In 1790 James Taylor, who deserves a book to himself, such were his talents and enterprises, from very humble beginnings, was employed by the Earl of Dumfries to carry out a survey and report on minerals found on the Dumfries Estate. In 1792, Taylor was contracted to manage ‘the Lime Works, Ironstone, Clays, Leads‘ etc. His contract was to last 40 years!
The Countess of Dumfries was heavily involved with her husband in the development of the estate and took particular interest in the pottery. Three potters, the brothers James, John and David Henderson, were employed to work there. They were from Glasgow. The principal production is thought to have been crucibles for smelting, coarse earthenware and lead for pencils. The pottery was not a success and closed in 1795 for about two years.
Taylor opened and managed the pottery again. He found it difficult to make money from this venture. The pottery had difficult transport links, the roads were bad and there was no local canal. He invested his own money in the pottery and along with his many other responsibilities this took a toll on his health. The new Earl was not really supportive at this point.Taylor died in 1825 and his son Robert continued to run the works.
Robert Taylor was only 22 years old when he took on a 15 year lease of the pottery. He undertook not only to pay his own rent on the pottery but to pay off his father’s rent arrears. This was obviously a drain on Robert’s finances and he agreed with Lord Bute to advertise the lease in November 1830 but there were no takers. Taylor therefore continued and also assisted in the running of The Burnfoot Tile Works. Around this time, Alexander Hamilton, son of Gavin Hamilton, Robert Burn’s friend, became involved at Burnfoot and wished to enter into a partnership with Taylor at Cumnock, however Taylor withdrew from this. Hamilton ran the pottery as The Cumnock Pottery and Tile Co. and thoroughly modernised the works.
Unfortunately, Hamilton died in 1839 and from that date until 1856, the pottery was run by the Trustees of Alexander Hamilton, one of whom was his wife, Mary Hamilton. In 1848, she and the other trustees decided to sublet the pottery. This seemingly coincided with the opening of the Cumnock Extension Railway and the Dumfries/Carlisle Railway. Interested parties were to be shown round by Mr James McGavin Nicol who was probably the salesman for the pottery at the time. The senior potter was James Rogerson who was a son of the previous senior potter, Thomas Rogerson.
In 1852 Nicol was appointed manager and in 1856 he became proprietor. His father was a Cumnock grocer. Cumnock was growing fast at this point, in 1831 there was a population of 1,013, 10 years later – 2,836 and in 1854 – 3,376. Nicol opened a retail outlet in Cumnock and sold through Caulfield & Co. wholesale and retail earthenware, china and glass dealers . They had a large warehouse in Glasgow. Nicol also promoted motto ware and also produced large sgraffito bowls as well as saut (salt) buckets, many of these using slip decoration techniques.
In 1871, 9 adults and 6 young people were employed. An advertisement, of 1872, stated that the pottery produced ‘ Black, brown, cane and Rockingham ware.’ They were also china and glass merchants as well as being brick and tile manufacturers. By 1881, there were 20 employees. Nicol died in 1886 aged 67.
He had set up a trust the previous year in favour of his wife, his stepson David Dunsmor and his son James. They continued to run the pottery with Dunsmor as Clerk and Pottery Salesman and James Nicol junior, Potter, the main players. They had a showroom in London for their wares especially ‘Ye Auld Scottis (not Scottish) Motto Ware. James Nicol was enticed south in 1901 by Mrs G. F. Watts to set up and manage the Compton Pottery, near Guildford. (Mrs Watts also set up the Aldourie Pottery near Inverness.)
Mrs Annie Clarkson Nicol died in 1906 and the other shareholders disposed of their shares to her sons William Nicol and David Dunsmor.
In 1920, the pottery company was dissolved by mutual consent.
In an advert of 1839, the pottery stated that it made black, brown, plain and ornamented earthenwares from a gill jug to a four-gallon crock and a three foot chimney can, common and fine bricks, house, kiln and drain tiles, for the domestic market.
Initially a local pottery, they are famed for their “Motto ware” – Sgraffito decoration of Scots phrases, which was only produced latterly. The family all contributed couthy sayings.
Plates, jugs, salt buckets, bowls, etc were made.
The daughter of James Nicol, junior claimed that Cumnock Pottery invented Motto Ware and the other potteries copied them, but this has not been verified.
One reliable identifying sign that a piece was made at Cumnock are the extra squiggles below the motto or on the reverse of the item.
Most pieces are unmarked, but some have handwritten incised ‘Cumnock NB’.
There was a myth circulating that NB stood for the surnames of the last potters, but alas, is simply refers to North Britain, or Scotland.
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- No patterns were used