1950s: Cole's Pottery, White Hart Lane, Tottenham - the site

Contributed by David Marden, who was a very young lad staying in the pottery house

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

These are the memories of a very young lad, and almost half a century has since elapsed, so please make allowances for any slight inaccuracies. The illustrations are probably best described as 'computer art' in that I took an actual photograph as a starting point, and then computer edited to add missing features (according to my own recollections, and other available photographs).

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The pottery house, Tentdale, then known as Wayside Cottages

Tentdale looking from the front left

Tentdale looking from the front right

We moved into Tentdale (which we knew as Wayside Cottages) sometime in the early 1950s, possibly soon after I started school in 1953. My father (Peter Marden) had taken a job at the pottery, and the flat went with it.

In those days the house, had been converted into four self-contained flats. We were in No.2 (upstairs) on the side of the house that, I understand, had been used by pottery workers as far back as the time of James Reedman Cole. We were on the eastern side of the house, ie the right hand side, as seen from the front of the house.

Tentdale looking from the front right

Tentdale looking from the front left

There was a date etched into the gable on the side where we lived). I seem to remember in the 1950s thinking to myself that this place will soon be 150 years old. Then I read the press cutting which quoted Alderman Cole as saying "Our place was built in 1805". So I think that the date could have been 1805.

In my time, the left hand doorway was subsequently sealed off and replaced by another on the western side of the building, giving access from the pottery yard.

Inside the house

Once inside the front door, a flight of stairs took us up to the first landing where we had two bedrooms, a living room, toilet, and kitchen. For some strange reason I remember the bath being in the kitchen at the very rear of the flat.

There was a second flight of stairs leading to the top floor. At the base of this was our gas meter that took only the old large copper pennies. A shillings-worth would last several days. At the top of this flight there were two more rooms used for storage. One belonged to the tenant below us and was always locked. The other was ours and had a window that overlooked the main road outside and across to the Wood Green Town Football Club ground opposite.

Plan of the potery house, Tentdale

Plan of the pottery house

The flat, indeed the entire building, had no electricity, but was run entirely on gas, which I was informed was generated from a small plant outside, (though I cannot confirm this). We had gas lamps, a gas cooker, and a gas iron. The lamps were fitted with mantles that were only obtainable locally from a general store in Compton Crescent. The iron was a fearsome contraption that was connected by a rubber tube to a tap on the living room hearth. It had an internal gas ring that exploded upon lighting and played roaring flames onto the inside of the sole plate. There was no fine tuning with this - I remember most of our clothes were either wrinkled or scorched. Our 'entertainment' was a portable radio that took its energy from a pair of accumulators - acid filled glass batteries that were regularly topped up at the garage down the road.

Outside the house

By the time we had moved there, many of the outbuildings had disappeared. The small front garden was planted with hydrangeas and always smelled damp, while the back garden was overgrown with weeds and nettles surrounding a rusty tin shed full of long forgotten oddments and enormous spiders. At the end of the garden, the back gate led out to a rough road along which were several ramshackle light industrial workshops unconnected with the pottery.

The other tenants

Of the other tenants, I remember the flat below us was occupied by a small elderly lady named Mrs Cramp, who had a bachelor son. Cramp junior was a strange little chap with a squeaky voice. We rarely saw him, and I’m not sure if he actually lived there, but his bicycle would appear regularly in the downstairs hallway. One of the other flats next door housed a couple by the name of Saywell. I believe he was either a potter or a foreman and his wife was the canteen cook.

The pottery

As to the pottery itself, my dad was a stoker/watchman/general hand who also tended to keep an eye on the place when everyone else had gone home. He would often get up in the middle of the night to replenish the coal fires that heated the kilns. On cold winter mornings he would carry a shovel of burning coal from the works into the flat and give us an instant fire in the living room, though occasionally he would fail to negotiate the stairs and almost set them alight! This trick was performed to amusement of bystanders at the bus stop opposite who would eagerly invite him to “bring it over here mate!”

On weekends and evenings I would often go on a tour of the pottery with dad, and my lasting memory of the place was of an almost Dickensian works with rows of round brick kilns, all covered by a rusting corrugated tin roof.

Conditions seemed pretty Spartan by today’s standards with bare brick walls and rough timber beams. The workshops contained lines of wheels with foot activated pedals and the whole place was coated in a thick film of fine clay dust – including the canteen. The only internal evidence of electricity was a few light bulbs strung around at intervals under the roofing.

The claypit

Steps cut by hand into the clay pit at the Cole pottery in the 1950s before the age of mechanical diggers

A typical scene at the pottery where the clay was hand dug with flat bladed spades that were lubricated with water to prevent the material from clinging. The digging formed lateral steps that rose upwards to form a steep face at the working end of the clay pit. Once removed, the clay was thrown down to ground level where it was moistened with water and covered with tarpaulins to keep it wet before being loaded into rail wagons for transfer to the pottery mill. Subsequent digging created a new set of steps each time as work advanced into the face of the pit. The railway lines were moved around as the digging required.

The left side of the photo shows the unworked clay deposits waiting to be dug, while the right side shows the steps cut into the clay soil. The workman gives an idea of scale.

In quiet times, when the pottery wasn't working, adventurous local children would climb the steps which, in places, could rise to well over 20 ft. It was always best to use the most freshly dug steps as the older, drier ones crumbled underfoot.

Outside there were what seemed like vast hills of clay that had been cut into steps by spade and loaded into small rail trucks. These were hauled up an incline by electric winch to a gantry over the pottery where the clay was tipped into a hopper. It was then compressed and dampened before being squeezed though a 6” square opening at the bottom, rather like a giant toothpaste tube. As it emerged, it was sliced into three foot lengths by wire and stacked ready for use in the workshops.

On summer days when no-one was around I would climb the dizzy heights of the clay mountains, taking care to use only the 'steps' that had dried out, otherwise it was quite a plunge to the bottom if your footing was unstable!

The train

I was idolised by my schoolmates when dad let us ride in the 'train' occasionally, though I recall it was a bit messy! The lines could be moved around as the digging required.

The kilns

I think the kilns were about ten feet wide with say, six or eight fire grates around the outside. I remember seeing the 'raw' pots stacked on shelves inside and then the entrance being bricked up. It always seemed to me such a waste when the bricks were knocked down again after firing. I once tried my modelling skills and fashioned a couple of clay animals which were discretely placed amongst one batch of pots but, sadly, they wilted rather badly during the process and I was disappointed with the biscuity blobs that emerged afterwards!

One of the regular activities that I never witnessed was the chimney cleaning. As I understand it, each of the fire grates led to a central chimney, and the constant use led to considerable accumulations of soot. One of the methods of loosening this was with large firecrackers that were strategically placed and quickly abandoned when lit. These evil devices were like giant jumping jacks and it terrified me just to look at them.

Can you help?

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

One day I accompanied my father on his tour whilst riding my prized new bicycle. Dad decided he would like a go and set off pedalling around the kilns. Unfortunately, he turned into a hidden stack of bricks and sustained a nasty gash to his chin that needed several stitches. I was more concerned with my bent front wheel!

The pots

Almost all the output from the pottery seemed to consist of varying sizes of flower pots, though I do recall some flatter, broader 'rustic bowls' that had rough scoured outsides. Towards the end of our stay there I remember there was one attempt at automation. A machine that stamped out pots from dollops of clay, but these were seemingly unpopular because they did not 'breathe' like the hand fashioned product. A strange thought considering the advent of plastic pots.

The boss

Judging by my father’s comments, "Colie" the boss, Sid Cole, was a staunch socialist but came across as a bit of a taskmaster who expected a high return for meagre wage, though this has to be viewed in the light of a rapidly declining industry. However, one of his oddities was to test the honesty of his staff by leaving a row of meticulously placed coins on his office desk when he was away. On his return these would be carefully inspected to see if there had been even the tiniest movement.

Family life at Wayside Cottages

Living at Wayside Cottages really singled us out in the local community. No electricity meant no television, so while the rest of the population tuned into the hit programmes of the day, we were limited to the Home, Light and Third Services of the radio. Still, I managed to keep abreast of things and save face with my schoolmates by regular visits to my aunt’s house in Devonshire Hill Lane. Their TV was almost as tall as I was – and it had a 14 inch screen!

I would spend alternate winter Saturdays gazing out from the spare room window at the top of the house. This afforded me a free view of Wood Green Town’s football matches, though much of the pitch was obscured by a rickety wooden grandstand that appeared to have been fighting the elements for many years. There was also a long single storey building that was the social club where my parents would spend their weekend evenings, and I was introduced to the delights of 'Housey Housey' and live skiffle. I was allowed to accompany them provided I behaved myself – usually for about 10 minutes before I disappeared outside with the other kids.

After the evening’s entertainment we were usually accompanied home by a family friend named Charlie. He was a tall, gangly young man, and seemed very excitable following a few pints. His regular 'party piece' was to accidentally brush his head against the living room gas mantle, showering the floor with glowing fragments and sometimes setting his hair alight.

My mother (Bet) worked part time at the nearby Direct Mineral Water Supply Company which manufactured soft drinks. They would probably be referred to as 'mixers' these days. Occasionally, workers were allowed to take home products that did not meet the required standard and failed the quality control of the day. I was never impressed by the bottles of pale, sugary water, or bitter, cloudy sludge that found their way to our kitchen.

I was never sure what happened to Mrs Cramp's son who eventually disappeared from the scene, but she, herself, gradually succumbed to dementia and started to act very strangely. She began to bake mince pies in great quantities - and at all hours. Sometimes we could smell the cooking in the middle of the night. Often she would catch me on the way to school and invite me into her living room, an eerie dark place due to the heavy curtains. All around were dozens of knickknacks and chalk ornaments, occupying every available space on shelves, tables and sideboards. She would tell me in hushed tones that she had a special treat for me - a batch of freshly baked mince pies that I could share with my schoolmates. She would open up one of many large square tins and load half a dozen pies into a paper bag, then send me on my way. This happened for several months on an almost daily basis until we finally moved away in late 1957.

The pottery closed soon afterwards and the house was there for a while longer, but our relatively short time stay was certainly an experience to remember.

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A contribution by Bill Anderson, who played on the pottery site as a child

After the World War Two my family lived in the prefabs that were built off Perth Road opposite the old Wonder Bakery in White Hart Lane. Cole's potteries were just round the corner and, as young lads, my friends and I spent hours looking through the old wire mesh windows that faced the road to watch the potters turning the flower pots. The ground just under the windows seemed to be permanently saturated with water, obviously from the pottery. It was so boggy that we had to put bricks down to get to the windows to see in. There was no glass in the windows, and the men worked there no matter what the weather. They must have been frozen. We sometimes got the benefit of a bit of clay coming at us through the mesh if we got a bit cheeky. Mostly, though, the potters didn’t mind us being nosey.

I can also remember the wall of clay that was left of what used to be the hill at the back of the works. We sneaked in there a few times but always got slung out.

My father, who was an airman, played for Wood Green Town at the ground opposite when he was home on leave.

These recollections must come from the early to mid 1950s, as I definitely remember the pottery closing.

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A contribution by Cliff Raven who played on the site as a child after it was deserted

In my teens in the 1950s, I spent quite a lot of time in the locality of the Cole Pottery: I lived in the Devonshire Hill Lane area, and my friends, Dennis and Allan Maxwell, lived in a house which backed onto Fred Watson’s Enfield Precast site, which was rented from Coles. Mrs Maxwell worked for Fred and Mr Maxwell rented a garage from Fred, and we boys were allowed access to it to repair and tinker with our motorcycles. The garage site overlooked the Cole’s clay mountain.

When the Potteries site became deserted on closure, we boys went inside. The kilns were still intact and we had a good look round, even getting inside the kiln ovens, big round brick structures which were domed into a chimney. Although production had finished there was still some residue clay that we would climb up. I remember one of my friends being dressed up in his 'Sunday best' clothes, having been told by his mother not to stray too far because they were going visiting. He told us that he couldn’t be getting all dirtied up. Nevertheless he did venture up the clay hill and in coming down tripped and fell headlong in the clay. His mother gave him a right scolding when he got home!

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