Winchcombe Pottery lies in the beautiful rolling hills of the Cotswolds. It is actually not really in Winchcombe proper, but a little place called Greet, right next to Winchcombe. This is the place where I got my first taste of production pottery. I was interested in throwing and had played around on a wheel before, but never seriously taken it up. My grandparents lived just 3 miles away in Stanton, so it seemed like a perfect spot to learn more about the craft. Little did I know, when I called up and spoke to Mike Finch, that I had stumbled upon the oldest working pottery in England. The pottery is still going and churning out a wide range of stoneware pots that live up to and represent its history: here's the current website.
But this isn't about my time there; it's about the old bottle kiln at the pottery which is in need of some tender loving care. Let's go back to the start of the place...
Winchcombe Pottery was not always called that. It started out as a brickworks and evolved into a brickyard and pottery called both Greet Pottery and Beckett's Pottery, before ending up as Winchcombe Pottery. The origins of the pottery are not well recorded. One of the main pieces of evidence we have is the bottle kiln itself.
The exact dates aren't known, but brick historian Martin Hammond, who surveyed the kiln in 1999, identified the bricks used in the lower parts of the kiln as late 18th century and those above and forming the conical chimney as 19th and 20th century. The discrepancy in age of the bricks makes sense as the upper parts of the kiln would have needed repair at various points. This is somewhat inevitable in a large kiln used over many decades like this.
The lower chamber was loaded from the ground floor and the top chamber from upstairs on the first floor. I love this idea, of having a kiln that big -- a two-storey kiln which you could walk into from both floors of the workshop. Here's a sweet drawing of the kiln done by Martin Hammond in 1999:
The bottle kiln you see today is out in the open, exposed to the elements, but from the time it was built in the late 1700's until the 1970's it was inside a building. This assuredly helped protect the kiln, but did add an element of danger as the building suffered several fires over the course of its history.
In the picture below you can see the ruble of the old building that stood around the kiln to the left of it. In the foreground is the old horse drawn pugmill that was used to prepare clay.
So, as I said before, the bricks in the lower part of the bottle kiln date the pottery to the late 18th century. At this stage it was a brickyard, producing bricks and tiles. The clay was dug from a pit onsite. It didn't take long before someone realised the clay was good for throwing, too, and started producing functional earthenware pottery as well. This clay and the bottle kiln were the backbone of the pottery until the 1950's.
The 1841 census shows that William Beckett, aged 45, was working as a brickmaker, as well as there a potter, employed on the premises. William Beckett passed the business on to his son Richard A. Beckett, who kept it going as a joint brickworks and pottery. The 1901 census shows several workers on site besides the Beckett's (Richard and his widowed mother): a "carter at the pottery," "one brickmaker," and one "flower pot maker."
Here is an undated postcard from the time when the business was under Richard Beckett, advertising some of the items produced there:
The Becketts clearly produced a range of essential products: not just bricks and tiles but pipes, garden pots, vases, and other kinds of practical glazed wares. This was a country pottery, catering to what people needed in a world before plastics. All of the wares were fired in the large bottle kiln.
Richard Beckett died in 1913 and his mother managed the place for a year after his death, until it was taken over by Winchcombe Brick and Tile Company Ltd in 1914. The making of pottery seems to have paused then until Michael Cardew came along in 1926 and revived it.
Michael Cardew managed to pursuad Elijah Comfort to come and work for him as a thrower. This was an important as Elijah was a production potter who had worked at the Beckett pottery for years. He was the head thrower (the "flower pot maker" from the 1901 census), and provided an essential bridge between two eras. Ron Wheeler, in his book "Winchcombe Pottery: The Cardew-Finch Tradition," says Elijah, "made an invaluable contribution... producing some of the old country ware for which the former pottery was known" (1998, p.32).
Cardew went on to employ several other potters, including Charlie and Sydney Tustin. The pots Cardew made at Winchcombe are widely regarded as his best. The line of tableware he designed at Winchcombe melded country pottery tradition and a modern sensibility, and have had great influence on the studio pottery world today. The pots he made at Winchcombe are highly sought after.
I don't want to go into Cardew too much, as that's a whole other rabbit hole. Needless to say, he is a legend. I would say he is second only to Bernard Leach in terms of influence on studio pottery today. There is an excellent short video of Cardew throwing and then loading pots into the bottle kiln called "One Good Turn." You can view it here.
The picture below is one of Cardew's pots in front of the kiln, taken by Dan Finnegan in the 1970s:
Here's a picture of the lower chamber all cleaned out today:
And here's a kiln packing drawing from one of Michael Cardew's notebooks, after packing wares into his first firing of the kiln on 12th January 1927:
Ray Finch joined the team in 1936 and Cardew left three years later to set up Wenford Bridge Pottery. Ray bought the pottery in 1946 and kept production going with the Tustin brothers. As time went by, Ray expanded production and hired other help. The pottery thrived under Ray's leadership, and many apprentices benefitted from his teaching. He ran the place until, 1979 when his son Mike Finch took the reins. Ray was still potting up until his death in 2011.
The bottle kiln has not been in use for a while. It was reportedly tricky to fire and Cardew famously would open the kiln up and break pots straight out of the kiln, unhappy with the results. Many lovely pots came out, but it seems that the loss rate was heavy. Ray tried to adapt the kiln in the 1940s, changing the brick chequer to a muffle inside, and putting in a bag wall. Unfortunately, this did not do enough to improve results, and a smaller separate kiln was constructed. This move coincided with Ray moving the pottery from slipware to stoneware. The bottle kiln was not suited for firing pots to higher stoneware temperatures. The final firing of the bottle kiln was in 1954.
So many fabulous pots have been fired in the old bottle kiln, not to mention the bricks, tiles and pipes from the early days. But the kiln is now in need of restoration and could use your help. Here's a link to the just giving page where you can support the project. The first step in this process of restoration has already begun; getting the kiln properly scanned in March.
Oliver Kent and David Dawson, along with the help of Bill Stebbing of Scan to PLAN did a full 3D laser scan of the kiln. The images are pretty amazing. I'll lay out a few here but if you want to see more and read the full post by Oliver its here. And if you really can't get enough of bottle kiln discussion, here's a pretty academic piece by Oliver and David, all about the origins of different bottle kiln designs across Britain.
There is also a five-minute fly through video on youtube which takes you around the whole kiln using these 3D images.
Using these images as a starting point, it is easier to see how much work the kiln needs. The plan is to carefully replace some of the original brickwork and lime mortar pointing to make the structure safe and secure. The work requires scaffolding and a skilled team of sympathetic builders.
As Matt Grimmitt, current manager at the pottery, writes on the restoration page, "this kiln represents a crossover between two worlds and the end of one industry being the country Potteries and the beginning of studio pottery as we know it today." I hope you agree that it is worthy of restoration and consider making a donation! Here's the link again.
One final picture to end on. I asked Matt Grimmitt for some pictures of pots fired in the bottle kiln. This one is in his personal collection, as you might be able to tell from the can of baked beans. This pancheon was thrown by Elijah Comfort and decorated by Michael Cardew. I love the strong form, rich quality of the lead glaze and fluidity of the wet slip combing. There is a lot right about this pot. I would eat baked beans out of it anyday. Screw the minor risk of lead poisoning.