Potteries in Ipswich
Ipswich Historic Lettering: Ipswich ware
'The Potteries' is a name given to the area west of today's Alexandra Park, once the parkland owned by the Byles family who lived at Hill House (its position marked by Hill House Road off Back Hamlet). The area known for many decades as 'The Potteries' – roughly the site of Suffolk New College, with the 'cliff' (scarp) up to Alexandra Park caused by clay-digging was probably the source of raw material for the seventh and eighth century wheel-thrown pottery which was widely distributed in Britain and the Rhineland and which  is called by archaeologists 'Ipswich Ware' because of its characteristic composition ('inclusions' in the clay body) and glaze. A stratum of white clay was estimated by historian John Glyde (1823-1905) in 1850 to be thirty feet deep in the area of The Potteries and there was, of course, plentiful local, fresh spring water. The greatest number of kilns was found just inside the late Saxon rampart and ditch which ran down what is now Upper Orwell Street; 'St Helen's pottery ground' succeeded these kilns in later centuries.The decline of this ancient trade is the story told in Frank Grace's book Rags & bones (see Reading list). See our page on Ipswich brickyards for more information on brick and tile making.

For a 1902 map of much of the Potteries area, see our Holy Trinity Church page.

The first professional and government-funded archaeological excavations were carried out by Stanley West at Cox Lane in 1958 and Shire Hall Yard in 1959. West established that Ipswich was a large settlement, covering at least 30 hectares, and international port during the Middle Saxon period
(c.700-870 AD). In the early 1970s it became clear that Ipswich was one of only a handful of trading settlements, displaying urban characteristics (emporia), in North-Western Europe during this period. This elevated the town’s archaeological status to one of international importance.

You would not know it from today's aspect, but Cox Lane is probably one of the town's oldest routes, with nothing to mark the 400-year-plus pottery-making era. Nearby roads – south of Rope Walk – named Pottery Street and Potter Street (see the 1867 map detail on our County Hall/Gaols page) signify the importance of the industry.
The other major Ipswich Ware archaeological dig occurred before the buiding of the Buttermarket Shopping Centre (opened in 1992).

The
Middle Saxon economy was based on craft production and international trade. Craft production was dominated by the Ipswich Ware pottery industry. It was a large scale enterprise, concentrated in the north east corner of the town along Carr Street, but outlying kilns have also been excavated at the Buttermarket site and south of the river in Stoke. The importance of the Ipswich Ware industry is shown by its distribution, which not only covers the entire Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of East Anglia but as far as the West Country, Yorkshire, London and Kent. Most sites across the town also produce evidence of bone and antler working, spinning and weaving, and metalworking. Leatherworking too must have been common but evidence for it only survived in the waterlogged deposits of the waterfront.

Ipswich Ware
The later years of the seventh century saw a considerable change in the nature of  English settlement. Burgeoning trade with mainland Europe corresponded with the rise of the wics, proto-urban marketplaces with access by major river to the sea. By the early eighth century, such places were flourishing, with Ipswich (Gippeswic), London (Lundenwic) and Southampton (Hamwic) being the most important in southern England.

For the previous two centuries, the majority of English domestic pottery had comprised simple, hand-formed and bonfire-fired jars, most of which were manufactured at a domestic level, with little evidence that full-time, professional potting took place. The wares showed little significant change in either form or fabric throughout the period.

During the eighth century, in the wics of Southampton and London, such traditional wares continued to be made and used as the everyday domestic pottery. In Ipswich, similar locally-produced handmade pottery was in use during the late 7th century, but there was then a change in pottery production at the Suffolk wic which, in archaeological terms, can be described as both sudden and dramatic. The new material, which has become known as Ipswich Ware, was manufactured exclusively in the Ipswich, and unlike all other contemporary native pottery types, was finished on a turn-table, and fired in kilns, one of which was excavated in the Buttermarket area of Ipswich in 1989.

With the advent of Ipswich Ware, the simple hand-made forms in use in the wic quickly disappear from the archaeological record, and within a few decades the ware was the only pottery in use on sites anywhere in East Anglia. It was a plain, sandy greyware which was made in two main fabrics - smooth and gritty. Vessels were generally small, medium and large baggy jars with plain upright rims. Hanging vessels with upright pierced lugs were also made, and there were some rarer forms such as decorated bottles. Jar bases are characteristically very thick, and upper bodies are often 'girth-grooved. 'It was not only the manufacturing technology which was more advanced. Rather than being almost exclusively jar forms, around 10% of the production comprised spouted pitchers, the only English-made examples of the period. The only other pottery pitchers available at that time were imports from the continent, and relatively few of these travelled beyond their ports of entry. Ipswich Ware also had a far greater distribution than any other contemporary English pottery type.

Whilst most contemporary pottery was used within a fairly limited area, Ipswich Ware is found throughout eastern England from York to Kent, and as far west as Oxfordshire. Analysis of the Ipswich Ware assemblages found at sites outside East
Anglia has shown that a far higher proportion of large jars and pitchers occur, suggesting that the ware was moving as containers for traded goods in the case of the former and as pottery in its own right in the case of the latter. Very large quantities of  Ipswich Ware have been found at sites in London in recent years, but only a single sherd is so far known from Southampton. French and Rhenish imported wares were also arriving in quantity in London and Southampton, with as much as 10% of the Southampton assemblage comprising continental pottery. Such wares occur in Ipswich although in somewhat smaller quantities. Like Ipswich Ware, these vessels were technologically more sophisticated than the products of other English traditions, being kiln-fired. However, unlike Ipswich Ware, they were thrown on a true fast wheel, but despite these possible influences, the handmade pottery of London and Southampton continued in use throughout the Middle Saxon period (c.
700-870 AD), with little, if any, attempt by the indigenous potters to imitate the form or  function of the 'superior' imported wares.

The overall picture is more than a little curious. Despite apparently more sophisticated pottery being available, the people of London and Southampton continued to use their  traditional relatively crude wares, whereas the people of Ipswich changed to a superior technology, yet one that is still at a lesser level than that of the continental potters.

The origins of Ipswich Ware have been considered on several occasions, and most authorities postulate that the material was not made by immigrant potters on the grounds that it is neither wheel-thrown nor rouletted, techniques which were used by both Rhenish and Frankish potters of the period, whose wares, as noted earlier, made up the bulk of the material imported into the English wics.

During the Late Saxon period (880-920 AD) the Thetford Ware pottery industry replaced the Ipswich Ware industry. The latter remained in the north-east area of the Ipswich, along Carr Street and one kiln was excavated in St Helens Street. A further kiln was found in Turret Lane, south of the Buttermarket site. Thetford-type ware is so-called because kilns for the manufacture of this Late Saxon wheelmade pottery were first uncovered in Thetford. However, it is likely that the ware developed in Ipswich. It is a medium sandy greyware, although fine and coarse fabrics are also known.

[Information based on Paul Blinkhorn's paper presented to the 'Pottery in the Making' Conference at the British Museum, 1997: Stranger in a strange land: Middle Saxon Ipswich ware; also notes by Keith Wade, former head of the Suffolk Archaeological Unit.]


Related pages:
County Hall for information and maps relating to the County and Borough Gaols;
Ropewalks and the rope-making industry in the east of the town;
Brickyards for brick and tile-making in this area of the town and elsewhere;


House name plaque examples: Alston Road;
Bramford Road; Cauldwell Hall Road; Cavendish Street; Marlborough Road; Rosehill area;
Ipswich & Suffolk Freehold Land Society (F.L.S.); California;
Street index; Origins of street names in Ipswich; Streets named after slavery abolitionists.
Dated buildings list; Dated buildings examples;
Named buildings listNamed (& sometimes dated) buildings examples.
Street nameplate examples




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