by Lyndsay McGill, National Museums of Scotland
From about 1750 until the 1930s Scotland’s potteries were producing utilitarian and decorative wares for home and foreign markets. During the 19th century there was a fashion for figurines: highlanders / pipers, soldiers, sailors, peasants, fishermen and fisherwives, adorned mantel shelves all over the country. Potters drew on local inspiration and in the Forth Littoral there was perhaps up to ten potteries producing the highly popular ceramic fishwife, including Rathbone’s of Portobello, and numerous others in Prestonpans. Unfortunately, at present, no known marked example exists so attribution is always problematic and therefore open to re-interpretation. Some of the Staffordshire potteries also took a liking to the Newhaven fishwife and set about producing their own equivalent, thus adding to the difficulties of establishing a specific maker. Further excavations of these east coast potteries may, in time, provide more answers.
It is understandable why these characterful women caught the potter’s eye; their colourful costume, distinct with multiple striped petticoats not only made them popular with their customers, but during the 1883 London Fisheries Exhibition they made a notable impression on Queen Victoria and her son, the Prince of Wales. They also became a desirable subject for pioneering photographers David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson who regularly used the port of Newhaven as a subject matter.
One of the most discussed issues regarding the fishwives is their costumes. David Rye in his article describes the fisherwomen of the Newhaven area as wearing, ‘a long blue duffel jacket, with wide sleeves, a blue petticoat usually tucked up so as to form a pocket, and in order to show off their ample under petticoats of bright coloured woollen stripes’ (2003, 4). These were often red or yellow in colour. He also notes that by the time of the Fisheries Exhibition in 1883 the costume had ‘slimmed down… It was still a plain dress over striped petticoats, but these were fewer in number. The lace edged “mutch” caps were still present, but the cloaks and hood had replaced the stout duffel jacket’ (2003, 4). How accurate our ceramic fishwives are in terms of colour and style is debatable and certainly needs further research, however Rye’s descriptions are not dissimilar from our figures. One example clearly wears a stout blue duffel coat which according to Rye, had faded out of fashion by the 1880s and nearly all have turned up petticoats with striped versions underneath. The primary fishwife colours appear to have been blues, reds and yellows and all our ceramic ladies are painted as such, albeit the sequence may vary at times when compared against the real thing. Their baskets also appear to be accurate. The larger creel would contain the hefty loads of herring, haddock or shellfish, while the smaller rip, positioned on top, acted as the display basket while the ladies were out selling. Frequently, the ceramic figures have their creel and rip in front of them, in a prime selling stance, but it is equally common to have the baskets in a carrying position on their backs with the supporting band around their fore-head.
These little ladies are a colourful, couthy way of showing the vibrant nature of the fisherwomen of the Forth Littoral and their relationship with a bygone industry.
Rye, David 2003 ‘The Fishwives of Newhaven’, Supplement no.2 of ‘The Welsh Lady’, and occasional newsletter for collectors of Welsh costume postcards. Milford Haven.
Fisheries Exhibition 1883 ‘Fishwives’ and fishgirls’ costumes: a souvenir of the Fisheries Exhibition, 1883’. London.
Fleming, John Arnold 1923 ‘Scottish Pottery’. Glasgow.
Cruickshank, Graeme 2007 ‘Prestonpans Pottery: a definitive study of Scotland’s heritage’. Prestonpans.