To the present-day visitor the location of Buckley appears to be somewhat removed from today's centres of high industrial activity. It is in a rural position away from any major routes, alongside the Dee estuary. In the 17th century the situation was very different, when the principal means of transport was by water. The River Dee was a major outlet for the port of Chester. The route through the Irish Sea brought in new technologies and wares from the developing post-medieval production centres in Europe and in Britain and exported products from north-west Britain.
The finds of French and Low Countries ceramics around Britain shows that there was contact between the potting centres. Designs and vessel forms from British sites have remarkable similarities to the European wares. The technology and design ideas reached Britain from Europe and were integrated into those local production centres which had continued from the medieval period, for instance in north Devon, Somerset and north Wales. Other centres began slipware production as a direct result of contact with the continent, for instance in Essex, to develop a market opportunity. Common themes used on the vessels include flowers, leaves and geometric motifs.
In Buckley itself there are a number of indications of links to other production centres. The earliest evidence of any contact is a single sherd of Beauvais sgraffito, dated to the 16th century, which was found near the medieval site of Ewloe, only 250m north west of the major 17th-century site at Brookhill. The evidence from the clay tobacco pipes shows that there was a direct influence from the pottery area of Broseley in Shropshire from c. 1690-1720 (Higgins 1983, 61) when Broseley-type moulds were in use at the Brookhill site. Moulds used at the Pinfold Lane site for the production of press-moulded slipware are closely related to those found at Stoke (Davey 1987, 99). Documentary sources in the midlate 18th century show that potters migrated to Buckley from other production areas and set themselves up as master potters on vacant tenancies or encroachments. Those that did not establish their own pottery often married into existing potting families. The centres they moved from included Prescot in south Lancashire and Burslem in Staffordshire (Messham 1956, 41).
The major production centres in the northern half of Britain Staffordshire, north Wales, Ironbridge, south Lancashire and West Yorkshire developed as a result of their geological locations. The raw materials for the industry, clay, coal and water, were all immediately available. The wares that they produced have broadly similar fabrics, since the boulder clay used in their production was laid down in a series of geological events in the Ice Ages and could therefore come from a related source. The vessel forms are also similar, for instance the mottled wares and black glazed wares produced at Pinfold Lane, Buckley, relate closely to the same wares produced in Prescot, south Lancashire and in Staffordshire (Davey 1987, 98).
What makes Buckley different is its early sgraffito. Why was it produced in Buckley but not in the nearby centres of south Lancashire or Staffordshire?
The coastal trade brought in sgraffito wares from Somerset and Devon. At this date, Chester was a more important port than Liverpool and Chester had a thriving market. Potters from Buckley could have seen sgraffito wares in Chester. Excavation evidence from Merseyside has produced only one example of imported sgraffito ware from Devon (Davey 1991, 136), a north Devon sgraffito dish found at Sefton Old Hall (Fig. 24). The excavation of South Castle Street market area (Liverpool) produced no sgraffito vessels, but there were examples of north Devon gravel-tempered ware (Davey 1985a, 84). Gravel-tempered ware, being undecorated, would have been used as storage vessels like the black glazed pieces produced in south Lancashire and Buckley. It possibly contained commodities for trade in Liverpool. The majority of decorated vessels are not used for storage but rather for use on the table. This is certainly the case in Buckley where all the decorated vessels are dishes. It is, therefore, not clear why gravel-tempered ware should be available but not sgraffito ware, as they have different functions. Perhaps the north Devon sgraffito ware was only available at the luxury end of the market, hence its appearance at Sefton Old Hall. It had a major market in North America, so only stray pieces may have been left in Liverpool.
Buckley could have received influences via the maritime connections of the port of Chester. Stoke, on the other hand, was well inland and dependent on overland trade. The early sgraffito wares from the south could not have reached there so easily.
South Lancashire was within reach of the port of Liverpool and the wares from the potteries of the region were exported through there. It has been established that pottery from north Devon reached Liverpool, as shown by the finds of north Devon gravel-tempered ware. Sgraffito ware could also have been imported through Liverpool but the only evidence at present is the one vessel found at Sefton Old Hall. There is no evidence of sgraffito manufacture in any of the south Lancashire potteries. These potteries were in rural Lancashire and grew up as a cottage industry where the tenant farmers were supplying a local market. They had no time to experiment with new ideas. They had to struggle hard to make a living from the joint activities of farming and potting.
The situation in Buckley was very different. The sites of the potteries were on encroachments around the edge of the common, close to the source of the clay. It has not been possible to consult probate inventories to confirm the occupation of these people. However, the land on Buckley Common is marginal in an agricultural sense and is unlikely to have supported any farming activity. If it is assumed that the main activity was potting, they would have had the time to be innovative. They were open to extensive outside influences and obviously delighted in trying out any new ideas. Moulds for press-moulded ware found at Brookhill are different from other production sites and appear to be experimental in that they are not the same as the standard press-moulded types found at Stoke and at Pinfold Lane in Buckley (Amery and Davey 1979, 59). The evidence shows that sgraffito ware was only one of many different designs and vessel forms which were produced on Buckley Mountain in the mid-17th century.
Excavation groups from sites in the north west have been studied and, so far, no Buckley sgraffito pieces have turned up. Prescot research suggests that the River Mersey appears to act as a cultural barrier. It is noted that a particular type of pottery made in Buckley was found in Wirral, but so far has not been retrieved on any sites north of the Mersey (Davey 1991, 136). This cultural divide may explain why no Buckley sgraffito has been found north of the Mersey, but it does not explain why it has not been found nearer to Buckley.
The results of this research show that the production period of sgraffito was very short, 1640-1680 being the peak period with a tailing off up to 1720. It was not the only ware produced at the site, but one of an extremely wide range of coarse and finewares for use in the kitchen and on the table. Out of a total of 200 boxes of pottery from the Brookhill site, only three boxes contain sgraffito sherds. Why such a small quantity over such a short production period? It has only been found in ten kilns at the Brookhill site. It is impossible to understand the reason for this. It may all have been experimental by a few potters, alongside their main products. Perhaps some pieces were made to order; the bestiary pieces, for example, given their extremely short production period, may have been made by one potter for a particular customer.
North Devon sgraffito was widely exported and was in production throughout the 17th century. Any rival would need to have a strong sales network and a superior product to have any chance of competing in the market place. One cannot tell, at this distance in time, what qualities a potential purchaser required in a product such as a sgraffito-decorated dish. The Buckley pieces have an appeal of their own, in that the designs are unique to each pot and, if made today, would be called 'art pottery'. The north Devon vessels, although artistic in their designs, also have the appearance of being mass-produced in that they are very uniform in their finish and style of motifs.
No Buckley sgraffito pieces have come to light anywhere, either in excavation groups or in collections. The trade across the Atlantic to the eastern states of North America was very strong in the 17th century. Excavated groups have been examined in Virginia, Maryland and Delaware. There are numerous pieces of black glazed wares, which are impossible to provenance, but which could possibly include vessels from Buckley. However, there are no Buckley sgraffito sherds although north Devon sgraffito ware is widely distributed.
There is another aspect to consider. The sgraffito from Buckley is not widely known. Archaeologists and museum curators may not recognise pieces in their collections as being from Buckley. North Devon sgraffito is recognised and is not likely to be confused with Buckley wares. It is hoped that publication of this research will lead to a greater awareness among archaeologists of Buckley sgraffito. In time, it should be possible to establish the extent of its export, if any, and to map its distribution.
The transmission of designs and techniques could be further explored by studying the slipware and sgraffito vessels on all Buckley production sites of comparable dates with other production centres. The initial examination of comparative material could be expanded to determine other mechanisms for the transmission of ideas and documentary research would reveal evidence of the movement of potters around the country.
A study of collections reputed to have 'Buckley' ware would reveal if any Buckley slipware and/or sgraffito is included. This would help to determine the distribution of early Buckley wares. The sites around the Irish Sea, Welsh coast and along the eastern coast of the USA are likely to provide some evidence.
There are other Buckley wares which are important in the development of slipwares in the 17th century. Pieces which should be considered for further research include slipware figurines, moulds and press-moulded wares and early slipwares. A comparison with wares from the nearby centres of Rainford in south Lancashire, Broseley/Ironbridge in Shropshire and Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire, in production at approximately the same date as Buckley, would establish the relationship, if any, between these regions.
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Last updated: Wed Mar 24 2004