The kiln in Dunster is the oldest ‘complete’ pottery kiln in Britain and sits alone in the corner of the grounds of Dunster Castle in Somerset. It was built in 1759 and its construction is recorded in detail in the Lutterell family papers. Like the watermill nearer to the house it was designed as a working feature within the naturalistic design of the castle park. The potters, John Mogg and his wife Ruth, would have had to both make and fire pottery and cope with the attentions of the Lutterells’ guests. At the mill, the millers still have the same situation today but nowadays their employer is the National Trust.
Following on from recording the old kiln at the Winchcombe Pottery in Gloucestershire, David Dawson, Bill Stebbing and I have begun laser-scanning the Dunster kiln – Exmoor National Park, the National Trust and the other stakeholders having given their permission. David and I have a long association with the kiln at Dunster having played a significant part in its rediscovery, excavation, conservation, recording and publication.
Figure 1. Laser-scanning the 18th-century pottery kiln at Dunster Castle, Somerset.
Figure 2. The 18th-century pottery kiln at Dunster Castle, Somerset is partially buried by a metre or more of later dumping of construction debris and soil.
We researched and published the pottery, The Pottery House in the Old Park as it was known, in 2007. Read or download pdf from academia.edu. This is a quick summary:
The Dunster Castle park was extensively remodelled by Henry Fownes Lutterell from the 1740s onwards and the pottery was one of a number of features designed to animate it. Lutterell’s agent George Gale kept detailed accounts for each project. In February 1759 Gale advertised in The Western Flying Post for ‘a person that can undertake making and burning all sorts of Coarse Pottery Ware.’ Construction seems to have started under a potter called James Saunders but by August matters are in the hands of John and Ruth Mogg from Bristol. The accounts detail bills for carpentry, lime supplies, masonry, blacksmith’s work, clay, lead ore as well as workshop tools such a sieves and a file. The Moggs had to site-manage – the account notes:
’15 days Work directing & helping to put the house in order to go to Work… By lost time afterwards in directing the Masons about Building the Kiln – and for preparing the clay & making Arches to go round the bottom of the Kiln – and repairing the bottom of the Kiln 3 times.’
The first firing was in November 1759. It obviously went well because the cash book shows steady pot sales from the 13th of the month onwards. There were six further firings between February and October 1760. Things seemed to be going well but by Christmas John Mogg was dead. In January 1761 Ruth was paid £13.10s – their remaining wages plus a gratuity of £1.10s from Mr. Lutterell and was gone. The accounts note further purchases of lead and ‘potter’s wood’ and on June 30th Gale ‘gave John Norris a potter towards his expenses in coming from Crock Street to take the work.’ (Crock Street is in Donyatt in South Somerset. The Norris’s were the largest of the potter families there). There the account stops.
The pottery must always have been fairly impractical. It is on a little knoll up which everything had to be hauled, clay, water, fuel, everything. It was always first and foremost for show. Nonetheless the archaeology suggests it continued in us for some time.
Excavation of the kiln interior revealed that the fireboxes had been blocked in the 1830s or 40s. The floor had been removed and lowered at this time and the flues filled in to make a clay floor. In the flues were fragments of unfired pottery suggesting that at the point of demolition there had been recent activity in the pottery. The estate chose to retain the kiln as a landscape feature whilst demolishing the house and workshop. That and other building work behind resulted in a raising of the ground level burying the lower metre or more of the kiln and making the interior and exterior flush. Eventually forgotten, overgrown with ivy and used as a shed it remained so until its rediscovery in 1989. Now conserved and presented once more as part of the Castle grounds it has come back to life.
Laser-Scanning the Kiln
The images below are screenshots based on our initial scanning data. There is more surveying to do as well as processing so they are far from perfect. Nonetheless they show some great detail. It is possible to see how much of the building is buried and how it is built as a brick structure encased in the thick stone exterior. Inside, the surviving lower courses of the underfloor flues fan out from the two fireboxes, off-centre and irregular. They must be the ‘arches around the bottom of the kiln’ that the Moggs had to repair several times. If you look carefully you can see that the flue leading from the top side of the left firebox has melted and is blocked. There is more damage in the centre. The height of the firebox gives an idea of where the floor would originally have been. Both have ledges for fire-bars and project a long way into the kiln.
Figure 3. The 18th-century pottery kiln at Dunster Castle, Somerset. Screenshot from the initial laser-scan data showing the front elevation. Copyright Scan to PLAN.Figure 4. The 18th-century pottery kiln at Dunster Castle, Somerset. Screenshot from the initial laser-scan data. Cross-section through the doorway, showing the western firebox and the remains of the flue structure. Copyright Scan to PLAN.Figure 5. The 18th-century pottery kiln at Dunster Castle, Somerset. Screenshot from the initial laser-scan data. East-west cross-section. Copyright Scan to PLAN.
Figure 6. The 18th-century pottery kiln at Dunster Castle, Somerset. Screenshot from the initial laser-scan data. Plan view of fireboxes and flue structure. Copyright: Scan to PLAN.
Why get so excited about an old kiln? It is surprising how poorly documented the development of pottery technology is. Basic questions about fuels, fireboxes, chimneys and kiln furniture can be a challenge to answer. Kiln design, by which I mean building an innovative structure with a particular aim in mind as opposed to working within a convention or tradition, might be said to emerge in the late 17th century. This kiln has ledges for fire-bars, a conical brick chimney, a flue structure directing heat into the centre of the floor. These are aspects of innovation – not necessarily at Dunster literally but in the context of the pottery industry in the mid 18th century. It is securely dated and many of the people who built it can be identified. It is a small window but it is very exciting!
David Dawson and Oliver Kent, 2007. ‘‘Animated Prospect,’- An 18th-century Kiln at ‘the Pottery House in the Old Park, Dunster, Somerset,’ in J. Finch and K. Giles, (eds), 2007. Estate Landscapes. Design, Improvement and Power in the Post-Medieval Landscape. Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology Monograph 4. Woodbridge: SPMA/Boydell and Brewer, 95-112. Read or download pdf from academia.edu.
David Dawson and Oliver Kent, 2008, ‘The development of the bottle kiln in pottery manufacture in Britain.’ Post-Medieval Archaeology, 42/1, 201-226. Read or download pdf from academia.edu.
For more on laser-scanning at the Winchcombe Pottery in Gloucestershire, see my blog post from April 2017 Laser-Scanning the Old Winchcombe Pottery Kiln.
All photos copyright Oliver Kent, 2018. The laser-scanned images are copyright Bill Stebbing/Scan to PLAN, 2018.
Updated 6 Aug 2018.