More Respectable Than Formerly

Pattern inside, Davenport, 1805.

Monday 16th May, 1836

A large assortment of Pots at the Market today… but all was pretty quiet, there is no such uproar as there used to be with the Blackguards who attended. I think the Potters are rather more respectable than formerly…


[The Diary of Robert Sharp of South Cave, Life in a Yorkshire Village, 1812 – 1837, Ed. Janice E & Peter A. Crabtree, OUP, 1997].

Robert Sharp was a school-master and mordant observer of village life in late Georgian rural Yorkshire. His diaries are a fascinating glimpse into the everyday lives of rural people. I  read this and wondered why potters in particular, were seen as naturally disreputable?

Just a few miles down the road from Mr. Sharp, in the market-town of Selby, one of my great x 4 grandfathers, William Simpson, was a potter and earthenware dealer. His shop was on Gowthorpe – then as now, Selby’s main drag. He is listed as an earthenware dealer in Pigot’s Directory, 1829 and “China Dealer” on the 1841 Census.

When his children were born, his occupation was listed in the Selby parish records as “Potter”, which is how I know he made pots as well as sold them.   He probably made earthenware to sell to local farmers, and then dealt bought-in stock of  fancier china from Staffordshire and elsewhere.

His wife, Sarah Cay, came from a family who seem to have been both farmers and haulers on the river – rivers and canals were ideal for transporting pottery long distances. William and Sarah married in Hull, down the river, even though they both lived in Selby. William is only on one census – 1841 – where for birthplace we have the intriguing information “N” (“No”) for ‘Born in this county”.  As he was born around 1800, we have no birth certificate and no way of knowing which of the hundreds of William Simpsons born in England, he might have been.  But certainly by the 1820s, his father was trading as an earthenware dealer in Selby even if he was born out of the county.  On the 1851 census, widowed Sarah, still on Gowthorpe, rather grandly described herself as “Gentlewoman living on her own property”.  No mention of her selling china.

Willow pattern transferware would have been fairly cheap and cheerful. Yorkshire farmers have always kept and loved blue and white china, and in particular willow pattern. My mother used to tell me the story of willow pattern and as I have been foraging along the river for willow to weave, quite a bit recently, thoughts turned back to my mother’s love of willows and willow pattern (she had no idea she had an ancestor who made and sold pottery). When fieldwalking, one of the most common things you find round here are fragments of blue and white – more often than not, you’ll recognise an element of willow pattern. I’ve bought it for years, picked up shards of it from the fields, and generally loved it.

Last year, at a car boot sale in York, I paid just a pound or two for this lidless willow pattern soup tureen, which was in a pile of odds and ends laid out on the grass.  It makes a great wool holder. Turns out it was older than I thought and  firmly dateable – to 1805, when William Simpson Sr was making earthenware and selling china, also on Gowthorpe in Selby. And the sellers told me it came from the estate sale of a former Selby antiques dealer.

I wonder if it ever sat in the Simpsons’ shop?


Willow pattern, Davenport, 1805

At Old Willy’s One Night


Self Portrait, 1832; François Aimé Louis Dumoulin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Archives were shut, yesterday, for some reason or other so I had to content myself with the Reference Library instead. Ended up spending some time in the company of  Robert Sharp; a shepherd’s son who became schoolmaster at North Cave, East Riding of Yorkshire,  from 1804 to 1842.

To entertain his grown up son, who worked away in London, Robert kept a diary of everyday life in North Cave.  His extant letters to his son and the diaries that survive, are in print. Sharp was a radical, politically-inclined, mischievous man with a dry sense of humour and great fun to spend some time with, yesterday, as I scoured his diary and letters for clothing references.

Not clothing, this, it was just so random and silly I thought other fans of Georgian England would enjoy it:


Wednesday 20th January, 1830

I was at Old Willy’s one night smoking a pipe, and his Cat set on the Table , and the old Gentleman in a sort of half Doze, when I blew a quiff♥ up the cat’s nose – which made her jump clean over his head on the Flour bin,  and then off again, in a crazy sort of way. Bless me he says how my Cat jumps about, it must be a sign of bad weather.


♥ “QUIFF” meant “a curl”.



The Diary of Robert Sharp of South Cave. Life in a Yorkshire Village 1812- 1837,

Eds. Janice E Crowther and Peter A Crowther, Oxford University Press, 1997.