Richard Bateson lived an interesting and unique life during the 20th century. Despite starting off as a child laborer at age 13 in a pottery in Burton, Yorkshire, UK, he ended up teaching some of the future stars of the ceramic world at the Royal College of Art, Central College of Arts and Crafts (now Central Saint Martins—University of the Arts London), and Wimbledon College of Art.
Burton-in-Lonsdale in North Yorkshire has a long history of making pottery that stretches back until at least the 1700s. Sixteen potteries in total took advantage of the open-cast clay and coal mines along the banks of the River Greta that flows through Burton. Slip decorated country pottery wares were made for the local farming communities. Around the 1840s, stoneware pots began to be produced and the potteries experienced a large demand for stoneware bottles and jars for holding liquids from alcohol and fizzy pop to chemicals, pickles, jams, and inks.
Richard Bateson came from a long lineage of Burton potters. He began work at his father’s pottery, Waterside Pottery, in Burton at the age of 13 in 1907 and rapidly progressed to becoming one of the main throwers there. Prior to the First World War, Waterside Pottery employed approximately 30 workers with just two main throwers. This workforce managed to dig, process, throw, decorate, glaze, and fire between 12 and 18 tons of clay per week, while also shoveling 24 to 36 tons of coal into the kilns.
Waterside Pottery’s main product was the stoneware bottle in sizes ranging from a half pint all the way up to six gallons. When Bateson was learning to throw, he slowly worked his way up the bottle sizes, until at the age of 17 he could produce the full range. The six-gallon bottle was a real beast of a pot. The clay required to make one weighed 66 pounds. When Bateson was throwing a six-gallon bottle, his whole arm would disappear into the pot, with the rim brushing against his armpit. It took two people to lift a six-gallon bottle off the wheel.
Waterside Pottery’s reliance on the stoneware bottle ultimately led to its decline during the 1920s and its closure in 1933. Customers began to prefer glass bottles, which became cheaper to produce and had the obvious added advantage that their contents are visible.
Beginning Bridge End Pottery
When Bateson was forced out of work by the closure of Waterside Pottery, he took a very brave decision and set up a pottery of his own, Bridge End Pottery in Burton. He produced a full range of earthenware pots with slip decoration. These included various sized plant pots, jugs, mixing bowls, posy rings (floating ring vases), drinking mugs, teapots, and vases. These pots really moved away from the more traditional country pottery wares and had a very modern feel to them, especially in terms of their forms. Bateson had no choice but to use earthenware clay, as he had no access to any stoneware clay at Bridge End Pottery. During this period, Bateson only employed a young assistant to help him. On days when it was considered not worth powering up the steam engine, one of the jobs required of these assistants was to manually power a throwing wheel via a small crank situated low down at the front of the wheel. This was not one of the favorite jobs. When John Bateson (Richard’s son) was a child, he avoided playing near the pottery, in case his dad pulled him into the pottery to crank the wheel.
In 1937, Bateson was invited by the Council of Art and Industry to display his work and represent Britain in the International Exposition of Art and Technology in Modern Life exhibition in Paris, France. This was a prestigious event, attended by all major European countries and was quite an achievement for Bateson. I’m sure it generated interest and orders for his work, as well as giving him certain recognition.
Expansion and Demand
In 1939, Bateson decided to expand his pottery. This was due to an increased demand countrywide for planters and the fact that a long-time customer of Bateson’s was prepared to invest money into the venture. A larger pottery was required, so Bateson rented Waterside Pottery. He employed ten former Waterside Pottery workers.
At first, business went well and orders came in thick and fast; there were even some large orders for stoneware bottles from Stevens Inks; proving the bottle market was not quite dead. However the economic slowdown caused by a country at war slowly began to take effect and demand for pots started to fall. The pottery did pick up some good orders for Dig for Victory plant pots as a result of the British government’s campaign for people to grow their own food; however, this wasn’t enough. Waterside Pottery limped through the War years and sadly was declared bankrupt in 1944. It was the last of the sixteen potteries of Burton, and Bateson was the very last potter.
The story of the Burton potteries would perhaps have ended there, if it wasn’t for a twist of fate caused by the winds of the war, which threw out an unexpected lifeline. Rewind 4 years and the Royal College of Art (RCA) was evacuated to Ambleside due to German bombing raids on London. With no kilns or wheels in Ambleside, the RCA looked for nearby potteries that would fire students’ work and offer some work experience. They found Bateson’s pottery in Burton and arrangements were made to facilitate this. RCA students became regular visitors to the pottery for the rest of the war. During the students’ work experience, Bateson spent time teaching them how to throw pots on the wheel and he must have made a very favorable impression upon the RCA tutors, because after the war was over and the RCA had moved back to London, they contacted Bateson and offered him a job teaching throwing. Bateson accepted this invitation and so, in his early 50s, embarked on a new career as a pottery teacher at the RCA in London. His reputation as a good throwing teacher rapidly spread and he also ended up teaching at Central College of Arts and Crafts and Wimbledon College of Art.
Studio pottery came of age after the Second World War, helped along the way by Bernard Leach’s A Potter’s Book. Bateson went on to teach a substantial number of these emerging studio potters. These include potters like Dan Arbeid, Ian Auld, Gordon Baldwin, Alan Caiger-Smith, George Frederick Cook, Derek Davis, Ruth Duckworth, and David Frith to name but a few. Frith remembers, “Richard didn’t like Bernard Leach’s pots, because all Leach’s pots had a wobble and Richard’s never did.” And so the traditions of the Burton pottery industry did not die, they were passed on to a new generation of potters. Bateson had spent a lot of his life making hand-thrown pottery look industrially made. He was now encouraged to teach how to make handmade pottery look handmade.
The author Lee Cartledge, together with his mother Kathy Cartledge, runs Bentham Pottery. Kathy established the pottery in 1976, completely unaware of its proximity to the former Burton pottery industry located just half a mile away.
This changed a year later when an elderly gentleman hobbled into the pottery and asked if he could throw a pot. Kathy humored him by saying yes. This 83-year-old man was Bateson and, from his very first throw, Kathy could see she was watching a master craftsman at work and was amazed by his skill. Bateson became a regular visitor to Bentham Pottery and taught Kathy a whole range of new techniques that improved the way she made her pots. She in turn, taught these skills to Lee, who taught them not only to his son, but to people who have come from all over the UK and beyond to take pottery courses. In this way, the last potter of Black Burton ensured that the Burton throwing skills, honed over centuries, were kept in the locality.
The author’s book on Richard Bateson (available on Amazon at https://amzn.to/2VVHDzL), owes a lot to the generous help provided by Bateson’s grandson, Mark McKergow, in giving access to treasured family memorabilia and organizing the publication.
the author Lee Cartledge has a degree in ceramics and glass from the University of Sunderland. Along with Kathy Cartledge, he runs Bentham Pottery near Burton-in-Lonsdale, Yorkshire, UK. He is a second-generation production thrower who produces domestic stoneware and one-offs. He attracted controversy for his novel Brexit mug, which was exhibited widely including in the Victoria and Albert Museum. To learn more, visit www.benthampottery.com.