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Caroline Bousfield, Craftsman

July 18, 2012
by the gentle author

Caroline Bousfield has been making pots in this former coach house in Victoria Park Village for thirty-eight years. When local food shops began to close due to competition from supermarkets, she formed a traders’ association and they brought back a butcher, a fishmonger, a baker and a greengrocer. Then Caroline planted the roundabout outside her studio and created a garden that is now the appealing centrepiece of this lively corner of the East End. Today, her pottery workshop is the oldest-established business in Victoria Park Village and she has worked there longer than anyone else.

Caroline Bousfield’s story is an inspiring example of how the creative influence of a one community-spirited individual can have a huge impact upon a place, improving it for the better. Yet she presents herself modestly, wiping the clay off her hands with a cloth and welcoming everyone into her tiny workshop personally. To the left as you enter, you discover Caroline working at her wheel, surrounded by hundreds of white biscuit-fired dishes and pots awaiting glaze, while to the right is her showroom, lined wall-to-wall in shelves laden with examples of the elegant traditional studio pottery that is her forte. Drying her hands on her faded blue apron, Caroline pushes her thick brown hair away from her face to give you her full attention and you cannot but feel privileged to be there in her charismatic den.

“People always ask, how long does it takes to make a pot?” she confided to me with a complicit smile, “And there are two answers to that, two minutes or twenty years – depending on which way you look at it.”

Caroline trained originally as a potter and as a furniture maker, and has taught both continuously over the years. With characteristic lack of pretence, she calls herself a “Craftsman,” adding “My gardening is self-taught.”

“I came to London in 1972 when I got married, after doing a Teachers’ Certificate at Goldalming. My husband took a job with the Ford Motor Company in Dagenham and, as he couldn’t face commuting through the Blackwall Tunnel, we came to live here. It was thought to be a strange thing to do, to move to the East End, in those days.

I taught pottery at Kingsway College until my two daughters came along. But I found that if you had children or a dog, people spoke to you in the street and a fellow dogwalker in Victoria Park told me that this place was for sale. It was built as a coach house and stable in 1885, and over the stone lintel you can still read the words “North Metropolitan Volunteer Fire Escape Brigade.” Mr Koopman had run it as an electrical repair shop from 1929 until he retired in 1975, and I bought it for £2,500, which was a bargain even then. My plan was to be able to make and sell my own pots in one place, and I like being here very much – if you run a shop you become a centre for local information. I remember Mr Davis, the hardware and grocer next door, every can was dusted and wiped as he took it from the shelf. And if you asked for rubber rings for jam jars, he’d opened up a trapdoor in the floor with a counterweight and return with some. ‘It says,’One shilling and sixpence’ on the label, that sounds like a lot!’ he’d say. This was already in the days of decimal currency.

When my daughters were babies, I just brought them here and got on with my work. Then I used to swap with a friend who had children, so we each got childcare for one day and my husband took care of them on Saturdays. When my children grew up, I decided I wanted to go back to making furniture and I imagined I would do that at home in the cellar, on the days I wasn’t here, but instead I started a traders’ association for local businesses. There were four butchers when I came and they all went, then the greengrocer and baker closed, so those of us who were left we discussed how to bring them back. We approached a butcher and a fishmonger and invited them to come here, and the existing shops even shuffled around to offer them the best locations.

And I started to lobby the roads’ department to let me grow plants on the roundabout, but the first answer was ‘no,’ so then I simply went over and started pulling up the weeds. In the end, I had to write a method statement and agree to wear a high-visibility vest, and pay £5 for the privilege too. They said this was because, if I got it free, I could claim squatters’ rights and build structures. Then I thought I should create an association to do it, so it was not just me – but it is just me. I’ve raised the money myself. People donate me books that I sell in the shop, and I pick the lavender and make lavender bags, and that pays for anything new I want to plant. I’ve come second and third in Hackney in Bloom but there is not really an appropriate category for roundabouts. Now people see me gardening from buses and cars, and they call me ‘The Lady On The Roundabout” locally.

There are secrets on my roundabout for anyone that works there – a patch of violets which nobody sees but me and which give a wonderful scent when in flower, a blackbird who is a regular visitor, the remains of foxes’ suppers stolen from bins and sometimes the debris of a party. If I ignore the traffic, the sound of bees on the lavender can be heard.

People who have spent a few hours working on the roundabout say that they feel differently about the place, they feel that they belong more. The climate for guerrilla gardening is quite different now from when I started on the roundabout ten years ago and I highly recommend it to anyone who lives near any unkempt public space.”

Biscuit fired pots awaiting glaze.

The money drawer from Mr  Koopman’s Radio Shop with a sixpence that he nailed inside for luck and a dog made by a local pensioner who asked for clay to model his pet.

Caroline and her husband Gordon Gregory when they bought the coachhouse in 1975.

Gordon Gregory and his mother in 1975, after rebuilding the facade using the original bricks.

Caroline’s pottery studio today.

John Claridge’s photograph of the carriage house as electrical shop in 1964

Caroline on the Victoria Park Village roundabout that she planted and where she continues to garden, becoming famous in East London as “The Lady On The Roundabout.”

1964 Archive photograph © John Claridge

Caroline Bousfield’s Pottery Workshop & Shop, 77a Lauriston Rd, Hackney, E9 7HA

18 Responses leave one →
  1. Hari from Canada permalink
    July 18, 2012

    The world needs more people like Caroline!

  2. July 18, 2012

    i love the before and after pix of the studio, and the idea that one person can revitalize a neighborhood. also the pic of the nice hardworking young people in their 70s clothes in front of the doughty old shop. a good life, miss caroline.

  3. Marina B permalink
    July 18, 2012

    A salute to “The Lady on the Roundabout”! Wonderful!

  4. Betsy Rubin permalink
    July 18, 2012

    Such beautiful pottery by Caroline Bousfield. Such interesting local history. I love your blog because you always show the deepest goodness of people and places. Thank you!

  5. Melvyn Brooks permalink
    July 18, 2012

    I came across Caroline and her pottery shop many years ago. One of the reminders of my visit is my coffe mug I use in my surgery a few times each week. “I love Hackney” is the logo.
    I hope Caroline and the pottery continue to thrive.
    Karkur, ISRAEL

  6. July 18, 2012

    I can only wholeheartedly agree with Betsy and all the others’ comments. I am really looking forward to visiting Caroline’s pottery and roundabout when next I travel to London.

  7. July 18, 2012

    Beautiful story! Well done Caroline, you have made and are living your dream. This should inspire others to do so.

  8. Margaret Morrison nee Dawson permalink
    July 18, 2012

    I grew up in banbury house from 1951 and remember going to koopman with my dad to take the valves from the tv and wireless, to be charged. Seeing this picture brought back many happy memories for me.

  9. July 20, 2012

    WOW what a beautiful story. I love pottery and must make sure to visit. Caroline’s great job with the roundabout is inspiring too. Thank you for sharing the gems that you find in the local area. I love reading your blog!

  10. Cherub permalink
    July 21, 2012

    Wherever I go I try to buy little pieces of hand made pottery. They just look so pretty dotted around on shelves in each room and are a reminder of a nice day out or holiday. I now live close to where a famous pottery factory was (the site is now a vets surgery) and I often dig up little broken pieces in my garden. I clean them up and put them along the kitchen windowsill. My husband laughs at me because I love them. Things that cost very little or nothing at all can often feel very precious, when I look at my broken pieces of pottery they make me smile. Same with the seashells I pick up on the beach here.

  11. July 22, 2012

    “but there is not really an appropriate category for roundabouts……….”
    thats because you have always thought and done beautifully outside the box caroline , you just got on with it and your braveness has been rewarded.
    beautiful post gentle :)

  12. July 22, 2012

    Just catching up on your entries after having been away for a while. And I am reminded why I always come back to read – real life on a real human scale. Forget celebrity, forget fame – this has meaning (sorry to sound pompous!).

    I am so warmed by Caroline’s story (being a bad amateur potter myself). I also absolutely love her roundabout. As someone said above – the world needs people like her.

    But as ever, it all makes me miss London to the point of tearfulness.
    PP

  13. August 25, 2012

    Wonderful..

  14. sally Vivian permalink
    December 22, 2012

    well done caroline – you’re a gem!

  15. September 21, 2013

    Well done. Great to see quality craftspeople in their real surroundings.

  16. February 26, 2014

    Lovely article. I’m a potter in Canada, coming to the UK this summer and will surely look you up while in London. You sound like a lovely woman Caroline – I’ve rarely met a potter who wasn’t :)

  17. P.Kurton permalink
    April 14, 2015

    Bousefield – an unusual name. Is she related to the Bousfields who lived in Planet Street and Star Place at the turn of the 19th c and 20th c?

    There is a link to the 1888 Stepney murders if she is.

  18. July 24, 2015

    We were recently on holiday in Rock Cornwall and I found one of your postcards in the cottage we stayed in. I was fascinated to read your name as my mother (Janet) was a Bousfield before she married and her father was Charles Frederick Bousfield. We may even be distantly related? I loved reading your life story of pottery and gardening.
    Kind regards
    Catherine

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