Museum Magpie: Surprises from the saggar maker’s workshop

April 30, 20207:27 amMay 14, 2020 10:39 amLeave a Comment

Read about the fascinating stories behind some of the objects in Gladstone Pottery Museum’s collection in the Museum Magpie blog.

Essential maintenance at Gladstone meant that recently we had to completely empty the saggar maker’s workshop. It seemed like a good opportunity to check the museum objects on display in there, make sure the computer records were up-to-date, and carry out any minor conservation work.

Most local people will have heard the word saggar, it describes the fireclay containers used to hold pottery during firing in a bottle oven. Generally, the approximate shape and size of a washing-up bowl they used to be a familiar sight in the backyards of Stoke-on-Trent where, long after the bottle ovens had ceased to be fired, they found a new lease of life as garden planters. 

Pottery manufacturers often made their own saggars. The equipment required to do this included wooden drum mouldsand you can see a lot of these in the workshop at Gladstone. Most are constructed using laths to achieve the required curve and some have a metal covering. Flattened sheets of clay would be wrapped around the drum to form the saggar shape. 

Saggars actually come in a surprising variety of shapes and sizes determined by the wares that they were made to contain and the position in which they would be placed in the kiln. In Gladstone’s workshop most of the saggar moulds are oval.There are also round, square and rectangular ones. A few are a strange figure-of-eight shape known as ‘banjo’ that were used to make saggars designed specifically to carry two stacks of plates, and one mould is egg-shaped, perhaps to fit an awkward space within the kiln.

Very few of the moulds can be attributed to a particular factory and sorting through them resulted in a couple of unexpected discoveries. Some of the moulds have metal tags attached, which are mainly stamped with a number. Maybe these all belonged to one factory or maker as they range from 9 to 133 with no repeats.

Two are stamped with names instead of numbers. The first of these is the famous tile manufacturer Minton Hollins, whose tiles decorated some of the most important buildings of the Victorian era including the Houses of Parliament. I doubt the round saggars made by this mould would have been suitable for tiles but Minton Hollins did make a small number of other items.

The second tag refers to a local pottery manufacturer whose name will be unfamiliar to most people today, Thomas Cone. Cone was an earthenware manufacturer based at the Alma Works on High Street (now Uttoxeter Road), Longton. Cone was in business from c.1892 to 1920 and this saggar mould is likely to date from that period. Although we don’t know how this one surviving mould found its way into the collection at Gladstone it hasn’t travelled far and it’s fascinating to think that it was used in a factory just up the road over 100 years ago.

Rattling around inside some of the moulds were a few more surprises. These wooden tools were made and used by the volunteers who started the Gladstone Working Pottery Museum back in the 1970s when they demonstrated the skills of saggar making and bottom knocking (yes, the saggar maker’s bottom knocker was a real job title).

Two packs of Wild Woodbine cigarettes and a box of Capt. Webb matches dropped out of another saggar mould. These could also be over 100 years old as Bryant & May started to make the matches after Captain Webb swam the Channel in 1875 and Wills used the same packaging for Woodbines from 1888 until the mid-1960s.

And finally, I couldn’t resist sharing this photo of a local team of saggar makers. Perhaps the chap in the middle is smoking a Woodbine? I’m sure they were all good boys but I can’t help but think of them as our own Peaky Blinders!

Written by Nerys

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