Made in Great Britain
Episode 4: Pottery
Our makers explore how Stoke-on-Trent dominated the global pottery industry, transforming from a collection of tiny rural villages, to a city that became the world capital of ceramics. Over four centuries the potteries in Staffordshire have made everything from the everyday essentials found in British households, to the fine ceramics collected by royalty and connoisseurs across the globe.
Presenter Steph McGovern leads the makers through the ages from the 17th century to the present day. She is guided by celebrity potter Keith Brymer Jones. First, they have to get the clay out of the ground. The Staffordshire area lay over rich clay seams and the makers get stuck into digging up the raw clay from a local field. It is a mucky job and Katie and Charlton work together to get rid of the grit and impurities. They are then tasked with making 17th-century butter pots, throwing them on a 'momentum wheel'. It is a rudimentary potter's wheel powered by kicking a heavy stone flywheel with their feet. Claire is a professional ceramic artist and Charlton studied ceramics at University, but Katie and Jason are complete beginners. The results aren't pretty. Even experienced potters Claire and Charlton struggle to get a high enough 'rise' on the sides of their butter pots. Back in the 1600s the butter pots would have been a consistent size, but despite their best attempts the makers end up with pots that are a variety of different shapes!
This is a life-changing episode for ceramic artist Claire. It is her first time in Stoke and she finds out she is descended from a long line of celebrated Staffordshire potters: the Adams family. She learns from Steph that two Adams brothers were fined ten pence for digging potholes in a road in order to obtain local clay. Claire finds it very emotional that she has such a direct connection to Stoke.
After spending a night sleeping on the factory floor, the makers wake up to a new era of pottery making in Staffordshire - the 1700s. They attempt to copy a beautiful oblong shaped tea cannister, decorated with blue cobalt pigment. This type of ceramic was part of a craze for Chinese-inspired ornaments and fashion known as chinoiserie. The makers use the slab-building technique of the time. They find it more methodical and precise than using a wheel.
Next, the makers enter the era of mass production in the 1800s. This was also the era when bone china was invented in Staffordshire, a British alternative to porcelain that was cheaper and more practical. They marvel at the size of their new surroundings at Gladstone Pottery - a massive factory work yard surrounded by enormous bottle kilns. They are quickly put to work by Keith Brymer Jones. Katie is the 'jiggerer' - she has to use a fast-moving 'jiggering' machine to shape the clay into a plate. She needs to move quickly if she is going to produce anything like the thousands of plates per day made in the 1800s. Katie has a team to support her: Claire helps to prepare the clay into balls and Charlton bats them out into flat pancakes. It is a fast and fun production line. But the makers are shocked to learn that children would have carried out these support roles. Charlton and Jason also have a go at stacking a kiln with giant pots known as 'saggars' - vessels used for stacking up ceramics in the kilns. They are amazed by the speed and accuracy needed for this tough, backbreaking work.
Back in the 21st century, the makers then visit the world famous pottery company, Wedgwood. Established in the 1700s, the iconic British brand is a household name in fine decorative ceramics. Ironically its main market is now China and Japan, who value its heritage most. The makers have a go at creating elaborately decorated 'Jasperware' goods. The makers learn that to mass produce a highly decorative product takes an extraordinary level of skill and expertise. These are skills that are still alive and well in Stoke today. Show less