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Caroline Bousfield, Craftsman

June 2, 2019
by the gentle author

Caroline Bousfield has been making pots in this former coach house in Victoria Park Village for nearly forty-five 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, Hackn

18 Responses leave one →
  1. June 2, 2019

    Caroline is a dedicated and engaged lady, who has given a lot to the community. Just great! Valerie

  2. Jill Wilson permalink
    June 2, 2019

    Another great lady doing wonderfully creative things and making a very positive contribution to her neighbourhood.

    And she obviously shares my passion for all things blue!

  3. June 2, 2019

    I remember Mr Koopman very well…I lived opposite Victoria Park (before it’s Village status!) and he repaired my little transistor radio more than once. John Claridge’s photograph is how it looked when I grew up there, lots of peeling paint everywhere but a close knit, working class community.
    It’s lovely to see how Caroline has restored that place and I always admire the roundabout when I drive past.
    I have fond memories of the shops around there back in the day …Mr Davis’s hardware shop, Eastons the Chemist, Slades the Baker, Marino’s sweet shop and cafe, Harry Butler the Fishmonger, Keeler’s ‘Deli’ that sold cold meats and cheeses, two or three butchers shops and greengrocers, Stanley Vale’s groceries amongst others…..not forgetting ‘Lou’ the Barber who cut my dad’s hair for many years.
    It’s been a trip down memory lane for me this morning, thank you GA.

  4. ruth m permalink
    June 2, 2019

    All one can say is “WOW!”.
    What achievements and what an impressive and worthwhile life!

  5. June 2, 2019

    A marvelous lady with a wonderful roundaboit and a splendid shop.

  6. June 2, 2019

    This is a wonderful story; just the opposite of what happens to Florence Green in the novella by Penelope Fitzgerald: The Bookshop (nominated for the Booker Prize in the 1970s; recently made into a moving film). Thank you.

  7. Helen Breen permalink
    June 2, 2019

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, what a charming, enterprising, and talented gal. Love her wares. I sense that Carolyn will continue to be a linchpin to her community for years to come…

  8. June 2, 2019

    Thank you for this . The village is new to me as my times a Vicky Park were before the 70’s . I will have to pay the workshop a visit as I am not that far. I was once a jewellery student at Holborn Kingsway, they taught so many crafts . I love watching pottery being made but never have attempted it although I do still frequently use a potters kiln in what I do. Once the kiln door is opened a blast of 1000 degrees hits your face and hands so it’s not for the faint hearted or careless. Caroline you have my admiration

  9. Julie Daniels permalink
    June 2, 2019

    I’ve had the privilege of meeting Caroline and she was so helpful to me when I started my own community venture a few years ago (a small local magazine). She is an invaluable member of our community and I’m very grateful to her (and to you GA for another great article)

  10. Eric Forward permalink
    June 2, 2019

    Nice coincidence as I walked past this, admiring the building, while enjoying the weather in Victoria park yesterday. We took a walk to stretch our legs and work up an appetite for some fish & chips in Lauriston Village. This is an absolutely beautiful part of the city, and it is clear that Caroline has made a significant contribution to that fact. This shows that one person can make a difference in their environment, despite the apathy and ignorance of others. Caroline is a true local hero and I chose for her to be an inspiration to me to do and be better.

  11. Catherine permalink
    June 2, 2019

    Thanks you GA–reading this was a lovely start to my Sunday out here in San Francisco.

  12. Pauline Taylor permalink
    June 2, 2019

    What a wonderful person and a real inspiration to those of us who try to get traders to work together to improve their environment, I found the council’s comment about squatter’s rights very amusing, this is how councils see people who improve their surroundings on a voluntary basis ~~~ an enemy that has to be defeated ~~~ so congratulations Caroline for getting the better of them. I was also amused to read how long it might take some of us to make a pot. Well I had pottery lessons at Art School many years ago and I know if I had spent all of those intervening years struggling with clay on a wheel I still would not have succeeded in making a pot !
    I admire you Caroline and your pots are beautiful.

  13. Saige (formally Jane) Vendome England permalink
    June 2, 2019

    Caroline is an inspiration and reflects the true old spirit of the East End. She is such a community minded woman and her garden and pottery are beautiful. Thank you once again Gentle Author for bringing a delightful story about the East End to this grandaughter of an East Ender in New Zealand.

  14. mlaiuppa permalink
    June 3, 2019

    The roundabout is a huge are crying for a garden. I can’t imagine why the city would simply neglect it and leave it to be a bunch of weeds. Now it is a habitat for all sorts of lovely creatures. A means of unifying the neighborhood, a focal point for tourists on busses, and even a harvest for those wishing to make use of the flowers and plants. Besides the lavender I wouldn’t be surprised if Caroline had a bit if edibles hidden in there. £5 rental is a bargain. But the city should really be paying her for landscaping and maintenance of what would otherwise be an eyesore. Caroline is correct in that guerrilla gardening has really taken off. Glad she went the official route as I would hate to see the city come out and pull out all of her hard work.

    Bees, huh? Could she hide a little hive in the middle where no one would see but the bees could live? Might be a bit of a profitable sideline, selling a few jars of lavender honey.

  15. Kate O permalink
    June 3, 2019

    This is a lovely story and an inspiring woman; we need more like her!

  16. Robert Hill permalink
    June 3, 2019

    We moved to Hackney in 1975 (we are now in the Thames Valley). Bunch & Dukes; I recall going into their office in the Narrow Way. They were estate agents in the proper sense as they didn’t sell many houses but there was a window in the office where you paid your rent. When we bought our first home, a flat in Clapton Square, we celebrated by going to Percy Ingles for tea and cake

    I remember Caroline’s workshop and the roundabout from when I used to go to Gore Road. Here I regularly visited Mr Renson, one of the founders of the Hackney Society and co author of ‘From Tower to Tower Block’, who knew more about Hackney than anyone I ever met.

  17. Jen permalink
    June 4, 2019

    Guerrilla gardening! An inspiration! I’ve just stepped outside to have a look at the neglected small planting strip down the street, and imagine what might thrive there. Thank you for featuring Caroline Bousfields’ work and environs.

  18. Marcia Howard permalink
    June 5, 2019

    Caroline, you are Inspirational! Love your pots too. And Gordon’s brickwork was pretty good too!
    Thank you Gentle Author for introducing those of us from afar, to such amazing stories.

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