Bristol Potters and Potteries

Research by Reg Jackson

Chapter 1

General Introduction

The establishment of the tin-glazed earthenware industry at Brislington in the 17th century was a significant episode in the long history of pottery production in Bristol and the surrounding area which dates back to at least the early 12th century and continued until the middle of this century. It was Bristol’s natural and economic advantages as a ready market for finished products, a centre for trade via the River Avon, and its proximity to sources of raw materials, which attracted potters in the 17th century as they had in the medieval period.

Our relatively limited knowledge of the medieval pottery industry in Bristol derives mainly from the archaeological excavation of one kiln site and a few dumps of kiln waste. The latter evidence comprises the pottery discarded during the production process and identifiable by its misshapen and cracked appearance, the presence of glaze runs over broken edges of sherds and the over or under-fired nature of the fabric, together with the kiln furniture used to support or protect vessels during firing, or even fragments of the kiln itself.

In the Bristol area the only excavated medieval kiln site is that at Ham Green on the Somerset bank of the the River Avon, 6 kilometres north-west and downstream of the city (Barton 1963). Following the finding of a few sherds of kiln waste in 1959, a trial excavation revealed a bank of wasters 0.6 metres deep, and an oval kiln 2.5 metres long by 1.2 metres wide. The kiln walls were composed of limestone which had been lagged internally with a thick lining of clay, baked very hard. It was divided down the centre by a longitudinally placed wall and was fired through a circular flue about 0.6 metres in diameter at one end, the opening of which showed an arch springing of Pennant sandstone slabs held and lagged with clay. Within the flue, lengths of stone had been set in the ground to act as firebars. The kiln was re-excavated in 1978 and a gully bordering it on the south and west, missed in the first excavation, was found to contain considerable quantities of wasters. At the same time a further group of kiln waste was excavated from another production site at Pill, 2 kilometres west of Ham Green (Ponsford 1991, 89 & 91).

The Ham Green potters were making cooking-pots, jugs and other vessels over a period of at least 150 years, from about 1120 to 1275 (Good & Russett 1987, 36). The distribution of the findspots of their wares shows that the potters fully exploited the trading opportunities afforded by their situation on the bank of the River Avon, which provided access to the River Severn and its tributaries. This allowed them to send their wares up the Wye as far as Hereford, the Lugg to Leominster, the Severn to Gloucester and, via the Axe, along the southern slopes of the Mendip Hills. Sea-going vessels carried their pots as far as Ireland and the Isle of Man.

No medieval kilns have been excavated within the city of Bristol, but groups of kiln waste have been found at St. Peter’s Church (Dawson et al 1972) and at Redcliffe Hill (Fowler 1971, 39). The St. Peter’s material was in an ashy deposit used to backfill the foundation trench for the north aisle wall of the church. The products of the kiln were jugs, jars, cooking pots and roof tiles which appear, from the contexts in which they have been found in Bristol and the date of construction of the aisle of the church, to have been made during the 14th century. The Redcliffe Hill waste was found in a pit containing lumps of burnt clay and ash. Although the group is unpublished the output of this kiln is known to have included cooking-pots, skillets, jugs, roof tiles and also, probably, floor tiles. Production seems to have continued from the middle of the 13th century until the late 15th century and from the beginning of the 14th century ‘Redcliffe ware’ replaced Ham Green ware as the most commonly occurring glazed pottery in the city.

In Bristol our knowledge of medieval potters and their products is based largely on archaeological evidence. Only a limited study of the pottery industry has been made in the surviving documents of that period and no attempt seems to have been made to discover documentary references which might supplement the archaeological evidence for the pottery at Ham Green. One problem in any such study is the difficulty in finding clear and unambiguous references to potters. They were known as ‘crockers’ but that word, or corrupted spellings of it, usually appeared as part of a person’s name rather than as a separate reference to their trade: so we find names such as Jordan Croker, Willielmus le Crokker and Juliana le Crokkere. A further difficulty is that a ‘crocker’ was not necessarily an earthenware potter; he could also have been a maker of metal vessels.

Despite the pitfalls associated with such research, a study by Roger Price (1991) has tentatively identified a number of potters working in Bristol in the medieval period. On 15 August 1293 one Edward le Crokare was one of the witnesses to a conveyance of a property which probably lay on Redcliffe Hill in St. Mary Redcliffe parish. It is possible that Edward was living and working in the property although there is no evidence to substantiate this. In 1303 a tenement opposite Redcliffe churchyard was granted to Edward le Crokare and the last reference to Edward associated with Redcliffe was on 22 January 1328. On the basis of this evidence it is suggested that the wasters found in the pit on Redcliffe Hill may have come from the pottery of Edward le Crokare. However, in the Tallage Roll of 1313 Edward was not mentioned although two other possible potters, Juliana le Crokkere and William le Crokkere, were named as living in Redcliffe parish. Price has concluded that the documents suggest there were two principal pottery centres in Bristol: in Redcliffe from the late 13th to the mid 14th centuries and in eastern Bristol during the second half of the 14th century.

In the post-medieval period the degree of record keeping and the survival rate of documents increased dramatically and many records clearly state the trades and places of work of the people mentioned in them. From the 17th century onwards, documents used in the study of the pottery industry come from a wide variety of sources: parishes, courts, local government administration, local and national taxation returns, non-conformist religious groups, maps and surveys, port records, legal processes connected with every aspect of peoples’ lives, and personal, family and trade records.

The earliest attempt to provide a history of Bristol’s pottery industry was Hugh Owen’s book Two Centuries of Ceramic Art in Bristol, published in 1873. This was an amalgamation of historical sources and hearsay and was largely concerned with the manufacture of porcelain in the late 18th century, although a chapter was devoted to tin-glazed earthenware. In 1920 William Pountney, a member of the family who once owned the Bristol Pottery at Temple Back and later at Fishponds, published his book entitled Old Bristol Potteries, which has remained the primary source of information, often misleading but repeatedly quoted, for over 60 years. His study of the Bristol pottery industry was based largely on two important sources of information: the ‘apprenticeship’ and ‘freedom’ (or burgess) records of the Corporation of Bristol. These detailed the apprenticeship of individuals to master craftsmen and their subsequent freedom to practice their chosen trade in their own right as burgesses of the city. He also undertook excavations at Brislington and in the city and recovered examples of kiln waste which he attempted to attribute to various potters and potteries. Pountney was particularly concerned with tracing the connection of his own family and their pottery with the origins of potting in the city, however tenuous the links.

Despite the tremendous wealth of original records housed in Bristol a wide ranging and detailed documentary study of the post-medieval pottery industry in the city was not undertaken until the 1970s. The initial results of this study were published by the writer, Philomena Jackson and Roger Price in 1984 as volume 13 of the Journal of Ceramic History: Bristol Potters and Potteries: 1600-1800. This contained brief histories of twenty potteries in Bristol, Brislington and Bedminster together with the biographies of some 300 potters.

Apart from Pountney’s brief references to the tin-glazed earthenware kiln material he recovered from Brislington, no attempt had been made until recently to excavate and publish kiln waste connected with the 17th- and 18th-century potteries operating in Brislington and Bristol. In 1972 Roger Price excavated a number of pits containing kiln waste, including tin-glazed earthenwares, dating from about 1730 to 1840 and produced at the Water Lane (sometimes called the Temple Back) pottery in Temple parish. Although the report on this material has been written it remains unpublished (Price forthcoming). In 1984 the writer excavated kiln waste associated with Henry Hobbs and Company’s early 18th-century tin-glazed earthenware pottery at Limekiln Lane in Bristol. That was published in 1991, together with a detailed history of the pottery, as a report in volume 25 of the Journal of the Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology: Tin-Glazed Earthenware Kiln Waste from the Limekiln Lane Pottery, Bristol.

The present study, which is the subject of this dissertation, was prompted by the clear need for a more detailed and far-reaching investigation of the early history of the tin-glazed earthenware industry in Brislington and Bristol together with a reappraisal of the published evidence. Despite the work of Owen and Pountney and the writer’s own published research, there are still doubts as to why Brislington was chosen by the potters in preference to Bristol, the date when the pottery was established at Brislington, where the pottery was located, the types of vessels produced, the markets exploited by the potters, the status of the potters and their connections with the tin-glazed earthenware potteries in Bristol.

This dissertation is intended to investigate and answer these questions, supported by new documentary and archaeological evidence and a fresh look at the published sources.