Pots from the Past
Housework finished, I was about to sit down with a well-deserved cup of tea when the doorbell rang. NO! I thought, I am NOT answering. But I couldn’t resist peeking, and saw there were two women standing on the doorstep. Jehovah’s Witnesses, no doubt. Ignore them and they’ll go away. Only they didn’t. The bell rang again, more insistently. I put down my cup and opened the door.
“I’m a Pentecostal,” I announced. That usually gets rid of them. These two looked baffled, however.
“I’m born again,” I continued. Jehovah’s Witnesses rarely argue with charismatics, I’ve discovered. But these two didn’t react.
“That’s nice,” said the taller of the two, a middle-aged lady with a pleasant smile. “I’m sorry for disturbing you, but I really couldn’t pass by without stopping to see if anyone’s in. You see, this used to be our house … when I was a little girl. I have so many memories …”
I felt myself blushing.
“Oh dear,” I said. “I thought you were Jehovah’s Witnesses. I’m sorry. Please come in, I’ve just made some tea.”
I opened the door wide and they both stepped inside. Now I could see that they were very clearly mother and daughter, the middle-aged lady a younger version of the elderly lady beside her.
“My name’s Margaret Anderson. We moved away from the area a long time ago, but I just happened to be visiting old friends and couldn’t help coming by to see if the old place has changed much.”
I ushered them into the living room, glad I had finished my cleaning. They looked around with interest and I invited them to sit down on the sofa while I added two more mugs of tea.
“You’ve made it very cosy,” said Margaret. Her mother nodded and smiled. “It’s quite different in some ways, but I see you have kept some of the original features.”
“I like the old fireplace,” I told her, “Though of course it’s no longer in use.”
“Ah yes, we had central heating installed,” replied Margaret, “And wall-to-wall carpeting.”
I looked down at the thinning carpet, and explained that we were about to replace it, a DIY job scheduled for the coming week
“There used to be oak parquet underneath,” Margaret said. “You might find it’s still there, quite fashionable again nowadays.”
Since I had made the beds, vacuumed and dusted everywhere, I offered to show them upstairs. They rose eagerly, and followed me, Margaret explaining animatedly how it had been in her youth and who had slept where.
“What do you use the loft for now?” she asked suddenly.
I looked blank.
“The loft? Nothing – it’s just roof space,” I said.
Margaret looked surprised.
“We had it made into a den for my brother. He used to spend hours up there!”
I looked up at the narrow trapdoor in the ceiling.
“How did he get in?”
“There was a telescopic ladder fixed onto the trapdoor. It drops down when you open the trap.” She looked around. “We had a long pole with a hook on the end to open it with, but I don’t see that anywhere.”
I was startled. We had lived in this house for five years and nobody had ever thought of opening that little trapdoor or exploring the roof space.
As we returned downstairs, Margaret told me a little more about her family. The house had been built in the nineteen-thirties for her grandparents, and her mother had been born there. Her grandfather had been killed in World War II, and her grandmother had brought up her only child alone. When this daughter – Margaret’s mother – married, she and her husband had moved in with the old lady, and Margaret had also been born there.
“It was always a very happy house,” she told me, and again her mother nodded and smiled. “We were sorry to leave, but you know how these things are. I never knew my grandfather, of course, but he worked for The Ruskin Pottery, works manager or something. He bought this house, brand new, with the money he got when it closed down and when I was small, I remember my grandmother still had quite a few pieces of Ruskin pottery. No idea what happened to them – they’d be worth a bit nowadays.”
I hadn’t a clue what she was talking about, but politely didn’t let on. I noticed that the old lady was staring very hard at the corner of the room in the alcove next to the fireplace, but she didn’t say anything. I followed her eyes, but could see nothing unusual there. She noticed, blinked and smiled, then looked away.
After they left, I sat for a moment musing about my visitors. It must be strange coming back to your childhood home after so many years, I thought, and seeing how so many things had changed.
Why had nobody told us about the loft?
I was curious. I took a chair from my bedroom and placed it below the trapdoor. The catch was difficult to budge as someone had painted over it, but eventually I managed to open it and pushed the little door upwards. A cloud of dust enveloped my head, but I reached up into the opening all the same. Yes, there was a telescopic ladder attached to the back of the door, fastened with a leather strap. I released it, letting the ladder down and bringing more dust down with it but I was too intrigued by my discovery to bother about that. I climbed up the ladder and through the hole.
To my astonishment, I realised that there were floorboards there, and dustsheets spread over what appeared to be items of furniture. It was very dark, but as I groped around I discovered a light switch on a wooden beam. Amazingly, when I pressed it, a light went on!
Yes, the dustsheets covered chairs and probably a table. But the most surprising thing was that the wooden floor was covered in miniature railway tracks, and I could see several very dusty boxes piled up to one side with pictures of trains on them. Why had nobody told us about this? Surely the estate agent must have known that they were there?
When my husband came home, I told him about my visitors and my discovery. We hauled the vacuum cleaner plus a mop and several damp rags up into the loft, and removed quite a lot of dust. It was quite a comfortable room that emerged, and I could well imagine that a young boy and his pals might have been very happy playing with their trains, or lounging about reading their comics away from the adults. Yes, there were old comics there and my husband got quite excited as he realised that the comics as well as the trains and the railway track were still in excellent shape and probably quite valuable.
“I suppose this all belongs to Margaret,” I remarked. My husband shook his head.
“We bought the house and contents, so that includes anything that wasn’t removed by previous owners. Anyway, did she leave you a phone number or an address?”
I had to admit that she hadn’t, and I had no way of contacting her at all.
“I think she said they lived abroad,” I said, trying hard to remember details of our conversation. “But they had old friends nearby.”
We decided to deal with the attic room and its contents the following weekend, and in the meantime I tried to find out more about Margaret and her family from neighbours and local shopkeepers. Nobody remembered them. The house had changed hands more than once in the past forty years, and even the estate agent we had purchased it through couldn’t throw any light on its history.
On Saturday morning we climbed the ladder again, and made a more thorough inspection of our magical loft. In addition to the boy’s toys and treasures we also found an old biscuit tin with a string tied around it. Inside was a bundle of letters, still in their original envelopes, with strange-looking stamps.
“Wow,” said Mick, my husband. “Look, that’s King George on the stamps! These are ancient!”
Tentatively, feeling that we were intruding on very private property, we pulled a letter from its envelope.
My darling Marjorie,
We are being sent overseas tomorrow. Please don’t worry about me, I’m fine and I’ll take good care of myself … we’re glad that we’re going to see some action at last. I love you and miss you. Give Baby a big kiss from her daddy … All my love, George xxx
No, I couldn’t read any more; it really was an intrusion into intimacy. The writer must have been Margaret’s grandfather, who had been killed in action in 1940, and Baby – well, that must have been the old lady who had accompanied her the other day.
Mick, however, didn’t share my scruples. “We might find some clues here,” he said, “and be able to contact Margaret after all.”
He took the biscuit tin downstairs and spent the remainder of the morning reading this heart-wrenching correspondence, but found nothing that pointed to a contact with Margaret.
“This is funny,” he called after a while. “Listen to what George says:
‘I hope the pots are all safely stowed away in the hidey-hole and will not be damaged in case of an air raid.’
What do you think he means by that?”
“Oh,” I said, as my conversation with Margaret came back to me, “He was employed at a pottery before the war. Margaret said they had some valuable things but she didn’t know what had happened to them.”
“Well, there aren’t any pots in the loft. What kind of pottery?”
I racked my brain, trying to remember the name of the pottery. Russel? Rankin? Finally it came back to me, and I cried triumphantly: “Ruskin!“
“Never heard of it,” said Mick, reaching for the laptop. “Let’s see what we can find.”
Wikipedia was quite helpful, and we found that the Ruskin Pottery in Smethwick near Birmingham was an art pottery studio producing highly valued ceramics in the Arts and Crafts style, that had closed down in 1935. Certain items could fetch very high prices even today. All the formulae for the very complicated glazes and all documentation relating to the pottery had been deliberately destroyed when the studio closed in order to preserve the unique Ruskin effects.
“The owner didn’t want anybody replicating the glazes,” read Mick. “Bloody incredible! And you say the old man worked there? Did Margaret tell you anything else?”
“Not really,” I replied, “She did say there’s 1930’s oak parquet underneath this carpet. What about taking it up and having a look before we go out and buy new laminate or something?”
Mick agreed. “Can’t hurt,” he said. “It’s a job we’ve got to do anyway. But it’s probably completely ruined, so don’t get your hopes up.”
And so we began the dusty unpleasant job of removing the fitted carpet that had served several previous owners, and yes, there was indeed oak parquet underneath. No, not very beautiful any more, but Mike was jubilant and very optimistic that with a bit of sanding and varnishing he could restore it to its original glory.
As we reached the last corner in the alcove next to the fireplace, Mike paused.
“That’s weird,” he muttered. “See? There’s an area here that looks like a trapdoor.”
I remembered instantly how the old lady had fixed her eyes on this corner while we were talking, and felt a shiver run down my spine. I squatted down beside him and saw very clearly what he meant. “Can you open it?” I asked. Mike poked a screwdriver between two pieces of parquet, and up came a square about three feet on each side from the floor. It was hinged on one side, and was indeed a trapdoor. Underneath was a dark space. We looked at each other.
“Quick, shine a light in here,” said Mike. I shone my phone into the space, and directly below we saw a large box roughly the same size as the trapdoor we had discovered.
“How do we get it out?” I asked. “Has it got handles?”
Mike muttered something under his breath, then put his hand down into the space and felt along the top edge of the box.
“It’s a tea chest,” he said. “My parents used one of these for years to store stuff in. Maybe the lid is loose, and I can get my hand into it.”
The chest was covered in a thick layer of dust and dirt, but after a moment or two, Mike was able to shift the lid slightly aside and reach inside.
“It’s full of something – things wrapped in paper, I’d say. I don’t think we should try to get the whole box out like this. Better to take some of the things out first and see what they are.”
It wasn’t easy but with great care we managed to pull out several oddly shaped parcels wrapped in brown paper. Off came the wrappings, and we were looking at an array of multicoloured vases and bowls.
“This must be the hidey-hole and the pots George wrote about,” I said. “Ruskin pots?”
“Must be. Careful, they are probably a hundred years old or more.”
It took some time, but eventually we had removed all the contents of the tea chest and Mick was able to pull the chest itself out of the space beneath the floor boards. We shone the phone-light once again into the hole, and saw that rough boards had been placed to form a kind of protective little room for the tea chest.
“How long do you think they have been there?” I wondered.
Mick was looking inside the tea chest, making sure we had really removed everything.
“Hey, look! There’s something else here,” he cried, dipping his hand deep into the box and bringing out a rectangular parcel wrapped in oilcloth.
Very cautiously he unwrapped it. Inside the oilcloth was an old-fashioned leather-bound ledger with a name inscribed on the front cover: The Ruskin Pottery. I opened it.
“Did you say that all the documentation and glaze recipes had been destroyed?” I asked.
“That’s what it says in Wikipedia.”
“So what do you think this is?” I pointed at a page headed “High-Fired Flambé Glaze – N° 6”. Beneath the heading was a list of chemicals and quantities, followed by notes in a flowing copperplate handwriting.
“We have to find Margaret,” I said. “She really needs to see all this, even if we are the legal owners. If she hadn’t dropped in the other day …”
To my relief, Mike agreed. We wrapped everything up again very carefully (the brown paper was old, but the tea chest had protected everything from dust and dirt, so it was still all very clean) and placed the precious bowls and pots back in the chest. Then we closed the trapdoor, tidied up the room as well as we could, and called it a day.
The following afternoon, I was very surprised when the doorbell rang and I discovered Margaret Anderson standing on my doorstep again.
“I don’t believe it!” I gasped. “I have been trying to trace you, but nobody remembered any Andersons.”
“No, they wouldn’t!” she laughed. “That’s my married name. I just wanted to come by before I fly home, and thank you for showing me around last week.”
I asked her in and led her into the living room, where she looked taken aback at the uncovered old parquet flooring and the tea chest standing in the corner.
“My goodness, you have been busy,” she said. “This floor brings back memories. My grandmother loved it, and my mother hated it! Polishing, you know? The first thing she did after Granny died was to have wall-to-wall carpet fitted.”
“Did you know about the hidey-hole?” I asked. Margaret looked puzzled.
I pointed to the trapdoor. “Under there.”
“No, Granny had a little table in that corner with a Chinese rug under it. I didn’t know there was a trapdoor there.”
“That’s where we found the tea chest.”
Margaret still looked puzzled. “The tea chest? What’s in it?”
With a smile, I showed her one of the vases we had found in the tea chest. Margaret’s eyes opened wide as she recognised an item from her childhood.
“Granny always had that on the front windowsill,” she whispered. “There were always vases, bowls, dishes – oh, all sorts of things all around the house when I was small, but they all vanished when Granny died. I thought my mother had given them away or sold them … but … are there any more?”
“The tea chest is full,” I told her, “Have a look.”
Margaret couldn’t keep the tears from flowing as she saw the pottery she remembered so well. I explained that I had managed to get into the loft, told her about the things we had found there, and showed her the biscuit tin with her grandfather’s letters.
“Mike read the letters, looking for clues, but we both felt we had no business intruding into their lives,” I explained. “Still, we wondered what he meant when he asked if the pots were safe in the hidey-hole, and when we found the trapdoor and the tea chest, it all made sense. If the house had been hit in an air raid, they would still have been safe there.
Look, Margaret, I know that we bought this house together with all its contents, but we don’t feel it’s right for us to keep these things that nobody knew were there. Obviously, you have to have your grandfather’s letters, but we’ve got to sort out who owns the trains and comics and Ruskin pottery too. They’re probably all very valuable.”
“I have to sit down,” she muttered, flopping heavily onto the sofa. “This is all too much. Yes, the letters – they are important to me. But the pottery – honestly, I don’t know what to say about that. I suppose it’s valuable, and that little vase – well, maybe I could keep that in memory of my grandmother. My brother died last year, so I’m the only one left. Do you want to keep it? Or sell the lot, and share the proceeds? Do I have a claim on it at all? I suppose we’d better consult a lawyer.”
“I think we’d better have a cup of tea first,” I suggested. “Mike will be here soon. Then we can talk about it. There’s also the ledger – I haven’t even mentioned that.”
I explained about the ledger. Everyone believed that Mr Howson Taylor, the owner of the pottery, had destroyed all the glaze recipes, but it seemed that Margaret’s grandfather had rescued at least some of them. This was going to be a sensation in the art world. Margaret looked as if she were about to faint, so instead of a cup of tea I poured us a glass of brandy each.
“It’s funny about the hidey-hole,” I said. “Your mother kept staring at that spot all the time the other day, but she didn’t say anything.”
Margaret gave me a peculiar look.
“When you came last week, with your mother. She must have known about the trapdoor and the pottery in the hidey-hole, but she didn’t say anything.”
Margaret shook her head and took a large swig of her brandy. She grimaced.
“She’s the only one who could have put all that stuff away down there before the carpets were laid, so yes, she would have known about it. I suppose she remembered my grandmother putting the pots there for safety during the War,” she said.
“But – I came here alone last week. My mother died 15 years ago.”