40 Years Since the Bickley Ceramics Project Began

Something 2020 positive for once!

In 2021 it will be 40 years since we began making pots and building kilns at Bickley! The summer of 2020 would have seen the 40th event. For the people who took part in the Bickley Ceramics Project in 1981 it would have seemed quite unimaginable that it would continue as an annual event for 30 years, closing in 2010. Even the year 2000 seemed like a faraway thing existing only in science fiction or comic books.

The first Bickley Ceramics Project kiln amidst the scrub clearance, 1981.
The very first Bickley Ceramics Project as filmed by Andrew Campbell in 1981 (digitised Super-8 movie)
Bickley regular Steve Maddicks made this 10-minute video in 2009.
The final Bickley updraught kiln after a firing in 2010. This ‘Donyatt’ kiln has been left to the elements for study in the future.

Although the farm at Bickley has moved on and the kilns either demolished and have become archaeology or are crumbling in the orchard, nonetheless the Project is still engaged in research activities. David Dawson and I have written a major summary of our ideas about historic ceramic kilns alongside our report on the remarkable archaeology at Newport in Pembrokeshire we have been working on since 2016, as a monograph of the Medieval and Later Pottery Research Group early in 2021.

For those unfamiliar with the Project, it was initiated in 1981 as a result of animated discussion in a pub about the need for a fresh practical investigation of the technology of medieval ceramic kilns and early firing technology. Mary Campbell, then working at Bristol City Museum heard about the debate and offered the use of a rundown orchard on her property in North Somerset and in July 1981 a motley crew of archaeologists, potters, students and locals assembled to take the first faltering (and hot) steps in building and firing a ‘medieval’ kiln.

Over the years more that 400 people took part over two weeks annually, making pots, building a wide variety of kilns and firing them. As we grew more confident the project worked directly with archaeologists during and after excavations in order to attempt to reconstruct and test interpretations of the excavated kilns. Work on kilns from Barnstaple in Devon and Donyatt in South Somerset lead to other projects and to several kilns built across the South West, two at the International Ceramics Festival at Aberystwyth and another at the Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts (now renamed Plimoth Patuxet). We have worked with researchers and potters from Canada to Switzerland and delivered numerous papers at conferences, most recently in Brussels.

Above, clockwise, a kiln for the Royal Albert Museum in Exeter at the Royal Bath and West Show, 1985; the kiln at Plimoth Plantation in Massachusetts, 2001; Site 13 at Donyatt, 1993; the Barton Hill Pottery and the kiln at the International Ceramics Festival at Aberystwyth in 2005.

Two recent projects have been working with laser scanning specialist Bill Stebbing to make a full digital record of the 18th-century kilns at Dunster in West Somerset and at the Winchcombe Pottery in Gloucestershire. A future scheme, scuppered for now by the unmentionable C, is to record the Winchcombe Pottery as a whole. We have also advised in excavations of potteries at the Exeter Inn in Barnstaple where exciting evidence of 16th-century pottery production emerged and at the Barton Hill Pottery in Bristol where the whole plan of a small 19th-century redware pottery making horticultural wares survived tucked behind the aptly named Rhubarb Tavern. We acknowledge the Bickley Ceramics Project in many of our reports and the Bickley logo often appears too.

Laser-scanned recording of the mid-eighteenth century kiln at the Pottery in the Park, Dunster and the old kiln at the Winchcombe Pottery, working with Bill Stebbing/ScantoPlan. The Dunster kiln is the oldest standing kiln in Britain.

40 years on the Bickley Ceramics Project has been a significant event in our and our families lives and hopefully in those who took part. Our children grew up knowing those fields and woods like the backs of their hands, three have archaeology degrees (!) and two work in archaeology today. Many ceramics students have gained too and some have built kilns and set up projects of their own. In the world of archaeological ceramic studies we are proud of what we have achieved in adding to the wider discourse on our subject and moving knowledge and understanding forwards. We are hugely grateful to everyone who has helped to make that possible.

A Donyatt-type kiln crumbling – in this case twelve months weathering to see how it might become archaeology. Bickley 2000-2001

On the Bickley Ceramics Project page you will find links to The Bickley Book, published in 2012 that celebrated the project and its people (as a print-on-demand or e-book). There are also links to more than 200 photos on our Flickr pages and to more videos from Bickleys 1999, 2009 and 2010. The Selected Articles and Papers page has links to many of our published papers.

A range of Bickley pots across the years. Potters include, Nick Wright, Oliver Kent, Bridget Davidson and Heather Kent.

Posted in Archaeology, Bickley Ceramics Project, Bonfire Firing, bottle kiln, Experimental Archaeology, International Ceramics Festival, Kilns and Kiln-building, Medieval pottery, Open firing, Post-Medieval Archaeology, Studio Ceramics, Winchcombe Pottery | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Modernism – in Weston-super-Mare

Chamberlin, Powell and Bon are best known as the architectural practice responsible for the Barbican development in London. Construction began in 1963 after 10 years of design negotiation and is now regarded as one of the most iconic examples of post-war Brutalist urban planning.

Meanwhile…

Would you be surprised to know that at about the same time they were commissioned to design a scheme to redevelop a large area of the centre of Weston-super-Mare on the Somerset coast?

In Weston-super-Mare museum is a beautiful architects project model dated 1961. The area around Oxford Street and Carlton Street south of the main shopping area and fronted onto the beach beside the ostentatious Victorian Grand Atlantic Hotel. A feature round tower of more than 20 storeys took the front pitch rising out of a raised deck that extended well back across the site. Set further back, two lower blocks of flats were to be reached from the deck and two more from ground level. Behind the tower, alongside Oxford Street, a sports complex with what appears to be a spectacular open air swimming pool. The model has no legend so it isn’t clear exactly what is what. The long narrow building the back beside the town hall for instance sits on more-or-less the same footprint as the present Police station although that building is clearly later in date. The blocks of flats are characterised by projecting fins, presumably for stairs, lifts and fire-escapes. The largest has a particularly dramatic detached fire-escape tower with linking walkways.

The integration of recreational opportunities was clearly intended to help make the place a destination as well as a place to live, a characteristic it shares with the Barbican. Unlike the Barbican the planting is fairly unadventurous but the quirky embellishment of the deck in front of the tower with a rococo parterre is a playful touch in the context of so much concrete. What is remarkable to me is Weston-super-Mare’s ambition. Whatever doubts one might have about wholesale replacement of historic town centres, they were prepared to think big and explore the idea with one of the most adventurous architectural firms of the day. This in the context of Bristol City Council’s clumsy home-grown 1966 plan which incorporated some of the same ideas but was wildly overblown and lacked a coherent architectural design brief. As a result of preemptive clearances and the piecemeal building of bits of it, it blighted areas in its path for decades. That said, the area of Weston-super-Mare to be redeveloped in 1961 seems to have had a checkered career in the 60 years since. The proposed site of the feature tower and the sports complex is currently an empty space. I suppose a high-rise scheme featuring a large expanse of raised decking might well have become a troubled area in a town with its share of problems. For admirers of Chamberlin, Powell and Bon and of Brutalist architecture and urban planning this is a forgotten project to savour.

Photos copyright Oliver Kent 2020. Aerial photo courtesy of Google Maps.

Some references:

Brodie, A. and Roethe, J., 2020. Weston-super-Mare, North Somerset: Historic and architectural development. Volume 1: Report. Research Report Series no. 1-2020. Portsmouth: Historic England.

Brodie, A. and Roethe, J., 2020. Weston-super-Mare, North Somerset: Historic and architectural development. Volume 2: Gazetteer. Research Report Series no. 1-2020. Portsmouth: Historic England.

Posted in Architecture, Modernism, Museums | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Modernism in Bristol: Marcel Breuer on College Green

2019 is the centenary of the founding of Bauhaus in Weimar and there are lots of exhibitions and events worldwide. At the restored second Bauhaus in Dessau you can stay in the student accommodation and wonder who occupied the room before you. Of the many exhibitions, the Stradling Collection’s exhibition Bauhaus in Bristol focuses on an important but less well-known aspect of the story.

Bristol’s part in the story hinges on the relationship between designer Marcel Breuer and forward-looking Bristol furniture manufacturer Crofton Gane. The Breuer in Bristol Symposium at Arnolfini in November 2019 formed a part of the associated events alongside The Bauhaus in Bristol. Speakers included Christopher Wilk, Keeper of Furniture, Textiles and Fashion at the V&A; design historians Alan Powers, Leyla Daybelge and Magnus Englund; Oliver Kent, Programme Leader BA Applied Arts, Bristol School of Art; Max Gane, architect and great-grandson of Crofton; Phil O’Shaughnessy, Programme Leader, MA Design at the University of the West of England and Chris Yeo, curator of the Ken Stradling Collection. The combination enabled a full range of perspectives on the short but significant period between 1935 and 1937 when Breuer was in Bristol and designed and built the Gane Pavilion, a building that influenced his domestic architecture from then on.

Marcel Breuer was one of the first students at the Bauhaus where he developed an interest in timber and making, He progressed to employment and teaching there but by 1935 he had left the school and had begun working with manufacturers such as Thonet and the Swiss company Embru to put his designs into production. This ran contrary to Walter Gropius’s aim for designs by Bauhaus designers to license their work for production by and for the Bauhaus itself to enable its continuation. In practice its closure put an end to such thoughts. Despite friction, Breuer continued to see Gropius as his mentor and as political pressures in Europe grew, when Gropius moved to London it was not long before Breuer followed. Christopher Wilk emphasised that although he had worked on a small number of architectural projects, (including the Harmischmaler House in Wiesbaden in 1932, his first realised project) he was at this time primarily a furniture designer.

Leyla Daybelge and Magnus Englund have just published their new book Isokon and the Bauhaus in Britain. The Isokon Flats in Lawn Road, Hampstead were designed in 1934 by architect Wells Coates for Jack and Molly Pritchard. Jack Pritchard was a key figure in the Design and Industries Association, a prominent group of designers, architects and manufacturers in Britain who lobbied for contemporary approaches to design. He was UK marketing manager for the Estonian Venesta plywood company and the enthusiasm of the Pritchards for progressive and modernist ideas was focussed not just on architecture, domestic design and education but also by an excitement with the potential of plywood as a material both within building design and for the making of furniture. Together with Wells Coates, Pritchard founded the Isokon furniture company of which in 1935 Walter Gropius was to become Controller of Design. Coates’ interest in modular systems both in building and interior design was reflected in the interiors of the flats.

Isokon Flats, Lawn Road, Hampstead in the 1960s. Architect, Wells Coates, 1934.

When Walter Gropius and the other refugee designers came to London in the mid-1930s they were made welcome by members of the Design and Industries Association (DIA) and a number of them took up residence in the Isokon Flats. Jack Pritchard and his friends sought to find employment and projects for their guests. Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer found partnerships with architects and this lead to a small number of architectural projects and collaborations. Breuer’s interest in furniture design and new materials brought him into contact with various DIA members and one in particular was quick to offer him work. Crofton Gane had recently become Managing Director of Bristol furniture manufacturer and retailer P E Gane Ltd and had been an active member of the DIA for some years. He had visited the Exposition des Arts Decoratif in Paris in 1925 with a DIA group that included Jack Pritchard and had worried his father P E Gane with his enthusiasm for plywood and for Modernist thinking.

In Bristol Crofton Gane was a leading local member of the DIA and was well acquainted with Jack Pritchard, Wells Coates and the rest. His interest in modernist design had like Pritchard’s been cemented by the visit to the Exposition des Arts Decorative. By 1930 he was able to explore his ideas more actively, taking full control of the P E Gane company in 1933. By 1935 when he met Breuer, probably in Hampstead, he had been developing the company’s ranges for some time, both selling imported furniture by the likes of Alvar Aalto as well as hiring his own designer J P Hully who worked particularly on ranges of modular furniture – perhaps influenced by Wells Coates. Hully had been a leading member of the design team at Bath Cabinetmakers who designed and made contemporary furniture primarily for large contract projects and who had shown at the Paris exhibition. A Quaker, Crofton perhaps saw himself as part of a campaign of improvement of design and living standards for which the principles of modernism seemed particularly appropriate. Other aspects of his life reflected this too, including providing medical services for his workers and supporting local adult education initiatives.

It is in this context that Gane saw the opportunity to take his commitment to modern design to another level by commissioning Breuer to remodel his home (to include a full range of furniture) and to design a display pavilion for the Royal Agricultural Show held at Ashton Court near Bristol in 1936. The pavilion displayed modern furniture retailed by P E Gane including work by Marcel Breuer, J P Hully, Serge Chermayeff and Alvar Aalto.

Study Bedroom desk, Marcel Breuer for the Gane House, 1935. Stool, Alvar Aalto. Ken Stradling Collection.

Max Gane (Crofton’s great-grandson) presented a detailed look at these projects and their significance. He has the particular experience of growing up amongst the furniture Breuer had designed for Crofton’s home and even admitted to having carved his name into one of the single beds! It is a reminder that objects are not just to be cogitated on by historians and displayed in museums but are active and have histories of their own.

After Breuer left England for the United States, Crofton Gane continued to explore and worked with Wells Coates on interiors and modular furniture designs for P E Gane and for the Queens Court luxury flat development in Clifton. Further projects were undermined and finally brought to a stop by WWII and the destruction of Gane’s Bristol factories and showrooms.

P E Gane showrooms, College Green, Bristol on the morning of 25 Nov, 1940.

The short time that Marcel Breuer spent working with Crofton Gane was significant in his career primarily in terms of architecture and interiors. As Christopher Wilk notes the Pavilion was one of his earliest architectural commissions. Given a free reign by Gane he was able to play and to explore new materials including sheet plywood, plate glass, corrugated asbestos and local stone. The use of local limestone laid in a traditional manner for the walls of the Pavilion gave it a very particular look and relationship with its location. The aesthetic of the Pavilion and this interest in softening and localising a modern building had a lasting impact on his subsequent domestic architecture. For Breuer, his time in Bristol was an important one to be celebrated.

Bauhaus in Bristol. Stradling Gallery, Bristol. 14 Sept 2019 – 25 Jan 2020

There are those who feel that such is the significance of the Gane Pavilion that efforts should be made to reconstruct it – there is even a suggestion that rubble in the park is it! Max Gane expressed the view that in practice the Pavilion was always intended to be temporary and should remain so. Its function removed and its structural shortcomings (lack of weatherproofing, gutters or drains for instance) making it impossible to rebuild without changing it, is it not better to leave it as it is, an important moment in Marcel Breuer’s architectural development and a marker for a point at which Bauhaus design moved on.

An interesting response to the loss of the building is a digital one. Several reconstructions of the Pavilion now exist in cyberspace including one by architecture student xmiseryxwizardx and an animated one by Clifton Downs on YouTube who represents a group interested in physical reconstruction.

For more on the Bauhaus in Bristol and the relationship between Marcel Breuer and Bristol furniture manufacturer Crofton Gane go to the Stradling Collection’s Bauhaus in Bristol Resource pages. These include a selection of downloadable documents including the 1936 P E Gane catalogue and a short film made at the symposium.

References:

The Ken Stradling Collection, 48 Park Row, Bristol, BS1 5LH, UK

Clifton Downs, 2015. Gane Pavilion, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HpfD4x-VXBs&feature=share

Leyla Daybelge and Magnus Englund, 2019. Isokon and the Bauhaus in Britain. Daunt Books

Oliver Kent, 2019. ‘Crofton Gane and Marcel Breuer. Modernism and the Bauhaus in Bristol in the 1930s’. in Kent, O., Yeo, C. and Witt, C., 2019. The Bauhaus in Bristol, Stephen Morris.

Raymond Plummer, 1985. Nothing Need be Ugly. The first 70 years of the Design & Industries Association. DIA.

Alan Powers, 2019. Bauhaus Goes West, Thames and Hudson

Jack Pritchard, 1984. View from a Long Chair. The Memoirs of Jack Pritchard. Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Christopher Wilk, 1981. Marcel Breuer Furniture and Interiors, MOMA

xmiseryxwizardx, 2019. [Practice] Study of the Gane Pavilion by Marcel Breuer, built in 1936. https://www.reddit.com/r/architecture/comments/czt3vp/practice_study_of_the_gane_pavilion_by_marcel

Posted in Architecture, Bristol, Germany, Ken Stradling Collection, Modernism, Museums, World War 2 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Modernism in Bristol: Marcel Breuer on College Green

Mastering the Basics of Bonfire-firing Ceramics

Several people have asked me if I would provide a basic guide to bonfire-firing. This post is intended to provide a straightforward outline of the basic process sufficient to make it possible to fire successfully. There is no shortcut to experience though.

By bonfire-firing I mean any process of pottery firing that is done on the ground surface. There are thousands of potters across the world using these processes and every locale and region has its own preferred methods. Fuels vary enormously. Most firings are very fast – shockingly so to those only familiar with kilns. Some potters fire a single piece at a time, some fire huge piles of work at once and some potters in Turkey have even evolved a method for semi-continuous firing. In Western books on pottery it is not uncommon to hear such pottery called ‘primitive‘ – I can’t emphasise enough how patronising and insulting that is. These potters know, select, modify and blend their clays, they know their fuels and understand the effects of fuel, flame and air supply. They make pots appropriate for the markets and functions around them to the best of their ability.

I won’t talk about pit-firing. It is often mentioned in the same breath and is currently popular amongst studio potters overlapping with sawdust and dustbin-firings. It is a Native American method of firing where pots and fuel are placed in a pit and a fire lit on top. Obviously it’s closely allied to bonfire-firing but it’s sufficiently different to need a separate explanation.

Rather than use one of my firings as an example or draw diagrams the following is an example carried out by professionals that represents the principles clearly.

Potters Veronique Bamigbola and Angeline Hountchonou from the Poterie a Mouzoungouda in Benin demonstrated bonfire-firing at the International Ceramics Festival at Aberystwyth in 2005. Their method is straightforward and logical. Hopefully my notes are helpful.

Preparation and Setting

A bed of fairly solid fuel is laid out to provide a platform lifting the pots off the ground. Here some bricks elevate it slightly to allow air underneath. It is sitting on the charcoal of the previous day’s firing. The wood is laid closely together.

Veronique and Angeline padded the base with straw to make the base denser and protect the pot rims during packing. This isn’t essential but some looser small fuel in amongst the pots helps to carry the flame and heat into the centre.

The pots are placed inverted or on their sides. They can touch and sit on top of one another. The shape of the pack should form a dome.

Fuel is then laid against the pots to form an enclosing wall. Depending on the fuel, this may be difficult to achieve but ideally it is dense enough to avoid the wind blowing through it too easily. The wood here is timber-mill waste and is placed about 3 pieces deep. Angeline and Veronique took the time to place each piece carefully. Note the gaps at intervals around the base. These are the points it will be lit at.

Firing

Fires are then lit at each opening using paper, straw and small wood, being quick so that the fire takes of evenly around the rim. The cardboard is being flapped to encourage the flame to take.

Once the fires have been lit the flame rapidly takes hold, running up the sloping fuel. This is critical. The firing is very fast but the heat must be delivered gently enough not to explode the pots. A suitable clay can cope with very fast heating but not with a direct flame from cold. The design of this structure exploits the natural draft provided by a ring of fire. Assuming little or no wind the flame will pull into the centre of the space above the ring as it rises. The result is a rapidly heating but flame free centre.

If gaps appear early in the wall of fuel they are filled to keep the process even. The fuel begins to fall amongst the pots accelerating the rise in temperature.

The fire is then allowed to burn down exposing the pots. There are a huge range of variations in what potters do at this stage – there are many ways of modifying colour and surface. The flame and fuel resting on pots can result in size beautiful arbitrary marks as you can see here.

Veronique and Angeline removed the pots from the fire with sticks and applied organic liquids to the hot surface which charred to give a distinctive patterned finish. The whole process illustrated above took 65 minutes. From lighting to pulling out pots 27 minutes!

Clays and Fuels

Veronique has demonstrated at quite a few festivals though and knows her materials. They were using a French clay they had identified as having the making and firing properties they wanted (R.I.F. from Solargil, http://fr.solargil.com). It contains a very high proportion of mica. I have used a variety of commercial coarsely grogged clays successfully and also locally dug ones either as found or with various added tempers including crushed up failures, bought grogs and molochite. Organic tempers are a possibility too.

The fuel used was bark waste from a local timber mill – the default fuel at Aberystwyth. No doubt the potters regarded it as a bit over-the-top. In general potters use whatever cheap fuel is available locally including brushwood and straw. The main thing is that a suitable structure can be built with it. I have used brushwood, tree branches, broken up pallets and scrap building timber. Ideally it is fast burning and not too thick.

The other factor to take into account is the weather. Any wind will push the fire into the centre too early and raise the temperature unevenly. Spalls and explosions result. A fairly still day and if possible a sheltered location is best.

All photos copyright Oliver Kent. 2005, 2006.

Posted in Archaeology, Bickley Ceramics Project, Bonfire Firing, Experimental Archaeology, International Ceramics Festival, Kilns and Kiln-building, Medieval pottery, Open firing, Studio Ceramics | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Bristol 1944: Coffee, Doughnuts and Lost Dog-Tags

A few years ago one of my students found a metal label in the grounds of Bristol School of Art in Clifton. She had been in the military and recognised it as an American military dog-tag from the Second World War. My son took an interest and contacted the US Embassy in London who were very helpful.

Sometime between November 10 and December 24, 1944, a US Army corporal called Laures Champlin visited the American Red Cross Club at the Royal West of England Academy in Queens Road, Clifton. Presumably, along with coffee and doughnuts, he took advantage of the shower block put up by the army in the back-yard. In the process he lost one of his dog-tags which ended up in the dirt outside the shower block entrance. Champlin came from Louisiana and was a truck driver with the 244th Engineer Combat Battalion. They had arrived at Avonmouth Docks from New York on November 10 and were stationed nearby in Sea Mills awaiting posting to Europe in the follow up to the Normandy Landings in June. On Christmas Eve they left by train for Southampton and shipment to France.

That’s the basic story. Along the way we were able to add lots more detail about the Americans in Bristol in 1944 and the of the 244th Engineers. We originally wrote it up for the Bristol Times in 1999 but responses to the article and recent building work at the Art School have brought more to light. We now have four characters to work with.

The Royal West of England Academy in WWII

The Academy building in Queens Road was built in 1858 to accommodate two separate institutions; upstairs the West of England Academy, an artists’ body with exhibition galleries and meeting rooms modelled on the Royal Academy in London and downstairs the School of Practical Art (now Bristol School of Art). When the Second World War broke out in 1939 both continued to operate normally although many students were called up. Things changed in 1944 as the military build up began for D-Day and the Normandy Landings. Bristol was an important entry point for American troops and equipment, and the decision was taken to establish the US First Army commander General Omar Bradley’s headquarters at Clifton College. Many local buildings and open spaces were commandeered to act as offices, camps and billets for the US forces. The Art School continued to operate normally through the war but the (by now Royal) West of England Academy upstairs was taken over as an American Red Cross Club. The clubs served fresh coffee and doughnuts and offered music and dancing (no alcohol). The RWA was for white US soldiers only – black US troops had a separate club in Great George Street. Bigger events such as band concerts were held at the Victoria Rooms over the road. American women Red Cross staff ran the clubs assisted by locals.

The dog-tag was found just in front of a small outbuilding in the garden. Looking at it with a fresh eye, it is familiar as the kind of prefabricated concrete structure often seen on wartime airfield and hospital sites. Known as a Ministry of Works and Procurement (MOPW) Standard Hut, they were built in large numbers although not usually in the backyards of art galleries and art schools. There were two sizes and this one is actually half of a small one with a tower in one corner for a water tank and a boiler below. Markings on the floor suggested stalls. A brick and concrete staircase added to the back of the main building at the same time, links the art gallery on the upper floor to the garden, effectively avoiding the art school. It seems the hut provided shower and washroom facilities appropriate to the new busy use for the art gallery in 1944. It seems a reasonable guess that Laures lost his dog-tag(s) whilst taking the opportunity for a shower.

The wartime MOPW Hut / shower block behind the Royal West of England Academy building in Clifton. The tower held the hot water tank.
Interior of the MOPW Hut in use by the art school as a sculpture studio in the 1990s.
Wartime Utility coffee mugs and plates, an American aftershave and sample size shampoo bottles uncovered by recent building work near the MOWP hut.

This winter, building work in front of the hut has disturbed the ground where the dog-tag was found and revealed a small dump of wartime pottery and glass. The china consists largely of ‘utility’ white plates and mugs produced under government control and marked G VI R with the date 1944. These were made primarily for military use and issued to NAAFI, Red Cross and evidently American Red Cross kitchens and mobile canteens. The glass includes American Aqua Velva aftershave and sample size Drene shampoo bottles and shards of a clear glass Coca Cola bottle of a type made for the US Army.

In 2019 the garden soil gave up a second dog-tag, this one belonging to Coastguardsman Kenyon D. Clauson of the US Coastguard Reserve. The main overseas role of the USCGR was as crew for landing craft, first in the Mediterranean, then Normandy and latterly in the Pacific. Another story.

Laures Champlin and the 244th Engineers

The US Embassy in London and various organisations in the States have been very helpful in enabling us to find out more about our soldier and his unit. T5 (Corporal) Laures Edwin Champlin came from Jonesville in Concordia Parish on the Mississippi in Louisiana. His family were farmers. He served as a truck driver with the 244th Engineer Combat Battalion and was 18, coming up 19, when he arrived at Avonmouth docks on November 10, 1944. The 244th Engineers were a specialist unit tasked primarily with road repair and construction, an essential role but one that tends not to get much mention in the history books.

18 year old Laures Champlin as a new recruit in the summer of 1944 (photo courtesy of the Champlin family).

At the US Army Military History Institute in Pennsylvania is a 60-page account of the adventures of the 244th Engineers from recruitment to discharge, written by Sergeant Edward Hagerty and some other members of B Company while waiting to return home from France in late 1945 (Laures Champlin was in C Company). In it the larger picture of the war is replaced by an eye-witness account in which food and warmth are as important as anything. The Battalion spent six weeks living in the camp in Sea Mills. Exploring Bristol brought their first experience of the effects of war; coming into the city, they found the blackout difficult and they were shocked by the extent of the damage caused by bombing. Hagerty wrote, ‘As Christmas Day drew near everyone in the Co. decided to give their candy rations to the orphans who lived in an old castle on a hill in Shirehampton (presumably Nazareth House). On the 23rd of Dec. Madden and I took the rations in a big basket up to the children as the Co’s Christmas present to them.’ On their return to camp they were met with the news that the Battalion had been ordered to leave for France the following day. Food for Christmas Day was all ready for preparation but had to be put away as their trucks, supplies and kit were loaded on to rail wagons at Avonmouth Station.

They had to walk to Avonmouth to catch the train – it seems odd now to think of young soldiers going off to war along the picturesque Severn Beach line through the Avon Gorge and under the Clifton Suspension Bridge. At Southampton ‘We pulled into a large freight terminal and once again the Red Cross was prepared for us. We ruined their supply of “coffee and” in nothing flat. We were really hungry and didn’t mind showing it.’

Arriving at Le Havre, minus their trucks and equipment somehow left behind in Avonmouth, the 244th were soon faced with freezing conditions. Short of basic kit they had to improvise cooking facilities and took up fishing and hunting for extra supplies. Once reequipped, they began repairing roads and when laying a minefield in mid-January they had their first confusing experience of hostile shelling. Their biggest achievement came with the Rhine crossing in March, 1945, when they worked under fire to build approach roads on both sides of the Rhine at the Wallace bridging point near Wesel. The Bailey bridge there was claimed to be the largest ever built. Later they briefly saw front line action as infantry before taking part in the crossing of the Elbe in northern Germany at war’s end.

Laures Champlin was awarded the Good Conduct Medal and after the war retrained and joined the US Air Force as a radio repairman. He died in 1972, and his family in Louisiana must have been a little surprised to hear from Bristol. They say that he mentioned getting into trouble for losing his dog-tags but he never knew where he had lost them. They have kindly provided photographs of him – looking very young in his crisp new uniform.

Laures Champlin in 1946. (photo courtesy of the Champlin family)

With thanks to the United States Embassy in London, Philippa Barton, Ben Kent and the Champlin family.

References

Hagerty, Sgt. Edward D., 1946. Old Company “B”. 244th Engineer Combat Battalion. (unpublished manuscript). College Park, MD: US Army Military History Institute/National Archives at College Park.

Kent, Oliver, 1999. ‘Dog-tag clue to forgotten soldier’. Bristol Times. (Bristol Evening Post supplement). Oct 19, 1999, 3.

Sansom, John, (Ed), 2002. Public View. A Profile of The Royal West of England Academy. Bristol: Redcliffe.

Thomas, Ethel, 1989. War Story. Bristol: Ethel Thomas.

Wakefield, K., 1994. Operation Bolero. The Americans in Bristol and the West Country, 1942-45. Crècy Books.

Posted in Archaeology, Architecture, Bristol, Germany, Modernism, Post-Medieval Archaeology, World War 2 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Modernism or Pragmatism. British Utility Ceramics in the 1940s.

A small collection of Utility pottery has turned up during building work on the site of the American Red Cross Club in Bristol. Made between 1943 and 1951, these wares were produced under Government control primarily for military use. Identifying them has drawn attention to the lack of information about them.

US Army personal eating lunch in the American Red Cross Club in Clifton, Bristol in 1944. The main Utility ceramic forms can be seen on the tables. (RWA).

The Government scheme to control and manage industrial production and distribution of essential products is often talked about as if it was solely concerned with furniture and its rationing to those in need. In practice the control of manufacturing was far more extensive, directing all kinds of companies to adapt their production to make military equipment and supplies, redistributing production to minimise the impact of the war on particular industries and managing materials consumption to avoid waste or shortages.

For household and products such as clothing, the Utility scheme went a stage further and controlled the design of things. This was justified as a way of minimising waste of resources by setting out tight guidelines within which objects could be made. How tight those guidelines were varied and the furniture stipulations were the most detailed resulting in an official catalogue of products issued in 1943. Rationing controlled rates of consumption and discouraged hoarding, inflation and abuse.

In 1941-42 the ceramics industry was brought under Government control. Under the Wartime Concentration Scheme potteries were rated nucleus, concentrated or closed down. The higher end manufacturers went on as before but only to produce for export. Starting in 1943, the ‘concentrated’ potteries were given a list of approved Utility shapes to be produced in white or natural clay colour only. No decoration or colour was permitted. It is unclear where the designs came from but the cups for instance are very similar to pre-war hotel wares. Unlike the furniture designs where the specification was precisely controlled, the potters produced their own versions of the shapes and made them using their existing production-lines and clays. The range was basic and the shapes robust and plain. Mugs are cylinders and matching bowls are larger lower cylinders with rounded bases and neat feet. Beakers are crisp inverted cones.

1930’s cheap white pottery ‘for kitchen or nursery.’ The Army and Navy Stores, General Price List, 1939-40.

Designer and critic Gordon Forsyth attacked the Utility designs in the trade journal, the Pottery Gazette in 1943. (McLaren, 2009).

Design writers were initially positive and as with furniture there was a feeling that there was an opportunity to encourage a public appreciation of a practical Modernist aesthetic. As time went on thinking changed and the ceramics industry the designs seeing them as harsh and damaging to the their reputation. In the Pottery Gazette in May 1943, Gordon Forsyth questioned why existing hotelware ranges could not be retained, decrying Utility ‘clogs for handles.’

The examples from Bristol represent a number of manufacturers and vary considerably in quality. They are accompanied by American glassware and metal objects including cutlery and two US forces dog-tags. The Utility marked pieces are all dated 1944 with the exception of two mugs from 1943. It seems likely that the group was deposited in 1946 when the Red Cross Club closed.

Utility plates. Clockwise from top left by row: Grindley; J & G Meakin; Pountney & Co Ltd, Bristol; unidentified; Newhall Pottery; Newhall Pottery; Pountney & Co Ltd, Bristol.

Utility coffee/tea mugs. Clockwise from top left: Nelson Ware, Concentration Group C, Elijah Cotton Ltd; Pountney & Co Ltd, Bristol; unidentified; Alfred Meakin, Concentration Group B.

British NAAFI workers serving tea in a bombed street. 30 standard mugs to a tray. Note the handle slot to allow the tray to be stowed as a drawer in the van. The second box appears to be full of doughnuts. The Imperial War Museum dates this photo to 1941 but the mugs say later. (IWM D2157))

‘Clogs for handles.’ Utility mug-handle variations. Clockwise from top left: Alfred Meakin, 1944; Pountney & Co Ltd, 1943; Nelson Ware, Elijah Cotton, 1944; unidentified, 1943; Pearsons of Chesterfield, 1944.

Despite the negative view of these shapes expressed by the industry in the latter years of the war and their replacement once controls were relaxed with softer more conventional shapes for public consumption, they persisted. The standard chunky-rimmed Utility plate has remained a stock hotelware shape and the square tea/coffee mug is so ubiquitous as to be almost invisible. The public may not have been concerned about modernism but they liked the idea of a generous mug of tea – milk, two sugars.

Appendix: pottery marks on the Utility wares from the Royal West of England Academy/American Red Cross Club, Bristol.

Some Utility mugs were marked to indicate the RAF or the NAAFI but the vast majority of the pottery carried only an official G VI R stamp, a date and the name of the particular manufacturer – they never bore the CC41 mark used on many other Utility artefacts. Under the Concentration Scheme maximum prices were fixed at three levels and wares were required to carry an A, B or C mark to indicate their rating.

Utility marks on plates. Clockwise from top left: 6.5 in side plate, Pountney & Co Ltd; 6.5 in side plate, Grindley; 9 in dinner plates, Newhall Pottery; 6.5 in side plate, J & G Meakin Ltd.

Utility marks on tea/coffee mugs. Clockwise from top left: Nelson Ware, Elijah Cotton Ltd with Concentration Scheme letter C; Pountney & Co Ltd, Bristol; unidentified; Alfred Meakin with impressed Concentration Scheme letter B; Pearsons of Chesterfield.

Utility marks on other shapes. Top: Beaker, A G Richardson & Co Ltd; small basin, Swinnertons Ltd.

References:

Army & Navy Stores Limited. General Price List, 1939-40.

Birks, S., undated. Wartime Concentration Scheme. The ‘A.B.C.’ Pottery Firms. http://www.thepotteries.org/mark/b/ABC.html (accessed 17.02.2019).

McLaren, 1999. ‘Utility forgot: shaping the future of the British pottery industry 1941-45.’ In Attfield, J., 1999. Reassessed: The Role of Ethics in the Practice of Design. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

McLaren, G., 2009. ‘National Identity and the Problem of Style in the Post-War British Ceramic Industry.’ Interpreting Ceramics, 11. http://www.interpretingceramics.com/issue011/articles/02.htm (accessed 19.02.2019).

Posted in Archaeology, Bristol, Modernism, Post-Medieval Archaeology, World War 2 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Newport Medieval Kiln Open to the Public

The impressive medieval pottery kiln at Newport in Pembrokeshire is now fully conserved and open to public view. The kiln is contained within the basement of the Newport Memorial Hall built in 1921. Its survival concealed within the building for a century is a remarkable story of local enthusiasm and the involvement of Mortimer Wheeler. The project to update the hall has allowed the kiln to be conserved and made accessible seven days a week. As part of the interpretation, visitors are treated to an excellent 5-minute film/digital animation showing the workings of the kiln and the pottery.

Arguably the most complete medieval pottery kiln in Britain, after partial excavation in 1921 it was preserved under the Newport Memorial Hall and largely forgotten until 2013. Unusually large for a medieval kiln it dates from the late 1400s/early 1500s and formed part of a regional industry serving South West Wales. The potters made workaday domestic jugs and jars, undecorated and unassuming but nonetheless very well made. Now as fully excavated as possible the kiln is enclosed in an environmentally stable room with a plate glass wall.

The formal public opening was held on Saturday 28 July and attended by several hundred people according to the report in the Western Mail. The kiln was opened by the Mayor of Newport, Alderman John Edwards and David Robinson of the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The day was enlivened by pottery making demonstrations, talks and all manner of entertainments. A great success and hopefully the kiln will be a valued attraction for Newport in the future as well as being an important aspect of regional archaeology and history and the history of British ceramics.

The two pots were found in the 19th-century in Newport Castle. They are similar to those made at the pottery but probably come from another related pottery nearby.

Carmarthen College students have worked with us to design some beautiful reconstruction drawings. This one is based on our laser-survey data and although the precise layout of buildings is hypothetical, the size and proportions have been carefully considered.

For more detail on the history, excavation and interpretation of the site see my earlier posts:

The Newport Medieval Kiln, Pembrokeshire. Feb 2016

(Re) Excavating the Medieval Kiln at Newport, Pembrokeshire. Dec 2016

Finds from the Medieval Kiln-site at Newport, Pembs. Feb 2017

Latest News from the Newport Medieval Kiln. May 2017

Jars and Jugs from the Newport Medieval Kiln excavations. Nov 2017

Funding for the project has come from a range of sources including the Heritage Lottery Fund, Sustainable Development Agency, Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, the Foyle Foundation and the Welsh Government.

Posted in Archaeology, Bickley Ceramics Project, Experimental Archaeology, Kilns and Kiln-building, Medieval pottery, Museums | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Post-War Modern: A Concrete Greenhouse

During the Second World War prefabricated building design and technology developed very rapidly. In Britain manufacturing was tightly controlled and many small companies learned new skills in the process. Hendy Quarry in South Wales was probably one of these and in 1944 turned to developing prefabricated concrete glasshouses.

When we were in Pembrokeshire for the opening of the Newport Medieval Kiln we took time to explore the area around. Amongst other places we visited was Llanerchaeron, an 18th-century house and estate owned by the National Trust. The house itself is interesting but the main emphasis here is on the business of running such a property from the household staff to the large estate farm next door. The extensive kitchen gardens are impressive and being maintained and operated by a team of volunteers. The walled garden nearest the houses has flanking heated walls with flues and fireboxes were designed to grow fruit trees and vines against but also provided the heat source for a range of large glasshouses now mostly in a tumbledown state. Half of one of these had, according to the volunteer we spoke to, been replaced around 1950 with a reinforced concrete version. Time has taken its toll and glassless this too now is deteriorating steadily. I do not suppose its fate is a priority for the National Trust and clearly it does not fit into their 19th-century narrative very well. Nonetheless, a prefabricated reinforced concrete greenhouse seems a rare and intriguing thing and deserving of investigation.

Llanerchaeron, Ceredigion. The crumbling prefabricated concrete glasshouse in the old walled garden.

Reinforced concrete seems such an unlikely material for a glasshouse and the delicacy of the structure is a real surprise. Seeming largely slotted together it looks like a fragile constructional toy. The lack of glass makes it look vulnerable in stark contrast to its former occupant a hearty vine now bursting through at the end nearest the door.

On one end a label identified it as having been made by the Hendy Quarry Company and gives four patent numbers. These were submitted by John Ace Roberts of Barry in 1944/5 and cover the building structure and the detail of the hinges windows and skylights. Patent 594822 is for ‘Improvements to Buildings consisting of a Rigid Framework and Glazing or other Sheet Covering Material Carried thereon.’ The patents were granted in 1947.

Llanerchaeron, Ceredigion. Interior of the prefabricated concrete glasshouse in the walled garden.

The bolted scarf-joint between the frame post and roof beam of the prefabricated glasshouse.

Drawings from the 1944/5 application for Patent 594822. Figure 26 shows the two piece scarf-jointed form of frame. (Espacenet. European Patent Office).

The core of the structure is a series of vertical reinforced concrete posts set in a concrete floor slab and with a roof beam scarf-jointed at an angle. A ridge would form a full building. At Llanerchaeron the top ends of the roof beams are mounted onto the existing garden wall to form a lean-to. Spaced about 9ft apart, the posts and beams are slotted along their sides to take inserted additional precast elements such as solid wall blocks and window frames as seen in the patent drawings. The method is very similar to that used in the Ministry of Works and Planning (MoWP) Standard Hut designed in 1942 itself derived from an earlier hut designed by the British Concrete Federation (BCF) and other experimental designs from the late 1930s.

The frame structure of a Ministry of Works and Planning (MoWP) Standard Hut designed in 1942. (Mallory and Arvid, 1973. p. 188.)

Around 60 different prefabricated building designs were proposed or manufactured in WW2. Lightweight wood and metal structures were useful in mobile or battlefield situations. The advantage of concrete buildings was the relative accessibility of materials and relatively low-tech manufacturing. Against that was the problem of weight and bulk for shipping and the time taken for construction. These buildings became the standard types for projects in the UK and that required a degree of permanence. Airfields, hospitals, military camps and prisoner of war camps were the main results.

The MoWP Hut was particularly practical because it was designed to be adapted to local materials. The frames combined with a concrete sheet roof were supplied from the works. A 6ft spacing between posts could take matching concrete wall-sections but builders were encouraged to use local resources and many were finished in brick – 6ft = 12 bricks. Window frames simply had to fit the 6ft module. The concept derived from the earlier BCF Hut which was designed to utilise standard concrete paving slabs as wall components but hence required a lot more uprights.

A 5-bay MoWP Hut built at the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol in 1944 for the US Army as a shower/latrine block. The walls are finished in brick with wooden window frames. The raised section held a water tank. Normally ten bays long this is actually half a hut!

The Hendy glasshouse uses a frame structure very similar to the MoWP Standard Hut and the long pre-cast wall slab under the windows. The use of these to build a full height wall can be seen in the 1953 advertisement for the Hendy garage version of the building. The only real difference is that the Hendy system uses a 9ft post spacing rather than a 6ft one.

An advertisement for the Hendy Portable Garage. Autocar, March, 1953.

Hendy Quarry Co. sold out to English China Clays in 1955 and there seems to be little information on them. They built sample buildings at agricultural shows in the early 1950s and advertised in the motoring press. Tarmac still operate the quarry itself.

Once you start looking, modular reinforced concrete garages and garden walls from the 1950s and 60s are all over the place. The 1965 Pitch and Pay Park development in Sneyd Park, Bristol features concrete post and slab garden walls for example. Designed by Prebend Jacobsen for Span Developments this estate reflects the leading edge of post-war Modernist suburban estate design. Modular prefabricated concrete components have moved from the experimental and theoretical in the 1930s through a period of rapid development and assimilation during the war to become part of the armoury of modernist architects and designers. Hendy’s were a small part of that, probably looking to capitalise on their new found skills making components during the war. As early as 1944 they had begun planning for peacetime. I rather like the concrete glasshouse as a brutalist’s imagining of a brighter future.

If anyone knows of a more complete example I would love to hear about it. I would like to encourage the National Trust to consider how they might conserve and/or reuse theirs.

For more information on Llanerchaeron, opening times etc see National Trust, Llanerchaeron. It is about 2 miles SE of Aberaeron in Ceredigion, West Wales.

References

Draper, K., L. 2015. Building for War: Examples of Temporary Structures Designed for Wartime Use in Britain (1939-1945). Paper delivered at the 5th International Congress on Construction History.

Espacenet. European Patent Office website. Entries for patents GB594822; GB586218; GB586223 and GB594875.

Mallory, Keith and Ottar, Arvid, 1973. The Architecture of Aggression. A history of military architecture in North West Europe 1900-1945. London: Architectural Press.

Posted in Architecture, Bristol, Modernism, Post-Medieval Archaeology | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment