Pottery

A growth in the demand for ceramic vessels from the mid-17th century onwards, stimulated by a decline in the popularity of pewter tableware and the high price of glass vessels, encouraged local potteries across the North West to produce a range of relatively cheap and durable earthenware for the table, food preparation and storage. Prior to the ‘industrialisation’ of pottery manufacturing in the 18th century, it was very much a domestic industry, which usually involved the whole of the potter’s family. It was frequently carried out in buildings alongside the family dwelling, and often ancillary to farming or other craft occupations. Potters of yeoman status were able to establish a potworks as a part of their farmsteads, either using existing agricultural buildings or erecting purpose-built structures (Baker 1991, 8).

The market for pottery continued to thrive during the 18th century, with a corresponding rise in the number of small-scale country potteries. These were often located in the rural hinterlands to expanding urban centres, with potting typically forming a part-time, seasonal activity. Despite the widespread occurrence of these potworks in the Post-Medieval landscape, however, very few production sites have been subject to archaeological excavation in the North West, hampering attempts to identify the provenance of pottery fragments from excavations as the product of a specific production centre.

Establishing the exact provenance of pottery in the absence of data for the production centres and their products is particularly challenging with fragments of utilitarian, dark-glazed earthenware, which have formed a large proportion of assemblages recovered from the excavation of Post-Medieval sites across the region. An excavation of the Grimshaw Pottery at Grimshaw Park, Blackburn (L), in 2010 provided a large assemblage of dark-glazed earthenware, allowing a type series to be identified that can be linked to a specific kiln (Plummer 2011). Whilst historical documents indicate that the pottery was in production before the late 18th century, the excavated kiln and outbuildings dated to the early 19th century after a fire reportedly destroyed the original buildings. Nevertheless, the excavated kiln is likely to be of a form that had been used widely during the late Post-Medieval period, and its products characteristic of the utilitarian wares that were prevalent across the region.

Several settlements in the North West emerged as important production centres during the Post-Medieval period, where potting was a skilled, full-time occupation. Amongst the best-known of these regional manufacturing centres are Rainford and Prescot (M), where the production of pottery and clay tobacco pipes became an important cottage industry from the 17th century. Particularly valuable information pertaining to these industries has derived from the series of archaeological excavations in Rainford (M). Carried out as part of the Rainford’s Roots Community Archaeology Project in 2011-14, the excavations produced regionally significant groups of 16th– and 17th-century pottery, although no kilns were uncovered. The project culminated with the publication of a monograph that presents the results of the archaeological and meticulous historical research into the area’s pottery industry (Philpott (ed) 2015).

Archaeological work has also been carried out in nearby Prescot (M), situated some 10km to the south, where excavation in advance of construction work for the Shakespeare North Playhouse in 2017-18 yielded a large and regionally important assemblage of pottery with a date range spanning the 16th to 19th centuries. A large component of this assemblage comprised fragments of dark-glazed earthenware, although slipware vessels of a probable 17th-century date with distinctive decoration were also discovered, together with dark-glazed finewares, red earthenware, mottled ware and sugar moulds (Rowe forthcoming a). The assemblage also contained numerous fragments of waste pottery and kiln furniture that included saggars of various fabrics and sizes, and whilst firm evidence for a kiln structure was not identified during the excavation, the remains of a stone-built structure that was revealed beneath the floors of 19th-century houses may have been associated with pottery production (Miller et al 2018).

A 16th-century Cistercian ware cup recovered from excavations in Rainford (courtesy of National Museums Liverpool)
A reconstructed slipware bowl recovered from excavations in Prescot (courtesy of Salford Archaeology)

Another important pottery-manufacturing settlement from the 17th century onwards was Buckley in Flintshire. Whilst the town lies just beyond the boundary of the North West region, its products served Post-Medieval markets in Chester and the surrounding area, and ‘Buckley ware’ is a term often attributed, and in many cases erroneously, to earthenware recovered from excavations in the North West. A valuable synthesis of archaeological fieldwork carried out in the town between 2013 and 2017, coupled with an overview of earlier studies, documentary research, and a comprehensive gazetteer of the Buckley potteries, was published in 2019 and makes an important contribution to the growing corpus of published material on the region’s pottery industry (Jones 2019).

Large groups of Post-Medieval pottery have been recovered from several excavations across the region in both rural and urban environments since 2006, shedding new light on the distribution of patterns of particular ware types and the material culture of different social groups. In particular, excavations in the centre of Salford (GM) have produced one of the largest assemblages of Post-Medieval ceramics recovered from an urban context (Mottershead and Garratt 2008; Mottershead 2017; Rowe forthcoming b), whilst excavation at Cuerden provided an insight into ceramic traditions in rural central Lancashire between the 15th and 18th centuries (Cook et al 2019). The latter excavation yielded fragments of Midlands Purple-type vessels that, uniquely in the context or rural Lancashire, were found in association with late Medieval Reduced Greenware and Cistercian wares in well-stratified 15th-century deposits (Cook and Miller in press). The source of the pottery to these sites, however, remains unknown, underlining the large gaps in the current knowledge of the location and distribution of the region’s Post-Medieval potworks.

A Midlands Purple-type bunghole cistern recovered from excavations at Cuerden in 2018 (courtesy of Salford Archaeology)

A type of pottery that is often recovered from early 18th-century levels in archaeological excavations is tin-glazed earthenware. Liverpool emerged as the principal centre of the production of tin-glazed earthenware in the North West, although a few manufacturing sites existed elsewhere. The Pot House on St George’s Quay in Lancaster provides a very rare example of one such site. This 18th-century kiln has been subject to archaeological excavation, which yielded another regionally significant assemblage of pottery, together with an important group of kiln furniture fragments. However, this assemblage has yet to be published (Town 2009).

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