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Some potted local history

Updated: Apr 26, 2021

I've always been fascinated by landscape and economic history and so part of the pleasure of collecting and selling vintage terracotta pots is researching their providence and understanding the role they played in our horticultural history. Why these dates and timelines are so important is that it gives us some idea of the age of our pots. With most hand-thrown pots ceasing in 1939, we know that anything hand-thrown predates this and so is at least 80 years old. With all the potteries closing by the 1970's, any vintage pot is going to be a minimum of 50 years old which really makes them special - even more so with their patina of gardens, greenhouses and conservatories by generations of gardeners and horticulturists.

Part of my growing love and appreciation for old terracotta pots was how local and place-bound each pottery was, none more so than our local history here in the Lea Valley. The Lea Valley has fed the growing population of London right throughout its history, kicking into high gear with the advent of the Lea Valley Glasshouse Industry from 1845 which was established to meet the ever-growing demand for more exotic fruits, ornamental plants and flowers for London. By 1930, the Lea Valley was the largest market gardening area in the world with over 1300 acres of horticulture under greenhouses.

Before the advent of plastic pots, all plants were grown in clay pots and two large potteries were operating in Tottenham Hale, namely EG Cole & Sons established in the late 1870’s and Samuel South & Sons in 1867, to supply the Lea Valley greenhouses and market growers.

Both potteries were located in White Hart Lane which had a rich source of blue clay, particularly suitable for flowerpots. The potteries, increasingly known as industrial potteries, were significant in size (Souths was over 20 acres) with adjacent clay pits located in the area now known as Devonshire Hill. They were large local employers and key players in the local economy.

Being very much part of the local community, Samuel South of South & Sons was one of the original shareholders in the Tottenham Spurs Football Club when it first went public in 1898 and was closely involved with the club, allowing the team to train on the grounds of his Devonshire Hill Farm close to White Heart Lane. When the club moved to their first built stadium in White Heart Lane in 1881, the area was so marshy it had to be drained. EG Coles and Samuel South both donated terracotta crocks to form this drainage foundation and to this this day the members restaurant is still known as the ‘Terracotta Grill’ in memory of this.

In their heyday the Tottenham potteries were making millions of pots a year, and it was not unusual to receive orders for over half a million pots at a time. The pots were all handmade by ‘throwers’ who could make at least four 3” pots a minute. Since ‘throwing’ was piece rate work, good throwers had to make between 1,200-1,400 pots a day to earn a decent living!

The Tottenham potteries both thrived for decades as the market growers expanded in the Lea Valley. Some mechanisation began to creep in at the turn of the century, but most pots were still made by hand. It wasn’t until clay extracting machinery was introduced that the larger potteries like Sankeys near Nottingham, began to increasingly dominate the market. Sankeys, is perhaps still the best-known maker of horticultural terracotta in England today, who made terracotta pots in their vast industrial pottery (pictured below) for over 100 years. At the the height of their production they were making over 60,000 pieces a day and shipping their terracotta all around the world - which is why they are still the most common pots found today.

With the increasing dominance of industrial potteries like Sankeys, smaller labour-intensive potteries including London-based Coles and South began to struggle to keep up, with Coles & Sons sadly closing on the eve of the Second World War in 1939 with South & Sons continuing until its closure in 1960.

Sankeys got out of pottery in the 1970's altogether in order to make plastic pots. This closure marked the end of large-scale manufacturing and making of horticultural terracotta pots apart from a couple of artisanal potteries like Whychford who make ornamental terracotta pots on a small scale.

With our growing awareness of the detrimental impact of plastic on the environment, one can only wonder if we would ever see the rise of the artisan clay pot industry again? It seems ironic that part of the popularity for vintage terracotta pots is their nostalgic appeal when in fact they are, by far, the best eco-friendly choice to be made. Terracotta pots are not only really good to grow in (the soil can breathe as the clay is porous) they can be re-purposed, are long-lasting and are very attractive - looking good both outdoors in the garden and indoors.

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Fran Cox
Fran Cox
Jan 17, 2023

Fascinating stuff. I'm a gardener and an amateur potter and have thrown terracotta pots for my own use. I am trying to find out how large the "cast" of clay was that determined the numbering system that many pot producers 2's were huge, 80's were tiny thumb pots. Susan Cambell in her " A History of Kitchen Gardening" 2005 notes this nut but doesn't say how big the cast was! Have you any ideas?

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