1950s: Cole's Pottery, White Hart Lane, Tottenham - working practices

Contributed by Frank Marden, who was employed at the pottery

The Pottery

You entered the pottery from White Hart Lane. On the right of the gate was the house where some of the workers lived. Just beyond it, on the same side, was the office. Opposite the office was the gas plant that drove most of the works machinery and just beyond it was the entrance to the works itself.

Entry to Tottenham Cole Pottery (1) Entry to Tottenham Cole Pottery (2)

The entrance to the site. Note that the letters LE'S (of COLE'S) and ERI (of POTTERIES) are clearly visible on the gate. (Source unknown)

The view from inside the gate. (Source unknown)

  

Plan of the Tottenham Cole Potteries 1950s, by Frank Marden

There were three coal fired boilers around the pottery, all used to heat the hot water pipes that ran around the drying sheds. The boilerman was a smallish chap who was always covered in grime. He once had a short spell in hospital and when he returned everyone stared at him for a while, nobody recognised him because of his clean face!

There were coal bunkers and storage areas for stacking the finished pots all along the left hand side of the yard. The pots were placed under cover ready for delivery. The shelters were just wooden roofs on supports.

Just inside the works entrance was the mill where the clay was prepared before use. To the left of this was the first potters workshop. Just ahead was the main boiler, with two kilns opposite, and at the far end was the washroom and canteen. Off to the right was another kiln, with more workshops and drying areas beyond that. The whole lot was covered by a corrugated iron roof.

There was a rough road that went off to the right, behind the house, where there were a few small firms on land leased from the pottery. There were other unconnected firms on land beyond the clay pits. These were reached via a track that ran between the pottery land and the Direct Mineral Water Supply factory.

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The Pottery Process

Can you help?

I am eager to contact descendants of anyone who was associated with the Cole Pottery during this time.

The clay was hand dug by spade from pits at the back of the pottery. The ground was cut in steps and the clay thrown down in heaps, where it was watered before being loading into small rail wagons. These were hauled up an incline to the works by winch. There was a gantry over the works entrance that led to the top of the mill where the wagons were emptied.

At the potters wheel in the Cole Pottery, Tottenham, 1930s

The mill had two pairs of rollers, one at the top and another at the bottom. In between them was the mincer, a set of rotating blades that churned and mixed up the clay. At the top, we were supposed to take out any large stones or 'foreign objects' before they entered the process, but quite often these got through and were ground up in the clay. At the bottom end, the smooth clay emerged in a long tube about six inches thick. This was cut into manageable lengths by a 'cheesewire' and stacked for use the following morning.

Taking the dried pots for loading into a kiln at the Cole Pottery Tottenham, 1930s

At the beginning of each day, the stacked clay was put through the bottom rollers one more time before being piled onto a battery-powered trolley for delivery to the potters around the works. The potters worked in lines and produced various sizes of pot from the tiny two inch 'tom thumbs’'(for cuttings etc.) to the biggest which were about twelve inches in diameter.

The large pots were the speciality of the senior potter Bill Pearson who had his personal wheel at the rear of the works near the canteen. Each standard pot could be turned out by hand in less than half a minute. Smallish ones could take as little as six seconds. The finished articles were placed on wooden boards which were stacked in the drying sheds behind the potters. (Photos from a 1930s edition of The Illustrated London News.)

Inside the Cole Pottery, Tottenham, 1930s

When ready, the pots were loaded into the kilns for firing. This was done on shelves supported by fire bricks. It was a precise job getting the various sizes at the right levels and with correct amount of spacing between them.

When the kiln was full, the doorway was bricked up and the fire grates around the outside were lit to produce the heat inside.

The kilns were fired for about a week and progress could be monitored by removing a one of the door bricks at eye level. When the process was over, the kiln was allowed to cool for about three days before the contents could be emptied, even so, it was very hot and exhausting work. A gang of five would take the best part of a morning to clear a kiln, taking turns to climb up and throw down the pots which were then stacked into barrows and wheeled outside for storage in the yard. Particular care had to be taken on cold mornings as a sudden change in temperature would crack the pots.

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The gas plant

The gas plant that drove most of the machinery was operated by Harry Saywell who seemed to spend all his time in there, even checking around at night with a torch. In fact, I'm sure he slept there sometimes! The plant could produce its own gas by burning anthracite, or it could work off the main town gas supply. It powered a six foot diameter brass flywheel which generated electricity to drive the machinery around the works. All this was connected by belts. Not very much was automated and many of the potters wheels were powered by foot pedal. Harry would be constantly oiling and tinkering, and on occasions would search along the gas pipes for leaks with a naked flame! The pottery house had no electricity and was supplied with gas from here.

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The pottery workers

I worked at the pottery for about two years in the mid 1950s. It was hard work and you earned your money, but we lived locally and it was a regular job. Sid Cole, the owner, was never known to turn down anyone who wanted a job there – not that there was ever a queue!

I suppose about 20-25 people worked there at that time. There were a dozen potters, six diggers and millers, a couple of kiln stackers and a lorry driver. Apart from the potters, who always did the same work, the rest of us covered most of the other duties in turn. There was no demarcation or unions. We got two weeks paid holiday each year which we could take when required, the pottery did not shut down at all, but continued in production all year round. Obviously the busiest time was the spring and summer during the growing season, but we stockpiled throughout the winter.

The potters were paid piecework rates according to their output but, for the rest of us, the pay was about £6.00 a week and the hours were 7.30 – 5.00 on weekdays and 8-12 on a Saturday. Sometimes, if there was an urgent order, we were invited to empty a kiln on a Sunday for payment of fifteen shillings – 'cash in hand'.

Sid Cole never mixed with the workforce and had little direct contact with us. This was left to Eric England, his nephew. Eric was a nice chap about 35-40 years old and quite tall. He ran the office and processed the orders. There was also a girl who worked there with him, but I can't remember her name. Bill Pearson was the oldest potter who specialised in turning out the biggest pots, another was named Asa Mould, whose two sons Alan Mould and Bill Mould also worked with him. Other names that come to mind are Tom Pitkin and brothers Ted Callow and Bobby Callow. There were other Callow brothers – Arthur, Fred, Bert, and Johnny – who either worked for South's pottery next door, or occasionally for Coles. Workers would interchange between the two firms. The lorry driver was Bill Eames. Most of us in the general workforce got on well with each other although there was some occasional animosity between the potters.

Every year there was a works outing [see social life of the White Hart Lane community].

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Live-in employees at The Pottery House (Wayside Cottages/Tentdale)

Harry Saywell, Albert Berry, Harry Cramp, and my brother, Peter Marden, who all worked for the pottery full time, lived in the Pottery House which was divided into four flats. At that time it was known as Wayside Cottages and belonged to the pottery. Those who lived there were generally involved in duties outside of normal working hours and, as far as I know, the accommodation came with their jobs and was rent free.

Mrs Cramp and her family lived downstairs on the right. She was originally the canteen cook, but was quite elderly and retired when I was there. Her husband Harry was also getting on a bit. He was in charge of the yard, but didn't do much because of his age. The Cramps had a son called Stan who lived with them and worked occasionally as a potter.

Above them was my brother Peter and his family. Peter was employed on general duties and was regularly on fire watch through the night. His wife, Bet, worked part time at the nearby Direct Mineral Water Supply company and their son David was at Devonshire Hill school.

Downstairs, on the pottery side of the house, lived Harry Saywell and his wife. Harry was in charge of the Gas Plant and his wife took over as the canteen cook after Mrs Cramp retired. I remember the food was very good.

Above them lived Albert Berry and his wife. He worked regularly on the bottom mill and also did fire watch duties in rotation with my brother.

I didn't really take much notice of the house, other than seeing it was very old. I only ever went inside once to see my brother – I saw enough of him all day long at work!

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Other businesses on the pottery Land

Some of the land owned by the pottery was leased out to other businesses. A track along the eastern perimeter lead to various small factories. At the top of the track, on the right hand side was Andersons who operated a tip for ashes and cinders that were collected from local factories (most were operated with coal fired boilers), and the material was sold on to the building trade. One firm, North Enfield Pre-cast Concrete Co. moved in towards the rear of Devonshire Hill Lane. It was run by a Fred Watson who, in turn, sublet part of his site to two other businesses (which covered his own costs!). The Pre-cast company made breeze blocks from the ash, as well as various concrete mouldings such as lintels, fence posts and panels. I eventually moved to them (as did a few others) because the pay was worth an extra £1.00 a week. Sid Cole frequently accused Fred of “poaching his workers”, even though he still allowed us the use of the pottery canteen facilities until they had built their own!

Fred Watson's sub tenants were a grocery warehouse (like a large barn) and an engine repair company whose owner lived in Empire Avenue and once advertised on ITV at a cost of £100 for ten seconds!

The Pre-cast company (including myself) moved to White Hart Lane goods yard in 1978. I retired in 1990 but the firm remains there today.

At the back of the pottery house were a number of small firms. There was a carpentry shop, and a factory run by Jack Matthews and Peter Wilson that repaired the local Gas Company hand carts. To the east of the house there was open ground, but I think this land was eventually occupied by a haulage firm.

There was also an open site uphill from the pottery works. Many years before I worked there, this had been leased to the local council who paid to deposit the spoil from their drain cleaning around the streets. The sludge settled over decades to become a rich fine tilth that was used to seal and insulate the kilns. It was ideal for daubing into and filling crevices, and was spread an inch thick over the crowns of the kilns to help contain the heat. It was always a pleasure to dig this material as it often yielded 'treasure' in the form of coins, rings, and even the occasional watch.

Ernie Burrows, who owned the garage at Pipers Court also ran a café adjacent to the pottery house during the late 1930s on land rented from Coles. He had a fruit machine hidden behind a curtain. The machine took old copper pennies and paid out a jackpot of five shillings.

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