The Lesson of the Flower Pot
following article appeared in the August 1927 edition of The New Era
of the article were issued to the parties of pupils from local
schools who were taken on tours of the Potteries.
The Lesson of the Flower Pot
As we journey through this world we find that many of the simplest and most ordinary things around are those replete with the greatest interest. That this is true may be readily proved, and to enforce a point, let us consider that every day article of commerce and use, the ordinary flower pot. Sermons, indeed, are to be found in stones, many lessons are to be learned from the article which we have mentioned.
How many flower pots are made in the course of a year? Echo can only throw back our inquiry, but the total figures, were they available, would be amazingly large. Flower pots come from all parts of the country, for they are made in many places. Some pots survive for many years, whilst others have but a brief spell of existence. We are told that a certain maker of mustard boasted that his fortune came from the mustard people did not eat, and probably, the flower pot maker thrives on those pots which are so soon broken.
There is no need to wander very far afield in search of firsthand information about the flower blocks and the method of their making. Just outside the borders of London there is to be found one of the oldest and most extensive of plants devoted to this object. It is that of Messrs Samuel South and Sons and is situate at White Hart Lane, Tottenham. Let us alight at the station of that name and a very short journey will bring us to the works. It is an extensive place, covering about four and a half acres. It derives its site value from the fact that within its area, as well as nearby, there is to be found a fine vein of the clay needed for the object of the works. It is the upper portion of the famous London clay. The brown upper crust as it were, for that derived from the lower portion, the blue London clay, is not so suitable. Here, then, in these works, for over 40 years, the firm has continued to make flower pots. The business has been handed down from father to son and it is a pleasing commentary in the present state of industrial unrest to find that many of the workmen have grown up, married and reared families, grown old, and are still working for the same firm. It is a simple thing, perhaps, but it tends to show that all masters are not tyrants and that all men do not consider themselves as mere wage slaves.
On arriving at the works we stated our mission and were courteously received. We were conducted over the works and requested to ask if there was anything we did not quite understand, and then led to our first port of call, so to speak. And it was appropriate, for it was the pit from which the clay used in the manufacture is dug. Large quantities are brought to the surface every year, and it possesses the merit of great purity, which results in more regular quality of turnout and makes it more amenable to the treatment it undergoes. It is much stronger than the clay used for bricks. When dug out it is well turned over, or "mulched" and tempered with water. The idea is to open the pores and separate the particles of which the mass is composed.
It is then conveyed by means of a cable-trolley to the mixing machines. This is an interesting department, as our illustrations will show. The material is fed into the great hoppers of a powerful mixer, not unlike a glorified sausage or mincing machine. There the mass is cut apart, mixed and kneaded and rendered fit for the next stage in the process, which is that of rolling.
There are two steps in this stage. In the first the steel rollers are some little distance apart. In the second machine, into which the mass goes as it leaves the previous one, the rollers are so in close together that a bronze penny will hardly pass between them. Thus it is rolled out into a thin sheet, and in the course of rolling crushed very nice fine. Then comes a still further process, for the clay falls into a cylinder 6 ft long and armed with three dozen knives set equi-distant apart and with their flat blades in the direction of a spiral curve. This operation, combined with what has gone before, has the effect of bringing the particles into an extreme degree of communication, or perhaps the expressions "compactness " or "homogenity" will better express it. As the mass is passed on from knife to knife it finds its way to the outlet, where it is taken in hand by a "wedger" and formed into suitably size[d] masses or balls, ready to take its place on the potters wheel.
And the Potter's wheel! Whole books could be written about it, for it is one of those highly effective implements which would seem never to have been invented but always to have been. Its history goes back to the misty dawn of the most dusty and remote past, whilst the merit of its simplicity is equalled only by that of its effectiveness. Imagine a revolting table, like the turntable of a modern gramophone. Motion is secured in one of two ways. In the first place, the turn table may surmount a post erected over a lower wheel resting just free of the ground, and to which motion may be applied by the foot of the worker. Or it may be that the Turntable is mounted on a framework and motion given by a vertical wheel like that in the well known "scissors to grind "machine, steam driven shafting to drive wheels. In either case it would be impossible to imagine mechanism more simple.
A ball of clay, as prepared, is then placed on the turntable. It is dusted slightly with sand to prevent sticking. The wheel goes round, and the hands of the workmen, with a cunning secured only by long practice, fashions the pot. It is next hollowed out, stillness of hand and long experience keeping the walls of even and sufficient thickness. There is a cut-out gauge or template is applied to the outside, which smooths and polishes the surface, forms the rim etc. Our worker then takes a piece of wire and with it cuts the pot from the turntable, just as the cheesemaker uses a similar piece to cut a cheese in halves.
Lifting the pot, the maker or "thrower "as he is called - places it side by side with previously made samples on a long, flat bought which when full, is carted away to the drying grounds. Counting is estimated by " casts "of sixty pots, and downwards to size No. 1.
If possible, the newly made pot is dried in the open, but more often it goes into a drying shed, heated by steam pipes. It is turned from time to time, so that the outer surface catches the drying breeze. If this is neglected, the irregular drying will induce distortion of shape or bulging. When dry all round, it is turned upside - down to enable the lower portion to try. The placing of the pots to dry is known as " shuffling " and the pots, when dry, are said to be " fettled "(compere the Lancashire expression, "to be in good fettle "- i.e. condition.)
Then they are ready for the kiln. They are stacked in sectional compartments or bins, and each kiln has a capacity of forty thousand pots of various sizes. The small ones are packed lowest, the larger ones which require, of course, more heat, being placed on top. The hatchways to the kilns are then built up and the kilns fired from the out side. The heat travels up a kind of pocket or sleeve through the pots and rising to the roof of the kiln is, by an ingenious system of up and down draughts, sent back again so that it thoroughly obtains its object. By means of simple devices, heat can be brought to bear upon any part of the kiln if desired and finally, after about four days, the fires are closed in, the kiln cooled down and the pots removed to storage, where each size is packed on its side in its own proper place ready to go out into the world. There it may carry a future flower or seedling that will bring solace to the sick, afford pleasure by its fragrance, served as a votive offering our adorn the person of some lady fair.
A stroll along the numerous storage sheds causes even more wonder than to watch the making. What becomes of them all? Here we see tiny plots hardly a couple of inches high and opposite them, it may be, giants of the tribe capable of holding trees a dozen feet high. But, of course, mighty London claims the greater portion. Thousands of florists and dealers buy them. Greater attention today is being paid to gardens than ever, and so the demand increases. And with the pots, the saucers to match them are growing in popularity. Of course, Messrs. South and Sons make them as well as other articles of clay for garden use. The industry is an immense one but to the bulk of people quite unknown. Its very cheapness tends to throw attention away from it. We smash a flower pot and re- pot the flower without a thought. A plant grows too large, we put it in a larger pot - not a thought is given to the matter. But if the household possesses a small boy, the discarded pot forms a splendid target for a stone, and that, very often, is its inglorious end.
We have not mentioned all the machinery needed to produce a flower pot. The Lancashire boilers, the powerful engines, the fleet of conveyances of all kinds, to mention them might spoil the lesson we seek to draw. But to watch the busy throwers at work, the quaintly named wedgers bringing raw supplies and removing the finished product of the wheels, the pleasing hum of the revolving wheels, to throw our mind back to the early days when, five of six thousand years ago, the ancient potters produced their work of art by similar means, is to gain a glimpse of the past, to revel in the glories of former times, which even the most worldly-minded materialist of to-day might well enjoy.
The New Era Illustrated - August 1927