Bristol Potters and Potteries

Research by Reg Jackson

Chapter 8


Originating in the Middle East in the 19th century, the technique of tin-glazed earthenware production spread to Spain in the 13th century, to Italy in the 15th century and to the Low Countries by the early 16th century. The smooth white surface of this pottery was eminently suitable for decorating with patterns and motifs painted in a variety of colours, often in an attempt to imitate the fashionable but expensive Chinese porcelains.

From Antwerp the potters Jasper Andries and Jacob Jansen introduced tin-glazed earthenware to England in about 1567, initially in Norwich and then, by 1571, at Aldgate in London. The industry thrived, the wares appealing to the wealthy who could afford to use them both as utilitarian objects and as ornaments to embellish their dining tables and walls. There was a great demand for these products and around the middle of the 17th century a pottery for their manufacture was established at Brislington in north Somerset, within easy reach of the lucrative market afforded by Bristol’s citizens.

Pottery production was not a new trade to Bristol and its immediate neighbourhood. There had been a history of potting in Bristol: in St. Mary Redcliffe parish during the 13th to late 15th centuries and in the eastern part of the city during the second half of the 14th century. There were also potteries on the west bank of the River Avon, downstream from the city, at Ham Green and Pill which operated during the 12th and 13th centuries. Although the results of one archaeological excavation at Ham Green has been published, as has a small group of pottery kiln waste from the city, other kiln groups require publication and much work still needs to be carried out on the contemporary documents in order that we may understand the development of this important medieval industry and the types of wares it produced.

We will probably never know exactly why a tin-glazed earthenware pottery was established at Brislington rather than in Bristol. The availability of raw materials, water power, and its position on a river navigable at high tide, allowing for the easy movement of raw materials and finished products, must have been important factors. The river also provided access to Bristol, the River Severn and its tributaries and the coastal and overseas trade routes. A hitherto unrecognised factor may have been the Nonconformist religion of the pottery’s key personnel. Working in Bristol would have required them to become freemen of the city and acquiring that freedom would have caused problems; in particular, their religion would not permit them to swear an oath of allegiance and refusals would have led to fines and, ultimately, transportation. The area of north Somerset chosen by the potters was close enough to Bristol for trading purposes but perhaps was far enough away for them to escape the worst of the religious intolerance and persecution prevalent at that time.

Despite extensive documentary research we still do not know when the Brislington pottery started production. The technical expertise was almost certainly provided by the London potter John Bissicke who was last recorded in Southwark in 1642 and was first mentioned in Brislington in 1652, thus narrowing down the establishment of the pottery to a ten year period; a gap that is still too great. It is unlikely that Bissicke had the capital to build, equip and staff the pottery so there was almost certainly someone living locally who could provide the finance needed. The most likely person to fill that role was the farmer and landowner Robert Collins, whose name is linked with the early history of the pottery. It is possible that he was the inspiration behind the pottery and encouraged Bissicke to leave London.

The location of the Brislington pottery remains elusive. It was almost certainly not on the site of St Anne’s chapel as claimed by Pountney and accepted without question by subsequent researchers and authors. The kiln remains excavated by Pountney were part of a later, 18th-century, redware pottery depicted on Eden’s 1820s watercolour, wasters from which have been found in the area. The history of this later pottery remains obscure due to the lack of documentary sources, but it seems to have been owned by the Ring family of Bristol.

If the tin-glazed earthenware pottery was not at the chapel, where are its remains to be found? The late 18th-century Gore-Langton estate map and the 19th-century tithe map provide clues in the field names suggesting that the pottery was not far from the river and probably close to, if not on, the site of St. Anne’s Farm. Kiln waste has been found all around the area but disposal of the large quantities of debris generated by potters was always a problem and they were probably using any available space within easy reach for dumping, levelling and making-up ground surfaces. Thus the find-spots of waste, although confirming the pottery was in the St. Anne’s area, do not help us in pin-pointing the kiln site.

It is possible that documentary references concerning the establishment of the pottery and its location may be found in the future. The writer is still carrying out research on the late 18th- to 20th-century Bristol potters and potteries so the possibility of the chance discovery of a crucial document remains. The site of the pottery may still be discovered during redevelopment work in the St. Anne’s area: all ground disturbances carried out during the building of a housing estate and the industrial units nearby have been monitored by the writer and colleagues from the City Museum without result, but this work will continue.

The documents examined tell us something of the life, status and wealth of the people associated with the Brislington pottery – but the documentary evidence is biased towards the more affluent members of the potting community: those who were purchasing or leasing land and those who had amassed property and personal effects of some value which needed to be specified in wills. Only a very small number of the people involved in the Brislington pottery are recorded – the financiers, owners and master potters – the hundreds of workers who must have been employed in the pottery over the many years of its existence are unknown to us. The throwers, pot painters and other artisans who produced the vessels which are now so much admired and collected will never be identified. However, the writer’s study of 19th-century census returns, parish registers and other documents, all of which give occupations, show the vast number of individuals – men, women and children – who were involved in the potting industry in Bristol during that period and how hard and itinerant was their lifestyle: constantly moving between the potting centres to find work. The lives of the 17th-century potters must have been very much the same.

After a number of previously unsuccessful attempts to understand the chronological ownership of the Brislington pottery, including a suggestion that there were two potteries operating there in the 17th and early 18th centuries, the writer has been able to establish a history of the pottery based on research into the families who provided the commercial acumen and technical expertise to make the pottery a successful venture. This shows the pottery was passed down through the Bennett family, generally via its female members, Robert Wastfield and Thomas Dickson acquiring their interests in the business through their marriages to the Bennetts. The pottery finally passed out of the family to Thomas Taylor, who saw it through to its closure in 1743 following his bankruptcy.

It is tempting to suggest that Edward Crofts, who was working as a potter in St. Mary Redcliffe parish in Bristol in the 1660s and 1670s, was related to the Brislington potters by marriage – certainly he and his family were beneficiaries under the will of Anne Bissicke, the widow of the first master potter at Brislington. It is a possibility that Edward Crofts was producing tin-glazed earthenware and, if so, then he was the first potter in the city to do so. It is hoped that further documentary evidence might be found concerning his business or that the site of his pottery in Redcliff Street might become available for archaeological excavation – that area of Redcliffe being the subject of gradual clearance and redevelopment.

The certain link between Brislington and the Bristol tin-glazed earthenware industry was Edward Ward. An employee of Sarah Wastfield at Brislington in 1678 he had established the Water Lane pottery in Temple parish in the city by 1682. A sign of the commercial importance attached to tin-glazed earthenware production was that Ward’s freedom to work in the city was sponsored by the Mayor who was able to nominate just one person annually in that way. The Water Lane pottery flourished under the Ward family and expanded its premises in a haphazard fashion along the frontage of Temple Back. It is known that the Water Lane potters attempted to diversify the types of ware they were producing, moving into the production of slipware, vessels having iron-enriched glaze and stoneware: wasters of these types of ware being found in kiln dumps close by.

Bristol, its hinterland and the towns accessible by overland routes and through the river and coasting trade network must have initially provided the potters at Brislington, and later in the 17th century at Water Lane, with a large and important market for their goods. The writer’s study of the Port Books has shown the significance of the export trade in earthenware to the prosperity of the tin-glazed earthenware industry in Brislington and the city, but initially the growth in exports was only gradual; Ireland, and in particular the ports on its southern coastline, was a regular destination for earthenware shipped through Bristol. However, it was the expanding trade with the colonies in the West Indies and north America that was to provide the potters with what may have been their major source of income. Those markets became important during the 1680s, with the trade to them dramatically increasing through the remainder of the 17th century and the first quarter of the 18th century. Although some of the earthenwares exported during the 18th century may not have been tin-glazed earthenwares, on present evidence the Water Lane pottery and, perhaps, the Temple Street pottery, were the only producers of other types of ware.

This enormous demand for earthenware was certainly instrumental in the establishment of more tin-glazed earthenware potteries in Bristol. The Water Lane pottery was soon followed by at least four other potteries in the city: Mary Orchard’s in Temple Street by 1696; the Margerum/Frank pottery in Redcliff Back by 1705; Henry Hobb’s in Limekiln Lane by 1707; and William Pottery’s, again in Limekiln Lane, in 1734. It is also possible that the Harwell/Frank pottery, established by 1756, was producing tin-glazed earthenware. These were all located close to the River Avon, on the edges of the areas of domestic occupation and amongst other commercial concerns, where sufficient land was readily available and where the smoke and fumes from their kilns would cause the least annoyance to inhabitants.

The substantial cost involved in building a pottery, hiring employees, and supporting it through the early unprofitable stages of production required a great deal of financial input, almost certainly provided by the shadowy ‘co-partners’ involved in the Temple Street and Limekiln Lane potteries. A common theme running through the history of these potteries was the Nonconformist religion of the families involved and the writer considers that members of the Society of Friends or Quakers were responsible for funding at least some of these enterprises.

In the second half of the 18th century fashions in ceramics changed and competition from stoneware and Wedgwood’s newly developed creamware led to a decline in the demand for tin-glazed earthenware. All but one of the potteries in Brislington and Bristol closed – the only survivor being the Water Lane pottery which began producing the types of ware being made in Staffordshire and could match, if not exceed, them in quality.

Ceramic historians and collectors have placed great emphasis on trying to date and attribute complete examples of the tin-glazed earthenwares held in art gallery, museum and private collections to particular potteries or even to the hands of specific potters, all of which has greatly enhance the value of collections. To archaeologists the need for attributions of this type may seem debatable but, in order for tin-glazed earthenwares to serve both the needs of archaeologists as dating evidence on excavations and the requirements of collectors who wish to enhance the value of their wares, two elements are essential.

Firstly, it is necessary to know as precisely as possible the number of tin-glazed earthenware potteries that were in existence, their locations and their periods of production based on sound and unequivocal documentary evidence. Secondly, we need to establish the nature of the wares each pottery was manufacturing at particular times throughout its period of operation and that evidence can only be acquired from sherds found on pottery sites or in discrete dumps of waste pottery which can be positively attributed to a particular manufacturer. Without this fundamental framework of known potteries and products, then the dating and attribution of wares are simply ‘best guesses’ based on inadequate information.

With the increasing interest in post-medieval archaeology it is hoped that more attention will be paid to the tin-glazed earthenware industry. Such disasters as the total destruction of the Water Lane pottery site in the early 1970s without any archaeological recording must not be repeated. The importance of the industry needs to be impressed on archaeologists and the pottery sites which may be preserved to some degree below ground – at Brislington and in Bristol at Temple Street and Redcliff Backs – must be excavated and any kiln groups associated with them properly recorded.