The Merrythought: promoter of Rye Pottery

The Merrythought: promoter of Rye Pottery

By Tarquin & Biddy Cole

This article not only tells about the pottery business in Rye — of which Rye Pottery (founded 1869) is the survivor) but gives an insight into other aspects of the town’s history and the people who have lived and worked here. The Coles, it should be noted, have been good friends to the Museum (and members too) over the years and have generously donated examples of their commemorative pieces on each special occasion,  a Royal Wedding or Jubilee, for example, which are on display at East Street. For more information and photos go to  Rye Pottery, the pottery’s website which is subtitled the continuing collectability of Rye.


The MerrythoughtUntil 2002 there was a gift shop called the the Merrythought  near the Church door at the top of Lion Street which had a relationship of some 75 years with Belle Vue Potteries.

There is still a gift shop on the corner, now called Forget-Me-Not, but the pottery connection no longer exists. Rye Pottery is still very much alive however! You will find it on Wish Ward.

Origins: The Whites

A characterful near-neighbour of the Merrythought was Ernest Apps, a greengrocer living a few doors below in Lion Street. He was born there in 1927, of even more charcterful parents. According to Ernest, Mr. & Mrs. Percy White were already in residence when he was born, but the year when the business was either purchased or founded by the Whites is as yet unknown. Searches in the annual publication, Deacon’s Alamanac, Directory and Yearbook for Rye, do not produce any references, even under 72, Church Square, that can be recognised.

Merrythought drawingVe Webb, the last owner of the gift shop, whose family also owned Simon the Pieman, next door but one, confirmed that her mother believd that the Merrythought was trading in the 1920′s, with the Whites as owners. No Rye Pottery sales records survive for Edith Mitchell’s tenure of the Pottery on her own (1920 -1930), before she sold it to Geroge Ellis and his daughter, Ella Mills, but it may be presumed that this gift shop was already being supplied.

The very first entry in the Belle Vue account books for ‘P. White Esq., Church Square’ was July 6th 1931. ‘To Goods £3.3s.4d’. This was Invoice No. 4 on page 3, so there were at least three previous invoices, but page 1& 2 are missing and invoice numbers were not always used, so there may have been more. It is not until May 1935 that the ledger is actually marked ‘P. White,  Merrythought’. Ella Mills bequeathed both ledger and invoice books for the period 1931-1940 to Wally & Jack Cole, but unfortunately these are now incomplete. The Ella Mills Invoice Book runs from June 9th 1936 to July 20th.1940 and the ledger from 1931 to July 8th 1940. This takes one only to page 20; the remainder of the book was carried on by the post war Pottery, first by Wally tidily and then by others in an increasingly scruffy and disjointed way — a complete contrast to the neat and exact records kept by Ella!

Percy White’s wife ran the gift shop, whilst he managed the antiques business further down the street called Delves & Son opposite the George Hotel, which he gradually upgraded from a ‘boot and shoe warehouse, via antique furniture emporium and old china store’ in 1919 to ‘Dealer in Antiques’ in 1929 and perhaps even to something more discerning! The Belle Vue Pottery had few account customers, but the Merrythought was one of them, taking 25% of the invoiced production. Hopware, lustre and green glazed miniatures as well as the Sussex Pig, were all items invoiced to the shop. This has to have been an important part of the gift shop’s turnover, so it is no wonder that Percy White took such trouble to have the business re-opened after the war.

What is strange is that, having taken so much trouble to get Rye Pottery restarted, the Whites then sold their business in June 1950 to a Mrs Jarvis, who lived with a lady companion in Winchelsea. These ladies seem to have been a source of much relished local gossip. Mrs Jarvis sold it again in 1951 to a spinster called Olive Holmes, a quiet and precise lady, who was able to live neatly in the extremely tiny flat above the shop.

The Coles

Percy White did not include any of the old stock of Sussex pigs, lustre or hopware in the sale, preferring to salt this safely away; he then sold his other business, Delves Antiques, a year or two later. Percy White with Stuart Prebble, a local estate agent,- were the moving forces in establishing a Rotary Club in Rye and they recruited Wally Cole to be the Founding Secretary; Jack Cole was a Rotarian in Beckenham, and he had advised Wally that it would be good for the Pottery for him to do so. Wally obtained a lot of enjoyment from Rotary over the years. The newly renamed Rye Pottery did very well out of the relationship with The Merrythought under Olive Holmes, whose account opens Feb.21st. 1950, taking over the last few invoices of the Whites. She in turn retired, possibly due to deteriorating health, and the account was closed on 16th January 1956. The Merrythought had been offered to Rye Pottery for £3000 by Miss Holmes in the latter half of the 1950s. The Coles, previously leaseholders of the Ferry Road premises, had only just purchased the freehold of Belle Vue House and Pottery from Rye Borough Council and so were unable to take up this offer, although they would dearly have liked to secure the retail mark up on the large percentage of their production sold by The Merrythought. A postcard of the period shows the whole of the main shop window filled with Rye Pottery.


The strong relationship was tested in a way that was totally unexpected, when a request to become a stockist was received from a newly arrived family who started a gift shop called Artina, half a dozen shops further down Lion Street. The change of ownership at The Merrythought was probably seen as an opportunity to obtain the main agency for Rye Pottery within the town. The Pottery replied that unfortunately, they would be unable to supply them, as it would affect the sales at the existing Merrythought outlet so close by: a normal trade practice in fact, and it was thought important not to jeopardise a successful relationship– whoever the new owners might be.

The response was totally unexpected — a threat to start their own pottery here in Rye, which in due course they did, taking one of the most talented ex-apprentices, David Sharp, newly returned to the Pottery from National Service and restive, as a partner to help get it going. This added to the confusion of identity, which was probably intentional as the original name chosen for this new venture was Rye Art Pottery – a name used by the Mitchells at BelleVue in the early years of the century – until a solicitor’s letters caused a change of name.

This is not to imply that the Merrythought was the only outlet within the town, but it was the principal outlet. There was normally at least one other in the main High Street — Deacons initially, who in the early years of the 20th century advertised that they ‘sold the famous Sussex Rustic Ware’; followed by Adams or Gouldens in the 50’s & 60’s, and latterly Penny Royal during the Denny family’s ownership. Sometimes there were several, but it was always rather a problem to the Pottery and caused some rancour amongst the contenders. It was Pottery policy to try and ensure that there was never just a monopoly outlet within the town.

The Dixons

The new Merrythought owners were John and Margaret Dixon, who moved from Cambridge, where Margaret had worked for, and was highly regarded by, Joshua Taylor, a small departmental store, where the Managing Director, Kenneth Taylor, was both a Rye Pottery stockist and a collector of Wally’s own studio pots. John Dixon had family connections with Hastings, so would have known Rye from his youth. He was delicate, often not well and had been a choral scholar at Kings College, so both Dixons already knew all about Rye and Rye Pottery. To begin with they lived in the tiny flat above the shop, but as they settled and prospered they bought a cottage in Northiam, commuted to work and used the flat as a stockroom.

The use of the flat as a stockroom was an enormous bonus for Rye Pottery. The Merrythought had always had a problem with Rye Pottery stock, which was available in the winter, but unsaleable, and in short supply in the summer when visitors appeared again and trade was brisk. David Morris, who became manager at Rye Pottery in the early 1960s, persuaded the Dixons that it would be worthwhile to build up regular stocks in the winter to cover this loss of profitability. To encourage this he arranged to deliver their stock, something that the older generation had thought totally unnecessary. Sometimes there was so much stock there that it would have been almost impossible for even a mouse to spend the night in the flat.!

This was of course a great benefit to Rye Pottery, who always had a terrible period between Christmas and early summer, when they were only making for stock, trusting that orders would remove the stockpile. This produced a cash crisis in the Spring every single year. When Wally and Eileen told John and Margaret Dixon that they would probably have to close in the 1970s throughout the dreadful strike and powercut-ridden years, which exacerbated the annual problems, the Dixons paid for unmade stock in advance to keep the pottery solvent.

Somehow, though, those in Ferry Road grudged the Merrythought the retail profit margin; an attitude that they had managed to communicate to all the pottery offshoots started by ex-employees. It seemed to the potters that all that happened after all the graft and sweat of manufacture was for the retailer to just put it on their shelves and double their money. Somehow the expense and expertise of running a retail shop was lost on them all. No allowance was ever made for capital tied up in prime retail positions, rents, wages, stock purchases and lines that didn’t sell, let alone a profit margin! The concession that the Pottery made for ‘this enormous favour’ was to produce lines that were exclusive to the Merrythought. In particular, bulk ‘Studio’ was regularly made in either bowl or vase mixed shapes, priced per dozen for a given size. These were a very mixed bag, some lovely and others very mundane, but they sold very well, so fulfilling their purpose. There were also lines made exclusively for them, such as the rather dull floral tableware pattern in Rye Yellow and Blue Green.

Rye Pottery also produced special displays to fill the window from time to time with pieces not made for anyone else. An example of this was a display of one-off signed pieces by Wally and Tarquin, and June Woolley for the Queen’s Visit to Rye in 1966.

The junior Coles stopped these Studio lines as soon as they took over, because the standard was so uneven and uncontrollable. They were not as strapped for cash as the parents at that time, because Ceramic Consultants/ Rye Tiles had survived the appalling period in the 1970s more successfully due largely to the winning of a Design Award in 1974, with all the resultant publicity and orders. There is no doubt that without John and Margaret Dixon’s support, Rye Pottery would have ceased to exist before Biddy and Tarquin finally took over from the exhausted Wally and Eileen on Wally’s 65th birthday on 2lst January 1978.

The next Coles generation and the Barnes

Almost as the changeover from senior to junior Coles took place, the Dixons decided to retire and sold the business in the Spring of 1978. The Dixons moved to Chichester, where John became a guide in the cathedral and worked part time in a solicitor’s office. This was a severe blow to the Pottery, because that first winter the new Merrythought owners no longer wanted to carry this extra stock, so the Coles had lost the cushion of paid stock orders to fund the wages, let alone afford the capital to introduce some new badly needed designs to the existing ranges.

The new owners were Beryl and Roy Barnes, for whom it was the intermediate stage between retirement and old age. Roy had been Chief Fire Officer for Essex and was an expert in the control of oil fires. From time to time he was still called away to assist with difficult flues. Probably their interest in dinghy sailing had drawn them to Rye. The remarkably young age of such retirements with a good index-linked pension meant that they were free of the sort of financial worries that beset many or us, and certainly those at the Pottery! Because of the incomprehension of the situation in Ferry Road it was never a comfortable relationship. The Barnes put a lot of energy into developing the shop and searched amongst the items made at Rye Pottery for items that would produce new profit centres. Roy talked a lot about ‘Marketing’ and ‘Product’ and anything further from the rather arty and scruffy Rye Pottery outfit can hardly be imagined!

An example of this new approach to ‘merchandising’ was when The Merrythought started to market House Plaques, which Roy knew several of the potteries in Rye made, as well as Rye Pottery. A serious effort was made to try and rationalize sizes, designs, colours and delivery times to take out as many of the complications as possible, and they took a lot of orders for plaques. Friction soon developed when orders would be taken, perhaps at the weekend, when the Pottery was closed and things could not be checked, for difficult subjects and designs, or wildly over optimistic delivery dates were quoted. Roy was quite sure that the Pottery was being inefficient, which it probably was, but also difficult and obstructive, which it wasn’t. ‘Marketing’ in this context was a joke. When the artist and head paintress June Woolley, who painted all the plaques, was off work for six months with a back operation, meaning no plaques were made, Roy Barnes was furious as The Merrythought had to stop selling house plaques. Unfortunately Beryl Barnes developed cancer and died after a relatively short illness. Roy carried on for a while, but his heart wasn’t in it; perhaps the shop had been something that his wife had wanted to do rather than him ?

The Webbs

Roy sold it to Ve and Mike Webb, who had run the Simon the Pieman cafe two doors away. It too, was a halfway stage to retirement for them; a gift shop being much less demanding than anything connected with serving food! Ve ran the shop with the help of Mrs Beatrice Bishop, a French lady who had worked there part time and as cover for days off since the early Dixon years. Mike Webb devoted his energies to managing their land at Icklesham. They had been an occasional Pottery customer previously, ordering honey-glazed ginger jars with Simon the Pieman in black lettering on the lid, presumably full of the fudge for which the cafe had been famous for many years. They were long term enthusiasts of Rye Pottery, both the pre- and post-war output. This was probably the most easy and relaxed relationship with the Pottery since the departure of Olive Holmes. The Merrythought was no longer the dominant customer and the figures, mostly The Canterbury Tales, now only filled the side window. Ve Webb ran the business for almost fifteen years before it was sold. The years passed without any serious stresses in the relationship and one was surprised that they had been there so long.

Rye Pottery missed the passing of this little outlet with a big sales punch, but it came as no surprise and its demise was no longer fatal for survival. The rather charming Rye Pottery name plaque with a jester has since been removed and all that is now left at the premises of 72 Church Square is a small wrought iron sign which used to read Rye Pottery but now with the word pottery blacked out, leaving a totally meaningless reference to any passer by.  Happily however,  Rye Pottery is still very much with us, on Wish Street in Rye. A visit to its website is recommended.

First posted in Rye Trades and Industries on 28th October 2009
Last updated: 12th February 2013
Tags: , , ,