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Kent Archaeological Review extract

Seventeenth-Century Pottery from Wrotham, Kent.
by John Ashdown.

Our knowledge of the local post-medieval pottery of South East England can be compared to the proverbial iceberg of unknown size but showing a number of isolated peaks above waterline. One of the most prominent of these peaks is represented by the elaborate commemorative slipware pottery of the Wrotham group. This pottery is conspicuous by the use of trailed white slip, applied clay pads of heraldic or figure motifs and other relief decoration. These vessels also have dates, initials or the place name Wrotham clearly displayed on them. The dated vessels which range from 1612 to 1739 have been studied by Mr A J B Kiddell of Ightham who in Transactions of the English Ceramic Circle Volume 3 1954, page 105 lists over one hundred examples and demonstrated with considerable skill the link between the initialed vessels and the working potters hidden in the documentary record of Wrotham and Ightham. Mr Kiddell was able to distinguish nine potters -- John Livermore, Henry, John and Thomas Ifield, George Richardson, Nicholas Hubble, John Green and the unknown I.E. and I.W. -- together with others who did not sign their work.

Over the one hundred and twenty years or so the forms of the slipware pottery include large dishes, jugs, candlesticks and a cistern, but the majority of pieces comprise two distinct forms of tyg or posset pot. The early type is straight sided with four double looped handles (Figure 1) carrying dates between 1612 and 1699 and the later type is globular with either two or three double looped or single handles (Figure 2) with dates between 1675 and 1739. The globular form is mostly associated with the unknown potter (or potters) signing I.E. between 1687 and 1721. The fabric of the slipware vessels is a red earthenware of a usual untempered seventeenth century type with white pipe clay slip, prunts and pads with clear lead glazing. According to the firing this produces a light or dark brown surface to the ware and light yellow slip. The workmanship of the earlier vessels some using pads only is more precise than the later forms. On these, the use of pads is dispensed with in some cases and overall designs in trailed slip replace them. It can be added that the somewhat overdecorated effect of some of these pieces is not so attractive to modern taste as are many "peasant" wares of this kind.

The village of Wrotham is situated below the scarp slope of the North Downs at the edge of the Lower Chalk. The potteries appear to have always been situated to the south of the village at Borough Green at the junction of the Gault clays with the Folkestone Beds of the Lower Greensand. The site of the nineteenth century Wrotham Old Pottery is now the large and deep Borough Green Sand Pit.

Excavations were made at Borough Green in 1907/8 for Dr J W L Glaisher under the guidance of Benjamin Harrison in the hope of locating waster examples of the slipwares. Although a large quantity of pottery waste was found, little slipware occurred in it. Probably the slip decorated vessels not only formed special commemorative pieces where the failure rate was low but also represented a very small proportion of the total ceramic output which the surviving one hundred or so above ground pieces covering over a hundred years confirms. All the material excavated for Dr Glaisher, the pioneer of Wrotham studies, was presented by him with his outstanding ceramic collection to the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

A recent examination of the Wrotham material at Cambridge has shown that we can associate a large group of undecorated everyday domestic coarsewares with one of the known Wrotham potters. This group of vessels comprises black iron glazed wares on a bright red fabric, lead glazed brown wares and unglazed light red wares. They were generally thinly potted and well made. More important they are distinctive in form and section to be distinguished in archaeological contexts from other known kiln sources in the South East. The blackwares comprise two (or more) sizes of single handled mug (Figure 3) of a globular form, two types of large jugs, one of the normal seventeenth century form and the other influenced by German stonewares, and a two handled cistern. The lead glazed brown wares consist of a small pipkin (Figure 4) of distinctive shape and a whole range of small bowls and pans, many with a triangular rim section and single upright handle. Some have a double "piecrust" rim as Mr Parson's example from Rochester (Kent Archaeological Review, May 1968, page 11, November 4). There are also large pipkins and legged skillets and a small handleless jar. The unglazed vessels with a light red fabric and a distinctive half rounded and ledged profile occur in a number of large sizes up to 14 inches diameter and can only be described as general purpose pots. Saggers do not appear to have been used in firing the pottery in the kiln (though they may have been used for the slipwares) but a curious circular kiln setter with plain tile spacers occurs.

No internal dating is provided for these coarsewares. The form of the blackware mugs (Figure 3) may provide some clue in that they are closely related in form to the small mugs produced by the tin-glazed earthenware and stoneware potters of London's riverside in the fourth quarter of the seventeenth century. The blackware mugs also echo the later form of globular slipware tyg from Wrotham itself with dates from 1675-1739 (Figure 2). It would at present seem reasonable to suggest a date in the second half of the seventeenth century or first quarter of the eighteenth century for the Glaisher coarsewares perhaps during the working life of the potter signing I.E.

The only excavated piece of Wrotham slipware I know was found in Maidstone (L R A Grove Arch. Cant. Volume LXXXI 1966 page 249) and is the major part of a candlestick with the initials of three of the known potters (Hubble, T. Ifield and Richardson) and is dated 1651. However direct parallels or examples of similar fabric and form to the Glaisher coarsewares have been seen from Gravesend (E W Tilley), Rochester (J Parsons), Horley, Surrey (G P Moss), Croydon (J K Herne) and Dover castle (Ministry of Public Building and Works). Where these are in dated contexts they occur in the second half of the seventeenth century.

The relationship of the Wrotham potteries to High Halden further south east, active at least from the end of the seventeenth century, and the other Wealden or Sussex centres of pottery manufacture still requires working out. It is interesting to note that while Wrotham slipware dates end by 1739, tall globular tygs with two single or double handles not dissimilar to Wrotham I.E. forms, but made in Wealden iron speckled fabrics, carring slip trailed designs and dates (for example 1725-1744) continue further south. The trailed slip tradition is continued in slip decoration, so typical of the period 1790-1840, appearing in Sussex at such centres as Chailey and Brede.

I should be grateful to have my attention drawn to further groups of excavated 16th/17th/18th century pottery in Kent or East Sussex and would thank the many persons who have helped in compiling the above notes, in particular the staff of the British Museum, London Museum and Maidstone Museum.


Pottery examples


Figure 1 TYG. Four double looped handles, two connected to spouts. White clay pad prunts and slip decoration on red fabric dated 1652 initialed W.C.A., T.I. (Thomas Ifield) and N.H. (Nicholas Habble) LONDON MUSEUM
Figure 2 SMALL GLOBULAR TYG. Two single handles. White slip decoration on red fabric dated 1698, initialed I.E. BRITISH MUSEUM
Figure 3 SMALL GLOBULAR MUG. Single handle. Black iron-glazed ware on red fabric. Kiln "waster" form Borough Green. MAIDSTONE MUSEUM
Figure 4 PIPKIN. Brown glazed kiln "waster" from Borough Green. MAIDSTONE MUSEUM
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