Mystery potter #8: Old Ballarat Pottery

OMB. Jug OMB. Sugar bowl. Base

This is a white earthenware, salt-glazed oil bottle with a classic shape enhanced by a row of beading where the neck starts to narrow. The mark shown here is from a sugar bowl that we have by the same maker. It looks like “OB” or “OMB” between two circular disks connected by a rod. This bottle is similar to work produced by Bendigo Pottery in the 1970s but I’ve only seen two pieces with this mark.

Bendigo Pottery is Australia’s oldest working pottery. It started operation in 1857 and is now a heritage tourist attraction with its own website. An article available online in Australian Decorative Pottery of the 1930s gives a good outline of its early history but you will need to go to Paul A. Scholes, Bendigo Pottery (Kilmore: Lowden, 1979) for a complete history to 1979; or to Peter Laycock,”Epsomware: A history of Bendigo Potteries Ltd,” Pottery in Australia, 9(1), 1970, 17-20, for the period from 1968 onwards when the production of salt-glazed Epsom ware was revived by Bill Derham.

Bendigo Pottery. Jug

Bendigo Pottery. Jug. Mark

We don’t collect Bendigo Pottery because there is so much of it around and it would engage our entire attention. However, we do have a small side interest in collecting representative pieces by individual throwers. This is made easy because, from 1970-1987, each thrower added his initials to the centre of the Bendigo Pottery Epsom stamp. The large jug illustrated here was made by Allan Letts, who worked at the pottery from 1940-1974. He went on to set up the Cannie Ridge Pottery in Harcourt in 1976. (For a full list of craftsmen’s initials with names and dates, see Scholes, p. 232.)

I would really like to find out more about “OB” or “OMB” and if there is any relationship between the maker of this oil bottle and Bendigo Pottery.


Old Ballarat Pottery. Marks

I now realise that this is one of the marks used by the Old Ballarat Pottery. The device is a mine headframe and the “M” is part of the structure.

Despite the quite large numbers of pieces from this pottery that are listed on eBay, I’m finding it surprisingly hard to find anything about it. I do know that it was a registered company from 1984-1994 located at 5 Elsworth Street and that it produced work in an old- fashioned style for the tourist market. A historical extract from the Australian Securities Commission shows that the Ballarat potter and educator John Gilbert was an officer of the company in its first years of operation. Leanne Wilmoth was trained as a thrower there by Gilbert before moving to Leonards Bridge Pottery in 1984. Some of the Old Ballarat Pottery products were sold through a company called Faberware.

I don’t think that it had any formal association with Sovereign Hill, Ballarat’s gold mining activity park. The Edinburgh Pottery, which was aimed at a similar market, operated there from 1972-2006.

[Post-postscript: but see Sovereign Hill is still producing gold, The Age, Feb 15, 1982, which refers to John Gilbert’s Edinburgh Pottery.]

In 1861, George Marks established a pottery on Creswick Road in Ballarat, near the Old Cemetery. There with the help of four boys he produced salt-glazed drain pipes, chimney pots and tiles for Ballarat builders as well as a quantity of wheel-thrown jars, flower pots and saucers, water monkeys, bread pans, butter pots, ginger beer bottles, etc. (Ballarat Star, August 16, 1870).

In 1878, Marks established a second pottery in Adelaide, leaving the running of the Ballarat Pottery mostly to his new partner Samuel Coyte. Within a few years the pottery ceased to produce domestic wares although it continued making pipes and fittings until 1928, when it was taken over by Martin Stoneware Pipe Ltd (Geoff Ford, Australian Pottery: The First 100 Years, 1995, p. 242).

All but one chimney of the factory and kilns were demolished in the 1960s, with the bricks being used to construct the Old Ballarat Village opposite Sovereign Hill (Ballarat Heritage Precincts Study. Part A. Volume 4. Creswick Rd & Macarthur St Heritage Precinct, 2006, page 10). Ford says that no domestic pottery has been found with a Ballarat Pottery stamp, which may mean that no stamp was used. So, as far as I can see, there is no relationship between the two potteries except by allusion.


    1. Hi Don, we generally don’t collect Bendigo Pottery, so we aren’t familiar with these jars. I’ve searched through Paul Scholes’ book on Bendigo Pottery but I can’t see them mentioned. Perhaps the Bendigo Pottery itself could answer this question?

  1. Hi
    We have some Old Ballarat pottery with the same marks as you show above, but believe I bought it around 1970’s from Faberware (home pottery parties)
    Does this sound credible?
    Thank you

  2. Hi Terri, yes, it does! This is useful information, as it would mean the pottery was set up around about the same time as Edinburgh Pottery, even though the ASC records only show it registered in 1984.

    1. I am a production potter that learned my trade and worked for Pontresina P/L in 1978. John Gilbert was the owner. He was a potter and lecturer at the University in Ballarat. He developed the Old Ballarat Village, opposite Sovereign Hill. Amongst the motel, a pottery was developed called Old Ballarat Pottery. The ware was sold on party plan called Faberware. I believe it to be one of the biggest at that time in the Southern Hemisphere. Before this, John had potters working at his residence in Mt Helen called Slate Gallery. He also had the Edinburgh pottery in Sovereign Hill.

      1. Just to add to Debbi’s comments, as a teenager I worked occasionally at John’s Slate Gallery in Mt Helen and that was in 1967- 8. I believe at the time he was teaching at Ballarat Teacher’s College (I was sixteen then so maybe my information of his teaching work is not to be entirely trusted ;). In 1971-2 he either taught or mentored a friend of mine Lindy Cresswell who was then attending the School of Mines Art course. She was an up and coming potter who died late in ’72 aged only 20.

  3. I found this in a PDF file of Gallery notes from ‘Australian Pottery at Bemboka’

    “Like Bendigo, Ballarat had its own pottery, established in 1861, but the factory and kilns
    were demolished in the 1960s. Gilbert turned his business interests to the
    establishment of two potteries in Ballarat producing wares in a 19th century style for the
    tourist market – the Edinburgh Pottery (1972-2005) located within the Sovereign Hill
    precinct, and the Old Ballarat Pottery (1984-1994) located in Elsworth Street.”

    1. Hi Stephen, thank you for quoting this here! Not sure if you know that ‘Australian Pottery at Bemboka’ is our gallery. If you look closely, there’s nothing really new in the gallery notes. It just sounds more authoritative. I use this blog as a way of building and sharing knowledge. The gallery notes and online catalogue entries at Australian Pottery at Bemboka synthesise what I’ve learnt so far!

      1. Cool. I was looking for some info on the pottery and found your blog and the PDF elsewhere. Didn’t put the two together. You’re welcome to remove my post if the info is covered elsewhere. Cheers

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