February 05, 2021

Flowerpot Friday - 19th Century English Horticultural Terracotta

By Peter Wakefield Jackson
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Flowerpot Friday - 19th Century English Horticultural Terracotta

English potteries of the 17th and 18th centuries were family affairs...


...perhaps there were a few hired hands, but pottery was a trade that was passed down from father to son, and until the 19th century, it remained a cottage industry. As the popularity of gardening grew, every conservatory or estate garden had at is core, sheds full of common terracotta pots for starting seedlings and growing plants to the right size for transplanting. This led many potters to include horticultural terracotta among their wares, in addition to pots for cooking, storing or serving food. However by 1850, the demand for terracotta flowerpots became greater than what could be produced and distributed by local potters. The industrial revolution was in full bloom, and railways offered a way to transport goods far and wide. The village potter began to be supplanted by more industrial potteries that could supply the huge volume of horticultural wares that the market wanted.


An article from the Journal of Garden History describes what was happening to the market:

"With the rise of mass-production of cheap wares at Stoke-on-Trent and other urban centres, the overall market for the local country potter began to decline. This was exacerbated from the 1840's by the coming of the railways, making transport of mass-produced wares very easy. Many small-scale producers began to devote their attention to more mundane wares, some exclusively to flowerpots, such as Robert Wakefield of Stoke, near Coventry in Warwickshire, who opened a pottery in the late nineteenth century that specialized in horticultural wares."


I've no idea if I might be related to old Robert Wakefield, but there are Wakefields in my family tree, and it is my middle name. Funny to think I might be carrying on a family tradition of making horticultural terracotta!


Richard Sankey & Son, Ltd. 

Sankey is perhaps the best known maker of horticultural terracotta. Founded in 1855, they made terracotta pots for over 100 years, and continued to throw them by hand until 1939.

Situated in Bulwell, near Nottingham, in the east Midlands region, their flowerpots are distinguished by the "coggled" decoration around the rim that says "Sankey Bulwell" The Sankey pottery was located close to both its clay source, as well as a colliery that supplied coal for the kilns. At the height of their production, they were making 60,000 pieces per day, and shipping their terracotta all around the world. I would love to know more about what is was like to work as a potter at Sankey, but a fire in 1980 completely destroyed the business, and all its historical records.

Industrial potteries of this era still had potters throwing each piece by hand, but there was a division of labor so that the potter only threw pots, while the other workers set up the balls of clay, and took pots from the wheelhead to the wareboard. Potters were paid by the piece, so in order to make a living, speed of production was important. Potters of this era are said to have been able to make three 4" flower pots per minute. (I'm only able to do that in a time lapse video).

Of course, this also meant that there were teams of workers to do everything needed before and after the pot was thrown. Clay was still dug by hand until the 20th century. Once dug, the clay needed to be transported, by wheelbarrow, horse cart or narrow gauge pulley driven rail cart, to the blunger, (a large mixing tank), where pebbles or stones would sink to the bottom, and allow the finest particles to be sent into drying pans. Once the clay had dried enough to be handled in chunks, it was fed into a pug mill to further refine and compress it before being put into the hands of the thrower. After the pot was thrown, it needed to be moved to a drying area, and then loaded into a large bottleneck kiln and fired. The work was physically demanding, although work in the pottery was much preferred to working "down the pit" in one of the local coal mines.

Hand production of pottery ceased in 1939, and ware was produced by machine and plaster moulds until the 1970's when Sankey got out of pottery altogether in order to make plastic grower pots.


Sankey pots can be found today in garden antique shops, and are prized by gardeners and garden designers for their rustic authenticity and simple beauty.


I've always been interested in the industrial side of pottery, as well as the studio side. I knew early on that pottery was what I wanted to do, and one of my first jobs out of high school was working at the Frankoma Pottery factory in Sapulpa, OK. My career has run the gamut from small studio settings, to production workshops in the US and Honduras, to ceramics factories in China and Vietnam. Now I'm back in my studio working as a one man band, but I continue to hold out as my role model, the artisans who worked the pottery trade long ago. Their pots were for everyday use, and carried a simple integrity and grace that I hope to recreate in my own work.


Here are a few videos I made this week of throwing the 2 lbs. English Work Pots I'm offering as part of my Spring Pre-Order selection:


Here are links to some interesting resources on English horticultural wares:


Next Flowerpot Friday installment:

Finding the Sweet Spot; Form, Function and Fun