When ceramicist and academic Kate Wilson moved to Somerset seven years ago, she knew cider would play a part in her life. “You can’t be here long without becoming aware of the ‘cultural activities’ relating to cider,” she laughs. But what she didn’t realise was just how big a part it would play.
“I’d just finished my masters in ceramics when I heard that Gaymers (now the Shepton Mallet Cider Mill) had a cider mug collection,” she says. “I got in touch with them, hoping it might inspire my making – but as soon as I saw what they had, I realised it would make the most fantastic research project.”
What Kate found was over 400 different cider mugs dating back to 1780s, the remainder of a collection started by the Taunton Cider Company (later acquired by Gaymers) in the 1970s.
“The managing director there, Miles Roberts, thought they needed something to decorate the factory’s cider house, Home Place, and started collecting mugs from pubs and people in the area,” says Kate.
The south-west has a strong cider-making tradition. In 1877 there were 44,000 acres of orchards in Devon and Somerset alone and many farm workers would have received up to a fifth of their wages in cider. Cider houses dotted the countryside and ceramic mugs, often holding a quart (two pints), were used right up until the 1960s.
At its height, the collection numbered over 1,200 pieces and, even in it’s somewhat shrunken state today, it is still remarkable for its variety and breadth, encompassing sprigwares, transferwares, delicate pink lustrewares, blue-and-white, stonewares and more, in all shapes and sizes. Some of the mugs boast interesting ‘additions’.
“What I love about collection is that all these mugs represent a person. A mug with one handle was a man’s on to hang up at his local; a mug with two handles was meant to be shared, handed round in the wassailing ceremonies when people went down to the orchards to toast the health of the trees.Even the mugs that the cider houses had for their customers are so much more interesting than the blend glasses you find in pubs now,” says Kate, talking about a collection of Mochaware, and some pink and green mugs made by TG Green in the 1930s.
Any name or image that appears on a mug is tracked down through local archives and genealogy websites. Kate has traced a certain Moses Coppick – a name appearing on a sizeable burgundy mug of 1877 – to the Staffordshire potteries.
These mysteries are all part of attraction for Kate. “In a way, the collection is quite indiscriminate, consisting of whatever pieces people offered it, but I have no doubt that many of these objects would have disappeared had Miles not rescued them. The downside is that there’s no history of ownership. I know we’re talking 30-plus years ago but I wonder if people recognise any of these mugs. It would be wonderful to flesh out some more details about them and bring them to life again.”