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Cliff House Pottery – Leaf plates and Mary Brett’s Tobacco Jar

Recently we took part in a deep clean of the Museum of Hartlepool, and this gave us the opportunity to get up-close with some of our favourite objects from the collection, in particular the leaf plates and tobacco jar produced by Cliff House Pottery.

Cliff House tobacco jar, currently on display at the Museum of Hartlepool. Image courtesy of Hartlepool Borough Council.

Cliff House Pottery was opened at West Hartlepool in 1880 by William Henry Smith, who had come from a family of potters. The premises at Mainsforth Terrace was a two-storey high building in which 200 people were employed as potters and painters, as well as where the raw material for the pottery was prepared. If you would like to find out more about the Smith family history and how the pottery was made, you can read our original blog on Cliff House Pottery here.

Many of the employees had come from the Staffordshire Potteries, and they had brought with them some new techniques. Staffordshire was England’s centre of pottery manufacture in the 1800s, and household names such as Mintons and Wedgwood were producing high quality pottery. Some of these wares were Majolica, a style in which moulded earthenware is covered in brightly coloured glazes. Majolica pieces are often recognised for their bold colours and high gloss finish.

During its 17 years running as a business, Cliff House produced many of its own Majolica pieces, the most iconic being their leaf plates. As can be seen below, these plates feature the realistic veining of leaves while being very experimental in colour. Plates featuring leaves were very popular in the Victorian period, and there are examples of Wedgwood and Minton producing similar leaf plates.

In the 1880s ship building and steel industries in and around West Hartlepool were large employers of men and did not want to employ women, who made up a significant population in the town. William Henry Smith saw an opportunity to provide work to local women, and Cliff House pottery soon became known to employ many women and young girls as painters and glazers.

Mary Brett was one of the girls employed at Cliff House. She began working there in 1883 when she was only 14 years old. The work she carried out involved her transferring designs onto pottery before they are fired and glazed. Mary was the daughter of a potter, James Brett, who had trained at the North Shore Pottery at Stockton – North Shore had been established by William Henry Smith’s father, James Smith, in 1844 – and who was then transferred to Cliff House.

Mary continued to work at Cliff House for 14 years until she married Thomas Matthews, a labourer, in 1897. On their wedding day Mary and Thomas were presented a large tobacco jar by Cliff House Pottery. The tobacco jar was an impressive present, made up of two compartments, two lids, an ornate stand, and a discrete draw compartment. The design of the jar was also striking, featuring birds, nests, and a detailed snake coiled around it.

1897 was also the year in which Cliff House Pottery closed, as the business was struggling due to the rising cost of materials and the rise of cheaper imported ceramics. Despite this, the pottery has a lasting legacy of creating colourful and iconic wares which continue to be sought by collectors today.