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.
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.
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!