Spare an hour for a visit to the potteries at Ewenny, for you will find there a perfect example of a small, self-contained family craft so uncommon in these days of vast combines; and if you can spare another hour to meditate upon the implications of craft as old civilisation itself, and upon the products of the potter’s wheel which are so intimately woven into the fabric of peasant work and thought, you will gain rich reward.
Welsh potteries in medieval times were closely associated with monasteries, and the nearness of these potteries to Ewenny Priory suggests that this craft may have first been practiced in this district by the Ewenny monks themselves, who passed the craft on to the people who were lucky enough to have plenty of clay at hand.
The present potteries were opened about the year 1600 A.D. by a family named Jenkins, whose descendants still own and work in the potteries. They found plenty of good clay in the fields upon which the pottery was built. There is a great deal of this clay in the area, for the Cefn Brickworks found enough clay for many years’ work, and so do the Tondu Brickworks still. The people of Ewenny used their clay for the pots, pans and jugs of daily use, and it is thought that many farmers tried their hands at pottery because ancient kilns have been recently revealed on some old farmhouses in the district. To-day, pottery making is practised in the nearby Heolgam Secondary School with clay dug in the school field and good example of glazed ware may be seen.
In the 17th, 18thand 19th centuries Ewenny stood on the old coachroad running from the bottom of Crack Hill through Corntown to Laleston, over what is now called the “Old Dipping Bridge”. The potteries were on the branch of this road which led to Bridgend and so were well-known to travellers and easily reached. This favourable position helped to make the pottery of Ewenny a household word in the area.
Behind the potteries today you can see the clay pits – like earthen quarries – from which clay is dug. The legend arose that the pits refilled by night what was dug out by day, but a glance around at the many old-grass covered pits will soon dispel this legend. The clay when dug is cleaned of earth and stones, left for many days in the weather, and then crushed and rolled between heavy rollers in the pit. About the year 1800 these rollers were turned by a horse treading in a circle, and pulling a beam which had one end attached to a central axle which turned as the horse walked around. An example of these horse rollers from Ewenny is in the National Museum at Cardiff. Today the rollers are powered by a petrol engine. When the clay has been so rolled and worked that all the small stones are crushed and it becomes soft, smooth easily-worked mass, it is then ready for use. The very finest and smoothest clay is kept for the better class ware.
Earliest pottery was moulded by hand without a wheel, but a potter’s wheel was excavated in Egypt and was proved to have been used in about 4000 B.C! In Britain potters’ wheels appeared in the Early Iron Age. The earliest are known as “Whirlers” and were spun by hand. Later “Treadle Wheels” came into being and have been popular from ancient times. One may still be seen at Ewenny, but the wheels in general use there are now power driven. The treadle wheel is turned by an up-and-down movement of the potter’s foot while his hands shape the clay. A lump of soft clay is put on the middle of the wheel- which is like a gramophone turntable- and the potter squeezes and presses the spinning lump of wet clay until a pot, cup, bowl or jug springs up magically under the caressing touch of his hands. Handles are attached afterwards and ornamentation put on. A piece of wire is deftly pulled under the pot which is thus loosened from the wheel. This shaping is called “Throwing” and the pot is said to be “Green” – that is – not hard.
The “green” pot is then put in a warm room to dry and harden and if porous pots like flowerpots are needed they are then “fired”. But vessels which have to hold liquids must be waterproof so the inside of the vessel is coated with a glaze which when “fired” in a kiln becomes hard, shiny waterproof lining. Should the outside need glazing, the pot is dipped into the glaze.
Ewenny clay makes a red and rather coarse pot, and to provide a better and smoother surface it is coated with thin layer of fine white clay. This is imported from Cornwall, mixed to the con-sistency of cream, and the vessel is “slipped” into it and when withdrawn has a white coating. It is again dried. Sometimes the vessel is decorated by market through the “slip”, thus exposing the red clay underneath. The “slip” is coloured by stains put into it. The resulting colours are usually lime green, blue or buff which are the traditional Ewenny colours. Manganese, lead and copper are used to colour the “slip”. Iolo Morgannwg in 1808 stated that the manganese used came from Sully, “Slipware” is peculiar to Ewenny.
The final coat is glaze and the vessel is dipped in it before “firing”.
In the yards may be seen queer, beehive-shaped buildings. These are the “Kilns” in which the ware is “fired” or baked. These kilns are similar in pattern to the Roman up-draught kilns unearthed in Castle Lyons in Denbighshire. There is a lower chamber called the combustion chamber, where the fire of coke or coal and wood is lit, and the upper chamber, or oven, where the pots are placed. The floor between the two chambers is of brick and pierced with many holes to allow the hot gases and smoke to rise. There are vents in the top through which the smoke and fumes escape into the open air. Thus an upward draught is caused. After the pots are put in, the doors are sealed with fire bricks and clay. Glazed and highly coloured wares would be damaged by the fumes and gases from the fire, and to prevent this the glazed pots are put into large clay boxes with holes in the sides and so protected from the fumes. These boxes are called “Saggars”. This word may be a corruption of “safeguards”.
After many hours of “firing” the doors are broken in and the “fired” pots are now hard and glossy and ready for sale.
Ewenny ware has supplied the needs of the people of Mid-Glamorgan for centuries. In the early days of pottery making wash basins, milk jugs, pans for separating cream from milk, and pitchers for fetching and storing milk and water were made and sold.
As the times changed so did the pottery. Flowerpots, flower vases, bread and dough pans, flour bins and even coronation souvenir mugs have made their appearances. In 1893 a vase “thrown” by David Jenkins and decorated by Horace Elliot was presented to Prince George and Princess Mary later King George V and Queen Mary, to commemorate their marriage. It is now in the National Museum at Cardiff and is of while “slipware” lavishly decorated and inscribed.
The best Ewenny ware was produced in the early years of the 19th century, and the most famous examples are the wassail bowls called “Ffiolau Dolennog” which means “many handled bowls”. There are three in the National Museum dated 182, 1834 and 1836. Bowls of this type were made to order only, and were sold at a guinea each. They were closely associated with folklore of the changing seasons and were shaped as a large pot with many handles surmounted by a nigh cover or lid. It was glazed buff slipware. Surmounting the lid was the figure of a woman re-presenting Spring, and around the figures were animals, birds and fruits of the countryside – rabbits, hares, deer, pigeons, wheat, oats, barley, apples and leaves all directed upwards to the central figure of Spring.
One of these bowls now in the Museum was carried around the Parish of Ewenny after the Christmas season, and seemed to signify the rebirth of nature in springtime.
Many such bowls were made to order for Llangynwyd farmers, and formed the central feature of “Harvest Home” celebrations. It was passed around from hand to hand to drink from as a rejoicing that the fruits of the earth were safely gathered in before the winter storms began.
The same bowl was filled with hot rum punch on New Year’s Eve in preparation for the visits of the “Mari Lwyd” when it called upon the household. The “Mari Lwyd” was a horse’s skull upon a pole carried by a man under a sheet. The skull was covered with bells, ribbons, rosettes, linen and tinsel. The jaw was worked by the man under the sheet.
It was accompanied by a dozen men and after they had galloped up to the farm door, a com-petition in rhyme would take place between the household and the men of the “Mari Lwyd” company. After much fun the door would be opened and the men admitted. Then the “ffiol dolennog” would be handed to the leader of the visitors and passed round. The punch was drunk with great fun, and the visit ended with a blessing upon the house from the “Mari Lwyd” leader.
Next year another farmer would travel the road to Ewenny to order a bowl for a similar occasion, when he would present it to the “Mari Lwyd”.
These ceremonies must have had some relation with the ancient rites of offering gifts to Ceres, the Goddess of Corn, to ensure plenty in the coming year, and have remained in the folk memory for many, many centuries; while the “Mari Lwyd” may be the relics of old, half-forgotten mystery play depicting the flight of Mary and Joseph and the Child to Egypt.
Now that your visit is done and your train of meditation started you can resurrect many more such folk memories, by pursuing in thought the elemental use of the products of the Potter’s wheel of Ewenny.
A.C. Chess, Writing for The Festival of Britain Guide of Bridgend, 1951!