The family pottery firm in the Yorkshire Dales enjoying a sales boom thanks to Brexit and Covid-19

Covid-19 vases and Brexit mugs that leak have made headlines for Bentham Pottery but the regular trade of commemorative mugs for running events, domestic ceramic pottery sold through craft shops, and hosting pottery courses has “fallen off the end of a large cliff”, said Lee Cartledge at the pottery’s base at Oysterber Farm in Low Bentham.
Lee Cartledge and his mother Kathy at work in their pottery studioLee Cartledge and his mother Kathy at work in their pottery studio
Lee Cartledge and his mother Kathy at work in their pottery studio

“Since March last year our race orders, except for one virtual race, have all cancelled and they made up around 60 per cent of our regular business. I’m presently making stock for future events and craft shops.”

Ironically, it was Lee’s Covid-19 vase that saw him through the first lockdown.

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“I came up with it in February last year before we knew what we now know about the virus and the impact it has had,” said Lee. “I was fascinated by the graphic image being shown of the virus and had a strong desire to interpret it in clay. I initially thought of a mug but realised the enclosed shape was better suited to a vase.

Lee has written a book about an eminent potter who lived on their farm in the 1970sLee has written a book about an eminent potter who lived on their farm in the 1970s
Lee has written a book about an eminent potter who lived on their farm in the 1970s

“I put a photograph on Facebook and immediately had enquiries. I hadn’t planned on making them commercially but with the interest shown I decided on a limited run. I sold a significant number to doctors, nurses and medical research scientists, the very people who were battling the virus in real life.”

The vase has received a mixed response and Lee totally understands.

“Some have taken offence to them and it was a bit surreal once we knew the impact Covid-19 was having, but for me it was simply about making something different inspired by the graphics. They are only a limited run and I have raised funds for several charities at the same time.

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“The only really hard element in making them was in throwing and turning the enclosed shape. Sticking on the 48 antennas was easy but exceedingly boring and time-consuming.”

Lee’s mum Kathy trained at Poole Pottery in Blackpool before initially setting up her business in the family’s garage at their home in Thornton-Cleveleys near Fleetwood. The move to Yorkshire in the summer of 1976 was partly down to his dad, Barrie, and recognition of tourism potential.

“Dad enjoyed caving and had fallen in love with the Yorkshire Dales. They took on five acres and the farmhouse here at Low Bentham when I was nine years old. I always remember making animals and Daleks out of clay when I was younger, but I hadn’t seen myself coming into the trade.”

The arrival of 84-year-old Richard Bateson at Oysterber in 1977 and the year that followed was a seminal moment for Kathy. Lee has recently released a book all about the man who was a potter for over 70 years.

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“Richard came in one day, asking to use our potter’s wheel to show his grandchildren what he could do. Mum had no idea who he was, but he turned out to be a throwing genius and stayed with us for 12 months.

“Mum learned so much from him. He had the last pottery in Burton in Lonsdale, which was well-known as a potter’s village from the 17th century until the end of the Second World War.

“He had run Waterside Pottery in Burton in Lonsdale, which had once been home to 14 potteries. In those days the village was also known as Black Burton due to the smoke from the kilns.

He taught at the Royal College of Art when it had been evacuated to Ambleside in 1940, and in 1944 when it moved back he was asked to go to London. He trained notable studio potters David Frith and Alan Caiger-Smith.”

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Running pottery courses took off in 2015 thanks to television.

“We had run courses for a number of years but the TV show The Great Pottery Throwdown had a huge impact and suddenly everyone wanted to learn. A new series started in January this year. We’re looking forward to getting back to hosting our own courses soon.”

Lee studied 3D Design, Glass and Ceramics at Sunderland Polytechnic and has been a glassblower in Dorset and New Zealand. He returned home in the 1980s and having been inspired by the reaction he received to Bentham Pottery’s wares at a craft fair held at Ripley Castle, he began building their brand that includes his mum’s renowned Bentham Blue range of kitchenware.

Commemorative mugs for fell races and other running events have become hugely popular in recent years.

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“We have one event that we normally supply with 600-700 mugs every year, with everything hand thrown and with the race name and year all recessed into the mug.

“The Brexit mug was an idea I came up with having become frustrated with the negotiations in November 2019.

“It just came to me to produce a mug that didn’t work and so I carved out the letters through the side of each mug. The Victoria & Albert Museum emailed about buying one for an exhibition.”