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A"Potted" History

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Donyatt Potteries

There’s a patch of land within the old village boundary made up of different geological material from the rest of the area – it is an outcrop of Lower Lias (from layers) clays or shales. If you take a stroll down Crock Street you will be walking in that very area. Nowadays, apart from a few scattered houses, there is absolutely nothing that will give you a clue about its past – only its name. But imagine if you had come down here one autumn afternoon in the middle of the 17th Century - it would have been a very different sight: people gathering fuel from the woods or hedgerows, the smell of the fired kilns in the air, people throwing pots, making tiles or fashioning chimney pots, stacking and emptying kilns, and filling up the cart for transport to Taunton. You might have noticed the pile of broken rejects and the strange cup that looked like lots of cups stuck together, or overheard a worker shout to his mate "they new fuddling cups be allus breykin"

Fuddling Cups
This tiny area was a hive of industry – the farmer-potters made everything for everybody: jugs, bottles, cisterns, chamber pots, cups, ointment pots, porringers, dishes, bucket pots, posset pots, fuddling cups, candlesticks, salting pans, bed pans, puzzle jugs, punch kettles, bacon roasters, drain pipes, chimney pots, bread ovens, tiles for roofs, floors and kilns, and even clay smoking pipes. For hundreds of years this small and almost forgotten group of farmer-owned and run potteries supplied the needs of the local villages and towns.
It is said that pottery gives excellent documentation of how culture and living standards changed from region to region throughout history – the story of the Donyatt Potteries is no exception. Much of the pottery reflects a vernacular culture – some suggesting a lot of cider drinking in this part of the world. The puzzle jugs, which were manufactured for over 300 years, are good examples of its traditional country style. The Donyatt potters were clearly not interested or capable of replicating the rarefied Chinese imports – their work was for the daily use of a lower social order. Since the oldest known piece of pottery, found in China, dates back to about 7900 BC we can see that Donyatt is a relative latecomer to the pottery industry. However, its continuity was an extraordinary story that spanned 800 years from the 12th to the 20th century– before gradually disappearing almost without trace.
The earliest evidence of pottery production in the Neroche/Donyatt region was recovered at Castle Neroche where ‘pottery of North French type’ was manufactured, probably by a Norman potter, as part of the Lord of the Manor’s retinue, during the 11th to 12th centuries. The resemblance of shards from early 13th century wares from an excavation near Crock Street and those at Castle Neroche indicate that production may have commenced during this time.
To date there is documented evidence of thirteen medieval pottery sites in Somerset, but there are potentially nineteen in Donyatt lying in seven fields between Crock Street and Whitney Bottom – this was an important area for the west country medieval and post- medieval pottery industry. Excavated evidence from the thirteenth century reveals production at Donyatt, but it is possible that it commenced early in the 12th century. Up to 95% of the ceramic needs of Taunton, the county town, were sourced from Donyatt during the 16th & 17th centuries, dropping to 30% in the 18th century. Unfortunately this decline continued, hastened by competition from more commercial factories sited nearer their markets, and the work force being reduced to an uneconomic level because of the 1939-45 war when Donyatt Pottery ceased to be a commercial concern.


As well as at local markets, during medieval times Donyatt pottery could be found at Cerne Abbas, Ilchester and Axbridge. During the 16th century the area of distribution included Sherborne and Exeter as well as Taunton. By the early 18th century there had been a massive expansion in the marketplace, including Bridgwater, Bristol, Lyme Regis, Southampton and Plymouth, even extending as far as Newcastle upon Tyne, London and eastern Ireland. More importantly, it was also exported internationally; researchers have identified Donyatt pottery amongst imports of the early American colonies. Consequently, Donyatt pottery examples can be seen in the regional and national museums of both Britain and America, despite being near the bottom end of the social order in pottery markets.

Post medieval Donyatt pottery is terracotta coloured. Made from locally dug sandy clay, when fired in an oxidising kiln it turns light red in colour. Items are then often decorated with a white clay slip to create a decorative banding or other designs. Other wares could be completely slip coated and then decorated with English roses, Dutch tulips and French cockerel motifs by sgraffito (from the Italian "to scratch");decoration was incised with a point, usually through the layer of slip. On top was a lead glaze of pale transparent amber, which may be irregularly flecked with copper oxide, showing green (sometimes copper filings from a penny were used in order to maintain the traditional Donyatt green flecking). In use from the 17thcentury onwards were glazes with a heavy iron content producing rich brown to metallic black glazes.
Due to the variable quality of the clay over wide areas, today’s brick and tile manufacturers have no interest in the liassic clay found around Crock Street. However, the clay is well suited to small-scale local industry, where specific quality and production controls can be carefully monitored. Scientific analysis of ash found in kiln excavations in the area, combined with local traditions, indicate that wood was the sole fuel used before the introduction of coal- burning kilns starting at the end of the 19th century; coppicing may have been a source of this wood. The benefits of wood as a fuel are an absence of sulphurous fumes and a long clean flame.
The conservatism and continuity of the Donyatt potteries are two special traits.

‘Conservatism’ because of the extreme rural nature of the potteries and the technology employed (inventories exist identifying that animals represented a larger portion of a potter’s wealth, indicating pottery as only a part-time employment).

‘Continuity’ because the well-documented and illustrated family histories from the late 17th to 19 th centuries support the continuation of family trade and traditions passed from one generation to the next by the system of apprenticeship.

The apprenticeship of a trainee potter continued for eight years! At the end of this period a good quality ten-inch flowerpot was a mark of success. General hours of work were from 7am to 6 pm Monday to Friday and 7 am to 1 pm Saturday, with a night duty once a week. For this a thrower earned eight shillings per week.

Despite potters being a class of people who left few personal records, a black box was fortunately found in 1968, at the rear of Donyatt Parish Church; the contents revealed indentures and other papers, although many were poorly preserved. By researching the documents potters spanning four hundred years were named and recorded. Subsequently, family trees were established including those of the Podger, Brown, Trott, Dinham, Martin, Rogers and Jewell families. Some details of the trading activities of the potters have also been established: on Saturdays the Rodgers family had a stall on Taunton Parade, and their pottery was also sent to Branscombe and Wiveliscombe. During the 1930s William and Percy Arlidge had a shop in Taunton’s East Reach.

Two interesting accounts have been unearthed in old editions of local papers. The first concerns memories highlighted by Doug Back. He reports that there were several kinds of clay in the locality: "There is a pit at Brooms Lane where the clay is blue in its raw state. At the Shavepit it is yellow, and immediately around the pottery area it is grey." The second relates to Charles Anning of Horton, who began working at the potteries when he was 14. He told how in the 1920s, he worked two shifts: one from 7am-5pmand the other 6pm-12:30am, for 26 shillings a week. He recalled times when he and two other potters made 900 pots between them in a single day. At other times he often dug pits 15 feet deep to obtain clay. He added, "We used to deliver pots with horses and wagons. Augustus Aldridge, one of the potters, went all the way to Weymouth with his orders."

A comprehensive account of the Donyatt Potteries can be found in R. Coleman-Smith’s and T. Pearson’s excellent book "Excavations in the Donyatt Potteries".
Examples of Donyatt wares.  

Aquamanile : Prior to the introduction of forks a pottery or metal water vessel was placed on the table for hand washing between courses, often made in the form of an animal or a knight on horseback.


Bacon Roasters (Dutch Ovens): Used to cook meat and fruit around the hearth.


Bottles: Appeared to have longer and narrower necks, with no lip or handle.


Bucket Pot: Used to transport well-drawn water to fill the cistern.


Cisterns: Large two handled jars used for storing beer, cider or water, with bung holes near the bottom, or near the middle or bottom in large examples, with a fitted wooden tap(spigot).


Chafing Dish: A deep bowl used for containing charcoal, fixed on a pedestal base. Bowls of food placed over the charcoal and supported on lugs on the chafing dish rim were thus cooked. Mrs. Beeton’s cookery books contain chafing dish recipes.


Chamber Pots: The shape of these may denote the owner’s social status: for individual use, the shallow rounded type, while those of a deep vertical form were probably for use by more than one.


Costrels: Used for carrying drinking liquid, barrel or bottle form with handles or pierced lugs at the shoulders to permit carrying by a strap from the waist. Barrel costrels are similar to 19th century pottery hot water bottles.


Cups / Pedestal Cups: Of various sorts, with vertical strip handles, pedestal feet and a varying number of lobes.

Dishes: These may be known as trenchers, plates or platters.

This example from1860 portrays in sgraffito the famous Isle Brewers Siamese twins surmounted by a crown with a surround of floral devices and inscribed I O 1680 S D.

Fuddling Cups: Normally three to six cups, but can be up to ten, connected internally and joined laterally. Consequently anyone drinking from a cup could drain them all, and of course get very be-fuddled in the process.


Jug: Most of the earliest Donyatt jugs are abaluster shape, but shards from wide globular jugs have been found.


Ointment Pot: Small containers used for containing dispensed ointments, often only two centimetres high.


Pancheons: Also called settling pans, they were large shallow flared earthenware vessels in which milk was settled prior to skimming off the cream.


Porringers: Large cups with one or two handles used for porridge or broth.


Posset Pots: Multi handled (from 2 to 11), sometimes lidded, vessels, which were used for making and drinking posset (a beverage made from milk curdled by an infusion of wine or ale, often spiced).


Punch Kettle: Similar to a large teapot, made from about 1750 onwards for brewing and serving hot punch.


Puzzle jug: Post-medieval – filled through a pierced neck, emptied by sucking a rim spout - the liquid is channeled down the hollow handle into the base: this is bulbous or globular form, usually sgraffito decorated and inscribed. Many have the maker’s name and date etched on the base. The liquid is then poured out through the spout, which is possibly in the shape of the neck and head of an animal, on the opposite side to the handle. There is no flow through the neck of the jug.

(Reproduced, with peremission, from "The Story of Donyatt and the Millenium Celebrations". Copyright - Donyatt 2000 Committee.)