A potted history of Verwood
It is sixty years since the last remaining Verwood pottery closed but prior to that the town had an enormously long history of pottery, as Michael Handy discovers
Published in March ’12
Verwood has a long association with pottery, specifically earthenware pottery, which was made from the local yellow clay obtained from the heathlands, but it was not always a happy history, nor did it ever reach the heights of industrialisation which would have enabled it to be a successful centre of manufacture in the manner of the Stoke-on-Trent area. Although mentions are made in early writings of clay having been dug for pottery to be made in the New Forest in the third and fourth centuries, there is no real mention of pottery activity in and around East Dorset until a thousand years later, with kilns at Damerham six miles north of Verwood and Alderholt, north-east of Verwood, in 1377. Despite their relative proximity, the clays of Verwood, Holwell and Corfe Mullen were of quite different colours and qualities and were used for different purposes depending of their porosity, strength and colours. Life was tough for subsistence small-holders who struggled to grow much more than their own needs on their land, even more so in the 19th century when the heathland started to be reclaimed, or perhaps more accurately, claimed, for agricultural usage. Landowners would parcel up the heathland and then lease – for the length of the lessee’s life – that land to the tenant, who would hurriedly build a shelter before tilling the land. According to an 1887 Agricultural commission report, ‘the result has been the erection of a large number of miserable cottages, occupied by these life owners, and never repaired.’ The report goes on to say that ‘the population exceeds the wants of the district and a large number of the men work on the farms only in the summer, and go to the woods or do any sort of work that they can get a living for in the winter.’
Although there was an awful lot of coppice-related work (besom broom making and collecting brushwood for the local kilns), the potteries would also have required clay to be extracted, transported and worked as well. While Verwood itself was largely cob-built, there was nonetheless a number of brickyards in the town; these were largely occupied, from late Victorian times until the end of World War 2, in the production of bricks for the seemingly endlessly expanding Bournemouth – in essence, much of Bournemouth is made of Verwood. From the end of the nineteenth century, several major brickworks were established, replacing smaller family owned enterprises. The main brickworks even had its own railway spur, although this proved to be a mixed blessing. Although helpful in that pottery, farm goods and latterly bricks could be sent to a wider market, so too, slates and enamelware goods could be imported, both of which had a negative effect on the local pottery industry.
While brickmaking had become a more industrialised process, Verwood pottery as a whole was done on a rather more artisanal, or at least labour-intensive, basis. Oral histories taken from those who worked in the last commercial Verwood potteries tell of a largely un-mechanised approach to the preparation for pot production. When clay arrived at the pottery it was left to soak in water for a couple of days in a pit in the floor. After this time had passed, a well was sunk in the clay and the surplus water dipped out. Having been heaped into a hole in the ground, the clay was then dug out again and heaped up back onto the floor and turned with a spade. From this pile, around half a ton of clay was then taken into the actual workroom in preparation for the next part of the process: ‘wedging’. Sand would be thrown on the floor, onto which the clay would be laid, then the clay would be trodden – barefoot – to expel the air and to ensure the different minerals in the clay were evenly distributed. Once trodden it was then rolled up and more sand put down. The treading process would be repeated twice further until it was ready – except for its size – for throwing. The clay was then cut either by eye or by weight in later years, depending on the size of pot required. The sizes of the pieces of clay ranged from a few grams for an egg cup to nearly half a hundredweight for larger pots and breadcrocks. The clay was then wedged by hand ready for throwing.
With no river-power nor wind-power to call on, the potters’ wheels tended to be another example of manual labour; two people were therefore needed to throw a pot – one threw the clay, while the other rotated the wheel to the speed required by the potter. At the Crossroads Pottery, there were two wheels, which at one time were worked all day long and provided employment for ten men. The larger of the two wheels was mechanically very simple, working along similar principles to rowing a boat. An assistant held a long pole connected to a crankshaft, directly attached, to the wheel head. By pushing the pole backwards and forwards the wheel was turned. The second wheel was smaller and an assistant was required to turn a handle connected to the cog wheels and chain of an old bicycle.
After throwing, the pots were dried prior to firing. Drying was done outside in the sun in summer, and on boards in the rafters or in the workroom, with peat burned on the workroom floor at night to aid the drying. Pots were raw-glazed – glazed when dry, but unfired – rather than the biscuit (fire-glaze-fire) approach introduced more recently. Few pots were completely glazed, most were glazed on the inside only; jugs were partly glazed outside. From the 16th century, salt glazing (introducing salt into the kiln chamber during firing, or using salt soaked barrels or brine-crusted driftwood as firing materials) was used in potteries specialising in earthenware, but in later years powdered lead sulphide was imported from the North-West. The sulphide was mixed with water and applied with a large brush then allowed to dry completely before firing. Owing to the exposed nature of the kiln and thus a dependence on reasonable weather for the kiln to function effectively, and the lack of mechanisation limiting the amounts of pots produced, firing may only have happened once a month or less frequently. There were, at one stage, forty kiln sites in the area, of which only two now remain substantially complete. As the demand for the larger earthenware pots declined, other products needed to be made in order to keep the Verwood potteries growing. One of the ideas was to use the porosity of the earthenware – what might be described a predictable leakage – to best advantage.
In the early 20th century, there was a lavender farm at Corfe Mullen, which grew 60 acres of lavender as well as herbs and roses. Perfume, lavender oil and pots pourri were produced, and earthenware proved to be a very useful material from which to make containers for these products. Verwood supplied tiny costrels for the lavender oil, which were sold at fancy London shops like Liberty’s. Local potteries also made bowls to take the pot pourri mixture. Like many of the commercial growing farms and market gardens in the area in the between-the-wars years, the lavender farm eventually closed in the 1920s. Despite this, production of perfume-related receptacles continued in Verwood. From the late 1920s a minimalist and probably not coincidentally much cheaper to produce version – the perfume brick – was created. This scaled down version of, well, a brick, was soaked in lavender or other perfume and then simply placed in linen cupboards until all its scent had evaporated. Like the huge majority of the Verwood pottery industry itself, once the scent had gone from the brick, there was nothing left to show what its function had been. It is ironic that heathlands, once only seen as a source of wood and clay, or as badlands to be tamed into agricultural production, are now regarded as nationally important habitats onto which man should not encroach. The final irony of the Verwood pottery industry is that the original salt-glazed pots, once discarded in favour of cheap enamelware, are now really rather sought after and valuable.
Dorset Life would like to thank Jill Coulthard and Trevor Gilbert of the Verwood Historical Society and the Verwood & District Potteries Trust for their help in the production of this article.