A plate full of meaning

10 January 2020 by Liz

Today we have a guest blog from Jeff Speakman, Assistant Curator at the Museum of Liverpool.

‘Excavations at Rainford Tennis Courts in St Helens in 2015 revealed an amazing range of locally-made pottery. One piece which really stood out was a plate or shallow dish, with a scratched-in ‘sgraffito’ decoration. This mid- to late-17th century plate is decorated with a central face with radiating lines and fruit or flowers and leaves.

Decorated plate found in Rainford, St Helens (Accession Number MOL.2014.48.8)

It is really unusual, very few of the other finds from Rainford Tennis Courts are decorated, and those which are don’t have such elaborate designs. This has made us wonder whether this item was made in Rainford or not? In the early 17th century, ‘sgraffito’ decorated pottery was made at a number of places around Britain (and also in Europe). It was particularly common in North Devon, but was also produced in large numbers at Donyatt in Somerset and Buckley, in North-East Wales. Most are made from a reddish clay body, which is covered with a thin layer of lighter clay ‘slip’. This lighter slip is then scratched off in areas to create the design. Our example from Rainford is the opposite, a light-coloured clay plate with a layer of darker slip, scratched away to create a design in the lighter colour.

There are a few quite similar examples which were made in ‘the Potteries’ region of North Staffordshire. This hints that our plate was made in north-west England, quite probably in Rainford itself, and may have been a special commission ‘made to order’ for a customer.

The design on the plate has also got us thinking – there might be a lot of interesting symbolism in there!

In the Netherlands, analysis of decorative designs has been used to suggest that potters used the images as a form of ‘picture-writing to communicate ideas to the illiterate masses’ (Gwarthoff-Zwaan and Ruempol 1988). These vessels were often decorated with popular religious symbols, and icons associated with fertility, regeneration or defence against evil.

On the Rainford plate there is a central face. This is encircled by a rope-like circle and four repeated shapes, which may be pomegranates cut open to reveal the seeds. These are interspersed with leafy shapes, potentially palm fronds. The design on the outer edge of the vessel does not survive with any certainty and the rim, which may have a contained further decoration, a motto or inscription is completely missing.

Reconstruction of decoration on plate, from surviving piece

Religion, primarily Christianity, was a central cultural and social structure in medieval and post-medieval Britain. There was a shared range of symbols, prayers and beliefs which everyone would have had some understanding of, whether they could read or not.

  • Face – the simple free-hand face motif, may represent the sun a symbol of Christ, the son of God, who brought light into the world (John 8: 12).
  • The rope circle – The surrounding circle was often used to represent eternity.
  • Pomegranates – A widely used motif during the 16th and 17th century as symbols of the resurrection or of fruitfulness/fertility, as the pomegranate produces lots of seeds.
  • Palm fronds – a symbol of victory of the faithful over the enemies of Christ, with many leaves angled towards the stem.

After the ‘reformation’ in Henry VIII’s reign, Catholic practice was increasingly extinguished and churches were stripped of much imagery. The 1549 Act of Uniformity banned the Mass and royal officials travelled the country to enforce the new laws. However, Lancashire retained a strong Roman-Catholic community, with the 1767 ‘Returns of Papists’ listing more than 40% of all English Catholics living in the County. It’s possible that objects like this plate represent people who continued to follow Roman-Catholic symbolic traditions into the 17th century and beyond. As the Puritans took stronger control it would have been dangerous to use objects that proclaimed these Catholic beliefs, let alone to have produced those wares. Indeed in 1660 a Rainford potter, John Bispham, was taken forcibly whilst attending a Quaker meeting at Bickerstaffe and imprisoned in Lancaster Castle for nine weeks for refusing to take the oaths of allegiance to the new faith (Leadbetter 1992).

Whilst it is possible that the plate’s design might be purely decorative, as archaeologists we’re always keen to try to understand what someone was thinking, and how they used objects which survive, and why they made things the way they did, and we have our suspicions about this one!

Was it made for private use? Was it made for a secretly travelling Roman-Catholic priest so he could spread the message of the ‘one true’ faith to the illiterate masses and maintain the faith whilst it was illegal to do so? Indeed a number of such priests including men from Lancashire, such as Edmund Arrowsmith, from St. Helens, were hanged drawn and quartered as punishment!

Or is it just a pretty plate?!


Gwarthoff-Zwaan, M. and Ruempol, A. 1988. Exhibition Catalogue – Communicerende vaten Beeldtall van slibversiering op laat-middeleeuws aardewerk in de Nederlanden. Uit de collective Kunstnijverheid en Vormgeving Museum Boymans-van Beuningen. Rotterdam.

Leadbetter, F. 1992. The Leadbetter Papers. Privately published.

A golden chair fit for a King!

9 December 2019 by Lisa Peatfield

Acoustic chair on display at the Museum of LiverpoolHere at the Museum of Liverpool we have recently put on display this rather unusual piece of furniture: a chair that was designed to act as a hearing aid. As part of the display process we asked members of Liverpool’s D/deaf community for their memories and thoughts about the chair. In this blog you can read what they told us as well as find out more information about this special chair. Read more…

Behind the Scenes: Setting up the ‘Hanging Out’ display

30 November 2019 by Kay

Kerrie McGiveron and May

Kerrie McGiveron and May

Kerrie McGiveron is lead researcher for the community-led oral history project ‘Hanging Out: The Histories of Liverpool’s Laundry Life.’ This is her final blog post revealing the background secrets of installing our display. Read more…

Liverpool’s Dancing Queen!

22 November 2019 by Lisa Peatfield

Norah standing with dance students

Image courtesy of Norah Button

The Museum of Liverpool’s oral history project, Liverpool Voices, collects and preserves the stories of Liverpool and its people. As part of this project we recently recorded Liverpool resident Norah Button talking about her pioneering work at the Liverpool Theatre School on Aigburth Road.

Norah took over the running of the Liverpool Theatre School, founded during the Second World War by her grandmother, Anastasia Morrisey, when she was just 15 years old. She told us how she combined her own dance training with running the school and taking on paid work to support her family following the death of her father. “I knew I had to get a job but I still wanted to train [as a dancer] so I got a job, you mention it, I got it: canteen assistant, cleaning, washing glasses in the priests’ house, all sorts”. Attracted by its £100 prize money Norah also entered and won the 1962 Miss Liverpool beauty pageant. She went on to win numerous other beauty competitions, using the prize money to support herself and the school. Read more…

Fancy a swim in the Mersey? First Ladies 1 Mile Championship

18 November 2019 by Lisa Peatfield

Lucy Morton's gold brooch

16 year old Lucy Morton won this gold brooch in the Ladies 1 Mile Mersey Championship in August 1914. She was one of eleven competitors and finished in 24 minutes, 25 seconds with a lead of 40 yards (36 metres). The race took place along the western side of the Mersey from Eastham to the Conway training ship moored near Rock Ferry.  It was billed as featuring the “pick of England’s Amazonic wonders”! Read more…

Museum of Liverpool wins family friendly award

12 November 2019 by Megan

Pictured at the awards ceremony L-R: Julia Bryan, Senior Education Manager, Melody Sparks, Visitor Assistant, Philp Mould, art dealer, broadcaster and host, Chris Kerfoot, Education Team Leader, Museum of Liverpool. © Jayne Lloyd

Some of the team at the Museum of Liverpool were recently invited along to the Kid’s in Museums award ceremony in London. Chris Kerfoot, Education Team Leader takes us through the nomination process and the excitement of the awards.

Acknowledgement can be so powerful and inspiring. Earlier this year, over 800 museums, galleries and heritage attractions across Great Britain were nominated by the public for the Family Friendly Museum Awards 2019. These annual prizes are awarded by the charity Kids in Museums.

From over 800 nominations, fifteen venues were chosen as finalists, amongst them National Museums Liverpool had two venues nominated, World Museum and Museum of Liverpool. The finalists were invited to the Mayfair Hotel in London for the announcement of the winners.

The awards are described as the ‘Baftas of the Museum World’ and venues were split into categories depending upon their visitor numbers for the judging. All the finalists received certificates presented by television broadcaster and President of Kids in Museums Philip Mould. Then the winners in each category were announced.

The winner of the Large Museum category was Museum of Liverpool.

Kids in Museums Family Friendly Award

This wonderful accolade is testament to all the wonderful teams working at the Museum of Liverpool now, in the past and in the developing stages of our Museum. Together we have faced many challenges along the way but have triumphed to be regarded as one of the most family friendly museums in the country.

Thank you to all those people who nominated the Museum of Liverpool, thank you to all the judges, we are glad you enjoyed your visits and thank you for acknowledging all our hard work. We welcome everybody to our Museum and are particularly happy that families feel particular welcome. You are all very welcome to share our Museum and remember acknowledging others can be so important and heartening.

Hitler bombed my Wendy house!

6 November 2019 by Kay

Valerie outside of her Wendy house. Image courtesy of Valerie Williams Nimmo

As part of Blitzed: Liverpool Lives we are gathering people’s first-hand experiences of the Blitz to include in the exhibition. Read more…

Breathing new life into old records

5 November 2019 by Abbie Brennan

This year we decided to put our old aerial photographs to use, to create an insightful new resource…

Read more…

Black History Month – collecting history in the making

21 October 2019 by Kay

The new Lord Mayor of Liverpool, Councillor Anna Rothery made history recently by becoming Liverpool’s first Black Lord Mayor.

To help record this momentous occasion in our city’s history we have acquired several items from her Installation at Liverpool Town Hall on 4 September for the permanent collections of the Museum of Liverpool. Read more…

Behind the scenes in the Museum – creating a wash-house display

15 October 2019 by Kay

Kerrie McGiveron is the lead researcher on an amazing community-led oral history project ‘Hanging Out: The Histories of Liverpool’s Laundry Life.’

“As part of my placement working with the Museum of Liverpool, I was invited to the museum stores by Kay Jones, Curator of Urban Community history to view and select items to include in the display. As a PhD researcher, when I’m not conducting oral history interviews I often spend time alone in archives looking at documents or writing at my desk. It was great to be given the opportunity to have a look behind the scenes and to learn about the work put into a museum display. Read more…

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Welcome to the National Museums Liverpool blog! Written by our staff and volunteers, we’ll give you a peek behind the scenes of our museums and galleries.




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