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Thom's ceramic cats put Wells Old Station Pottery on the world map

Updated: Jun 22, 2022

The historic old station at Wells-next-the-Sea
The old railway station which houses Thom and Jan's pottery and bookshop is a landmark building in Wells-next-the-Sea

Thom Borthwick is no mug when it comes to pottery. And Holywood film-makers agree.

Thom’s teapots, cups, mugs and various other drinking vessels, made in his Wells-next-the-Sea pottery in North Norfolk, appeared on the big screen in the second Harry Potter blockbuster movie - Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

Thom Borthwick sits at his wheel in the old station building
Thom Borthwick at his wheel in the old station building

But that was just one piece of good fortune which Thom and his wife Jan say has followed them through life from South London to North Norfolk.

While labouring in his Old Station Pottery and Bookshop making fine domestic ware such as mugs, plates, bowls, casseroles and jugs for everyday use, Thom chanced on making a ceramic cat just to amuse himself at the end of the day. It was a complete aberration, he said.

The cat was placed in disgrace on the bottom shelf of his pottery at an exhibition for buyers from some of the main High Street stores. But one buyer spotted it - loved it - and wanted more.

The ceramic cats became popular worldwide
The ceramic cats became popular worldwide

Almost a million floral and colourful ceramic cats have now sold worldwide to major shopping chains in New York, Tokyo, Paris and London since 1981 – another bit of chance and good fortune which Thom and Jan have had over the last 40 years.

Although it did not seem so at the time, another stroke of luck was when Thom, took his wallet out of his back pocket and snapped the tendon in his thumb. It left him unable to make pottery but it created an opportunity to develop his love of books into a business. Thom and Jan now have an extensive second hand bookshop at their Old Station Pottery premises which has also expanded online.

But Lady Luck first struck in the 1970s when Thom was studying sculpture at Goldsmiths College, London. He spent more time with the girls in the neighbouring pottery classes than on his own studies. One of those Goldsmiths girls studying ceramics as part of her education course was Jan – she swiftly became his wife.

Teaching pottery in South London was not a long-time career choice for Thom. And that’s when good fortune struck again.

Thom says luck played a big part in his adult life
Lady Luck played a big part in Thom and Jan's adult lives

An overheard conversation in a London cafe offered Thom the opportunity to be the potter in residence at the Albany Institute arts centre in Deptford.

Then Lady Luck came calling again. A friend of Jan’s was a sales representative for the newly launched Holkham Pottery in North Norfolk which was looking to recruit another potter. This coincided with Thom and Jan wanting to escape London for work and a family life outside the capital.

Jan and Thom leapt at the chance, both getting jobs on the same day – Jan teaching and Thom potting at Holkham. Holkham Hall was the first stately home to produce and sell pottery onsite which inspired other stately homes to do the same.

However, North Norfolk was a complete contrast and culture shock to Thom and Jan. They had swopped early-1970s crime-ridden South London where the crime families the Krays and Richardsons were fighting and torturing victims over territory, for a job surrounded by Holkham Hall’s parkland with its lake, herd of deer and a Palladian mansion.

A home in Burnham Thorpe, the village where Admiral Lord Nelson was born and raised, soon followed. And when they said they honestly could not afford the asking price for the cottage they wanted to buy, the owner just dropped the price so they could move in. What good fortune.

Holkham Pottery employed about 100 staff making a wide range of ceramics from lamps, vases, and ornaments to commemorative mugs for Royal events and a distinctive owl mug which sold in its millions all over the world.

It was three years of experience in industrial pottery which gave Thom the chance to set up on his own founding Burnham Pottery in the kitchen of North Norfolk artist Nick Barnham.

The chance to establish his own studio was yet another lucky moment. It happened because Jan was going to art classes run by Nick Barnham who had spare room in his studio in Burnham.

Then three years later, Thom and Jan needed to expand their pottery. When searching for somewhere suitable, an old contact from Holkham Pottery called them. He was going out of business and his rented premises at the disused railway station in Wells-next-the-Sea was available.

Pots and hand-built sculptures
Pots and hand-built sculptures wait to be glazed and fired

Thom and Jan were lucky to buy the building from the town council and purchase the kiln too at a knock-down price. But what made the deal even better was that the council lost the title deeds and it took a year for them to be re-issued before the sale could be completed. Meanwhile, Thom and Jan moved in rent free in 1981 until the sale was finalised.

The old railway station, a Georgian-style red brick building had opened as a station and stationmaster’s house in 1857. It closed in 1964 as part of the infamous railway cuts by Chairman of the British Railways Board Dr Richard Beeching which saw 2,363 stations closed and 5,000 miles of track lost throughout Britain.

The station at Wells by this time was something of a ruin. It had made its mark in railway history in 1879 when a runaway train crashed through the station buffers and killed a man sitting in the station toilets.

But despite the near-derelict station building, Thom and Jan developed their pottery business spurred on by the popularity of their colourful floral cats. They employed a team of eight to meet the demand and help with packing and despatching.

A flourishing garden grows where the station platforms once stood
A garden flourishes where station platforms once stood

A kiln of 1,000 cats was fired everyday to meet orders from Macey in New York, John Lewis, Boots, Selfridges and stores in Tokyo, Paris and London.

But the couple felt they were no longer potters. Thom and Jan, who was still teaching, had ended up as administrators, finding new markets and processing orders rather than their first love of making and creating things, potting and decorating their tableware and sculpture.

A call from the Disney Corporation asking for something similar to the cats to be produced in their thousands was the last straw. It made them decide what they really wanted to do. Thom said being a businessman in a suit was not what he had envisaged.

The recession made up their minds. Staff had to be laid off and Thom and Jan, who had kept things going by teaching in schools in Wells, Swaffham and Langham, were able to be creative and imaginative once more.

However, disaster struck when the tendon broke in Thom's thumb. This meant no potting for 18 months. But Thom turned his love of books into a serious business collecting and selling second hand books - even selling a rare book on typewriters to Hollywood actor Tom Hanks.

Now Thom pots when he feels inspired, opens the shop when he wants, sells his books and even has time for a bit of birdwatching. Life is back in balance all thanks to Lady Luck.

Domestic pottery ranging from mugs and jugs to teapots and casseroles are hand thrown on the wheel and decorated, glazed and fired in their two electric kilns.

Thom stands in the early morning looking at birds through his binoculars
When not potting, Thom and Jan are keen birdspotters

Stoneware torsos and large garden pots are hand built using coils and fired to stoneware.

The ever-popular Burnham Pottery cats, which the couple started making in 1981, are cast using unique plaster moulds and hand decorated with characteristic blue flowers. Individual commissions are also undertaken.

The Old Station Pottery and Bookshop, Wells-next-the-Sea, Norfolk NR23 1LY

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