Belfields of Prestonpans
The story of the pottery firm and family of Charles Belfield illustrates the complexity of the ceramic industry in Prestonpans and vicinity. While in outline the story of the firm is straightforward, in detail there is still a lot to discover. Fortunately, such is the interest in Scottish ceramics, research continues and discoveries are regularly reported. Archaeology, often carried out under difficult circumstances and under time pressure has played its part, as has the collectors’ urge to assemble representative collections. However, archival research is at least as important. The collections of the John Gray Centre include examples of the company’s work, shards from excavations, published reports, and the resources for discovery – newspapers, photographs, maps, plans and records of every kind.
The early potteries of Prestonpans head-hunted skilled workers from English pottery centres. Their sons (and daughters) often followed the family profession. Charles Belfield was one such. Rising through the ranks, he was able to begin his own firm during the 1830s. By 1839 the firm of Charles Belfield and Sons appeared in trades directories; it was destined to become the longest lasting, and last, of the traditional Prestonpans pottery firms. The family connection remained throughout, albeit sometimes in partnership, and the century long span of the business was sustained by continual innovation – although favourites were not neglected: some pieces are known to have been made for fifty or more years.
At its outset the firm was able to buy bankrupt stock from previous businesses (which hasn’t helped in the process of unravelling the strands of the local industry) but soon began to introduce new lines. Drainage pipes became an early speciality. Sanitary ware followed, exploiting the Victorian boom in hygiene. Shards of bottles, pots and horticultural ceramics have turned up in excavations – usually without makers’ marks. The mainstay was always domestic wares, in a host of designs and decorative styles – spongeware, Rockingham, Majolica, transfer print, dipped, lustre; all had their place. Teapots reigned supreme amongst them all: 20 different designs are on a recently discovered catalogue and more are known.
The firm survived until the onset of the Second World War: the Prestonpans valuation roll of 1940 records the works as ‘silent’, testament to the end of an era.