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The Origins and Survival of Littlethorpe Potteries
in the Context of British Country Pottery-Making
Keywords: Littlethorpe Potteries, country pottery, George Curtis, Roly Curtis, Ripon
Littlethorpe potteries in North Yorkshire, a producer of garden pottery and other utilitarean wares, has been in continuous production since around 1830 when it was established on its present site by James Foxton of Ripon. It is now the only surviving example of a British country pottery where production has been unbroken and whose working practices and technical appliances have remained essentially unchanged since the nineteenth century.
The present paper is based on observations carried out over a ten year period up to 1999, together with documentary research carried out in 1999 and 2000 and preliminary results from targeted archaeological fieldwork undertaken in June 2000.1 The motivation for carrying out this work came with the realisation that this small business and the structures and landscape it supports is threatened by the future retirement of the present owner, Mr Roly Curtis. Additionally, the increased level of scholarly interest currently being shown in this field (cf. Burrison 1997 & 1998, Simco 1998, Graham 1999 and McGarva 2000) provided further stimulus. It was intended from the outset that the study of Littlethorpe potteries would impact upon broader themes of research in ceramic studies by providing data with which to tackle specific research questions, as well as providing a specific record of the site's development and surviving remains.
The scope of the present work does not include a detailed social history of the works, nor does it focus on the techniques and processes used in pottery-making at Littlethorpe. However, the importance of Littlethorpe, and Roly Curtis in particular, as a repository of specialist knowledge and skills is acknowledged and briefly commented upon, and it is intended that future research will include a more detailed exploration of these fields.
Location and geophysical context of the study area
The present paper is focused upon pottery works at Park Hill (NGR SE 3260 6813) in the civil parish of Littlethorpe, one kilometre south of Littlethorpe village and three kilometres south of Ripon in North Yorkshire. The present works lies within a smallholding, irregular in shape and covering approximately eight hectares (c.20 acres), within which are the remains of structures and features associated with various phases of nineteenth and twentieth century industrial activity. The western boundary of the site is formed by Pottery Lane, a minor road leading southwards towards Bishop Monkton from Littlethorpe, in the centre of a one kilometre wide corridor defined by the former Leeds & Thirsk Railway line to the west and the Ripon-Ure canal to the east.
The underlying bedrock at Park Hill is Magnesium Limestone, overlain by Keuper Sandstone east of the Ure, the river itself apparently following a boundary between the two (Sykes 1950, 31). The surface geology, though dominated by clay deposits of glacial origin, is by no means uniform, with deposits of gravel within and around the clay beds. Furthermore, the clay deposits are themselves non-uniform, the clay varying in character according to depth and location, and punctuated or underlain by lenses of sand and small boulders.
The Littlethorpe clay deposits, like those in the neighbouring Vale of York, display signs characteristic of post-glacial origins in a lacustrine environment. They range in thickness up to 16 metres and consist of dark grey and brown clay, in layers generally 1.0-4.0 mm thick, inter-laminated with light brown silt layers, generally less than 1.0 mm thick. This lithology is typical of varved deposits, representing annual cycles of sedimentation, the silt deposited from low-density suspension currents during the spring meltwater influx, the clay settling-out of fine suspended material in winter.
The natural topography of the site is generally rather flat, lying as it does within the flood plain of the River Ure, but there are a number of variations caused by recent stream courses and human activity. Most prominent are changes in level between areas of flat ground caused by the removal of clay deposits for manufacturing purposes.
Sources used in the study
Primary documentary sources provided much information of contextual interest to the origins and development of the Park Hill potteries, but little by way of hard data specific to the site.2 Maps and plans of the site and its surrounding area are similarly sparse. Although the first maps of the area date to the later sixteenth century, it is not until the mid-eighteenth century that detailed plans become available and well into the nineteenth century before any maps show structures upon the site. Indeed, no detailed plans of the site have yet been sourced which pre-date the first edition of the Ordnance Survey Series. Aerial Photographs in the National Monuments Record (NMR) collection of Aerial photographs proved very useful for the period from 1945 (see Carlton 2000, Appendix 7), as did historic photographs of the site.3
Amongst published and other secondary accounts, the principal and most useful study with regard to pottery-making at Littlethorpe is Sykes' unpublished thesis focusing on pottery-making at Park Hill in the context of the rural landscape and economy (Sykes 1950). This account also includes comments on other brick & tile works locally, but does not serve well as a chronological history of the present site or micro-region, since dates are rarely given and much of the information is anecdotal. Brears (1971a) also includes various references to Littlethorpe in his historical and technological study of English country pottery-making, also providing a brief history of the site in an extensive and ambitious gazetteer of post-medieval pottery-making locations (op. cit. 226-7). Lawrence provides a similar historical account with more emphasis on the products of the works rather than its technology (Lawrence 1974, 216-7). The BBC documentary film, 'Big Ware' (BBC Omnibus, 1975), provides the most well known and coherent chronicle of the pottery-making processes used at Littlethorpe. More recent published accounts include Burrison (1997 and 1998) and Carlton (2000 & 2001). Although these add little to the known history of the works, the latter provide basic structural descriptions of the present site and its main components. McGarva's highly commendable synthesis on British country pottery (McGarva 2000) develops the earlier work of Brears (1971a), notably by expanding on the working practices of those (principally English) potters, but while acknowledging its survial value (op. cit. 116), provides little new information on the Littlethorpe works. It does, however, succeed in placing Littlethorpe firmly in the context of West Yorkshire pottery-making, in particular drawing attention to its links with the Soil Hill works near Halifax (op. cit. 34)
1. Archaeological fieldwork and documentary research carried out in 1999 and 2000 for Harrogate Borough Council and North Yorkshire County Council, funded by North Yorkshire County Council, the Excavation and Fieldwork Committee of the Universities of Durham and Newcastle upon Tyne, and the Council for British Archaeology under its Challenge Funding Scheme, with additional support provided by The Archaeological Practice and Department of Archaeology of the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. back to article
2. It seems that most was discarded, notably when the main works building was truncated in the 1970s, or left the site with previous owners. For example, some sales registers and other documents have been traced to a branch of the Foxton family in Canada. back to article
3. In an early works photograph from c.1913 (reproduced in Brears 1971a, 104) George Curtis is present with the works proprietor, F W Richardson, and Albert Kitson, reputedly the greatest thrower in the country, originally of Soil Hill pottery near Halifax. back to article
|The Origins and Survival of Littlethorpe Issue 4