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Pretty Ugly Pottery: Ugly Mugs

Updated on September 11, 2016
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Adele Cosgrove-Bray a novelist, poet, and artist who lives on the Wirral peninsula in England.

Pretty Ugly Pottery

Overlooking the River Mersey stands a new, spacious two-storey building once owned by Pretty Ugly Pottery. The ground floor offered a large pottery display area, a cafeteria, the Have-A-Go area where visitors could try their hand at making their own Ugly Mug, plus the production area itself.

Everything was brand new, including the staff who spent a month travelling to Rhos-on-Sea in Wales to train at Pretty Ugly Pottery's original site on a small industrial estate. This older site had been making the world famous Ugly Mugs for years already and was purely a production site, fulfilling orders which were then sold at gift shops around Britain or shipped across to Europe and America.

The Liverpool site attracted international visitors, school groups, special needs groups and coach-loads of tourists who could enjoy a guided tour of the production area before being encouraged to make their very own Ugly Mug in the Have-A-Go area. Their mugs would then be dried, glazed and fired, and the finished amateur mugs would be shipped worldwide to their eager creators.

Pretty Ugly Pottery opened in 1997 and lasted for less than two years in Liverpool. The Rhos-on-Sea site folded also.

However, Pretty Ugly Pottery's distinctive Ugly Mugs are now becoming collectors' items.

What's an Ugly Mug?

Pretty Ugly Pottery's famous range of Ugly Mugs were dishwasher-proof mugs with funny faces on the outside.  There were two main types - plain earthenware, with facial details highlighted with brown colour (iron oxide); or the more colourful type with facial details formed from dyed clay. 

All were made by hand.  The mug shape was thrown on a traditional potter's wheel, then the "facers" created the novelty characters from a block of clay, shaping the features by hand.  A handle was then applied, then the mug would be left to dry.  Around two weeks later, any rough bits of clay were smoothed before a thin layer of liquid glaze was added.  Once dry, these would then be taken to the kiln for firing.

Other ranges were also made by Pretty Ugly Pottery, such as the animal characters or the nude women who were placed on the inside of a mug so the drinker got a surprise.  The photos below show the full range of ceramic gifts.

 

New Novel from the Author of this Ugly Mugs Article!

To the public they are artists creating beauty in their shared Liverpool home. In private, they are members of an ancient occult order riddled with intrigue and power struggles. Can Morgan keep them safe in their turbulent world of dark magic?
To the public they are artists creating beauty in their shared Liverpool home. In private, they are members of an ancient occult order riddled with intrigue and power struggles. Can Morgan keep them safe in their turbulent world of dark magic? | Source
All the above images are from Pretty Ugly Pottery's leaflets - and are probably collectibles  themselves now.
All the above images are from Pretty Ugly Pottery's leaflets - and are probably collectibles themselves now.

My Job at Pretty Ugly Pottery

I was one of the new team employed by Pretty Ugly Pottery for their new Liverpool site in 1997. After completing three short courses run by Merseyside Tourist Board, and having spent several weeks at the pottery's plant in Rhos-on-Sea in North Wales, we were all ready for the official opening of the Liverpool site at 112 Mariners Wharf.

My job had two aspects - working as a tour guide, and also creating the characters mugs and tankards. With Ugly Mugs, we were expected to produce a minimum of 250 per day (assuming our work wasn't interrupted by a tour.) The tankards were bigger and more complex; we managed to make around 95 a day of those.

It was fun work - busy work, but fun.

Pottery Tours

In summer months, tours began every half hour. Often we'd finish doing one tour only to immediately begin another. At the peak of the season, this could go on all day and we'd end up feeling dizzy, wondering if we'd just said the same thing twice in immediate succession. We'd think, "Didn't I just say that already, or was that actually on the last tour?"

We three tour guides had to politely coax the public to complete the entire circuit of production area and Have-A-Go area in forty-five minutes flat. It didn't always work out quite that smoothly in practice! And by lunch-time the Have-A-Go area would look like a herd of wildebeests had trampled through it, with smears of clay and dropped modelling tools all over the place - and don't even ask about the chaos along the row of public hand-basins!

On top of this, we needed to ensure a ready supply of fresh mugs (the clay being not too wet, not too dry) for the public to unleash their creative efforts upon, which meant we had to constantly raid the other potters' shelves of leathery mugs. We also had to check that each visitor had an identifying number on the base of their mug so we'd know who to mail the finished thing to two or three weeks later.

The Pottery Tour

Tours began at the pug mill. This machine squashed air bubbles from the raw clay, which was scooped out of heavy plastic bags and fed into the pug mill, which then extruded a long sausage of smooth clay - rather like a giant-sized pasta machine.

The sausage of clay was then neatly divided into small measured sections using a wooden frame with wire strung across it. Each section was the right amount of clay to make the body of a mug, and people would watch in fascination as these were thrown on the potters' wheel. Our throwers made it look so easy - but then one of them had been doing similar work for twenty years...

The formed mugs were set onto long wooden planks and left on open shelves to dry to the leather stage, which means the clay is still flexible but not too dry to attach more clay (such as the handle.) If the clay is too dry, any additions are likely to fall off again. If the clay was drying too quickly, the pot-covered planks would be wrapped in plastic.

Ugly Faces

Once the mugs reached the leather stage, the character details could be added. These might be the famous Ugly Mug faces or any of the animal or novelty range designs. People used to love watching the speed at which the potters worked, and how they'd take a plain mug and scoop up blobs of shapeless clay to form the details, or make use of small plaster molds.

Having been given the character details, the mugs would then be carried over to the handler, who used another pug mill to extrude long ribbons of clay from which the handles were made. These were then placed back on the wooden planks, where they'd sit on shelves for around two weeks before the fettler used a knife and hot water to deftly tidy up any unsmooth surfaces, and then the mugs would be ready for glazing. 

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Firing in the Kiln

The glazing area consisted of a row of plastic buckets, each filled with a different glaze. The bases of the mugs were dipped in hot wax to prevent them sticking to the kiln's shelves. The mugs were held upside down and their rims dipped into iron oxide to give the brown band around the rim, and then the whole mug was dipped into clear glaze.

No biscuit firing was used, just the one firing which cut production costs but also greatly limited the range of underglaze colours. We got round this by reducing clay to liquid then adding dye, which was then poured onto plaster slabs to dry off a bit until it returned to a flexible clay state. This could then be peeled off the plaster and used to create coloured details for the character mugs, such as coloured eyes.

The electric kiln sat at the far end of the production area, and the public weren't allowed to go near this for safety reasons. After a firing, when the kiln doors had been opened even slightly, heat and fumes would flood the entire pottery even with the two huge rear loading bay doors wide open. In winter, this was about the only time we got warm!

© 2010 Adele Cosgrove-Bray

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    • AdeleCosgroveBray profile image
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      Adele Cosgrove-Bray 6 months ago from Wirral, Cheshire, England.

      Email from Paul in Australia, who wrote: "I have an Ugly Mug teapot, not stamped so obviously made in Liverpool; also a vase which is stamped so it must have been made in Wales. Just wondering if you have any idea how much these would be worth now? I live in Australia."

      The value for anything collectible can vary considerably, mostly depending on how much buyers are willing to pay. One easy way to get an idea of the current value of your Ugly Mugs would be to check similar items on eBay.

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      Paul owen 8 months ago

      Sorry I've just noticed my email should read paulrhos5002@btinternet.com

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      Robert rawlings 13 months ago

      I remember working at the pottery factory in liverpool i made a few freinds in there and the only one i can remeber now is micheal loyyd i had a great time there

    • profile image

      Paul 16 months ago

      Hi yes I can provide factual information on the pottery in those early years from its conception by a pig farmer called Mick from Bethesda and also how you can actually tell by the throwing rings in the ceramic clay who made it ..paulrhos@btinternet .com for any info

    • AdeleCosgroveBray profile image
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      Adele Cosgrove-Bray 17 months ago from Wirral, Cheshire, England.

      Chris, I hope you continue to enjoy your collection of Pretty Ugly Pottery. It is still possible to find peices of it on eBay. John Calahan parted ways with the company not long after the Liverpool site was opened.

      Paul, it would be interesting to read of your memories of your time with the company.

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      Paul owen 17 months ago

      Thrower at Conway pottery based in Rhos owned by Jon Wynn Morris later taken over by pretty ugly pottery from 1976 to 1982

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      Chris Colocassides 21 months ago

      I have imported Pretty ugly Pottery many years ago in cyprus and i still have various pieces left in the black boxes i did have a good sales and i was sad to find out that they went bankrupt. i want to contact john calahan if anybody can help. if any collector still collects

      my email is colocassidesc@gmail.com

    • AdeleCosgroveBray profile image
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      Adele Cosgrove-Bray 2 years ago from Wirral, Cheshire, England.

      David, in all truth I've no clear recollection of the pieces you mention. However, I wish you well in tracking them down for your collection.

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      David Hinton 2 years ago

      Hi.

      I am a passionate collector of both ugly and pretty ugly pottery and have collected approx 300 pieces. My spare time consists of trawling round charity shops and car boots looking for the holy grail that is a stick/umbrella stand around 3/4ft high in the guise of Robin Hood or a, another character.

      I first come across one in a car boot in Colwyn Bay and the owner wanted £25 for it, but at the time, my weekly shopping bill came to £20. So with that, I had to leave it thinking there will be another cheaper one round the corner. But there NEVER has been.

      After that I saw 4 of them in the factory reception in Liverpool when I took my daughter there on a day out. Unfortunately they weren't for sale.

      So my question is, has anybody seen one or knows where there maybe one for sale anywhere?

      p.s. great site.

    • AdeleCosgroveBray profile image
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      Adele Cosgrove-Bray 2 years ago from Wirral, Cheshire, England.

      Ali, there were Pretty Ugly Pottery imitators who produced similar mugs. The pottery made at Rhos-on-Sea should have had the makers stamp on their base, to the best of my knowledge, though there is a possibility that this wasn't always done prior to a change of management. The Liverpool branch never got around to having a makers stamp made, as short-sighted as that may sound. So there is a possibility that your unmarked mug isn't actually a Pretty Ugly Pottery product.

      Stewart, wasn't John a salesman based in the office? He once entertained us all with a bizarre tale of a dead hamster, when everyone was in the pub over the road.

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      Stewart 2 years ago

      Does any nor remember john Callahan, he was the life and soul of that company

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      Ali 2 years ago

      Thank you for all these recollections. There is so little about Pretty Ugly Pottery on Google other than this wonderful and informative page. I used to work for a pottery materials company who supplied materials to Pretty Ugly. I still have in my possession two mugs which were sent to us as 'faulty' because PUgly said the glaze wasn't behaving as it should. They have no stamp on the bottom. Today I found another 'Ugly' mug in a charity shop almost identical to them. This doesn't have a stamp either. However, this doesn't fit with them having been made in Liverpool as it was in the 1980s so they must have been made at Rhos despite not having a stamp. I was hoping that Google might reveal more details about the pottery so I was so pleased to find your blog.

      I am still make hand-made ceramics today and am fascinated how a once successful business which had guided tours, have a go sessions and exported all over the world, could fold in the way it did. I know you could quote Royal Doulton and many others at me but this was a smaller private business which obviously boomed at one time. Surely worth an entry on Wiki !!! Anyway, thanks again - but for you I might have found very little!

    • AdeleCosgroveBray profile image
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      Adele Cosgrove-Bray 4 years ago from Wirral, Cheshire, England.

      There were two production sites. The Welsh site was in Rhos-on-Sea, Noth Wales, on a small industrial estate. The pottery made in Wales had the stamp you mention; the pottery made in Liverpool had no stamp at all.

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      Gil. 5 years ago

      In the outer circle it says, MADE IN WALES. In the center it says,

      PRETTY UGLY POTTERY - clearly stamped on the bottom of my mug...a gift, 15 years ago.

    • AdeleCosgroveBray profile image
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      Adele Cosgrove-Bray 5 years ago from Wirral, Cheshire, England.

      Thanks for offering to sell your Ugly Mugs, Tracy. People can also readily find them on ebay.

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      tracy fye 5 years ago

      it sounds like some of the comments peple would still like to find some of the Ugly Mug collection. I do have some

      available (You can e-mail me at tracyfye@comcast.net)

    • AdeleCosgroveBray profile image
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      Adele Cosgrove-Bray 5 years ago from Wirral, Cheshire, England.

      @ Justin, thanks for sharing your memories of your Gran's Ugly Mug collection.

      @ Eileen, if you keep an eye on eBay or similar sites, you can still find these mugs for sale sometimes.

    • profile image

      Eileen English 5 years ago

      Loved reading all the comments and history of the pretty ugly mugs I have two,but looks as if I have left it to late to get more.not happy.

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      Justin 5 years ago

      Loved reading this hub, my Grandma, who's now resting, literally had hundred's of these mugs on shelves all around the cottage that she lived in.

    • AdeleCosgroveBray profile image
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      Adele Cosgrove-Bray 6 years ago from Wirral, Cheshire, England.

      @Erica, I suspect that was probably "Made By".

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      erica 6 years ago

      what did the stamp on the bottom say. pretty ugly mugs wales, but there is a word on the top I can't quite make out?

    • AdeleCosgroveBray profile image
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      Adele Cosgrove-Bray 6 years ago from Wirral, Cheshire, England.

      Yup, you definitely missed the boat on that one, Barb!

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      barb 6 years ago

      Very sorry to hear that they are no longer making the mugs. I have one I purchased while living in England with my husband in the last 80's. Was searching for the company web site to possibly purchase more, guess I waited too long! Thanks for the info.

    • AdeleCosgroveBray profile image
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      Adele Cosgrove-Bray 7 years ago from Wirral, Cheshire, England.

      Reply to Tracy FYE,

      The individual Ugly Mugs mugs didn't have a barcode on them. There may have been one printed on the box but I've no idea now, after all this time, what it may have been.

    • AdeleCosgroveBray profile image
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      Adele Cosgrove-Bray 7 years ago from Wirral, Cheshire, England.

      Hello again, Paul;

      Yes, I was a member of the original staff. I'm sure we travelled by coach to and from Rhos-on-Sea for more than two weeks, but it's a long time ago now and I'm not going to be pedantic about the accuracy of that memory.

      The lady who was a motorbike mechanic was named Claire; and you're right, she did have a great sense of humour.

      The pottery's furnishings were rudimentary but functional. And due to the plastic roof and absence of either heating or air-conditioning, we roasted in summer and froze in winter. To be fair, the boss roasted and froze along with the rest of us.

      I find it amusing that some of the Ugly Mugs we made are now for sale on eBay as collectors items.

    • profile image

      Paul 7 years ago

      sorry Adele I've just reread your write up, It looks like you were one of the orginals, and I think I remember you now, you hung around with (Mandy?) the girl that used to be a mechanic, she had a terrific sense of humour as I remember. I left less than 3 months in, with a few others. Trust me the staff that left were anything but resentful, relieved I'd say!

      All of us were made redundant or long term unemployed when we were taken on, you must have been the exception, as all the new staff that went on the 2 week training in Wales (not several weeks as you mentioned above!) were on minimum wage. The only staff not on minimum wage at the Liverpool plant were the manager staff and the experienced pot thrower Steve employed , so he could at least have one good supply of cups to keep the production line operational.

      'The production area' was basically just a few tables with plastic chairs and ditto the public face making area. Steve even had his wife working in the cafe at one stage to save money. That foldout illustration in teh leaflet I did above was based on a rough proposed floor plan Steve gave me and the contrast to the reality couldn't have been starker. I'm not sure if it ever did materialise.

      I remember the top floor being a vast open concrete space devoid of partitions with Steve's desk and set up at the far wall and the few plastic chairs we had our breaks and lunch on at the other end.

      I was near the site only the other day which prompted me to google it and I came across your blurb. Like I said it certainly was an experience and I remember alot of the people there fondly.

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      Paul 7 years ago

      sounds like you missed out on the fun, he set a bunch of us to work grouting the floor of the catering area and toilets for a few days before opening.

      Sorry Adele I assumed you were one of the original ones employed, everyone employed when it started up was either redundant or on benefits , it was part of the remit of the grant Steve Sennick was given to start up the enterprise in Liverpool. I know this because my ex boss who made me redundant put me in touch with him as he was an old friend of his and clued me up on the situation.

      How long did you last? I remember during that summer we were working in 90 heat with those kilns and the conditions we were working in were basic to put it mildly

    • AdeleCosgroveBray profile image
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      Adele Cosgrove-Bray 7 years ago from Wirral, Cheshire, England.

      Thank you, Psychlist.

      Hello Paul. I'd neither been made redundant or been on unemployment benefit when I was employed by Steve. I have no recollection of any pottery staff being asked to do any building work, only a bit of interior painting so the site would be ready for the opening day.

      The project did have a shakey start, with staff being laid off without notice several times. Resentment amongst the workforce was inevitable.

    • profile image

      Paul 7 years ago

      Hi Adele

      I remember the experience very well, Steve, the guy that bought the project was heavily funded to take on workers who'd either been made redundant or had been unemployed for more than 2 years. And he certainly used us to his full advantage. Even putting us to work finishing building work on the site before opening to the public!

      It has to be said though, the training in Wales was fun, a bit of a shock to find out later the production shed had a decaying asbestos roof, only found out that little nugget afterwards.

      The working conditions post training were horrendous, I remember as the weeks progressed we lost more of the original team either through them leaving through poor conditions or being fired on a whim by Steve. Even one of the managers from Manchester was dismissed while I was there. I was given the task of being a 'facer' and inevitably I ended up being sacked by Steve for presenting him with an invoice for that leaflet I did for him, you've shown up there (which to be honest I'd had enough at that stage anyway and expected his reaction). I remember there being a good sense of camaraderie amongst us workers. A group of us even tried to set up our own business afterwards which fizzled out after a while.

      it certainly was an experience. It doesn't surprise me it never lasted.

    • psychlist profile image

      psychlist 7 years ago from East Tennessee

      I enjoyed your hub. Thanks for the story.

    • AdeleCosgroveBray profile image
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      Adele Cosgrove-Bray 7 years ago from Wirral, Cheshire, England.

      Hi, Docia; if you check the base of the mug, there should be an identifying stamp there which will say "Pretty Ugly Pottery, Made in Wales." All the posts made at the Rhos-on-Sea site were given these (to the best of my knowledge.) They were exported internationally, so it's very likely that some were sent to California.

      Incidentally, the pottery made at the Liverpool site had no stamp on the base.

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      Docia 7 years ago

      I have 1 of these cups,but I remember buying it back in the 1970's?? In Solvang,CA.

    • AdeleCosgroveBray profile image
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      Adele Cosgrove-Bray 7 years ago from Wirral, Cheshire, England.

      Please don't email me to ask after the whereabouts of the pottery's owner. I have no idea where he is.

    • AdeleCosgroveBray profile image
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      Adele Cosgrove-Bray 7 years ago from Wirral, Cheshire, England.

      Thanks for your enquiry, Gary, but Pretty Ugly Pottery closed in 1999 and I no longer work with clay.

      I suggest you seek a suitably qualified ceramics restorer in Australia. Professional restoration will cost more than the market value of your Ugly Mug, however.

      Or you could try using a bit of ceramic glue - but then the mug would be ornamental only.

    • AdeleCosgroveBray profile image
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      Adele Cosgrove-Bray 7 years ago from Wirral, Cheshire, England.

      I have been asked if I can help people to complete their collections of Ugly Mugs. The answer is no, but try looking on eBay and Amazon, as they often appear for sale there.

    • AdeleCosgroveBray profile image
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      Adele Cosgrove-Bray 7 years ago from Wirral, Cheshire, England.

      You're welcome, tim-tim.

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      Priscilla Chan 7 years ago from Normal, Illinois

      That's so cool! Thanks for sharing:)