names on the bottom and left it to be fired and finished for them and afterwards sent to their London address.

This took about half-an-hour to get through and as the workmen would be finishing very shortly we had to hurry through the rest of the factory. This did not matter very much, as we had spent so much time with the “Crown Devon” people, but we were glad to see those parts which were solely done by Wedgwood. It was after five o’clock when we arrived at their show room and if we had seen nothing else we would have enjoyed seeing the wonderful pieces of special china. We saw samples of dinnersets made for several of the Kings of England and also president Roosevelt of America.

I did not know whether to be glad or sorry that we reached that showroom. There was a most gorgeous tea set there which we all greatly admired. After I had recovered from the shock when the price was mentioned I found myself listening to the reasoning of the others as to why I should not miss such an opportunity of getting the set for the home. We wandered on and saw other pieces which were beautiful works of art, but still I was brought back to that tea set in some way or another. It was impossible for me to withstand the temptation and just before we left at six o’clock the order was given. They will make another set for me and I should have it in New Zealand for Christmas.

We left the town after getting some tea and started on our journey without knowing how far we would go. As the roads were good and the day long we found that by driving a little later than usual we could reach Blackpool. It was a couple of minutes to ten when we got to the town and just as we were entering I met a car with its parking lights turned on. This was the first car I had seen with lights while I had been driving in England. Possibly this particular instance was due to the fact that it was raining and the day was dull, as the lighting up time for cars was somewhere about 10.30 p.m.

 

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