Sunday, 27 November 2011

The life of a potteries caster

I want to capture some of the experiences of my mother in law who was a Staffordshire pottery caster in Burslem for 40 years.

Millie began working in the potteries in 1941 during World War II aged 14. Her mother had wanted her to work in a clothes shop and not enter the potteries industry like most of the people around her. She went for an interview and got the job but turned it down – she couldn’t see herself in the shop and the wages were only 10/6 a week, much lower than in the “pot banks”. She decided to go for Doultons which offered the princely wage of 14/7 a week.
Millie learnt about figure ware and the basics of casting at Doultons and when at 17 she got her call up papers and she had the choice of the Land Army or munitions work she was, like her colleagues, able to stay working in the potteries because they were doing work men had left to join the forces. Millie had an aunt who was a caster and she was in the same “shop” and at one time she also had four cousins there. At Doultons as well as the figure ware – figurines in ball gowns and the like, there was a brisk trade in character jugs of war time personalities like Churchill and Montgomery.

Jugs and figurines were quite complex sometimes with three or four parts to be joined and seams to be removed. They were on piece work and this meant that they could get 4d for a dozen character jugs. The jug had to have its handle put on, be cast fettled and sponged. 
character jug

There was an art to working out the varying qualities and consistencies of the “slip” that was used for casting and when it was ready to pour out. Needless to say there was a tendency to repetitive strain from tipping and from lifting heavy plaster of Paris moulds.

In the 1950s Millie wanted more flexibility as she had a child to care for and she moved to a nearby pottery Midwinters. One of their specialties was a collection of dinosaurs and at one point she knew them all by name. They also made a lot of figures especially religious ones. The owner Robin Midwinter used to come into their casting shop and tell them that the rest of the production was his bread and butter but they were his jam! Highly thought of when there were bus strikes the workers  were picked up by car to ensure production continued.

Potteries were already using tunnel kilns not the brick pot banks kilns of the history books. Pots would enter on a conveyer belt in a timed journey but Millie and her colleagues rarely saw any of this in their workshops. They were lucky too that for them the levels of dust were not too bad either with the biggest threat to their lungs being the Saturday morning cleaning of the troughs.
Doulton figurine

There were a lot of potteries in the Stoke area. Millie also spent time at Summerbanks Pottery which produced a lot for the USA – she recalls baseball players and shire horses in particular. She had some time in a selecting role – picking out the quality pieces and wrapping them in wood wool and putting them in great tubs to be transported for export on the canal to exotic sounding places places like the Pitcairn Islands. But she always felt her first love was as a caster!
Midwinters casters

Monday, 21 November 2011

Strictly left footed

Degas ballerinas
Ballroom dancing
On the walls of my childhood home was what I realise now to be a reproduction Degas ballerina pastel and this might have been the back drop to the decision to send me to ballet classes at the age of 5 or 6. Bearing in mind that I was a little hefty as an infant and had the nick name "fairy elephant" given to me by the local butchers [bless 'em] this was not likely to go well. I can recall the chestnut brown mini skirt and egg yolk yellow cross over knitted cardigan top which us ballet students had to wear and the slightly worried walk to the venue in the village. It was later I realised why I struggled with the class [apart from having limited co ordination anyway] - I couldn't get to the beginners class as it started too early and had to go the next one up. I had no idea what they were doing and guiltily peeked when we had to close our eyes for some of the exercises. I didn't last long...The next experience at school involved a lazy PE teacher who alternately marched us round the gym or sat filing her nails while we trampolined. Mmm..One day she shouted at me SUSAN CLOW YOU HAVE ABSOLUTELY NO SENSE OF RHYTHM... A powerful bit of teaching there... A few years later I managed a bit of slow dream ballet dancing in Oklahoma at school but on leaving school I joined - for some reason - a lunchtime ballroom dance class attached to my job. An uneasy affair. Think I began to get the message. I tried again about 14 years ago...and joined an evening class with my partner, a brilliant dancer - even worse. As soon as I start to enjoy it and relax the whole thing goes from my head and I forget what to do next. We gave up, sadly.
My Fair Lady gavotte
Cut to more recent local amateur musical theatre and having to waltz in a scene in My Fair Lady. Dicey to say the least especially as my partner in that one was equally left footed. Still I was OK scraping through the gavotte and worth it to wear such lovely outfits. Probably about all I can manage if I am honest!

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Scenes from a sketchbook

I have just given my two year old grandson his first easel and he loves it. He can't stop drawing! It has made me realise what a long relationship I have had with drawing and how easy it is to let it all slip.

I was taught drawing by a traditional teacher who set us up with shells and milk bottles and told us about dark and shade and the existence of ellipses.  My real love though has always been people so of course I have drawn myself countless times - pretty depressing as you get older, and any one else who lingers long enough in my life in a still position...which isn't many when I come to think of it. Life classes have been interesting though it is years since I went to one. I have been on both sides of this having modelled one season myself - it certainly gives you an insight. I once fainted trying to maintain a standing pose on a table top which was embarrassing to say the least. Why I didn't say that it was going black I don't know.

I always have good intentions. I take a sketch book on every holiday and usually end up sketching at the airport or round the pool - surreptitiously of course, like this man with sound excluding headphones this year:

sunbed man
twinkly eye
female head
What I really like are older faces with a bit of character like this twinkly eyed man - well I only got one eye sorted but you get the idea. What I like about it is that I can disappear into a drawing. Time is of no consequence. Of course I have a cupboard of special crayons, conte pencils, charcoal, wonderful paper that I dare not use - the usual, and I am always meaning to take it up properly instead of doing the odd sketch and then getting distracted. Still at least I have some sketches of family members to look back on and one day perhaps I will actually take it up again.

Saturday, 5 November 2011

Cars, cars cars!

If my father or his brother Geoff had written blogs the first one they would have written would have been about cars so this is a tribute the them.

Austin A40
My way of tackling the topic of cars might be a bit different - not about their horse power or their special features but about the memories they evoke. For a start I am sure I do recall standing on a running board on the first car we had in my childhood although most of my childhood is symbolised by the Austin A40. It was what would now be  called a hatch back and had room enough for two small bodies - mine and my brother's to curl up in the back on that 8 hour annual journey to Cornwall. The excitement of leaving at 3 in the morning, drifting off the sleep with disembodied parental voices and the hum of the car in the background. And a holiday to look forward to! I am terrible at remembering numbers but the two A40's number plates will never be forgotten.

Mk 1 Cortina
Then cut to the 1970s and the car I learnt to drive in was a Mk 1 Cortina of ban the bomb tail lights fame. It was bottle green and a snip for £80 and given the name Nellie [not all my cars have had names]. Not a perfect first car, too big for me but all I had. I certainly learned a lot about diagnosing car problems from the noises she produced that have come in handy ever since. My very first  passenger after I passed my test got out of the car after a couple of miles - I was in central London - and was violently sick! Nothing to do with my driving but not an auspicious start!

Ford Popular
I had a six month spell with a cream Austin 1100 which had a dicky gear box and didn't last long but my next memorable car was a sensible Ford pictured in the drive named Olive that had only 17,000 miles on the clock despite being 4 years old [ now I do sound like my Dad!]. I am here with the very missed Beckton.

I loved my next car a red Mini Clubman estate in which I could carry my infant children until a Dutch lorry driver scraped the whole of its side one afternoon while I sat helplessly at the wheel. and left me like jelly.

I enjoyed my silver Escort with its sun roof - don't see those any more, and then a green Citroen Estate but the only new car I have had has been with one job where I took delivery of an Astra and that was an exciting afternoon and was followed with 11 years of Astra use and many miles of work travel.

Leisure wise there are loads of memories attached to the camper van we had for some years for  weekend overnights. Great views driving up there too though I have to confess I never quite got the hang of driving it or used to the pain in my ankle from the pedal position and was mostly a passenger. Just need to remember to take the roof down coming out of car parks!

Camper van
What I would really like to have - if the weather was good enough is a Suzuki Vitara but I have to be satisfied with the odd few days hire on holiday.

Suzuki vitara