History in English

The history of the Pabu potters

The Pabu potters. 1727 - 2024

The Osismes

We know today that our territory was once occupied by the Osismes, one of the Gallic ethnic groupings of the Armorican Celts. Their territory was one of, if not the largest territories of the Armorican Gauls. They lived from the late Bronze Age until the Roman era. After the Roman conquest in 51 BC, like the other Gallic peoples, the Osismes gradually became Romanised and merged into a mixed Gallo-Roman civilisation (Patrick Gallou – The Osismes, people of the Gallic West).

The territory of the Osismes corresponded approximately to that of modern-day Finistère and the western part of Côtes-d'Armor. Their main oppidum (fortified settlement) seems to have been the Artus camp located in Huelgoat. After the Roman conquest of Gaul, their territory’s capital was Vorgium (modern Carhaix). Other important urban centers are Vorganium (probably Kerillien near Plounéventer) and Le Yaudet near Lannion (Wikipedia).

In March 1970, excavations carried out by Bertrand Chiché, on the property of the manoir of Grand Kermin in Pabu, exposed potters' kilns dating from the Gallo-Roman period (probably the 2nd or 3rd century AD), which had been discovered by chance four years earlier. “The production of these ceramics, of very poor quality, shows that the potters remained faithful to the techniques and forms of Gaul ceramics,” concludes Bertrand Chiché (A ceramic dispensary from the Gallo-Roman period in Pabu – Annals of Brittany – 1971).

According to Ninog Jaouen (In search of Osismes ceramic workshops – 2021), doctoral student in archeology and ceramics, who has been carrying out a complementary study on these excavations since 2021, in partnership with the association, it was a site of Osisme potters’ workshops. These ceramics are unique to this territory; whether by the clay composition, the forms or the style of decoration, these ceramics differ completely from other Gallic centes of production, of only one other (Glomel) is known.

A good quality vein of clay, located at a depth of two or three meters, was quarried from the ‘Bois de Pommerit, in the neighbouring commune of Pommerit-le-Vicomte. It resulted from highly decomposed feldspar rocks. This is undoubtedly the reason why potters, who humorously called their production “Pabu porcelain” (R.T. Salaün - La poterie de Pabu, near Guingamp – 1954), practiced their art, in Kerhre (La Poterie) and in Keraix (Kerez).


From the Middle-Ages

It is now proven that pottery production in Pabu was re-established in the Middle Ages. At this time, the municipal accounts of Guingamp provide the names of several potters and tile makers, such as Jehan Lavenant mentioned from 1468 to 1470, or Rolland Le Quéré cited in 1464 and 1465, notably for the supply of two dozen earth pipes to help feed the very fine water fountain (La Plomée) at the top of Guingamp’s main square.

In Pabu, the pottery trade was passed down from generation to generation with difficult working conditions, hard to imagine today: “summer and winter alike, feet drenched in water and mud, we had to constantly knead clay, living in a low, tight-spaced dwelling where light barely penetrated and where the atmosphere was constantly charged with smoke” (Erwan de Bellaing). In addition, the potters knowingly breathed, lead dust, which they often fetched from the nearby Plouisy shooting range. This, they melted, and used in the pottery glaze.

In 1711, there were approximately 350 potters living in particularly deplorable conditions. There were many risks to the job with each just as dangerous as the next. The dangerous working conditions often led to poor health withing the potter’s families.

The lead dust, resulted in poisoning, which caused great discomfort and was often fatal. This infamous lead poisoning was devastating among the populations of the potters villages of Kerhre and Kerez, but nevertheless they remained unaddressed. The smoky and poorly ventilated conditions did not help, but the potters lived from the earth and knew how to die from it! “She takes revenge,” explains Louise Berthelot, “she takes revenge for having been raped and groped and her bad breath dries up your lungs in the long run…” (reported by René Théophile Salaün in La poterie de Pabu, near Guingamp).

According to historian Erwan De Bellaing, cited by René Théophile Salaün, archivist-publisher and bookseller, we have a description of potters' houses from interviews taken in the 1930s.

The potters' houses were quite similar to all the old houses of Lower-Brittany. They consisted of a ground floor with a door and two small windows, an attic with a dormer window, all topped with a thatched roof without a chimney.

The smoke from the hearth spread throughout the house and contributed to the drying of the pottery scattered around the house before escaping through the thatched roof. The interior of these residences was as follows: a dirt floor, between four thick walls, formed a common room, sometimes divided into two rooms by a furniture partition. The hearth was made of a few flat stones on which rested the ashes of a brazier dominated by an iron tripod and a rack from which a pot was suspended. Near this hearth, under the mantle of the chimneyless fireplace, was a bench reserved for the most respectable person in the family, the “tad-koz” or the head of the household.

On one or both sides of the room were the ‘lits clos’ (box beds), the dresser, the cupboards ans the table and benches used for meals. From the ceiling, which was generally low, hung a utensil holder, above the table. Near the hearth, hung a few slices of bacon and almost in the middle of the room there was a bread board on which lay a few loaves, the weekly ration. In the window recess hung a green plant and on the walls round the window, hung precious family memorabilia including photographs of family members, religious images, diplomas and medals.

During the day, the middle of the room was cluttered with kneaded clay, wheels, and newly modeled pottery. In the evening, they were moved to allow living space. The days were long and tiring, continuing as long as the potters could clearly see, because the only means of lighting was a modest candle made of a twist of linen coated with resin.

The potters, who worked with similar processes to those of their ancestors from the Gallo-Roman era, kneaded the clay with their bare feet. Once the clay was prepared, they shaped the vases, churns and bowls, etc. and let them dry out slightly before taking them to the kiln.

The study of one of Etienne Bouillé’s paintings (Potters at work) reveals that pottery turning was undertaken by two people. Once prepared, the clay was placed on the hand-wheel; the man seated on a small bench, legs apart, turned the wheel whilst the woman, kneeling on the ground, worked the clay. A container, near the wheel, probably allowed him to moisten his hands, making them glide easier. The pots, once assembled, were left to dry on wooden boards, in order to move them more efficiently to make space in the room, or to take them outside to quicken drying when the weather permited.

For varnishing, lead was absolutely necessary, as we saw above. The wives and daughters of potters melted the stray bullets collected from the Plouisy shooting range, in a large cast iron cauldron. The molten lead was then shaken vigorously as it cooled, until a fine pepper-like powder was obtained.

René Théophile Salaün collected the testimony of several elders on the technique used to obtain the colours of the pottery. For the colour yellow, they used a slurry of buckwheat flour mixed with water, diluting it until it resembled wallpaper glue. For the colour green, the process was just as archaic with a slurry of very fresh cow dung being used. For a pale-yellow, they mixed the buckwheat with the dung mix in the desired proportions, and for the pale-green, an ingenious and subtle technique was used with the first and second mixes being combined in the desired proportions.

The pieces once glazed, were taken to the oven, where they were cooked at low enough temperatures, sufficient for the lead to oxidize, and bind with the silica in the clay to give the pieces a very well spread, pure glass-like varnish. They often had a dark green color similar to that of lead phosphate (Alexandre Brongniart - Treatise on Ceramic Arts or Potteries).

The ovens, which had a very rustic design, had vaulted roofs formed of arches made up of an aggregate of broken or defective pottery nested one inside the other. They were always built on an inclined plane, with the opening of the hearth facing the prevailing winds. The pottery was placed at the edges of the oven, as well as in the middle itself, layed out on racks. There were private kilns used by one or two potters, as well as public kilns which could be used by the entire community.

To heat the oven, R.T. Salaün tells us, the shrub gorse was mostly used and the combustion of this fuel was so rapid that it took four men to feed the oven during the cooking which lasted two to three hours. One was on the pile of gorse, the second was breaking up the bundles, and the third was handing them to the fourth who was putting them in the oven.

The fire was lit from beneath and once going strong, fueled with the burning of green gorse which generated great quantities of smoke, providing a gentler heat. It was probably a case of starting with a gradual heat to avoid cracking; once the smoking was finished, they moved on to the final cooking by burning seasoned gorse, heather and very dry wood.

The activity of Pabu’s potters flourished for centuries and their products were sold in the surrounding markets and to building craftsmen over a good sixty kilometers radius. When, from the middle of the 19th century, competition from mass industry increased, rural households, even the most humble, gradually abandoned the use of traditional ceramics in favor of porcelain, cast iron pots, steel pans and other enameled iron containers. The knowledge and techniques passed down through generations, over several centuries gradually faded as their market diminished. The historical rupture caused by the First World War caused the definitive disappearance of their trade.


Restoration of the house

 The restoration work of this building consisted of the demolition of the lean-to which was not original, the reconstitution of a window in place of the lean-to, pointing the exterior masonary, the removal of the interior cement rendering, asbestos removal from the roof, consolidation of the roof structure, the replacement of the slate roof with a thatched roof and the creation of the fire hearth and the dirt floor.

During the restoration work, numerous pieces of ceramic crêpe pans (bilik, bi-lik]) were found next to the house. The early manufacture these rare items, reveals that  Pabu played an interesting and unexpected role in the history of the bilig and ultimately, in that of the crêpe in Brittany.
The house has been furnished in the style of the mid-19th century, with a box bed to the left of the fireplace, a farm table and its two benches under the main window, a stick turntable with its small bench opposite the entrance, and a wardrobe in line with the box bed.

Loïc Frémont, décembre 2023

(Translated by Jonathan Low)