Mason's Ironstone short stories
Fettling is an important process in the pottery industry. Fettlers trim and smooth away the marks of moulds and tools left during the making process. The pottery pieces are then able to be fired, glazed and decorated. Fettling tools include oval-shaped flexible tin blades, sponges and a range of shaped sponges on sticks to get into all corners of the pieces in production, such as the cheese dishes in the image.
Women workers have always been important to the pottery industry. Many roles in making, finishing and decorating require skill and dexterity that women were thought more suited to than ‘clay end’ heavy work. Among the decorating tasks that women often carried out were cutting out and transferring paper prints, applying litho prints, painting enamel colours and ‘banding’ in enamels or gold. In the past, prestige painting work was more often carried out by men. Women workers also checked finished wares, selected and packed items for packing and transport- tasks that required more skill than you can imagine!
During WW1 and WW2 women increasingly took on traditional ‘male’ roles and today men and women carry out all of the roles in a modern pottery factory.
Mason's Ironstone Centenary Dinner
This is a photograph of the Mason's Ironstone Centenary Dinner which took place on the 19th December 1952, King's Hall, Stoke. The Centernary Dinner marked the bicenterary of the birth of Masons Ironstone founder, Miles Mason. King’s Hall, was built in 1910-11 as an assembly hall, ballroom, exhibition hall and theatre on Kingsway, behind the Town Hall. Many of the big pottery factories held celebration dinners and parties there.
A sign sits on the stage warning people against 'Jitterbug Dancing' - it reads 'JITTERBUG DANCING PROHIBITED IN THIS HALL BY ORDER'. Jitterbug dancing was popularised in the US in the 1930s, the jitterbug craze was brought to the UK by American soldiers during WW2. Dance halls cracked down on jitterbugging for a while due to concerns it was a physical danger and immoral, with women’s underwear often revealed due to frenetic moves featuring wild lifts.
Interviews with women pottery factory workers shows that they often used the rhythm of their work to imagine themselves dancing!
The poster for the Centerary Dinner was designed by well-known Potteries' artist Reginald G Haggar (1905-1988). Haggar also wrote the first book about the history of the Mason family and pottery and went on to write several more about the Masons and other ceramics subjects. Reginald Haggar was also presented with an Honorary Degree from Keele University in 1972 where he lectured and started a series of popular classes on art history, Potteries' History and the famous ceramics Summer School.
Kings Hall has always been a popular social centre and venue for memorable events. Both the Beatles and the Rolling stones performed there in 1963. Stoke-on-Trent has always been a centre for Northern Soul music and more recently, the King’s Hall has hosted Northern Soul all-nighters!
The photograph on this story shows Glaze Dippers working at Mason’s Ironstone in the early 1950s. Until the 20th Century glaze dipping was a dangerous job in potteries. The main content of pottery glazes was lead. Lead-poisoning was very serious and meant that glaze dippers could die early and suffer all kinds of health problems. The women in the photo are at work in a time when dangerous lead glazes were no longer used, but the hazards of working with and handling lead had been known for a long time before the health of workers was thought to be important…Dippers often used their bare hands to dip wares into the liquid glaze and absorbed lead through their skin. Tidying up the dry glaze on the dipped ware and mixing raw materials for glazes also meant that there was poisonous airborne dust around that could be breathed in. Eating lunch without washing your hands meant that you could digest lead along with your food.
Here are some things to think about:
- The Romans knew that handling and using lead was dangerous. How did it take so long for industry to catch up and take steps to protect workers?
- What could be done to make glazes that were both good and less dangerous?
- What was life like for a glaze dipper working with lead glazes?
Social reform was important in changing factory working conditions. In the 1830s the law changed so that the working hours of children were regulated. In 1844 the first act was passed that required factory owners to pay attention to the health and safety of workers. It was not until 1878 that the law banned women and children from working with white lead and into the 1890s before the dangers of lead were fully regulated. Alternative glaze materials were needed.
Potteries began to use ‘low-solubility’ lead glazes. This meant that the lead was prepared in a way that made it much less hazardous to health. For example, Keeling & Co in Staffordshire introduced their range of ‘Losol’ ware, named after this method. William Moorcroft helped to develop leadless glazes for decorative art pottery. Many of the art pottery studios such as Pilkingtons, Manchester looked for other alternatives. Uranium was found to make brilliant orange-red colours!
Before regulation, the hazards for lead glaze dippers were:
- Disease of the digestive system;
- Muscle paralysis, particularly in the hands;
- Ulceration of the gums, where a blue line would form- seen as a warning symptom;
- Miscarriages and pregnancy problems.
Lead poisoning was only one of many hazards that faced the pottery factory workers of earlier generations.
Miles Mason was the founder of the family pottery-making business that eventually became known as Mason’s Ironstone. The family portrait pictured was painted in about 1799-1800 but we don’t know the artist.
The Mason Family once lived in Essex, near Epping Forest. In that area it was fashionable for well-to-do families to have pet deer! Miles Mason began as a merchant and trader in tableware and decorative ceramics and glass in London. He began making ceramics in Liverpool in the late 1790s and soon moved to Staffordshire, the home of the pottery industry. Miles Mason made fashionable wares, with patterns based on Chinese imported porcelain and items for the table with attractive border patterns.
The teacup and saucer held by the gentleman on the left is bone china, made at the factory of Miles Mason in Lane Delph (Fenton) in the Staffordshire Potteries. It was made about 1805-10.
Intermittent Glost Kilns
Pictured are two intermittent glost kilns used to fire glazed wares at G.L. Ashworth Bros Factory c1950 (makers of Mason’s Ironstone). Non-coal fired kilns are better for the environment & workers’ health, coal-fired bottle ovens produced large quantities of smoke. Whilst bottle ovens are an iconic part of Stoke-on-Trent’s skyline, they were inefficient & harmful for the lungs of workers & citizens alike.
‘Tunnel’ kilns, which fired pots continuously (except for maintenance & potters’ holidays!) and these intermittent kilns which were fired when enough glazed pots were ready were fuelled by gas or electricity. This meant that they could be controlled more easily than coal-fired ovens.
Intermittent kilns replaced the famous bottle ovens in many Stoke-on-Trent factories in the 1950s and 60s. Most types of wares were fired multiple times, so the kiln was vital to production and was a very expensive part of the process.
The ‘fireman’ was one of the highest paid pottery factory workers when bottle ovens were predominantly used.
Broad Street Works in Hanley
This is a photograph of Broad Street Works in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent. This is where Mason's Ironstone was produced until 1998, ending over 200 years of production of Mason's ceramics. It is now the site of Tesco Extra in Hanley.
This large site included many smaller factories making pottery in the 18th Century, including John Astbury, who is said to have passed on his works to John Baddeley and who was succeeded by his sons. The origins of Josiah Spode’s extensive, long-lived manufacturing business is also thought to have begun here, before moving to Stoke in the 1770s. In the Victorian period, Ridgway, Morley & Wear ran the whole site and in 1848 Ridgway bought up the bankrupt C. J. Mason’s business, so production of Mason’s Ironstone moved to Hanley.
Taylor Ashworth from Lancashire became a partner at the works in 1858 and by 1861 his sons Geo L Ashworth & Brothers had taken over. Although the Goddard family bought the factory in 1883, the Ashworth’s title continued until 1968.
In 1973, Mason’s Ironstone was taken over once again and joined the Wedgwood group.