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The Origins and Survival of Littlethorpe Potteriesin the Context of British Country Pottery-Making



The present works comprises a small complex of buildings adjoining Pottery lane, principally the main workshop building and clay processing shed, linked by a waggonway to clay pits in woodland to the east. The clay processing shed is around 50 metres in length and probably pre-dates the foundation of the pottery, having been a ropery in the first half of the nineteenth century. Subsequently it was used as a stable until clay processing machinery was placed in it following the abandonment of brick and tile making activities near St Helen's Gutter, and the concentration of industrial activity on the higher ground closer to Pottery Lane. In addition to episodes of buttressing, traces of periodic adaptation and partial rebuilding are visible in the brickwork of this building, only the central part of which is reserved for pottery-related functions. Waggons of clay are hauled through a door into this building and tipped onto a concrete floor, from where the clay is processed through a William Boulton Ltd. clay pug. A blunger by the same maker is now redundant, as are settling tanks attached to the rear of the building. Clay was formerly transported from the processing shed to the main manufacturing shed on barrow-ways of single iron rails, but these have disappeared and conventional wheelbarrows are now used.

3. The main workshop.


4. Door to main workshop.

5. Clay shed.


6. Aerial view of the pottery.

7. Aerial view of the pottery and surrounding area.


8. Claypit with rails of

9. Wagonway to claypit.


10. Wagonway over stream.

11. Pushing the clay wagon.


12. Clay wagon approaching the clay preparation shed.

The main manufacturing shed adjoining Pottery lane to the west of the clay processing shed is a brick-built structure of nineteenth-century origin which formerly extended further to the south. It contains belt-driven throwing wheels by William Boulton of Burslem and wooden drying racks over a brick hypocaust. The latter is stoked in the adjoining kiln room and linked to the chimney of an early twentieth-century Newcastle-type downdraught kiln which replaced a nineteenth-century updraught bottle kiln, the remains of which are still visible in the floor of the kiln room. A second bottle kiln, probably of very early origin, was pulled down around 1970 when the building was truncated on its south side. A small adjoining room contains materials and appliances for slipping and glazing, while an upper story contains, amongst other items, redundant and little used pottery-making appliances.

East of the main works complex, beyond a field of shallow, linear earthworks, is an area of scrub woodland through which the present waggonway snakes past the remains of former waggonway courses and clay workings to the active clay pit. Here, clay is excavated by hand during all seasons, except when the clay pit floods, and forked directly into a clay bogey (a sideways-tipping narrow gauge railway waggon), a method of extraction which allows the potter to select by texture the best clays. When full, the bogey is pushed by hand as far as an incline to the clay processing shed, from where it is hauled to the tipping floor by means of a fixed engine. The presence of several different rail profiles at Littlethorpe, with various types of associated fittings, suggests diverse origins for the waggonway system there, which is one of a handful of survivors in the British Isles.

The works produces garden pots in a diverse range of forms and sizes, all thrown by the single potter, Roly Curtis. Large bread crocks, internally-slipped and glazed, are also occasionally made to order, and a small stock of internally-glazed jugs in non-standard sizes is also usually maintained. Other than the heavy-duty William Boulton wheel, the only tools used are flat-edged metal throwing ribs, a crude trimming tool and lengths of fishing line for removing vessels from the wheel. An ancient, notched stick is also on hand, propped against the clay-caked window, with which to measure out standard vessel sizes, while a set of scales allows clay balls of uniform size, up to 56 pounds (25kg) in weight, to be prepared in batches prior to throwing. Batches of pots are dried directly on the raised floor of the hypocaust, or on drying racks above it, before firing in the electric kilns which have replaced the coal-fired, Newcastle down-draught. The majority of sales are of batches made to order, most frequently to garden centres, although retail sales direct from the works are growing.


Littlethorpe rural district

The first documentary evidence of settlement within, or close to, the works area dates to the late eleventh century with the inclusion of the township of 'Torp', modern Littlethorpe, and 'Monucheton', modern Bishop Monkton, in Domesday, as parts of the Manor of Ripon (Coverdale 1964, 53). It is clear from documentary evidence that subsequent occupation of the two villages has been continuous. Ridge and furrow earthworks from the later medieval period survive around the periphery of the village and close to Bishop Monkton, but there is no conclusive evidence of such features in the area between the two villages. It seems likely that this land was common or wasteland, rendered unsuitable for agriculture by seasonal flooding and heavy, clay-rich soils. This is supported by nineteenth-century place-name evidence in the form of Moor Farm, and by the present Moor End Farm which borders the works area.

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw the economic transformation of the rural district within which the works area sits from one based entirely on agriculture, to one partially dependent on rural industries at the fringe of the industrial revolution. The area south of Ripon between Littlethorpe and Bishop Monkton probably remained unenclosed, poorly drained moorland until at least the mid-eighteenth century. The earliest hint of clay workings in the vicinity of Littlethorpe is provided by the inclusion of the place-name, 'Claypitts', in late seventeenth-century deeds covering the districts of Thorpe and neighbouring Bondgate (see Carlton 2000, Appendix 5b). These and other documents suggest that the area was exploited for its resources of clay and sand, as well as for seasonal pasture.

Following enclosure and drainage, the heavy nature of the soil meant that stock farming became the dominant form of land-use. Alongside farming, small-scale production of brick, tile and pottery developed at various sites along the incipient Pottery Lane from the early 1830s, and at its peak in the second half of the nineteenth century Littlethorpe was described as a village with extensive works for the manufacture of bricks, tiles and earthenware (Wheallan 1871, 268-9). While some of these works were appendages to farms and probably operated on a seasonal basis, others developed more independently of farming interests. Evidence for lime-burning as well as brick, tile and pottery-making is provided by documentary sources and nineteenth century maps,4 along with complementary transport systems, including roads, a canal and railway (see Carlton 2000, Section 4.2), all within a kilometre of the Park Hill site. While the principal road through the clayworks south of Ripon developed as a result of the industries it served, it can be argued that the canal enabled the siting of such works in the first place and the railway considerably aided their subsequent expansion. Although an increase in settlement occurred at Park Hill and in the parish, the additional dwellings provided were not in proportion to the number of labourers employed in the various works, the majority of whom continued to commute daily from Ripon and Bishop Monkton.

Farming continued alongside the rural industries which peaked in number and productivity between about 1850 and 1910. Thereafter, premises and worked-out clay deposits abandoned by the contracting brick and tile industry were slowly re-absorbed into the farmed landscape. Many of the buildings in and around the village, including several still standing from the mid-nineteenth century, were constructed of locally-made bricks and tiles, and at least one of the main landowners in the village, Robert Darby Oxley of Thorpe Lodge, was himself briefly the owner of a brick and tile works in Pottery Lane around the year 1860. In 1896 Littlethorpe was formed into a parish comprising the old parish of Whitcliffe-with-Thorpe and rural parts of Aisminderley-with-Bondgate.

Littlethorpe Potteries

Notes on the history of the Park Hill works, now known as Littlethorpe Pottery (or Potteries), are contained in Sykes (1950), Brears (1971a, 226-7) and Lawrence (1974, 216), but are absent from earlier syntheses on Yorkshire Potteries (notably, Sellers 1912 and Grabham 1915). Trades Directories provide details on the historical ownership of industrial works around Park Hill but do not always specify precise locations. Following is a basic history of the site derived mainly from the aforementioned sources.

There were no clay workings at Park Hill until James Foxton, a Ripon builder, built works on the present site in the 1820s (Lawrence 1974, 216) or early 1830s (Brears 1971a, 226).5 Although the works may originally have been set up primarily as a brick and tile works to supply the family building business, pottery was certainly being made by 1834 when the company was listed in Pigot's directory as a maker of brown earthenware in addition to brick and tile. By the time James Foxton died, aged 75, in October 1842, all of his five children had predeceased him. The lack of an immediate heir may explain the subsequent, temporary disappearance of the Foxton name in connection with clayworking at Littlethorpe - it seems likely that the works was leased, but it may even have closed for a time. The economic potential of the works would certainly have been boosted, however, by the opening of the Leeds & Thirsk Railway in 1849 and the repeal of the brick tax (2s 6d/100) in the following year (Snell n.d., 5). The railway immediately took over a large share of the business previously undertaken by the Ripon canal,6 since it could bring coal from the south Durham coalfields at a cheaper rate than barges could ship it from South Yorkshire. This may have been doubly advantageous to the pottery industry at Littlethorpe since, besides the reduced costs, the south Durham coal was low in sulphur, therefore more suitable for firing glazed wares.

The increased profitability of the works may have prompted the return of the Foxton family to active management, for by 1857 the company was in the hands of James and Thomas Foxton (b.1826 & 1829), grandsons of the founder. Subsequent listings are mainly under the name of James Foxton until, Lawrence informs us, he left for Canada in 1904 and David Rhodes and Alfred Dougill took over the works (Lawrence 1974, 216).7 The association with the Foxton family may have ended before this, however, since Robinson's Ripon directory lists the proprietor as Rhodes and Co. in 1902.

Exactly why the Foxton family connection ended is unclear. The establishment around 1900 of a pottery and brickworks at Church Fenton, near Tadcaster, by three great-nephews of the original James Foxton, all time-served at Littlethorpe Potteries (pers. com. Mr Norman Foxton Scholes), provides food for speculation. It is also of interest to note that in or around the year 1895 a business known as the Littlethorpe Brick & Tile Co, was founded at Strensall, north-east of York (FRDC 1955, 58-9). The exact nature of the relationship between the Littlethorpe and Strensall sites is unknown, but it can be ventured that the latter may have opened as a subsidiary venture by the Foxton family (intriguingly, it is recorded that Elizabeth Ann, daughter of Thomas Foxton, was married around this time to Jim Green, a Strensall builder). Its part in the sale of the works at Littlethorpe is unknown, but production at Strensall continued until the second half of the twentieth century.

By 1908 the works seems to have been divided in two parts, with the Littlethorpe Brick and Tile Co. and the Ripon Brick & Tile Co. sharing the same secretary. In 1910, J. W. Hymas bought the premises (Lawrence 1974, 216) and leased them to J. Green, presumably the aforementioned Strensall builder, for a few years; subsequently, ownership passed to F. R. Richardson in 1915 and to the Littlethorpe Potteries Ltd. in 1919 or 1920.8

Brears claims that the works was sold to George Curtis in 1922 (Brears 1971a, 227); elsewhere that he took over the works in 1926 (op. cit. 166). Neither can have been the case, however, since Arthur Fell is listed as proprietor in Kelly's directories of 1927 and 1936. It is likely that Arthur Fell bought the works in, or a little after, 1922, possibly viewing it as a profitable way to use coal from his private mine near Bradford in West Yorkshire.9 George Curtis, having started at the works as a clayboy around 1912, subsequently married Arthur Fell's daughter and became manager of the works before inheriting them with his wife, according to Lawrence (1974, 216), in 1939. It appears there may also have been an interim period when the works was owned jointly by Arthur Fell's son and daughter.10 George Curtis continued to run the works until handing over to his son, Roland, in 1975, but continued to exercise rights of ownership until the mid-1980s.

The above represents what is currently known about the ownership of the site, though the potential clearly exists to clarify certain chronological uncertainties by consulting additional trades directories, parish and other records. Although the completion of the sequence of ownership would be of some interest, however, it would do little to shed light upon the social and economic history of the site. We know that the works was, for most of its history, a producer of bricks, tiles, drainage pipes and pottery vessels, and it may be supposed that at various times production was concentrated on one or more of these goods to the partial exclusion of one or more others.11 Around 1913 the works employed some nineteen workers, but it may be assumed that many more were employed in the middle of the nineteenth-century when mechanisation was less advanced and the scale of brick & tile production much higher.12

In the modern era, brick and tile production probably ended around 1940, but George Curtis maintained staff for as long as raw clay was processed through the blunger and settling tanks, and while firing was still carried out using labour intensive, coal-fired kiln technology. The advent of mass-produced plastic vessels for domestic and garden use led to a waning demand for earthenware of all kinds by the middle of the last century and the remaining four staff were laid off in the late 1950s or early 1960s. Since then the works has been run as a one-man concern, with George Curtis gradually handing over to his son from the early 1970s, by which time the market for wheel-made earthenware had recovered somewhat. George Curtis had negotiated the dramatic fall in demand which led to the demise of so many other potteries by various means, including diversifying into the production of clay for schools and colleges, using redundant industrial buildings as chicken sheds and contracting the range of vessels produced to reflect changing consumer tastes.

Roly Curtis has continued to display a flexible approach in order to maintain the works on a secure footing, notably by establishing the potteries as a working heritage centre in the mid-1980s, thereby laying the foundations for a future customer base by exploiting the significant educational potential of the site. Latterly, however, the works has flourished by supplying a niche market in traditional garden pots without functioning as a guided visitor centre. Roly Curtis carries out all of the manufacturing and most of the sales work, while his wife, Christine runs the accounts and assists with visitor groups.

The structural, or physical development of the site inevitably closely mirrors its social and economic history. This is most clearly represented in the correlation between increasing scale of production and number of structures in use, as shown by the Ordnance Survey Series between 1856 and the first two decades of the twentieth century. Conversely, as the total scale of production decreased and came to be centred upon pottery, buildings formerly used for brick and tile making became redundant and were demolished. Close examination of the works area suggests that the earliest buildings surviving upon or directly adjacent to the site include the present clay preparation shed and west end of Park Hill House, both of which probably date to around 1830. Significant structures of a later period include the present manufacturing shed, dating to the second half of the nineteenth-century. Other nineteenth-century buildings have been lost or adapted beyond recognition for other uses west and south of the present manufacturing shed bordering Pottery lane and in the area centred upon the present Park Hill Grange. Further structural and other remains of obscure date survive to the east of the present manufacturing complex and may be dateable through further archival research and/or excavation.

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4. Kelly's Directory of the West Riding of Yorkshire (1881), for example, includes W. W. Kirk, lime burner, of Littlethorpe. back to article

5. The date is disputed, Lawrence (1974, 216) suggesting the former, earlier date, Brears (1971a, 226) the latter. back to article

6. The Ripon canal, part of the Ure Navigation (Hadfield 1972, 111-2 & 345-7; RMBC 1986), supplied coal to the potteries via locks near Ox Close (Sykes 1950, 71). Despite being out-competed by the railway, it continued in use until the 1920s or '30s, the last commercial load being carried by George Curtis snr. of Bishop Monkton, grandfather of Roly Curtis, who is listed as a boat owner in Kelly's Directory of the West Riding of Yorkshire in 1927 and 1936. back to article

7. Mr Norman Foxton Scholes (pers com.) disputes that James Foxton left for Canada, although other close family members certainly did so. back to article

8. Brears claims that Richardson died in 1920 and a small company from Ripon took over; Lawrence claims that transfer to the Littlethorpe Potteries Ltd. took place in 1919. back to article

9. It is not known whether Arthur Fell had family or other connections in the pottery business, but Chaffers (1901, 225) lists Fell and Fell & Co. of Newcastle upon Tyne in his list of potters marks. back to article

10. A price list dating from this period carries the names E A & G R Curtis, with the names J J & E A Fell blacked out below. This indicates that J J Fell was in joint ownership with his sister before the latter became owner with her husband, George Curtis. back to article

11. A hint of this is given in the trades directories which, at various dates, list the proprietors of the works as brick, tile & brown earthenware makers (1841); brick, tile & drainpipe makers, brick & tile makers (1857), brick, tile, drainpipe & earthenware makers (1861), brick manufacturer (1902); brick & tile makers (1936); and pottery-makers (1950 to present). back to article

12. Though whether the works once employed over 100 people, as stated by one (secondary) source (NYFWI 1991), is doubtful. back to article

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The Origins and Survival of Littlethorpe  • Issue 4