“This pottery is thought to be the finest remaining example of a Victorian ‘country’ pottery and is a great rarity in the South of England.” – the citation from the Farnham Pottery entry in the Statutory List of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest.
The Farnham Pottery In Wrecclesham is recognised as a sole survivor of the brick making and pottery industry that arose over the centuries in and around Farnham. A major pottery industry existed in the area in Roman times and in the 16th and 17th centuries the Surrey and Hampshire Border Wares were noted for a distinctive green-glazed pottery.
The Farnham Pottery, trading as A. Harris & Sons, was established in 1873 by Absalom Harris (1837-1927) , and was run by five successive generations of the Harris family until 2000, when the business closed. Absalom was already an established potter, having previously set up sites in Elstead, Surrey in 1858, and in Alice Holt Forest, south west of Farnham, in 1866, before purchasing a farmhouse and land at Clay Hill, Wrecclesham, in 1873. As the road name suggests, there was abundant suitable clay on the site, and the pottery had its own claypit nearby with a small railway to bring the trucks to the working area. Clay Hill is now called Pottery Lane.
At first, the pottery produced mainly domestic and horticultural red ware, but from the late 1880s onwards they began to exploit the popularity of the Arts and Crafts movement, producing products in the Art Nouveau style which eventually led to the introduction of green-glazed art wares. Links with the Farnham School of Art were formed, and the pottery’s art-ware designs were sold in Liberty’s, Heals and Harrods. Absalom’s own daughters Gertrude and Nellie made architectural and ornamental products, and clients included Gertrude Jekyll, the architect Harold Falkner, the author George Sturt and Mary Watts, the designer and wife of the eminent artist George Frederick Watts.
During the 1920s the popularity of arts and crafts wares declined, but the pottery produced quantities of building materials including extruded bricks and interlocking tiles, and thrown items such as chimney pots and rainwater hoppers. They also produced moulded and pressed items such as mullions, transoms and window sills. Much of this production was used in the local area, but some was exported overseas. The green glazed tiles on the roof of the toilet block were left over from an order for Rangoon.
The business went into a long decline after World War Two, but the link with the Farnham School of Art continued, and student potters, including Terance Conran and Lord David Queensbury, who trained at the art school, gained experience at the pottery. However the pottery could not compete with larger manufacturers and the art-ware work lost its popularity. The main production was in horticultural items, with a few bespoke pieces. Large scale commercial production ceased in the 1980s, though work continued on a small scale. Two thirds of the site was sold off and the land developed with housing, but even this injection of capital failed to keep the business going and the buildings were in a state of serious dilapidation.
Ironically, the result of the long slow decline meant that the buildings were not updated or modernised, apart from the conversion of one of the two remaining kilns to gas power. Much of the old equipment was still in use, and when the pottery was recorded by the RCHME in 1999 it was described as one of the best preserved examples of a Victorian country pottery left anywhere in England.
In 1998, the then owners of the pottery, brothers Philip and David Harris, decided to sell the property and developers were ready to move in and clear the site for new housing. At the time the buildings were only locally listed (the old Grade III). However the Harrises wanted the buildings to be preserved if possible, and they approached the Farnham Building Preservation Trust, which was able to acquire the whole site.
In 1999, when they were still partly in use as a working pottery, the Farnham Pottery buildings were documented by Adam Menuge and Andrew Williams in a report for the Royal Commission for Historic Monuments in England, which was the basis for Grade II listing of the buildings that year. The listing was upgraded in 2011 with the whole site divided into four parts: the entrance block; the pottery workshops and kiln; the block comprising the former forge, mess room and garage; and the toilet block. The kiln, the last survivor of five previously on the site, is incorrectly called a bottle kiln – it is more properly described as a wood-fired circular double-flued updraught kiln.
The purchase agreement included a condition that a section of the buildings should be restored and made available to Philip Harris to rent and continue the business. Philip Harris planned to rebuild the gas powered kiln. The Farnham Trust completed the building work at the end of 1998, and Philip moved in, but the kiln was not rebuilt and due to other commitments he was unable to make the business pay. The lease was finally surrendered in 2000 and the business of A. Harris & Sons ceased to trade.
The Farnham Trust then continued a gradual programme of restoration of the buildings, carefully retaining their character, and letting spaces as they became usable to creative groups. The first tenant was the prestigious West Street Potters, named after their original premises in Farnham when they were set up after the Second World War as part of the then Farnham School of Art. Tutors then included Henry Hammond and Siddiq el-Nigoumi. In 1999 the art school wished to dispose of the West Street premises, and West Street Potters became an independent company which is now firmly established at the Farnham Pottery, running courses and with more than a hundred students.
By 2011, the Farnham Trust had made all the dilapidated buildings structurally sound, with extensive re-roofing, and the site was put on the market. It was purchased by private owners Guy and Elaine Hains, who are gradually completing the restoration of the buildings and letting them to creative and ceramic groups as well as small creative industries.