The earliest evidence of pottery being used in Britain is from the Neolithic era, pots from this time are found all across Britain.
The earliest pots are known as ‘baggy pots’ they have round bases and either very simple decoration or none at all. This developed in the later Neolithic period into impressed wares, where a variety of things from twisted cord, bird bones or the finger tip made an impression. The pattern shows considerable regional variation.
The next development was flat bottomed grove ware, although they seem to be mutually exclusive as no flat bottomed ware has been found with impressed ware patterns.
The next development arrived with the beaker people who originated in continental Europe . The developed what we today recognise as pots, with the flat bottom, and vessel shape being slightly rounded with a slight waist, a design we still use commonly today. The beaker people also brought other objects to Britain such as objects made of metal, basic jewellery including gold jewellery, and barbed and tanged flint arrowheads.
The next major development was the import of the potters wheel from the Roman world in around 150 B.C, and the finer ‘Belgic types’ of wares were being produced in East Anglia.
By the early 5th century however the art of throwing a pot seems to have been lost although the reason why this should be the case is as yet unknown. Some areas such as Cornwall continued to import fine pottery from the continent, while other areas seem to have reverted to hand made vessels similar to the Neolithic.
By the 7th century rural, probably part-time potteries were operated by peasants who spent most of their time farming. It was a family industry that was passed on down through the generations. Clay pits were dug close to the kiln on the peasants croft, or on common land. By the middle to late Saxon period (8th – 11th C) many potteries were based in towns.
By the mid-medieval period (12th – 14th C) the most common vessels produced were cooking pots, bowls and jugs, as well as the more unusual items such as lamps and chafing dishes, aquamaniles (like the cow milk jug where the milk goes in it’s back and comes out through it’s mouth) and face jugs were also popular, with a bearded face at the top of the jug and arms and maybe other anatomical parts lower below.
By the late medieval period (15th – 16th C ) many new forms of pottery were being introduced including copies of wooden and metal vessels.
In the 16th – 17th century the most common pottery was still earthenware, the colour of the glaze varied with the region; the reddish-brown glaze was used in East Anglia, while the north-west used a yellow glaze and the south of England used a green glaze.
White wares either as a plain white glaze or with a fine hand painted decoration were intended as a cheaper and more local alternative to the porcelain now being imported from the far east.
By the 17th – 18th century the pottery industry began to use machinery to speed up production of some table wares. Press moulded plates and trail and combed slip wares made in Staffordshire were becoming popular.
With the improvement in availability of fine clays and the skills of the potter and the decorator the growth of the area around Staffordshire known as the potteries grew from strength to strength, not only producing every day wares for a rapidly growing population but also some incredible works of art.
Other changes such as the industrial revolution and the resulting urbanisation saw the rise of factories which concentrated on making bricks, roof tiles, caustic glazed tiles, and later sanitary ware. Although somewhat diminished during the latter half of the 20th century these items are still produced in the potteries.