Continuing the tradition
Poole Pottery’s glory days may have been eighty years ago, but after some precarious times, it is still being made in the town. John Newth has been to investigate.
Published in August ’11
When the closure of Poole Pottery was announced just before Christmas in 2006, it caused regret and distress, as any such event must, but the feelings of loss were perhaps more widespread than usual because it looked like the end of more than just a business: Poole Pottery carried the name of the town throughout the world and had been a creative powerhouse in which every man and woman of Poole could feel a little of the pride of ownership. It was almost a case of ‘It can’t be allowed to die’ and nor was it allowed to, thanks to a rescue which has re-established the making of fine pottery, albeit on a greatly reduced scale, on a site close to the Quay that was part of Poole Pottery’s original home.
It is an advantage to a business to have a memorably snappy, alliterative name, so it is perhaps as well that the name of its forerunner, ‘The T W Walker Patent Encaustic and Mosaic Ornamental Brick and Tile Manufactory’ was not retained. That was the company bought in 1873 by a builder’s merchant and ironmonger from Surrey, Jesse Carter, who saw the potential provided by Poole’s proximity to sources of clay and by the Harbour as a means of transporting the finished goods. Carter & Co. flourished, but its output was still confined to tiles for architectural use in, for example, fireplaces, flooring, the facades of commercial premises and advertising panels.
It was in the early 1900s that Jesse’s son, Owen Carter, spearheaded the development of decorative pottery such as vases, ornaments and tableware. He worked with James Radley Young, the first in a series of illustrious names who over the next century contributed to Poole Pottery’s supremacy in the field of ceramic design. However, it was Owen’s nephew, Cyril, who led the firm into its heyday. He teamed up with designer Harold Stabler and potter John Adams to form a subsidiary of Carter & Co. specifically for the production of decorative ware. It coincided with the emergence of Art Deco, and during the next twenty years most of the company’s products epitomised that movement with, for example, their geometric abstract designs and impressionistic representations of flowers.
Key designers between the wars included Stabler and Adams’s wives, Phoebe and Truda respectively; Truda became Truda Carter when she divorced John Adams and married Cyril Carter in 1930, but this cataclysm in their private lives does not seem to have affected the working relationship. All the company’s output was hand-thrown, then painted by thirty or more ‘paintresses’ – they were almost exclusively women – who might be said to be the unsung heroines of the Poole Pottery story, such were the speed, skill and meticulous accuracy with which they turned out the sometimes very intricate work.
The war naturally created difficulties for a manufacturer of luxury goods, and the coming of peace brought with it the death or retirement of most of those who had led the company in its glory years. Alfred Read became head of design and his team included his daughter, Ann, Ruth Pavely, who was a former paintress, and Guy Sydenham, a potter who lived on a converted MTB among the islands of Poole Harbour and commuted to work by water every day. Robert Jefferson succeeded Alfred Read in 1958 and built up the production of studio pottery, experimenting with shapes, colours, techniques and glazes to create pieces that were both individual and innovative.
In 1963 Poole Pottery was bought by Pilkingtons and, although some fine work was produced, the name’s reputation began to fade as the market changed, commercial pressures mounted and it proved impossible to recapture fully the creative excitement of the inter-war years. A management buy-out in 1992 and the moving of the factory to Sopers Lane proved to be false dawns and the end came with that announcement in December 2006.
Or so it seemed. Peter Bello had built up his business, Lifestyle Holdings, by importing functional kitchen and table giftware, and had recently expanded into tableware with the purchase of Royal Stafford, who have been making fine china in Stoke-on-Trent since 1845. He saw how well Poole Pottery would fit with his other activities and wasted so little time in buying the company from the administrators that within two months the business was up, if not actually running, again.
The new owner took the logical step of re-locating most of the production to the Royal Stafford factory in the Potteries, but he also saw the value of Poole Pottery’s distinctive brand and re-hired master potter Alan White and three paintresses, Nikki Massarella, Jane Brewer and Lorna Whitmarsh. The three ladies spent fifteen weeks in Stoke, passing on their skills and the individual character of Poole Pottery to their colleagues at Royal Stafford.
Even after the factory had been moved to Sopers Lane and much of the huge site on the Quay converted into what are now the shops and flats of Dolphin Quays, a large retail shop had been kept, just back from the corner of the Quay and Old Orchard. That survives and within it, so does a studio creating Poole Pottery in the centre of Poole once again. Here Alan White throws pots that are hand-painted by Nikki, Jane and Lorna. For the majority of the time the team are creating their own designs of studio pottery, just as their predecessors, through Alfred Read, Truda Carter and back to James Radley Young, did before them. (I was happy to be told that Dorset Life, with its illustrations of Dorset scenes, is an important source of inspiration.) Their studio work is made only in Poole and sold only in Poole, and all the hand-thrown pieces are signed by potter and painter. As in years gone by, artistic creativity is encouraged, and so is the exploration of new techniques and styles, but within the context of a business whose commercial survival in today’s competitive climate depends on remaining profitable.
For the rest of the time, the Poole paintresses are working on what is known as ‘first-quality giftware’. This is not unique and may be moulded rather than thrown, but some of the designs have grown out of those created for the studio pieces. The company’s head of design, Andrew Tanner, is based in the Midlands, and he has the final say on what ranges are to be produced. Because of the repetition involved, a skilled paintress can complete one of these in ten minutes.
The rest of the large premises (38,000 sq. ft in all) is given over to retailing china, pottery and the Lifestyle range, but also giftware of all types, from clothing to toys, from books to handbags. Manager Sarah Morgan, who has had a career in retail, including with Beales, says ‘We try to cater for the customer who is attracted by the idea of Poole Pottery. We include some things made by local producers, as well as the pieces we make ourselves.’ Part of the space is given over to a ‘Paint your own pot’ section, used by casual visitors, schools and a pottery group which grew out of an adult education class discontinued by Poole BC due to budgetary constraints. Visitors buy a ready-made clay figure, paint it and can then pick it up three days later when it has been fired. ‘The only trouble,’ smiles Sarah, ‘is that my office is just over there and when there are sixty children in here, I can’t hear the person on the other end of my phone!’
At one time there were four hundred people involved in the production of Poole Pottery in Poole. That the number has fallen to four is sad, of course, but it reflects the market’s changing taste, and it could so easily have been that Poole Pottery disappeared from Poole for good.