31 July 2018

New Book: 'Bottle Ovens and the Story of the Final Firing'

Our new book is out!

Front cover
Published by, and available from, Gladstone Pottery Museum; researched and written by Terry Woolliscroft and Pam Woolliscroft.


Images from the book
Can't help it, very excited, more of our books!

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Below is my blogpost about 'Spode and Bottle Ovens' written 1st July 2018 - just one month before the launch of the 'Festival of Bottle Ovens' at Gladstone Pottery Museum.
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'Spode and Bottle Ovens' 

Working at Gladstone Pottery Museum in the late 1970s, I found myself part of the organising team for a huge and important event - the final firing of a potters bottle oven.*

As a young curator it was very exciting to be deeply involved with the event: the Last Bottle Oven Firing 1978.

In 1976 David Sekers, director of the museum, had come up with the daring and momentous idea of firing a Potteries bottle oven for one last time. The aim was to record on paper, audio tape and 35mm movie film all the traditional skills required to fire an oven before the knowledge was lost.
Smoke from the Last Bottle Oven Firing 1978
Now, as a volunteer, I am surprised to find that I am involved with the 40th anniversary of this amazing event, helping to organise a Festival of Bottle Ovens at Gladstone Pottery Museum for August and September 2018. Four of us, part of the team 40 years ago, are once more in the thick of it, working closely with the museum staff, to tell the story of the final firing. A new book has been published (detailed above) written by Terry Woolliscroft and myself, an exhibition which I am helping to prepare and many other bottle oven related events.

Find the Programme of Events for 2018 HERE>
Staying with the subject here's a bit of history about Spode's bottle ovens and their later replacements.
Dessert plate with view of Spode bottle ovens c1800. Fired in those same bottle ovens for each stage of its various manufacture
From humble beginnings and, with at least two partnerships in two different pottery businesses behind him, Josiah Spode I eventually owned his own factory and became an independent pottery manufacturer. Together with his son, Josiah Spode II, he bought a ready-made factory in Stoke in 1776. The factory was described as 'potworks'.

In 1776 the bottle ovens are described as 'potovens' in this extract from 'Copyhold Potworks & Housing in the Staffordshire Potteries 1700-1832' by Peter Roden.

 'All that meadowe, with the appurt’s, lying in Penkhull, within the said Mannor, called Madeleys Meadowe, and also, all those potworks potovens pothouses workhouses warehouses compting house barns stables cowhouse marl bank and outbuildings to the same belonging, situate in Penkhull aforesaid, & adjoyning to the said meadowe called Madeleys Meadowe...'
Josiah Spode I (1733-1797)
Josiah Spode II (1755-1827)
As Master Potters, the Spodes would have had all the skills required to manufacture their pottery from raw clay to finished product. Importantly, and perhaps often underestimated, this included all the techniques required to fire pottery, of different types and at different stages of manufacture, using that important tool of the potters' trade - the bottle oven. The single most important part of the potting process was, and still is, the biscuit firing. Losses associated with a failed firing, at any stage of the manufacturing process, particularly at the time of the Spodes, could ruin a company.

Throughout the late 1700s and into the 1800s both father and son would have seen great development and huge proliferation of bottle ovens in Stoke-on-Trent - now regarded as iconic buildings.

In the 'Tour of the Grand Junction' published in 1819 the Spode factory is described as employing around 800 people and having '18 large ovens… [using] upwards of 200 tons of coal per week.'
Extracts from Tour of the Grand Junction
Details of 'Building The Meadow Oven', dated 1 June 1825,** can be found in papers in the Spode archive. The total cost for the oven building was £10 3s 5½d and described as 'the Whole Cost including Brick Dressing & Labouring'. The cost of materials is not included.

The document records that Obadiah Greatbatch was the oven builder. Also listed are his men and boys with the hours they worked and what they were paid. It seems to be a mix of skilled men, labourers, boys and an apprentice. Here are the names of these unsung heroes of the pottery industry.

William Burchell
Thomas Buckley
Samuel Steele
John Tomkinson
Walter Sarjeant
Cartwright
James Wardle
Samuel Lainton
Thomas Smith 'a boy'
Joseph Western 'a boy'
Malkin
Dick 'apprentice'
John Lainton

(Forenames, where recorded, are mostly abbreviated throughout the original document; I have written them in full here).

An 1833 insurance plan of the Spode factory in the Spode archive, records at least 20 ovens and kilns.

In May 1843 'The Penny Magazine Of The Society For The Diffusion Of Useful Knowledge' records that 'the Spode Factory in Stoke supported 37 bottle ovens: 7 biscuit, 14 glost, 16 enamel'.
In 1776 the Spode factory was already a well-established 'potworks' and included 'potovens'. The number of ovens on the site fluctuated throughout the 233 year of Spode ownership, as the business changed, flourished or declined, embraced new technology and finally closed in 2009.
Spode factory from the air 1929
Spode factory 1930s
Spode factory looking towards Stoke Minster 1930s
From recent research I found that the Spode company was, from the 1930s to the 1960s in the forefront of changing from filthy, injurious coal-fired bottle ovens to embrace new cleaner and safer firing technology developing within the pottery industry. This was largely due to Arthur (Ted) Hewitt.

In 1932 the Spode Company name was changed to W. T. Copeland & Sons Ltd. It was already owned by the Copeland family but this name change followed the purchase of another local firm, Jackson & Gosling, as its owner, Arthur Hewitt, was wanted for the Copeland board of directors.

Arthur Hewitt's impact on the greater success of Spode was huge, with increased orders and modernisation from this strong and farsighted man; and, consequently, on the development of the Spode factory site.
Mr. A. E (Ted) Hewitt
Hewitt was involved in local politics, including becoming Lord Mayor. As an advocate of clean air, he introduced firing by gas and electricity at Spode in place of smoky bottle ovens.

Here are some of the changes which took place at Spode much earlier than the compulsory change from coal fired ovens which was demanded by the Clean Air Act 1956 which gave companies 7 years to find alternative fuels.

1934 two circular Gibbons Rotalec enamel kilns powered by electricity were installed.

1936 a gas-fired tunnel oven for glost firing of earthenware was installed.

1946 an electrically-fired glost tunnel kiln, named The Meadow,** was installed for firing bone china.

1951/2 two gas-fired biscuit tunnel kilns were installed, named Black and Canal, for firing earthenware. For the first of these 2 ovens a special ceremony took place 1 October 1951. The Spode Saga magazine 1951 recorded what was seen as a momentous event and how important Spode regarded its own history whilst also looking to the future. (More about the Spode Saga HERE>)
Report in the Spode Saga of the lighting of the new tunnel kiln
Detail of bringing the flame from a bottle oven being fired to the new tunnel oven. The 'torch' is in the Spode museum collection
L-R: Gresham Copeland, Ashton Maskery, John Copeland and Spencer Copeland (white coats). Iron lamp (torch) bottom left

1957 a Shelley 'Top Hat' kiln was installed for china glost firing.

1960 a gas-fired open flame tunnel kiln named Jubilee was installed for firing bone china biscuit.

1960 also saw the last firing of a coal-fired bottle oven on the Spode factory.

'It was in 1960 that the last firing of a bottle oven on the Spode Works took place. It was a china biscuit oven - that is, the bone china clay-ware was fired to about 1260°C to the 'biscuit' stage' from Manufacturing Processes of Tableware during the Eighteenth & Nineteenth Centuries by Robert Copeland. 

Much demolition of bottle ovens and old buildings, from the days of the three Josiah Spodes, took place on the Spode factory between the 1930s and 1950s, as the company moved towards modernisation. The new gas and electric kilns were often named after historic parts of the factory which had been demolished, creating a link with the company's history.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 plus the electrification of the factory earlier in the 20th century led to the big changes. The increased use of gas and electric for firing, led to the demolition of all but one bottle oven - an updraught hob-mouthed oven - the hovel of which collapsed in 1972.

Postcard, Spode's updraught hob-mouthed bottle oven prior to  hovel collapse  
 Spode's updraught hob-mouthed oven after the hovel collapse 1972, even less remains 2018
Finished product: coffee cup, bone china, fired several times in Spode's bottle ovens, pattern 2812 c1820
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Further information:

Robert Copeland's books about Spode found here and Terry Woolliscroft's websites: The Potteries Bottle OvenThe Last Bottle Oven Firing in the The Potteries and Potbank Dictionary
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Notes:
* The Last Bottle Oven Firing took place at the Sutherland Works of Hudson & Middleton and not at Gladstone Pottery Museum whose ovens were too fragile to use.
** The name 'Meadow' is included in the description of the factory when the Spodes bought it in 1776 (see above). The Meadow name continued in use at the Spode factory as a modern kiln in 1946, and later to describe a modern building which caused confusion amongst strangers looking for, well, a meadow! 

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