POOLE POTTERY: A Microcosm of England’s History

Group of Poole Pottery 1950s 'Contemporary' and 'Freeform' vases - photo by John Clark | Flickr

The story of Poole Pottery is a microcosm of the history of England during the last 120 years. It also follows the pattern that many potteries took – upturns to their fortunes and then falling demand as the patterns of life changed. All this is mirrored in the story of Poole Pottery. And, of course, the effect of two World Wars.

Poole Pottery shop – photo by Poole Quay

The pottery produced is full of vibrant colour – deep reds and many shades of blue together with lively designs. Each piece is unique which must be partly due to the fact that the individual artist was actively encouraged to vary and change the overall designs as they worked. And perhaps the lively and happy nature of the workplace is reflected in the finished products.

In 1912, Poole Pottery became part of Burgess & Leigh Ltd, in Stoke-on-Trent. This is a small group of traditional British companies. Here, the artist’s unique craft is maintained. They are tenants of Middleport Pottery, thus have a good working environment to produce the high-quality goods that customers expect.


Like many potteries, the rise and fall of Poole Pottery follows a pattern. Nowhere does this more closely reflect the times than here. And like many other potteries, it was very much a family business.

The start, the expansion, the war years, then changing styles and demands and finally the closure. It seems to be a common pattern in this industry.

1873 – the start

An important panel of tiles with lustre glazes, formerly set into a wall at the East Quay works – photo by The Virtual Museum of Poole Pottery

It all started in 1873 when Jesse Carter bought the East Quay works. Ten years later, demand for the products was increasing and his Carter’s Red tiles floor tiles were joined by painted and glazed wall tiles.

And as the family business grew, so his sons helped out and later his grandson took the helm. They bought extra workspace in Hamworthy in 1895. The staff was joined by renowned artists and designers like Edwin Turner and James Radley Young.

Demand was rising for such items as the 1912 white and cream wall tiles so further sites were bought for further expansion.

And then came WW1

Simple practical items were now in demand, though they continued to make new designs and patterns, to the extent that once the painters had the basic design from Radley Young, they were actively encouraged to create their own patterns.

Art Deco Poole Pottery with Truda Carter patterns dating from the late 1920’s and early 1930’s – photo by Wikipedia

After the war, people relished the new styles and bright patterns and paintwork.

In 1921, Cyril Carter, grandson of Jesse joined with John Adams and Harold Stabler and the guidelines were issued to maintain a high standard of craftsmanship. Almost all the pieces were to be hand thrown. They wanted to be differentiated from the standard commercial ware and stay unique.

The company won medals and a diploma of honour from the international exhibition of Modern Decorative and Industrial Design Art in Paris in 1925.

But in 1930, changing lifestyles influence the type of product required. More tableware and more modern designs were introduced. Trudy Carter, then a key designer, drew her inspiration from abstract art.

And then came WW2

1950s Poole Pottery ‘Harlequin’ Vase – photo by Retrotrace Vintage | Pinterest

The commercial situation was looking good – when the outbreak of WW2 disrupted the process and once again, cheap, utility tableware plain and undecorated had to take the lead role.

After WW2, the company rebuilt the factory in Poole and modernised it. And ware was painted again. Bright colours and flowing styles appeared. Further modernisation took place and in the 1950s a range of elegant and stylish items was produced.

In the 1960s, further technologies and styles were introduced. Printing and silkscreen transfers were increasingly used.

It wasn’t until 1963 that “Poole Pottery Ltd” became the official title. Following that, they merged with Pilkinton’s just 2 years later. It was then that the Delhi Design surprised people with its popularity, becoming an important aspect of the pottery’s output right up until 1980.

The Centenary

Vintage Delphis Charger by Cynthia Bennett for Poole Pottery, 1970s – photo by Pamono

In 1973, when they celebrated their centenary, the company was doing well. Increased demand led to an increase in the workspace and they employed about 280 people. This was then one of Pooles biggest employers, especially of women. In 1979, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh visited the factory.

Progress continued, more informal styles replaced earlier models and then, in 1992, there was management buyout.

By the mid-80s, the pottery was in decline, as so many porters were at this time, and the original factory was demolished. And then, in 2006, came the closure – abrupt and shocking.

The Closure

Poole Pottery closed abruptly and without warning. Both employees and the local community of Poole were shocked. Almost every one of the 80 employed lost their jobs.

There was a short staff meeting and then workers had just 5 minutes to collect their belongings and leave the premises. It so happened that Alan White was on holiday at the time. He returned to find the factory closed and himself locked out (however, he was one of the handful of people transferred to Stoke-on-Trent, to train the potters there).

Poole Pottery closing down sale – photo by TripAdvisor

Work was transferred to Stoke -on- Trent in the potteries area under the auspices of Burgess & Leigh Ltd and now, the items are manufactured in Middleport Pottery. They continue to keep to strict guidelines so that customers receive high-quality goods.

However, the people of Poole clung onto tradition and a purpose-built studio was erected on the Quay where some of the Poole Potters still work and this has become an integral part of the local community.

But Janet, you’re a woman!

The women tended to work as throwers, painters, shop assistants and in administration. The men tended to undertake the heavy work – and, of course, the management.

Poole pottery employed many local talents, especially women, and the factory was said to be a very pleasant place to work. They had a lot of fun with music and laughter. Apparently, they used to play tricks on newcomers, like asking them to pick up a teapot – and when they reached for it, they would pull it down with small rope – causing the recruit to think that they had broken it. And if you became unwell, there was a sick room and attendant to care for you.

Janet Parker-Laird

Janet Parker Laird working in her garden studio – photo by Janet Parker Laird

Janet was determined from an early age to work as a potter after a school visit by one of the Poole potters artists. She studied Art part-time at Bournemouth and Poole College, built up a portfolio and obtained a job as a painter in the new and modern Delphis studio. She helped form a new glazing process and those pieces still fetch good prices for the collector.

But there was a huge gender pay differential. When Janet Parker-Laird queried this with her boss he exclaimed: “But Janet, you’re a woman!” And went on to explain that she wouldn’t have a family to support as a man would (tho’ she was single at the time). Apparently, one man who had four workings under him took home £40 a week while Janet, who had sixteen workings under her direction had a measly £11.50. Many of the women left to get married – including Janet, but she still kept up contact with the studio and continued to take on commissions for Poole Pottery collectors.

Poole Pottery Persian Deer pattern plate by Ruth Paveley – photo by Ewbank’s Auctions | Lot 95

Ruth Pavely was another prominent woman who worked at Poole pottery in the 1930s – she became head of painting, and was perhaps preeminent in the field. Her pieces fetch good prices today.

Many of the women appear to have had short careers at Poole Pottery, mostly because, once married, there were transport difficulties as well as the prevailing attitude that a man’s work was more important.

Alan White

Alan White was another worker who has made a significant contribution to the company’s work. He had a somewhat difficult childhood. One of eight children, he discovered a passion for pottery at school (where the boys were allowed into the girls’ part for pottery lessons). He joined the pottery in 1966 and soon worked his way up to becoming the throwers’ supervisor, then the craft center’s supervisor and later into upper management.

An Alan White Poole Pottery Carp dish – photo by The Saleroom

Although Alan was rather a shy man, people came to watch him at work – and you can see a clip here, on Facebook. I was transfixed waiting for the pot to overlap the diameter of the wheel and possibly collapse. It used 2.5kg of clay and had a diameter of 44cm. In fact, the Facebook page for Pool Pottery has plenty of pictures and other short videos.

Alan even appeared on television, gaining an audience of 20 million on the night he played in the generation game.

He was asked to transfer to Stoke-on-Trent to train other potters, but he made his way back to Poole when the new studio on the Quay opened up.

Guy Sydenham (1916 – 2005)

A large Poole Pottery Atlantis carved squat circular vase by Guy Sydenham – photo by The Saleroom

Guy started as an apprentice in 1931 and finally resigned in 1977. He lived in a boat moored at Long Island in Poole harbour, rowing to work – weather permitting. He had his own potter’s wheel and kiln on the island, and here, he undertook commissions. From 1960, he was head of the making department and also a lecturer at Poole College of Art, where he had himself once been a student. He helped develop the popular Delphis range in 1963, together with Robert Jefferson.

A Pinging Sound from the Pot

Sometimes the pots make a “pinging” noise. This can happen when the glaze contracts more than the body of the piece when it is cooling down after firing. This causes the glaze to crack and an occasional pinging noise may occur even later. Although the glaze could be changed to reduce the crazing, the resulting colour would be less clear and vibrant.

Collector’s Items and Fakes

The three ‘dolphin’ marks most commonly found on 1950’s Poole – photo by The Virtual Museum of Poole Pottery

There are many pieces up for sale on eBay and other reputable sites – but there is always the possibility of fakes.

The POOLE ENGLAND is a registered factory trademark, but you will find many fakes added to their items. Usually, the fakes are of inferior quality with spur marks showing and crazing perhaps deliberately caused by mismatching the glaze and the body of the piece. They sometimes also try to add authenticity by artificial aging, staining the cracks in the glazed black.

Because many artists only worked for limited periods, you can date the ware by their marks. Also in 1934, the pottery changed from the local red clay as the pits became used up to white earthenware. Where the mark has been incised, you can see either a pink slip or the later white slip to give some idea of the age of the piece.

You can find pictures of fake marks here at the Virtual Museum. You can also see some lovely pictures of genuine Poole pottery pieces.

So What Can You Find?

Guy Sydenham Poole Pottery Delphis Range Stickstand – photo by James Miles Ltd

To give you some idea as to what is available at present, on eBay, there is a Stick-stand signed by Guy Sydenham from the Poole Pottery Delphis Range. It is described as very rare and costs £ 330 (594.39 AUD).

And then, there is the large ship plate from 1934. This was drawn by Arthur Bradbury and painted by Ruth Pavely – a great combination of talent. It has the marks on the base and the price is set at £ (744.49 AUD).

At the other end of the scale, you could pick up a blue “mouse eating a strawberry” for just £2.99 (5.39 AUD).

Final Thoughts

Poole Pottery offers brilliant colours and flowing patterns. It also reflects the attitudes and the history of the times. Like many potteries, it has suffered from takeovers, merges, and economic problems. It is good to know that the fine quality of work continues up in Stoke-on-Trent and that you can find both new and old pieces of Poole Pottery to enjoy or add to your collections.