Friday, May 22, 2009

Potters of the Gathering

Great Grandfather -- Bedson Eardley

My great grandfather was one of the first pioneer potters in the the state of Utah and he is finally getting the recognition he deserves. An exhibition which has been ten years in the making, opened recently at the Iron Mission State Park Museum in Cedar City. Of course, other pioneer potters works are featured as well, but the Eardley pottery plays an important part.

One man, an antiques' dealer, has snapped up all surviving Eardley pots available and for the first time he is loaning them to this historic exhibit. Tim Scarlett, an assistant professor at Michigan Tech, has been studying the early Utah potters and their wares for ten years. His study includes archaeological digs, mapping and reconstructions.

I've been involved only on the periphery as a descendant and as the author/compiler of the Eardley family history. I do not own a piece of Eardley pottery and have only viewed pieces in museums, so I'm excited to see a large number of pieces together. I do own Bedson's pottery ledgers (circa 1864-1892) and have loaned them to the museum as part of the exhibition.

Read more about the exhibition on Michigan Tech web site and about
Iron Mission State Park Museum where the pottery exhibition is now on display.

Eardley Pottery in Potters of the Gathering
Listen to the radio report about the exhibition on

The history of my Eardley ancestors began in an area of Staffordshire, England known as “the Potteries” in and around Stoke upon Trent. By virtue of their place of birth, the Eardleys were potters by profession. Although Bedson Eardley was not born in “the Potteries,” his father and grandfather were and Bedson spent much of his youth as a pottery apprentice in that area.

The Staffordshire potteries, in the Midlands of England, has a more distinctive heritage than many of the better known parts of Britain. It is here that a skilled and industrious workforce, located in an isolated rural backwater and, often with wretched working conditions and simple tools, made objects of great beauty which won a worldwide reputation.

During the 17th century, the community of potters working around Burslem began using coal as a fuel in their kilns and this appears to have given them an economic advantage over other rural workshops still dependent on diminishing supplies of timber. Coal was abundantly available throughout the area known as the Staffordshire Potteries.

The slender supply of ivory clay was soon consumed, but the red firing “Etruria Marl” still occurs in abundance. From the late medieval period Burslem potters are known to have supplied Midland markets with simple butter pots and other domestic wares. There competitive prices were noted as far away as Nottingham. By 1710 Burslem had become a prominent pottery center, probably the largest in Great Britain, and had acquired a name.

When one thinks of the famous Staffordshire potteries, the names Wedgwood, Spode, and Royal Doulton immediately come to mind. The beautiful porcelains and fine bone china are still in production and are owned by royalty throughout Europe.

Perhaps one of the most famous names to emerge from the Staffordshire Potteries is Wedgwood. Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795), often described as the “Father of English Potters,” apprenticed under Thomas Whieldon and later became his partner. Wedgwood was instrumental in introducing a new species of earthenware–with a firm and durable body, covered with a rich and brilliant glaze which bore sudden vicissitudes of cold and heat without breakage.

The ware was manufactured with ease and sold cheaply and because it so pleased the Queen, it was known as “Queen’s Ware.” His experiments are credited with the invention of several other species of earthenware and porcelain, namely: Terra Cotta, Basaltes or Black Ware, White Porcelain Biscuit and Jasper. Wedgwood combined art with industry and was acclaimed as an artist, scientist, inventor, progressive manufacturer and humanist.

With so many pottery workers turning away from the traditional Anglican church, it is little wonder that the LDS missionaries had such good success in the area during the 1840s. The Mormons not only preached of a more positive after-life in which everyone would be reunited with their loved ones, but they also told of a better earthly life in America in their “Zion.” Four Eardley brothers heard the word, were baptized and cast their lot with other Mormon immigrants. Utah needed potters and the Eardleys needed opportuntity, so they eft behind the rapidly blackening skies of Staffordshire, England.

In 1710 there were around 500 people employed in pottery manufacture. In the Burslem area alone, by 1760 this had risen to 150 manufactories employing 7,000 people. And by 1785 15,000 people across the area were working in the Potteries.

Swadlincote, where my great grandfather Bedson was born, was a small south Derbyshire village noted for coal mining, pottery making and metal working. Bedson’s father had moved there from “the Potteries” in Staffordshire in order to secure a better standard of living for his family and better working conditions for himself. The "Potteries" were becoming densely populated and extremely polluted with smoke and soot from the ever increasing number of “potbanks” or factories.

Seven months after Bedson's mother, Elizabeth, died in 1839, his father, Edward, died in Swadlincote of “consumption” at age forty-five on March 5, 1840. His illness, tuberculosis, was caused or worsened from breathing pottery and coal dust. Sons William, age sixteen, John, fourteen, James, ten and Bedson, not yet eight, were left orphans. They returned to Stoke upon Trent, because apprenticeships in the potteries were more readily available.

Industrial disease was prevalent in the Potteries and mortality rates were high. The main problem, diagnosed at an early date, was lead poisoning since lead was used in the glazing process.

The next serious health risk endured by potters was pneumoconiosis caused by inhaling flint dust particles, often with fatal damage to the lungs. It was a lingering illness, which took many decades to diagnose and control. It is likely that many small master potters could not afford improved buildings, sanitary arrangements, welfare, ventilation or supervision for their workers. It will probably never be known, or completely understood, what part the deplorable pottery conditions played in the early deaths of Edward and his wife Elizabeth Eardley.

Much of our heritage is determined or greatly influenced by the occupations of the fathers.

What occupations shaped or altered your ancestral families? How does you's or your husband's occupation effect the life-style of your present day family?


Judith Richards Shubert said...

What a wonderful post. Being a lover of pottery and glass, I was fascinated by your great-grandfather and his life in the Potteries of Staffordshire. What a great legacy he has left you and his other descendants. Oh, I wish you had some of his pottery. I really do.

Olive's Granddaughter said...

Judith, Oh how I'd love to have a piece of the pottery. Like I said, one man hogged it all. Do I sound bitter?

Timothy James Scarlett said...

What a great post! I hope that everyone will be able to come to Cedar City and see the exhibit, as well as visit our archaeology dig at the site of Thomas and Sarah Davenport's pottery in Parowan, Utah.

The Davenports were friends of the Eardleys as they all worked in the area of Brampton in the English midlands. The exhibit includes lots of artifacts and antiques related to the Eardleys and the Davenports. The exhibit will be open until July 31st, but we have to end the dig on June 26th, some come down and see us soon!

Everybody can see pictures of the dig at our blog, including the pictures of the first kiln we've discovered and begun excavating!

Travelin'Oma said...

This is so interesting. My great-grandfather was a finish carpenter and also made violins. This post has inspired me. I need to find out more about what my ancestors did.