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Ceramics: Wartime Heroes Slip the Collector’s Net

by priceminer (06/01/09).

A ceramics worker paints a design onto a plate with enamel at the J & G Meakin factory in Hanley. These plates were to be exported to South America to generate income for the battered British economy during World War Two.

A ceramics worker paints a design onto a plate with enamel at the J & G Meakin factory in Hanley. These plates were to be exported to South America to generate income for the battered British economy during World War Two.

The Second World War has been described and examined from every angle possible and still holds a great fascination for many people. A wide variety of wartime memorabilia stands as evidence of this turbulent phase, and much of this memorabilia is highly regarded (and equally highly valued). However, one of the categories of wartime memorabilia that has so far escaped the attention of collectors is that of English wartime ceramics. These are charming pieces which are easy enough to spot, once you know what you are looking for.

These items often pass themselves off as run of the mill pieces and are easy to miss, but do not be fooled by their mundane guise; they are witness to the most dramatic and pivotal event in our history and stand as testimony to the wartime spirit of the British people. The fact that these items can be dated accurately only adds to their appeal. Snap them up now while they are cheap, as when word gets out, they will be much collected.

A 9-piece child’s tea set with a floral pattern and bright colors with green banding produced in England under the conditions set by the British Board of Trade.

A 9-piece child’s tea set with a floral pattern and bright colors with green banding produced in England under the conditions set by the British Board of Trade.

While the Second World War broke out in 1939, but it was not until 1942 that it was to have any real impact on the ceramics industry in Great Britton, when approximately half of the 42,000 pottery workers in the country had been diverted to wartime work of one kind or another. The effect of losing half of the workforce, in addition to the higher than normal occurrence of breakages, had caused desperate shortages of most of the basic crockery. It was the state of this dire shortage that caused the British government to step in and take control of the ceramics industry; the Board of Trade controlled the pottery industry throughout the war and afterwards, until regulations were lifted in 1952. The changes largely took the form of concentration, and were catastrophic.

The aims of this rationalization plan were threefold: Firstly, they required pottery manufacturers to produce the everyday crockery while using as little resources as possible. Secondly, in the interests of equity during this national crisis, they needed to keep a strict control over prices charged for the pots sold at home. Pots were indelibly marked, under the glaze, with an A, B or C, to indicate the price band. Finally, manufacturers were required to produce decorated goods, but only for export to earn dollars, which were vital to rebuilding the country and its economy.

An English wartime ceramic fish platter, luncheon plates and a sauce boat, produced by Burgess & Leigh Ltd., Burslem, England.

An English wartime ceramic fish platter, luncheon plates and a sauce boat, produced by Burgess & Leigh Ltd., Burslem, England.

The wartime ceramics were given an interesting dimension in 1945, when there were calls to relax the tight controls over the pottery industry. The concern of the government was still fixed on building up the export pottery trade and it was reluctant to lift the controls entirely. Ultimately, the government and ceramics companies reached a compromise that allowed a limited number of manufacturers to produce decorated goods to be sold to the home market. These decorated wares were known as “fancies,” and continued to be marked with the price band letter. These fancies can be found in a wide variety of patterns. They can be easily spotted as they are decorated, have a price band mark, and were made by a limited number of manufacturers.

The final twist in the wartime ceramics tale came in 1947, when the Board of Trade submitted to pressure from pottery manufacturers concerned about the continuing restrictions, and altered the production groupings widening what was allowed to be made. These new groups were given the markings CY, CZ and BY. As before, these letters referred to the maximum price to be charged.

Ceramics: Wartime Heros Slip the Collector’s Net

More decorated wares: The letters on tht bottom of the pieces indicated the price band.

The wartime restrictions over the pottery industry were finally discontinued in August of 1952, as all controls of the pottery industry were lifted. After 10 long years, the British pottery industry was free. But the wartime wares linger as a veiled reminder of this distant drama, like stars incognito. The lack of knowledge and recognition of these pieces seems like a kind of ingratitude. It is, after all, the small things in life that make the difference. If the British people had not accepted the resource-saving wartime wares, we might have lost the war.

by Cherry Nixon

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