Sue Bradbury investigates Lake’s Pottery which, for more than a century, reflected changing times in Cornwall.
“Missus put your washing in, we’re firing today.”
The call was a familiar one – sending housewives living in Chapel Hill, Truro, scurrying to their clothes lines. Usually shouted over the wall by Bill Lake, owner of one of the oldest working potteries in Cornwall, it signalled the start of the monthly firing weekend that would begin on a Friday at 8am and end the following Monday morning.
In its 1950s heyday, Lake’s Pottery was producing hundreds of items for domestic use including plant pots, pitchers, bread pans, cream pans and salters. A new kiln had been built in 1944 which, according to Mike Edwards who worked there from 1947 to 1958, was fired with Welsh long flame coal that had been kindled with a faggot of dried furze (gorse) in each of five ground level fire eyes.
“Bundles of furze were lit and stuffed down into the ash pits under each eye until they caught,” he said. “The firing would continue all day and right through the night, finishing around 8 o’clock on the Saturday morning by which time about five tons of coal would have been used. On Monday, the doorway would be unbricked and the kiln unloaded – a day’s work in itself.”
Mike was a pupil at Truro Secondary Modern when he started visiting the pottery room at Truro Arts School once a week. He found the work interesting so, when his teacher told him that a job was going at Lake’s Pottery, now the site of Truro Baptist Church, he jumped at the chance of applying.
“I was living in Perranporth and, although work started at 8 I had to get the bus in which meant I didn’t get there until 8.30,” he said. “My job was to scrub the ware boards out in the yard by the well. They were always covered in clay. I also helped prepare the clay outside, put pots in the kiln and wheel fired items up to the store. It was hard, physical work which included Saturday mornings too. “
Months after joining, Mike got his chance to try his hand at pottery making.
“There wasn’t any training as such but the Lakes had told me I could go and watch Barry Pascoe who was a wheelman (thrower). He got very cross and there wasn’t much time because it was a very busy place. Then I found a very ancient kick wheel in the storage barn which hadn’t been used for years. It had to be fixed up because, to start with, the water went right through but Mrs Lake asked me to try and copy a pot on it.”
The pot was a success and Mike was allowed to give it to his mother as a Christmas present. He went on practising for a couple of hours per week until Bill Lake decided to invest in an electric seated wheel for him that was positioned just inside the making shop.
“We never counted the items we made – they were just done by the board,” said Mike. “We didn’t weigh or measure anything either – everything was done by gauge. I made myself a metal one with a butterfly nut so I could adjust it.”
W H Lake and Son founded their pottery in 1872 – on a site that is said to have been producing pots since medieval times. For more than a century, the business supplied the Cornish community with domestic ware of every size and description but, after a devastating fire in 1975 and a general decline in sales, Lake’s Pottery finally closed for good a decade later. Now, thanks to a very generous donation of more than 200 Lake’s pieces from local collector Robert Buscombe, the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro is staging an exhibition entitled Every Pitcher Tells a Story from 28th November to 24th December that includes audio-visual interviews and archive material to recount the fascinating history of a once thriving Cornish industry.
Curator Sarah Lloyd-Durrant is the person responsible for pulling it all together.
“Robert gave us his collection last year and since then we’ve been busy cataloguing each item prior to putting as many as possible on show,” said Sarah. “I didn’t know much about Lake’s before the donation but now I’ve come to realise that it represents an intriguing insight into a century of enormous cultural and social change in Cornwall.
When it started, the business was producing functional domestic earthenware implements like pitchers, cloam ovens and chicken feeders. In the 1920s they made art deco pieces that people could decorate and in the 1950s the advent of pre-packaged food reduced the need for containers so they turned to the tourist market and made glazed products like flower-arranging vessels and pottery pasties. Sadly it wasn’t enough to maintain profits and, after a succession of owners in its latter years, the pottery was ultimately closed down.”
Iris Rowse, 85, is one of the people interviewed by Sarah for the exhibition. After being recruited to work as a secretary by Mrs Lake in 1968, she spent nearly 20 years in the business – ultimately running a small museum and shop there.
“Lake’s has been an important part of my life,” she said. “I did everything I could to keep it going but we couldn’t raise the finance and in the end everything was auctioned, which was heartbreaking. I have some very fond memories though. One of them is selling Mrs Thatcher a casserole dish when she came to visit. The poor woman had just had rotten eggs thrown at her by someone in the crowd outside and was looking a little wind-blown. I felt sorry for her but she seemed to enjoy the pottery and stayed for quite a long time.
“Another memory is of the ghost. There was an old chimney at the bottom of the yard where someone called John Pryn is said to have hung himself after getting drunk. I’ve been in the shop when there was banging on the door and the catch went up by itself. I wasn’t frightened but I know I wasn’t imagining things because other people saw it too.”
Collector Robert Buscombe’s interest in Lake’s began around 1997 when, whilst studying for a degree at University College Falmouth, one of his tutors talked about the pottery. It was whilst helping his uncle renovate an old cottage on the Roseland Peninsula, however, that he made his first Lake’s discovery.
“There were lots of unusual things in the house and quite a few smashed plates,” he said. “A small jug was amongst them. It was covered in paint when I found it but the glaze inside was particularly good.”
Initially, Robert collected pre-1940s pieces but then became interested in the glazed ware that the pottery turned to when the more functional items it produced went out of fashion. As a potter himself, he appreciated the artistry and went out of his way to find more and more examples to add to his growing collection.
“I think the Lake’s story has been underplayed because not only is it of very significant importance in terms of Cornish culture, it’s also important nationally,” he said. “Even Bernard Leach visited to find out how he could improve handles on his own works.”
Robert bought one of his favourite jugs in Truro Auction Rooms.
“I like its size and its concentric circles remind me of the swell when I go surfing. The quality of the glaze is excellent and, for me, it symbolises life in Cornwall during the twenties and thirties. Other favourites are a pasty moneybox made in the 1930s which I find very intriguing, a piggy bank, a beautifully-made two pint milk jug with its trademark ‘V’ at the bottom of the handle and a two gallon pitcher.”
Pitchers were a staple of the Lake’s production line. Predominantly used to carry water, they were a must-have in households before the age of bathrooms and kitchen plumbing.
“We used to have seven different sizes of pitchers and they all had individual names,” remembers Mike Edwards, a former Lake’s employee. “The largest, standing around 18 inches tall, was the Thirdell, then, a little smaller, came the Gullie, which china clay workers loved. They would put a little hinged wooden lid on it to keep the dust out and keep their drinking water cool.
“Others were the Pinchgut, Tivvy, Eighty, Threehalfpenny and, smallest of all, the Penny. The two largest had a double straight collar on top, not for decoration but purely for strength.”
Mike has many memories of his first job – one that earned him just 12 shillings (about sixty pence) a week when he first started. It was hard, hot work but, toiling alongside characters like ‘Fred the Wedger,’ yard men George Wright and Sam Hankins, kiln packer Sam Hankins and highly skilled wheelman Barry Pascoe, one he has always cherished.
“They were wonderful characters and I made firm friends,” he said.
Lake’s Pottery may no longer be firing up its kiln and sending housewives running to fetch in the washing but, thanks to champions like Robert, Mike, Iris and Sarah, its legacy lives on.
‘Every Pitcher Tells a Story’ runs from 28th November to 24th December at the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro. Entry is free. Mike Edwards will give a lunchtime talk as a potter on 15th December from 1-2pm – entry is free but places are limited so booking is essential.
Call the museum on 01872 272205. For further information about museum opening times, visit www.royalcornwallmuseum.org.uk
Photos supplied by the Royal Cornwall Museum.
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‘Lake’s Pottery: Every Pitcher Tells A Story’ is taken from our Dec/Jan 2011, Vol.2 Issue 9. Subscribe to myCornwall magazine for more stories like this one.