Potteries in Rye

Adapted from an article by David Sharp

There have always been Potters in Rye and some examples of medieval Rye pottery can be seen in the Ypres Tower. (More recent examples are displayed at the East Street site.) Potters were again active in Rye during the eighteenth century and a brick works and pottery existed at Cadborough Farm, just west of Rye on the road to Udimore. The farm belonged to a Jeremiah Smith who was a hop grower as well as Mayor of Rye seven times. It was Jeremiah Smith who gave a William Mitchell the responsibility of managing the Smith’s Pottery at Cadborough. This was the beginning of what was to become Rye Pottery, one of the many potteries operating in Rye over the years.

Rye Pottery

William Mitchell was in charge of Cadborough Pottery by 1834 and by 1840 he seems to have bought the pottery business from Jeremiah Smith. Mitchell was helped in the Pottery by his two sons, Henry and Frederick. By 1850 Frederick, together with William Watson, began to experiment with applied decoration which later became a feature of the firm. In 1867 the Mitchell brothers and William Watson won third class certificates at Hastings and St.Leonards Industrial Exhibition. In the following year Frederick Mitchell bought the land for Bellevue Pottery in Ferry Road and it opened for business in 1869. Frederick’s pottery was either rather rustic in style or decorated with hop patterns. The latter became extremely popular.

Frederick died in 1875 but his widow, Caroline, with help from William Watson, continued the business for the next twenty-one years. Caroline used to produce copies of more famous designs and was well known for small items or knick knacks. The products of the pottery were known as Sussex Rustic Ware from the Rye Pottery. In 1882 Caroline asked Frederick’s nephew, another Frederick, to join the firm. He took over the pottery when Caroline died in 1896. This Frederick Mitchell died in 1920 and again a Mitchell widow, this time Edith, carried on making pots for a further ten years.

In 1930 Mrs. Ella Mills bought the pottery but essentially kept the lines the same. Bellevue Pottery closed in 1939 because night firing contravened the black-out regulations.

After the war the pottery was re-opened by John and Wally Cole, pre-war London based studio potters, under the name of Rye Pottery. Adapting a seventeenth century decorating technique used on English Delftware they produced a range of pieces to fulfill the post-war craving for decorative as well as utility household ware. By employing Bert Twort, the pre-war thrower, they still made a few traditional shapes, including the famous Sussex Pig who ‘won’t be druv’.

Wally Cole took on two apprentices, David Sharp and Dennis Townsend, both of whom later started their own potteries. Rye Pottery continued to train young potters, including James Elliott who later owned Cinque Ports Pottery. In 1982 Wally Cole was awarded the MBE for his services to Craft Pottery. Rye Pottery has won many awards and made the commemorative ware for the Investiture of the Prince of Wales in 1969. Wally Cole retired in 1978 but continued to produce his own studio pots until the end of 1997.

His son Tarquin Cole took over in 1978. He changed the firm’s direction and moved towards a more fashion orientated market. This change saw the development of several ranges of Rye Pottery figures, including the famous Canterbury Tales series. In view of the considerable interest shown in Rye Pottery, from 1995 every piece received the decorator’s monogram. Before then only special commissions and commemorative were signed.

Fortunately Rye Pottery can still be found in Rye today.  For a separate article about it, click here.

Cinque Ports Pottery

In 1956 George Gray and David Sharp started the Cinque Ports Pottery at the Mint in Rye. In order for the potteries to expand, the partnership was dissolved and in 1964 George Gray moved Cinque Ports Pottery to the Monastery in Conduit Hill. The Mayoress of Rye, Mrs. W.M.Macer, officially opened the new premises on May 30th of that year. The showroom was situated at the top of the exterior stairway on the north side of the building in what was once a chapel.

The Pottery remained under the same ownership until 1987 when it was bought by James Elliott, the former manager. Major alterations now took place. The ground floor was lowered to allow more than one level in the building. This entailed moving the kilns. A showroom was established on the ground floor, entered directly from Conduit Hill.

The Pottery now took on a completely new look. A public walkway was created which goes through the whole building enabling the public to see all the processes involved in the creation of the finished pottery. Entry to this walkway was through the external staircase where you then saw, through a partition, the hand throwing of the pots, the casting and drying, the spongers and fettlers at work, and moving downstairs the glazing and hand painting. There were guided tours of the Pottery by appointment, but the walkway way open and free of charge to anyone interested in how the pottery was made.

The style of pottery produced changed after the 1960′s. James Elliott, the designer, produced a new range called Country Gentlemen. Cats were another speciality, and HRH the Princess Royal commissioned a pair. The Cinque Ports Pottery on Conduit Hill produced a wide range of tableware and lamps as well.

Iden Pottery

Dennis Townsend began his career in pottery in 1947 and in 1958, after a gap of two years military service, he and his wife Maureen established Iden Pottery in the village of Iden, north of Rye, where they lived. In 1964 they moved the business to Conduit Hill in Rye and expanded, taking on their first employee. They soon had the services of five highly skilled local artists who signed their own pieces under the Iden Stamp. The pottery sold world wide with the hand thrown pieces by Dennis Townsend proved highly collectable. [Ed. note: This article is being edited (January 2011) in a house in Perth, Australia where a large set of brown Iden pottery is used every day.]

David Sharp Pottery

As noted above, David Sharp founded Cinque Ports Pottery with George Gray in 1956. When George Gray moved to to the Monastery in Conduit Hill he retained the Cinque Ports name while David Sharp kept the Bonding Store in the Mint and started David Sharp Pottery. The staff, moulds and designs were split between them equally.

The David Sharp Pottery continued using traditional methods, mixing colours and glazes from base materials; decorations were hand painted. All the pottery produced was to David Sharp’s own design and modelling. The Pottery gained a world wide following for the distinctive blue floral, animal and bird figures, individually designed, as well as painted wall tiles and house plaques.

In 1960 David Sharp made a ceramic plaque in relief depicting Rye Town Hall which was presented to Rye, New York in commemoration of their three hundredth anniversary. It is on display in their Town Hall.

Potteries in Rye Today

The two potteries on Conduit Hill – Cinque Ports Pottery and Iden Pottery–are now gone; it is hoped that the vacated Monastery can be restored to serve as a cultural centre for the town. Ferry Road now sports a smart new housing complex called Pottery Court  where Rye Pottery once stood. However, Rye Pottery  and the David Sharp Pottery remained until very recently, one on Wish Ward, the other at the bottom of the Mint – opposite one another in fact, which was convenient for the many visitors who still came  to view and purchase a bit of pottery from Rye.

Sadly, the David Sharp Pottery is now gone too, but Rye Pottery lives on! You can read about it in another article on this site and also visit its own website.

You will find photos and more information concerning all these potteries and potters on the Pottery Studio website.

Further reading: Carol Cashmore, The Potteries of Rye, 1783 onwards

First posted in Rye Trades and Industries on 30th October 2009
Last updated: 26th January 2013
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