Until relatively recently Wetheriggs Pottery was a popular historic attraction, with over 100,000 visitors a year, where people could see traditional pottery being made, make a pot themselves and buy pottery to take away. Planning permission has now been granted (with conditions) to build six luxury detached properties on the historic site, a scheduled ancient industrial monument located near Penrith, Cumbria. A campaign has been launched to bring the proposed development to the public’s attention, and the organisers have shared the following with us

The entrance to Wetheriggs Pottery, displaying typical garden ware

Wetheriggs Pottery is the last complete historic example of a working country pottery left in the UK and is of significant importance to our industrial heritage. The tradition of English country pottery making has been with us from medieval times onward and is a craft that permeated many aspects of our social life. Although Wetheriggs Pottery has recently closed as a working pottery, for most of its 250-year life it contributed much to the local community, from creating traditional wares that can still be found in local homes, to creating many skilled jobs. 

In relation to the planning approval, it seems that all the legal channels have been followed, detailed plans drawn and approved, historic advisers contacted, etc. However, considering the importance of this listed and protected site, there has seemingly been little intention by the authorities or developers to bring awareness to the public as to what has been proposed. We actually found out about the approval on page five of the local paper, in a small piece vaguely titled ‘Planners approve luxury homes on former pottery site’. The editor thought it was more important to put a news article about a dog who had swallowed a golf ball on the front page of the same paper!

I feel that before this development can be allowed to proceed, more public awareness should be raised and investigations made into the possibility of the site being taken into trust, or a Trust being formed, publicly or privately, to preserve Wetheriggs Pottery for the benefit of future generations. I’m sure that if the developers were fully aware of the historic importance of this site they would reconsider embarking on this development and would appreciate that none of us wants to live in a society where we know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Hopefully, ‘we the people’ can shine a light onto this development and see if we can navigate a way forward whereby Wetheriggs Pottery, a site of national historic industrial importance, can be preserved.

Listed Scheduled Ancient Industrial Monument
Now a totally unique site, Wetheriggs Pottery is the only example of a complete country pottery left in Great Britain. It began life as a brickworks in approximately 1760, supplying bricks and land-drainage tiles (pipes) for the farmlands and buildings of the local Brougham estate. This was (and still is) an area of high rainfall; the farmland desperately needed good drainage, and as there was a good supply of clay locally, a brickworks was built.

A hundred years later, in 1855, a large family of potters called the Schofields were brought down from the North East to introduce pottery making to the existing brickworks. The pottery supplied everyday crocks, kitchenware, tableware, flowerpots and other horticultural items that were in high demand both locally and in the wider community.

The celebrated type of traditional decoration on the kitchen and tableware made at Wetheriggs was known as ‘slipware’. Liquid white clay was slip-trailed onto the pots with great skill, using a cow’s horn and goose quill tip to make an ornamental pattern that contrasted with the dark clay body. The designs originated in the fishing villages of the North East, embroidered on lace, and represented the men, the sea and the fish.

The layout of the pottery by the late 1850s was extensive. Two ‘Newcastle type’ brick kilns already existed on the seven-acre site, and a central large circular 500ft3 beehive updraft kiln was newly built – a sophisticated design for its time.

Employing up to 12 people, there were sun pans; a large mechanical blunger (or washmill); moulding and steam engine rooms; associated workshops and sheds for clay preparation, throwing, drying with heated benches (hypocausts); a large hovel (kiln surround); covered yard for drying; a blacksmith’s workshop for the pottery site and the estate, and a reservoir to supply water to the whole works. Coal was brought down into the works on a spur-line (siding) of the adjacent railway mainline, and the pottery wares were shipped out. 

A very well-conceived and executed plan for an isolated rural business, but this was the Industrial Revolution!

The sun pan and blunger
Making pottery at Wetheriggs began with clay preparation. Raw clay was hand dug from the claypit on the other side of the road and winched up the steep incline by a narrow-gauge railway, which can be seen on the site map. It was added to the mechanical blunger, which mixed the clay with water. The blunger was an ingenious invention, rotated by horsepower and then eventually by a steam engine.

The 8.5hp steam engine powered the blunger, clay bogies, pugmill and throwing wheel…

… and was restored by Fred Dibnah

The blunger tubs were steadily emptied until the water/clay ratio was correct (approximately 1,000 gallons, about three tons). The mix was stirred and thrashed continuously until all the clay was suspended in the water, producing a thin slurry. After a brief pause to allow heavy stones to settle to the bottom of the blunger, the sluice was opened and the liquid clay would start its long winding run down the trough (grip) on a shallow fall, to the entrance of the sun pan, where it would run to all corners of the pan, gradually filling it to around 18” deep.

The sun pan worked via a sedimentary process and by evaporation of the excess water in the clay. It was sited in a south-facing aspect to pick up as much sun as possible. The clay, blunged and run off in the spring, was tended to and turned by hand with shovels during the summer months and finally lifted and barrowed out in the autumn for the next stage of processing, which was the pug mill and throwing.

Gravity and fall were used as the method of grading the coarseness of the clay for use in the different types of pottery produced. The liquid clay that ran to the furthest corners of the sun pan would be the smoothest as the most grit had settled out; this produced the finest clay, known as cupping clay. This was used for the cups and saucers, cream jugs, tableware etc.

The clay in the middle area of the pan would settle holding enough grit for the medium-sized pots, and where the clay settled at the point of entry to the sun pan, it was at its grittiest. This was used for the largest pots to give them good standing strength while being thrown on the wheel, and for flowerpots and oven pots to give them excellent resistance to thermal shock (frost-proof and heat-proof). The really coarse sand and gravel in the grip was dug out and sold to builders. 

The old sun pan, where blunged slip was settled and dried

As the sun pan filled with continuous blunger-loads of liquid clay, much of the water would come to the surface as the clay settled out. When a lake of water had formed on the surface, it was pumped back up to the blunger to be re-used.

The reservoir (now the pond), fed from a nearby spring, was located a distance away, beyond the main buildings and higher than the blunging equipment to create the fall needed (head) for the water supply to all the buildings as well as the blunger. Copious amounts of water are needed in pottery making, and of course, this water was free. This is also the reason why the sun pan is a haven for wildlife, for rare protected great crested newts, toads, frogs, all manner of wetland creatures and particularly rare sand lizards, who adore the sandy environment at the bottom of the sun pan. The Wetheriggs sun pan and blunger are unique.

The Victorian beehive kiln
The beehive kiln gets its name from its domed roof, similar in appearance to the beekeeper’s straw skeps used to catch swarms of bees, and also the inside, which is like a honeycomb.

The Wetheriggs kiln is an updraught kiln, where the whole structure acts as a chimney. The main structure of the kiln is placed centrally within a larger brick surround that creates a room with four sides and a roof that tapers in to meet the main structure just below the top of the kiln. This surround is called the hovel. These kilns were constructed in this way so that strong prevailing winds in open countryside were prevented from causing chaos with uneven burning at the fireboxes. The interior of a hovel was inevitably black with soot and smoke, hence the origin of the phrase ‘a filthy hovel’.

The beehive kiln is now unique to Wetheriggs. It takes its name from the skep-like shape of the outside…

… and the honeycomb stacking arrangement on the inside

The heated stone benches (hypocausts, or horizontal flues) built against the inside walls of the hovel actually started in the throwing room. Wet pots were placed on them to dry, gradually being moved and turned by hand, along into the kiln room, so when finally dry they were available for stacking straight into the kiln.

Coal was brought to the site by train on the main line and backed down the spur (siding) into the pottery works. The fuel used was high-grade low-sulphur coal called doubles, also used in industry for melting steel. They were called doubles because of the length of flame generated, so they produced a lot more heat, but it was expensive. The coal would be dumped from the railway trucks into the gully by the kiln door, from where it was barrowed to the corners of the kiln room for easy access during the firings. The coal was also distributed around the works to the numerous fires required in the pottery-making process, including the busy blacksmith – whose workshop was on site for maintaining the giant steel kiln bands that would expand and contract with the heat from the kiln – the steam engine, and for the many other pottery related jobs, as well as for the Brougham estate. The potters also sold coal to the local community and had a weighbridge. Another benefit of railway access was that this enabled them to load and send out all the finished wares.

On average the kiln could hold up to 6,000 items. These were stacked in cupboards around the inner wall to protect the sensitive lead glaze from the direct blast of the fire. Within the central area were stacked saggars (fireclay small box ovens) and in these were placed the smaller, finer wares on a bed of fine sand or spurs to prevent them from sticking with the runny molten glaze. 

The saggar maker’s bottom knocker
The saggars were made of fireclay and could be used many times. Saggar making was a skilled craft, made famous by the man whose job it was to hold up and tap the saggars, listening for splits and cracks. He was called the ‘saggar maker’s bottom knocker’. If damage was found a new saggar would have to be made, otherwise a whole stack could come crashing down. The new base would be beaten out with a huge flat mallet, to bed the saggar box to the base of a replacement. These men were generally itinerant or journeymen potters moving around from one pottery to another. The base of the kiln was reinforced with a 4ft-high plinth of solid bricks that housed the eight fireboxes. These tapered from wide stoking mouths to narrow slits as the flames issued into the inner chamber. During firing, the kiln gave a range of temperature throughout and the pots were stacked according to this; 950°C at the bottom to 1120°C at the top (flowerpots up to cookware).

The technical bit…
The process of firing these big kilns effectively was related to preventing reduction (lack of oxygen). The idea was to begin with a long pre-heat and slow rise in the early stages to thoroughly clear all moisture out of the kiln. It was then stoked steadily but with increasing regularity in order to maintain a generally good oxidised atmosphere in the kiln, which meant there was plenty of oxygen in with the fuel. If the fuel became starved of oxygen by being too smokey, or not being able to pass through the kiln quickly enough, it would create a disastrous reduction atmosphere and boil the delicate lead glazes, turning the colour to a slate grey instead of a bright, healthy earthenware.

Clamming up the wicket
Once the pottery had been placed or ‘set’ in position, a task for which only one day was allowed, the large doorway of removable bricks, called the wicket, was stacked tightly with bricks and smeared with a thick coating of clay and ash (clam), to insulate against draughts through these bricks (a process known as ‘clamming up the wicket’). A low fire was lit in each of the fireplaces to dry the ware out overnight. During the course of the next 24 hours, the temperature was gradually raised to 400°C, the small vents above each fireplace being left open to allow a certain amount of cool air into the fires to reduce the total heat intake. Firing then continued at a moderate rate for 12 hours after which the small vents were blocked with bricks. The flame was lengthened during the firing towards top temperature by small mouse holes at the top of the fireboxes. These were opened to introduce air into the swirling flames and up into the ware to avoid reduction. At the height of the firing, roaring great flames and smoke could be seen leaping up from the kiln chimney, the fires stoked to their fiercest heat until the required temperature was reached a further 12 hours later. The pottery firemen (or stokers) had to work in shifts throughout the firing until the end when all hands were called for, and shovels flew. Test pieces were then withdrawn from the kiln on the end of a long iron pole, and if they had matured satisfactorily the fireplaces were quickly bricked up and the whole kiln left to cool for three days before being opened. On the morning of the fourth day the load was withdrawn (a five-hour task), the entire process of firing having taken a total of five and a half days to complete, with six tons of high-grade low-sulphur coal having been burnt.

The kiln was continually being repaired as the enormous heat stress and wear took their toll. The kiln was built on the stable supply of cheap fuel, tied labour and zero inflation, and its viability only came into question as these factors changed, terminating with the closure of the railway during the Beeching cuts of the 1960s.

The steam wheel
The steam wheel at Wetheriggs is a wonderful piece of Victorian engineering much admired by Fred Dibnah, as were all the various pieces of steam machinery for their ingenuity of design and capabilities. A powerful machine with variable speed capable of producing egg cups and cream jugs, up to a whole hundredweight of clay for enormous flowerpots and glazed storage bins. Controlled by a foot-powered pedal accelerator, it operated at extremely high speed and needed a very skilled potter to work it. The power source came from the steam engine shed, a considerable distance away, and was conveyed from the engine to the wheel by a series of overhead line-shafting, pullies and flat belts coming down to the machine. You would certainly not want to get your fingers in the way of the drive mechanism. 

Production throwing on the steam wheel required great skill

From the mid-1990s to early-2000s,  Fred Dibnah gave talks and restored much of the machinery at Wetheriggs Pottery to its former glory, including the steam engine, pugmill and steam wheel. Fred is quoted as saying of the blunger: “I really, really enjoyed working on restoring this piece of tackle, and it was one of the best jobs that I had ever done in all my career.”

How can anybody even contemplate such an important and iconic piece of Cumbria’s history becoming anything other than a unique educational facility for the benefit of the whole community?

Any help you can provide, or suggestions of ways forward, would be much appreciated. We would also be very grateful if you could sign our ‘Save Wetheriggs Pottery’ petition on Change.org at: chng.it/XJTTYYb7