Potclays: A potted history
Potclays celebrated its 85th anniversary in 2017. It’s still owned and run by the same family – now in its 4th generation – and they still use the traditional manufacturing methods dating back half a century. They held a special Anniversary Open Day on Saturday 30 September 2017, with factory tours, talks from esteemed speakers such as Tallie Maughan of Turning Earth and Lisa Hammond of Clay College, and throwing demonstrations from Tom Knowles Jackson, runner-up from series one of the Great Pottery Throw Down. Tom also judged the efforts of the competitors in the blindfold throwing contests. Photographer Ben Boswell covered the event, and some of his images accompany this feature.
The company has a long and varied history, and its story begins with the purchase of a failing coal mine by William Warbreck Noake in 1932, when he was 65, following a chance discussion with a pub landlord near Walsall.
During the recession of the late 1920s and early 1930s, the British government implemented a number of policies to stimulate growth in British manufacturing, including the restriction of foreign imports. This gave an enormous boost to UK manufacturing, including the pottery industry.
William had retired as works manager of Twyfords, which was at the time one of the largest sanitary ware manufacturers in the UK. He knew that the industry was crying out for a reliable source of pale-firing fireclay, which, at that time, had to be brought up from the South West of England by canal and rail, at great expense.
During his research, William discovered the work of a Professor Mitchell from Liverpool University; specifically, his report on the Northern part of the South Staffordshire coalfield, which was indicated as having similar geology to the South West of England. William came to know Professor Mitchell well and, realising the value of this specific type of fireclay, began prospecting the local coal mines and talking to workers in the public houses at the end of their shifts.
The Swan pub in Pelsall Road, Walsall, was opposite a coal mine that was suffering financially. One day, William overheard some miners complaining of the ‘awful, sticky mud’ they had to contend with in order to reach the coal. A conversation ensued whereby William discovered that the coal seams were so shallow that they came to the surface. The landlord consequently invited him down into the pub cellars, where a loose brick was taken from the wall, and from the cavity a lump of coal was retrieved, followed by a handful of the soft, buttery, pale grey clay he had heard about.
He proceeded with a very scientific quality test: clay high in silica drags on the teeth when chewed, whereas a low silica content has a soapy feel. With a mouthful of clay, and confident this was the high-quality fireclay he had been looking for, William decided to invest his life-savings in buying the shaft mine across the road, which he named Swan Works. He enlisted the help of a gentleman by the name of Samuel Rameses Jones as colliery manager and The Potter’s Clay & Coal Co Ltd was incorporated a few years later, in 1935.
William died in 1938, whereupon his son Warbreck (who had been working for the company) took on the management. At this time, the clay was extracted from a deep shaft mine, loaded onto carts pulled by pit ponies and drawn up in tubs by hand. The clay was then transported to the company’s depot (yard and wharf) in Copeland Street, Stoke-on-Trent.
Nowadays, Swan Works continues to produce Potclays’ red and buff clay bodies. The fireclay that was mined at the site still forms the basis of many of Potclays’ clay bodies, manufactured at both Swan and Albion Works (Stoke-on-Trent). The mining area was landscaped by Potclays in the 1980s, with thousands of trees planted, and is now home to a rich variety of wildlife, including red deer who use the area as a rutting ground.
The growth of Potclays
In 1941, Potclays Limited was formed, to market the raw clays and the clay bodies processed at Swan Works. In 1947, the premises of the Downing Brick & Tile Works was bought, and for many years it was used by Potclays as a grog processing plant for the ceramic market and steel industry (known as Valley Works). In 1963, Albion Works – formerly occupied by Kirklands, an earthenware producer – was bought. The building was built in the late 18th century, and appears on Ordnance Survey maps from the early 19th century onwards.
During the 1960s, Warbreck made the inspired decision to buy the panmills, which are used to this day for manufacturing Potclays’ most iconic clay bodies such as St Thomas and Craft Crank. These panmills were originally from the Cadbury’s factory, where they were used to blend chocolate. On arrival at Potclays, the design was modified slightly to best suit the production of clay bodies. The Cadbury’s badge was recently revealed during maintenance work (see photo).
Jonathan Noake joined the business in 1969, whereupon he developed, diversified and grew the business into one of the leading manufacturers in the craft ceramics market. He was responsible for upscaling the clay mining operation over a 50-acre site over the course of the next 15 years.
Harry Fraser, author of a number of publications and articles in leading periodicals, joined the company as joint managing director in the mid-1970s, when Harry Fraser Ltd merged with Potclays. In addition to developing the non-lay channels of the business, Harry was instrumental in Potclays’ entry into the Hobby market, and kiln-building.
After training in ceramics at Cardiff, Becky Otter joined the family business in 2003. She oversees the ‘public face’ of the company through social media, marketing and events, and is wholly committed to Potclays’ mission to promote ceramics in Education (#educlaytion). Her experience at Cardiff has given her a unique insight into the potter’s experience. She has worked alongside their now-retired technical manager for a number of years, and is now first port-of-call for technical advice.
James Otter joined the business in 2013, as director, after 12 years working in Tax Advisory. His background has enabled him to bring unique skills and expertise to the business, and he has developed a detailed knowledge of kilns and machinery. He works with Becky to promote and bring Potclays’ goods and services to a new generation of potters, as well as ‘doing their bit’ for the community they live and work in.
Education, education, education
Over the past few years, Potclays has worked hard to bring its business to a new audience. It has invested heavily in its e-commerce, taking on new staff and working with key partners and social media resources. Education is still, and will continue to be, top of their agenda. Craft education has suffered in recent years, and both Becky and James firmly believe the arts offer children access to a richer and more fulfilling life. James is a signatory on the Bacc for the Future campaign letter to government, alongside luminaries such as Philip Pullman. Potclays has a long relationship with the Crafts Council and, as a Manifesto Partner, works with them to support their efforts in promoting craft in education. Potclays also continues to support the British Ceramics Biennial Education Programme and donates many tonnes of clay to the cause. It is an active member of other bodies, such as the National Society for Education in Art & Design (NSEAD) and offers numerous forms of support to teachers, including educational discounts and free of charge advice. Each year, Potclays provides a round of graduate awards to Further Education courses across the UK to encourage and showcase new ceramic talent. Some of the award-winners from past years are building successful careers for themselves, and fast becoming renowned practitioners.
Potclays offers a comprehensive service, both online, and through its showroom at Brick Kiln Lane, supplying clays, glazes, equipment and accessories. The staff are helpful, friendly and knowledgeable, and the range of products on offer is very wide. More details can be found at: potclays.co.uk
Read more Spotlights here