01 July 2018

Spode and Bottle Ovens

Working at Gladstone Pottery Museum in the late 1970s, I was 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'.
Smoke from 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.

In 2018, as a volunteer, I was surprised to find myself 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, were once more in the thick of it, working closely with the museum staff, to tell the story of the final firing.

At the request of Gladstone Pottery Museum a new book, Bottle Ovens and the Story of the Final Firing, was commissioned researched and written by Terry Woolliscroft and myself.

This prompted me to blog a bit of history about Spode's bottle ovens, as well as, and just as importantly, their later replacements.
Dessert plate with view of Spode bottle ovens c1800. Fired in those same bottle ovens for each stage of its own manufacture
From humble beginnings and, with at least two partnerships in two different pottery businesses behind him, Josiah Spode I, now in his forties, 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 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
James Wardle
Samuel Lainton
Thomas Smith 'a boy'
Joseph Western 'a boy'
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. The image below was drawn by Spode designer Harold Holdway (1913-2002) in 1951.

It gives an aerial view of the factory as it is thought to have once looked and was inspired by the discovery of a ceramic model of the factory in pieces in boxes covered in dust. The model seems to be based on a fabulous insurance plan in the Spode archive dated 1833. The model was given the date 1834. But there is no evidence for this.
Drawing of the factory by Harold Holdway 1951 based on a model in turn based on an 1833 plan
I asked Robert Copeland how they dated the model. He told me that as it closely matched the 1833 plan and there was so much dirt, dust and grime on it they felt it had lain forgotten for a very long time, hence the punt at an 1834 date. It was reassembled (irritatingly not quite correctly) for the new museum in 1995/1996.
The model of the factory in its glass box 1995/1996
Handling it, prior to its disappearance to be reassembled and encased by the museum designers, I felt it could even be early 20th century. Some time later, when curator of the Spode museum, I was contacted more than once by researchers to ask if there had ever been a model of the factory made around the 1930s (I think) which had a mention in an exhibition catalogue. I was never able to find any evidence in the Spode papers but it certainly gave a bit of credence to the 20th century date.
Redrawn 1833 plan on foolscap paper, late 20thC, (original is 57½" X 43½ ")

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, Spode Saga, 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.
'New Scientist', December  1956
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.

The demise of the bottle ovens at Spode was rarely recorded in any formal manner although fabulous photos of them exist particularly from the 1930s which are in the Spode archive. The base of the oven which is immortalised in a postcard and was part of the Spode company 'tour' was poorly interpreted but for any visitor was a constant source of questions. Under the control of the company rather than the museum it was hard to persuade them that it might be a good idea to have panels to explain what it was. Whilst curator at the Spode museum I tried to rectify this and began to gather information and  I knew my Spode mentor and colleague Robert Copeland (1925-2010) would know what date it had become a 'ruin'.

He was very precise and succinct with his answer to my first question about it. '1972', he said, 'March; it was a Friday; about 2pm'. Silence.

I remarked that this was indeed detailed information perfectly recalled even for his fantastic memory. He went on to tell me more about the incident and as he spoke I realised that it must nearly have led to a serious injury for him or even worse. Its seriousness meant it was not surprising he could remember the details with such clarity.

He said there was a loud 'Whoosh' and the hovel of the bottle oven collapsed as he walked nearby. I gather it was a very close shave and must have been a terrific shock.***

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
Delicate bone china fired in bottle ovens
Further information:

Terry Woolliscroft and Pam Woolliscroft, Bottle Ovens and the Story of the Final Firing

Robert Copeland's books about Spode can be found here.

Peter Roden, Copyhold Potworks & Housing

Terry Woolliscroft's websites which will be of use are: The Potteries Bottle OvenThe Last Bottle Oven Firing in the The Potteries; The Gladstone Pottery Museum Story and Potbank Dictionary

My Bottle Ovens page Here>
* Although organised by Gladstone Pottery Museum, the Last Bottle Oven Firing took place at the Sutherland Works of Hudson & Middleton and not at Gladstone Pottery Museum. The museum's 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!
***Elsewhere this is mentioned as February but I use March from my conversation with Robert Copeland

Design for the Programme of Events for 2018 HERE>