When a Derbyshire entrepreneur called William Bourne founded a pottery in 1809, on the site of a seam of clay that had been discovered during the construction of a new road, he could hardly have imagined that two centuries later it would not only still be going, but have had its work beamed into millions of households around the world.
Yet the dramatic finale of Korean thriller Squid Game, which became Netflix’s most-watched series after its September 2021 release, featured something that caused a stir 5,500 miles away.
A Denby teacup.
‘I was getting texts from people going, “You’re on Squid Game!”’ says global marketing director Hayley Baddiley. ‘I was like, “Well, Denby is pretty iconic out there.”’
Korean culture may have permeated Britain, giving us skincare, pop music and food – but we’re giving something back, too. Along with brands such as Brompton, BrewDog and Jo Malone, this traditional English pottery has been steadily increasing its presence in South Korea, which now accounts for a third of total sales.
There is even a Denby office in Gangnam, made famous internationally by the song Gangnam Style, about the Seoul district’s fashionable lifestyle. It is youngsters with disposable income and an obsession with showing off their homes on social media who have, to Denby’s astonishment, made it a luxury brand there on a par with names such as Chanel.
The business has swerved. One-colour (often brown) 30-piece sets have made way for Instagram-friendly mix-and-match tableware in modern shades. It means that where the brand made just three bowls for the UK market in the 1970s, today it produces more than 40 – including those to hold rice, ramen and kimchi, and a cup for soju, Korea’s vodka-like spirit.
On an overcast Wednesday in the Denby pottery, endless trolleys of those bowls – as well as mugs, pots and plates – line the factory floor. Some are awaiting handles or spouts. Others have been on their first journey through the giant 50-year-old gas kilns, which run 24/7 and can bake 15,000 items simultaneously, and are ready to be glazed before entering the fire once more at 1,200C. So thick are the kiln walls that even standing at the open mouth of the flaming beast feels no warmer than a mild spring day.
All around, machines are clanking in the pursuit of ceramic elegance. Denby produces about 160,000 pieces a week and much is still done by hand by its 473 manual workers, a third of whom are female. Today, one woman is dipping teapots into a washing-up bowl of liquid glaze and tells me she will get through 600 in her shift. Nearby, another is using a brush to paint spouts. A male potter takes plates from the rapidly spinning machine that has made them and smooths rough edges with a sponge. Each finished Denby piece, it is said, will have had ‘20 pairs of hands’ on it – something to think about next time you cradle a steaming cuppa.
‘We still use a lot of techniques that William Bourne would recognise from 1809,’ says Baddiley.
They do not part with traditional ways easily: even in the 1940s, carts of clay were pulled by shire horses. Making pots was for men, delicate painting for women. Many workers began and ended their careers here, generations of the same family potting side by side.
With 50 years’ service, Iain Lyne-Watt, 66, is currently Denby’s longest-serving potter. He was once a lathe turner, carving pots by hand and getting through 90 mugs an hour (today’s machines can do 840). But while he expresses sadness at having lost a ‘lovely skill’, he tries not to romanticise the past.
‘We used to have to wrap our fingers up in tape because the pieces made on the wheel were rough – it would cut away your skin. In a way it was a relief when the machines came in,’ he says. ‘It was a bit like a workhouse, it was that hard. You never stopped, because if you didn’t get your numbers done you wouldn’t get paid as much. It’s better now, but I don’t think a lot of today’s people would be able to work how we used to.’
Made in England
This modern mix of automation and people power seems to capture the identity crisis the old-fashioned pottery industry has faced, with the rise of TV dinners and affordable crockery sold by Ikea and in supermarkets. Perhaps the most obvious symbol of its decline are Stoke-on-Trent’s brick ‘bottle ovens’, which once famously dominated the North Staffordshire skyline.
JB Priestley, in his 1934 English Journey, called them ‘a fantastic collection of narrow-necked jars or bottles, peeping above the housetops on every side, looking as if giant biblical characters, after a search for oil or wine, had popped them there, among the dwarf streets’. Of 2,000, 47 remain. Many potteries have closed, and ceramics employment in Stoke has fallen from 45,000 in 1975 to about 7,000.
Baddiley calls it ‘tragic’ and points to the decision by some companies to move the majority of their manufacture overseas to cut costs. Indeed, Denby’s biggest selling point is that it has kept its entire stoneware production on the original site – and has recently begun porcelain production in-house, too. ‘It’s rare now to genuinely be “made in England”, and not just be playing on your heritage,’ says Baddiley. ‘We’re very proud of it and people see it as a mark of quality.’
Also a source of pride is the brand’s ‘zero to landfill’ status for process waste – meaning it is ploughed back into manufacture or sent away to be recycled, with glazed pots that don’t pass quality checks, for instance, ground down into materials for road building. Denby also signed a solar power partnership this year, with Ylem Energy, expected to provide a third of the pottery’s electricity.
Due to modern restrictions, its clay can no longer be dug up from the original seam alongside the factory, but the latest batch was mined two miles away in 2014. Expected to last 12 more years, it sits beside the canteen in a vast grey pile covered in sprouting vegetation, like something out of Jurassic Park.
This heritage, sustainability and locally focused ethos are what, says Baddiley, made Denby ‘recession-proof’. It’s a big claim. Denby has survived countless financial woes – just. Having stayed in the Bourne family until the 1940s, the past few decades have been a roller coaster of insolvency, management buyouts, and floating on the stock market before returning to private ownership. In 2013, factory staff held strikes over a pay freeze, after which a new pay offer was made.
Current owner Hilco rescued it from the brink of administration during the 2009 financial crash. The private equity firm – named in reports following the 2017 Paradise Papers document leak, in which it was claimed that the purchase of the headquarters was structured through an Isle of Man company to lawfully reduce tax liability, and on which Hilco has never commented – put Denby up for sale in 2014 before changing its mind in the wake of healthy sales and bringing in Sebastian Lazell, formerly of Unilever, as CEO. Now it is open to offers again, though Baddiley is tight-lipped on whether anyone has bid. ‘Hilco know we need an investor who understands international growth,’ she says. ‘Can we make China the next Korea?’
In March 2020, at the start of the pandemic, Denby found itself in uncharted territory. The pottery – which had stayed open during both world wars, manufacturing telegraphic insulators, battery jars and pots to hold the Navy’s rum rations – downed tools for 11 weeks for the first time in its history.
‘We didn’t know if demand would go through the floor, so we battened down the hatches,’ says Baddiley. ‘Then the opposite started happening. People were sorting out the cupboards, working from home and buying more takeaways, and wanted decent crockery. We were blown away.’
Over the past four years, Denby’s online sales have doubled and the age of its average engaged customer has dropped from 45 to 35. The success of The Great Pottery Throw Down, which aired its fifth series on Channel 4 this year, has helped – contributing to huge demand for pottery classes the country over. My class in London has a three-year waiting list.
Denby has introduced its own ‘pottery throwing experience’, costing £40. They sell out online within minutes and, compared to pre-pandemic, visitor numbers to its Pottery Village are up 30 per cent. Nor are devotees shy about writing and calling to make their opinions known.
‘A woman phoned recently and said ours was the best mug she’d ever had because her hands shake and she can carry it without spilling any tea,’ says design director Richard Eaton, whose team has previously made two-handed mugs for customers with Parkinson’s.
‘Oh, and somebody recently sent me a scrap of paper on which they’d designed something called an egg separator. It was such a nice letter, so I’ve got the team to make her one.’ A bespoke piece of Denby? Don’t all write at once…
Eaton, the design head for 35 years, runs a team of 13 who produce 10 to 15 new ranges a year, and are responsible for a number of clever features. New mugs are made to sit under Nespresso machines. Cereal bowls are sized to fit two Weetabix side by side. Medium plates fit over pasta bowls, like lids, so there’s no need to use cling film for leftovers. And – my favourite – lasagne dishes are made to accommodate pasta sheets, so you never have to snap one in half.
Eaton is also adamant that Denby is near impossible to break, telling me that the night before his wedding, somewhat inebriated, he dropped a mug on his Royal Doulton loo. The seat smashed. The mug – you guessed it – didn’t even chip.
But the real key to the brand’s longevity, he says, is that it has always ‘designed for the era’. Or as Baddiley puts it: ‘Don’t be so arrogant to think that your designs are what people want without really asking them.’
It’s this approach they think will see the pottery through another two centuries – despite concerns about the energy crisis, not ideal for a business that runs gas kilns.
‘Inevitably it creates an extra cost and we’re trying really hard to absorb some of that because you don’t want to just keep passing on price increases,’ says Baddiley. ‘Goodness knows what will happen next year. But we’re not worried, we’ve weathered the storms for over 200 years.’
As JB Priestley put it, ‘May the orders pour in… may cups and saucers and plates and teapots rush like magic out of the clay; may the ovens never grow cold.’