Dark history of Burton-in-Lonsdale pottery

Author Lee Cartledge looks at the pottery industry in Burton-in-Lonsdale and why the village was known as ‘Black Burton’

Thursday, 14th January 2021, 3:45 pm
Author Lee Cartledge outside Bentham Pottery.
Author Lee Cartledge outside Bentham Pottery.

he Last Potter of Black Burton is a book written by Lee Cartledge of Bentham Pottery and it is about the pottery industry of nearby Burton-in-Lonsdale that flourished for at least 300 years, before going into decline after World War One.

The pottery industry was key for Burton-in-Lonsdale on the borders of Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cumbria until its demise in 1944.

This book tells the story of Richard Bateson, the last potter of Black Burton, a renowned thrower and teacher. It encapsulates the history and traditions of this lost trade; the personalities, the struggles, the humour alongside the hard work.

Richard Bateson, the last potter of Black Burton. 1930s. Photo from Lancaster Guardian.

This new book will hopefully be of interest both to historians of rural industry, the north west of England and of the pottery trade. It will also interest present day ceramicists who will enjoy the author’s direct connection with the hard work of mining and preparing clay and making pots in tough surroundings. The book is a grand contribution to the history of Burton, the history of pottery and the story of rural arts in transformation from an industrial to a more artistic endeavour. There were at least 16 potteries in Burton that took advantage of the open cast coal and clay that was abundant around the River Greta.

The Burton potteries originally produced terracotta country pottery wares for the local farming community. Around the 1840s stoneware pots began to be produced and the potteries experienced a large demand for stoneware bottles and jars for holding liquids from alcohol and fizzy pop to chemicals, pickles, jam and inks.

The book focuses on the Burton Potteries from the 1900s onwards and particularly on the very last potter, Richard Bateson, who began work at his father’s pottery, Waterside Pottery, at the age of 13 in 1907. The following is a story from the book that describes how the trade union movement came to Burton-in-Lonsdale: “Frederick James Slater was a good thrower. I mean he must have been really good, because Richard Bateson rated him highly. Freddie had learnt to throw at Town End Pottery, Burton-in-Lonsdale in the1880s under the guidance of the pottery owner, Jacky Parker.

“When Jacky died in 1908, Freddie borrowed money and bought Town End Pottery. However, despite Freddie being a brilliant thrower he wasn’t great at business. According to Richard Bateson, he was “too busy advising other people how to run their businesses, instead of running his own”.

The workers of Waterside Pottery in 1906. Back row from left: Harry Bateson (thrower and owner), Charlie Armer (general worker, night fireman), Jack Fisher (bench hand, day fireman), Bill Fletcher (carter), Jack Lee (wand weaver), Isaac Briscoe (general worker), Arthur Baines (packer), Ted Jones (miner), Sep Lee (thrower), John B Brayshaw (namer and kiln loader), Jack Fletcher (carter). Middle row from left : Bill Standing (fettler and kiln loader), Sam Skeats (engine driver), Jim Brayshaw (jnr) (turner, day fireman), Squire Taylor (wand weaver mainly, but could do any job in the pottery), Jim Brayshaw (snr) (wand weaver), Teddy Tomlinson (miner), Christopher Isaac Briscoe (naming, kiln loader, night fireman), Dixon Bateson (general worker). Front row from left: Charlie Brayshaw (bench hand, taker off), Richard T Bateson (this was the year before Richard began work), Gordon Taylor (general worker), Harold Bateson (jam jar maker). Richard Bateson is in the front row with his hand covering his neck. Apparently

“Freddie only lasted three or four years before going bankrupt just before World War One.Freddie then moved out of Burton and got a job at Portobello Pottery in Edinburgh. This would have been a big move for a man from a small village like Burton. Freddie’s family remained in Burton and I’m guessing that they kept their ears to the ground listening if any of the Burton potteries were looking for a production thrower, so they could bring Freddie back home. Freddie spent World War One working at Portobello Pottery. Sometime in the early 1920s Waterside Pottery in Burton-in-Lonsdale needed a thrower. “Freddie applied for the job and got it; and so moved back home to his family.

Freddie had discovered lots of new pottery techniques in Edinburgh. He also discovered health & safety regulations and trade unions. Now, Freddie was a strong unwieldy character. In Richard Bateson’s words, “He was lord of all he surveyed”. He was particularly “Boss of all he surveyed in throwing”. Freddie would always get the bench hands to weigh slightly less clay than the other throwers for making the same pots, just to prove he was the better potter and could make the same pot with less weight of clay and frustratingly he always could.

“He was fiercely competitive at ‘chasing’ the other throwers when they were making the same pots. Freddie always wanted to be in front of the other throwers in terms of throwing speed and volumes of pots made. “Richard can remember Freddie once making a batch of thin based bottles, which meant that when they came to glaze the bottles, the bases absorbed too much water and collapsed. Richard turned to Freddie and said “Na then Freddie, tha’s losing tha grip”. Freddie didn’t like that at all!

“Freddie brought some of the new techniques that he’d learnt in Edinburgh back to Burton. He introduced a technique of using templates to finish off the shoulders and necks of bottles, so they didn’t need turning. This would have saved a considerable amount of time.

Richard Bateson at Bridge End Pottery Burton-in-Lonsdale in the 1930s. Photo from the Lancaster Guardian.

“He also introduced trade unions to Waterside Pottery. He established himself as the union representative and talked as many workers into joining the union as he could. Richard didn’t join. so I guess he owed his loyalties to his dad, Harry Bateson, who jointly owned Waterside Pottery with his uncle Frank Bateson. Freddie then went on to organise a short strike to protest against the health and safety conditions at Waterside Pottery. This has to be seen as a brave move on Freddie’s part.

“ I’m sure it would have been easier to orchestrate were it not for the fact that Harry Bateson himself was sat in the middle of the pottery surrounded by the health and safety conditions Freddie was objecting to. Freddie was, in actual fact, quite right to object to the conditions. “Certainly the conditions at Waterside Pottery would not be tolerated today and for good reason. It’s just at the time the owners and workforce had little idea that there was a health and safety problem.

“Richard Bateson can remember Freddie paying off the union members during this short strike. The whole thing culminated in a meeting on neutral ground in the Sunday School in Burton, where Freddie, Harry Bateson, Frank Bateson, representatives of the union and a man from the ministry were present. Freddie began the meeting by telling everyone how much better things were at Portobello Pottery, and then went on at length continuing along the same theme. Eventually an exasperated Harry stood up and said “I’m surprised if it’s such a wonderful place that Mr Slater didn’t stay there”.

“At that point the man from the ministry squashed the comment and deleted it from the records and advised them to continue in a civil manner.

Robert Standing throwing at Waterside Pottery around 1940.

“I’m not sure what health and safety improvements Freddie managed to establish, but they must have come to some agreement, because the strike was called off and Freddie continued to work at the pottery. In truth they would have been very reluctant to lose a thrower of Freddie’s calibre, and on balance Freddie’s good points just about outweighed his bad points.”

Lee Cartledge has also written the following story about the origins of why Burton-in-Lonsdale used to be known as ‘Black Burton’.

Burton-in-Lonsdale used to be known as Black Burton. Most people think this was due to the amount of smoke arising from the coal fired kilns of the local pottery industry. However, Stoke had far more potteries than Burton and it was never referred to as Black Stoke.

A far more likely, though understandably less popular, reason for the ‘black’ prefix was due to the morals of the people living there.

The potteries would have employed a lot of men and it would have brought a concentration of young men into the area working in what were essentially small scale pottery factories.

The potters were fiercely competitive with each other and with the other potteries. Added to this was the fact that miners from the collieries around Ingleton would have lived in Burton as well as silk mill workers and farmers. Is it possible that these men perhaps could have introduced ‘black’ habits such as an over-indulgence in alcohol, non-attendance at church, blasphemous language and cock fighting? There were certainly as many pubs as potteries in the village.

Throwing bottles at Portobello Pottery Edinburgh around 1915. One of the throwers could well be Frederick James Slater.

Here are some extracts from the Lancaster Guardian of August 21, 1875 perhaps confirming this view, though diplomatically defending the morals of the then ‘present’ potters.

“Without any intention to make the Burtonians of a past generation more vile than their neighbours, it may be said that rudeness and cruelty were mixed up with many of their amusements”

The article goes on: “Cock fighting was the crowning sin and the most brutalising practise of the past generation...This love of cock fighting led to much drinking, quarrelling and dishonesty. There was such a demand for fighting cocks that the immediate neighbourhood could not meet it and consequently it was a risk for anybody to keep a game cock within a dozen miles of Burton. Some of the lovers of this inhuman diversion, when a ‘gam cock’, as it was called, had been sighted set at defiance locks and bars, law and parish constables. Some of these game cock stealers were known to travel as far away as Kellet, Sedbergh and Nook near Kendal, and as many as 17 cocks have been the fruits of one night’s plunder. The stolen cocks used to be kept in the potteries, and, for a time, covered under large pots.”

“Rudeness of speech and unmannerly conduct at Burton-in-Lonsdale are now, comparatively speaking, a thing of the past. There was a time when few persons, especially on a Sunday, could enter the village without being called some offensive name.” “The potter’s song of the past would not apply to the present class of potter:

The Bull (inn) will break all the Burton pots and drink the Fountain (inn) dry.

It will turn the Punch Bowl (inn) wrong side up

and make the Hen and Chicken (inn) fly.”

A third possible reason for the name Black Burton is that the local terracotta clay, dug up at Mill Hill near Greta House and used by all the Burton potteries, is in its raw processed state black in colour.

The Burton potters used to refer to it as ‘blackware’. When you dig it from Mill Hill (and I have done this numerous times) it is a grey colour. It only turns black when you process it by grinding it down, turning it into a thin liquid, passing it through a sieve and then drying it out again. I am told that the reason the clay is black is because it has oil in it, which I’m guessing would contribute to fuel in the firing process. The clay throws really well and fires to a light red colour. Freshly thrown Burton ‘blackware’ - could the unusual colour of the clay contribute to the “black” of Black Burton. I will let you decide that one. Let’s face it, it’s better than the “morals of the people” option! Mind you Burton upon Trent is famous for producing Marmite and they don’t call it Black Burton because of that.”

Lee Cartledge said: “I’m convinced there are a lot of relatives of former Burton potters in the area but in addition I hope this article about my book could bring some of these relatives out of the wood work, possibly with new information and photographs on the historic Burton potteries.”

“The Last Potter of Black Burton”, is available for purchase at the pottery (where you can get a signed copy), or on Amazon at https://amzn.to/2VVHDzL.

The author has also put together a 4.5 mile walking guide around the sites of the former potteries of Burton, which is available at https://www.benthampottery.com/burton-pottery-walk/.

Workers at Waterside Pottery sometime around 1900. Notice the hand crank on the wheel, which allowed pots to be made when the steam engine wasn’t running. Jack Lee’s peg leg is visible on the far left. From left: Jack Lee, Squire Taylor, Unknown, Unknown, Unknown, Harry Bateson, Unknown, William Taylor, Unknown, Frank Bateson. Seated Unknown.