Alan Hopwood, Burslem"When I recall my childhood I realise that I spent a lot of time around bottle ovens. When my father was demobbed, I was 7 and spent a lot of time around bottle ovens because he repaired and rebuilt a lot of them around Burslem. At that time they had been unused during World War II and the linings had gone, and were in need of re-lining. I spent a lot of time with him, once even holding a bottle oven up on tree trunks while the bottom was taken out and replaced. So you might say that I spent 10 years around bottle ovens, seeing how they were made and then working them as a oven 'oddman' now and then, until I was 17. Written May 2016
Recollections written in April 2015
Work on a PotbankI was 17 at the time when I did such work [on the potbank] but Don Carpentier (now deceased) thought that I was something special, just because I had shovelled coal into the mouths of a bottle oven as a matter of my routine work in the 1950s. All that I was doing at that time was trying to earn a living and only acted as oven 'oddman' now and then. Mr. Durber, an expert in his job, was forever passing his knowledge on to me as we worked. He was like an encyclopedia of bottle oven firing and it was a lot to take in. To me at that time it was a waste of time for rows of bottle ovens were dropping like ninepins to make way for the new tunnel kilns. All that I have is the experience and memories of doing that kind of work. I don't profess to being an expert.
Bottle ovens - building and repairWhen under construction and repair a lot of them [bottle ovens] collapsed. Of course in those times they didn't have ‘accro props’ and such like. My father once held a bottle oven up with steel girders and pit props whilst he took the bottom and the lining out of one at the Crownford works along Blake Street, Burslem in 1946. He was lucky. When somebody else tried it, it fell down into itself.
Bottle ovens - efficiencyWhen they were being fired it was all 'seat of the pants' stuff. On a 10-mouth oven we used to get through 40 tons of coal over 72 hours, some times more when firing a lot of flat ware to biscuit.
I would say that most of the heat went into heating the saggars. Then another waste of heat was letting the smoke out of the bags which then went straight up from the fire mouth and out through the top dampers on the dome. If a bung of saggars fell and crushed a flue there was a wasted fire so the 2 mouths each side of the flue were drawn up to try and compensate for the dead one to minimise loss. Strong winds drew fires to nothing. Yes, I have to agree, they weren't very efficient.
Recollections written in May 2016
Problems in the ovenWhile the kiln was being worked, all flues would have had a fireclay plug or a half inch thick metal plate over them. [This was to stop rubble dropping into the flues and blocking them up. A blocked flue in a bottle oven could signal a massive failure since the hot gases would be unable to circulate throughout the setting.]
In my own experience, we were firing an oven and heard a thump and straightaway fire shot out of the corresponding fire mouth. The fireman [responsible for the firing] did a lot of swearing and said “We've got trouble now! That's a bung of saggars falling across the flue pipe.”
If you're half way through the firing process and a firemouth becomes half choked, this affects three fires - the one which is choked and one on either side of it. In a case like this you have to draw the choked fire as best you can then overdraw the other 2 to try and keep a good heat in the affected area.
The experience of that fireman was such that we were successful in firing the problem oven with very little ware needing a refire. That old man learned me a lot in a few months - it will keep you in good stead.
Those were the days when bottle ovens were falling like ninepins.
Downdraught OvensThe usual downdraught kiln was a 'beehive' shape with 10 fire mouths and a free-standing chimney, a few yards away. Then there were a series of flues going underground from the beehive to the chimney. At the bottom of the chimney was a big firehole.
This type of kiln was quite devilish to get going. A good fire was made up in the chimney so as to get a good draught through the flues from the beehive itself. Then you lit the fires round the beehive but as I said before it was quite sluggish at first. All the heat in this case was collected in the dome and was then drawn down through whatever wares were being fired, through the flues and across the yard to the free standing chimney.
I wouldn't like to guess what the temperatures were in these kilns but when one looked through the spyholes the light inside was more silver or even electric blue, instead of gold to white as in an updraught kiln.
For definitions of unusual Potteries words go to The Potbank Dictionary here>