Spurs and Stilts: The Spur Works at the Bovey Tracey Pottery Company
Malcolm Billinge September 2018
Spurs and stilts
Spurs and stilts are small, spikey ceramic pieces used to separate clay vessels when they are stacked inside saggers which themselves are stacked in kilns before firing. Collectively they are referred to as kiln furniture (Fig.1).
Figure 1. Examples of Bovey Tracey Spurs and Stilts. Malcolm Billinge 2017.
A newspaper article about the Bovey Pottery described how, ‘the dipped ware is then again consigned to the saggar – vey great care is required now to keep each piece separate, for should they come into contact during the firing, they would adhere together, and be entirely spoilt. For this purpose small tripod ‘spurs’ of clay are used, and the mark which they sometimes leave behind, may be occasionally seen at the bottom of cups and plates.’ (The Western Times 19 January 1850, p. 8).
In 1943 the ailing Folly Pottery on the House of Marbles site in Bovey Tracey had been bought by Capt. Thomas Wentworth Buller and John Divett. These two men had patented spurs and stilts but their claim was disputed by a Staffordshire businessman Mr Charles Ford who took them to court in 1850. Charles Ford claimed that he had patented this new kiln furniture in 1847 whereas Capt. Buller’s patent was dated 1849 (London Evening Standard 12 January 1850, p. 4). Despite the apparent primacy of Charles Ford’s claim, ‘He was not, however, permitted to enjoy the fruits of his invention uninterruptedly, for an infringement by Mr Buller, of the Bovey Tracey Pottery, Devon, led to a vexatious lawsuit, by which Mr Ford vindicated his rights, but in his case, he said, “the winner was a great loser”.’ (Staffordshire Sentinel 5 July 1877, p. 3). It would appear that even in death Charles was fated as in 1880 his wife was disputing his will (Staffordshire Sentinel 5 June 1880, p. 8).
Following the Great Midland Exhibition at Nottingham in 1850 a long article in the press describing the complete pottery process included, ‘a variety of contrivances, such as cock-spurs, triangles, stilts, pegs are adopted for the purpose of preventing adhesion’ within each sagger prior to the glazing-oven firing (Nottinghamshire Guardian 22 August 1850, p. 3).
Wentworth Buller and Jabez Mugford
In 1852 Capt. Buller died and his seventeen-year-old son Wentworth William Buller became co-owner of the Bovey Tracey Pottery Company with John Divett. The 1861 census recorded Wentworth living with his widowed mother at the family home of Strete Raleigh, Whimple along with thirty-one year old Jabez Mugford who was the Portreeve (or ‘mayor’) of Bovey Tracey and also the proprietor of the Union Hotel (The National Archives 1861 Census). Jabez helped in the construction of the Pottery leat which brought water to the Pottery from the Becky Falls area and he had caught the eye of Capt. Thomas Buller who enlisted him into the new company (The Western Times T 6 November 1894, p. 3).
Wentworth and Jabez became business partners and their interests took them to Staffordshire as well as to the Bovey Pottery. We know that Jabez travelled to Staffordshire because in 1860 there was a sale of ten horses and 130 hogsheads of cider and, ‘Mr Mugford’s business will, during the coming year, compel him to reside much in Staffordshire.’ (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 16 June 1860, p. 1). That same year Wentworth featured in a trade directory as a patent cockspur and stilt manufacturer with his Works at Joiner Square in Hanley, Staffordshire (P.O. Directory, 1860, p. 550).
In 1861 a deed of co-partnership was drawn up between Wentworth William Buller and Jabez Mugford, ‘to carry out the improved processes in the manufacture of earthenware invented by Thomas Wentworth Buller, now deceased.’ (Devon Record Office 46222M/T/18).
In 1862 Wentworth and Jabez submitted a patent for spur design and this, ‘Application No. 3194 by Buller, W. and Mugford, J. H. for improvements in spur supporting rings for fixing plates, dishes and other like articles in glost ovens’ was duly granted by June 1863 (London Evening Standard 6 December 1862, p. 7; Birmingham Daily Post 6 June 1863, p. 1).
With the rapid rise in industrialization there was concern about the danger to the health of the many children now employed within the pottery industry. In 1863 an article in the press expanded on these concerns and there was praise for Messrs. Buller and Mugford of Hanley whose workplace had overcome the ‘stove difficulty’, referring to the noxious heat and fumes more usually found in the pottery workplace (Staffordshire Sentinel 11 July 1863, p. 7).
With many new, speculative companies starting up in the mid-nineteenth century, litigation was commonplace. In 1866 Jabez Mugford was the plaintiff in a case involving the alleged undue transfer of shares and some over-charged interest. He was correctly described in court as an innkeeper (The Union Hotel, Bovey Tracey) and also a partner in Buller & Mugford, Staffordshire, ‘for making spurs.’ John Divett, co-owner of the Bovey Tracey Pottery Company, and close associate of Jabez was also involved in this lawsuit (The Western Times 20 March 1866, p. 2).
The Bovey Pottery Spur Works
Following Capt. Wentworth Buller’s death in 1852 Wentworth William Buller, as well as pursuing his business interests in Staffordshire which was the premier pottery centre in the country, assumed his family’s interest in the Bovey Pottery. He enlisted the help of Jabez Mugford to manage the Spur Works at the Pottery where spurs and stilts were made in large quantities. Today they are found in most Bovey Tracey gardens having been spread far and wide with other pottery waste over the years.
There was an important innovation at the Spur Works in 1857 as, ‘Mr Alfred Bodley, of Exeter, has recently erected for Wentworth Buller, Esq., a complete apparatus for manufacturing gas for lighting the ‘Spur Works’ of that town. On Tuesday, last week, they were lighted for the first time, and the occasion was celebrated by a tea, which was given by W. Buller, Esq., to all the workers. The apparatus, which has been erected under the superintendence of Mr Jabez Mugford, the indefatigable manager of the works, has given great satisfaction. A pleasant evening was spent, and the whole company were pleased with the inauguration.’ Furthermore, ‘Its construction was suggested by Mr Jabez Mugford, the talented manager of the works (The Western Times 28 November 1857, p. 5; Exeter Flying Post 3 December 1857, p. 5).
Whether the gas used in this lighting was manufactured from local lignite or imported coal is a question that remains unanswered but is explored in more detail in a separate article under ‘topics’.
The celebrations were attended by at least nine relatives from the Buller extended family, the majority of whom were living in Bovey Tracey, and they are the subject of companion articles accessible at this website.
As to the Pottery workers who made these small items we know that in 1861 William Sampson and his two step-daughters, living on East Street were, ‘makers of spurs and stilts at the Pottery’ and that Mary was aged eleven and Sarah twelve. In similar vein George Snow was a ten-year old spur-maker living on Pottery Road in the same dwelling as Grace Adams, an eighteen year-old spur-picker (Western Morning News 29 May 1860, p. 2; Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 8 May 1863, p. 7).
The Spur Works continued operating for many years. It was referred to in an 1866 newspaper account, ‘Bovey is famous for its beds of Bovey coal or lignite and fine china clay which has given rise to two extensive works in the neighbourhood – the Bovey Pottery Company and the Spar and Silt Biscuit Ware Company (sic).’ (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 8 June 1866, p. 6). We do not know exactly where the spur works were sited (Fig. 2.)
Figure 2 . The spur works were somewhere on the pottery site. David Lewis Collection.
The final newspaper reference to the Spur Works came in 1884 when the Cockspur Band from Bovey Tracey performed at the Newton Abbot carnival but the manufacture of these necessary little items continued into the twentieth century in Bovey Tracey (East and South Devon Advertiser 20 December 1884, p. 8).
The most recently published census, undertaken in 1911 recorded Emma Stevens, a fifty-three year old stilt-maker living at the Pottery Cottages. Emma had been born in Bovey Tracey and by 1881 she was married to Thomas, a presser at the Pottery. The couple were at the same location and with the same employment ten years later but now with an infant son. Emma continued to live near, and work at the Pottery but by 1901 she was a widow. She was by then employed as a gilder, later becoming, by 1911 a stilt-maker with her twenty-four year old son now a pottery presser like both his parents before him