14 June 2024

A fluke find sends the Fords into a lifelong affair with Australian pottery

| Vanessa Hayden
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Kerrie and Geoff Ford have spent nearly 30 years building an exceptional collection of Australian pottery which is permanently on display at their museum in Holbrook.

Kerrie and Geoff Ford have spent nearly 30 years building an exceptional collection of Australian pottery which is permanently on display at their museum in Holbrook. Photo: Vanessa Hayden.

It can be intriguing finding out how collections of national significance are first hatched.

For Geoff and Kerrie Ford it was a random find at a clearing sale in 1978 that would send them down an unexpected rabbit hole and into a lifelong affair with pottery.

The pair had no particular interest in relics or artefacts, or clearing sales for that matter, but Geoff knew when he clapped eyes on an old ceramic ginger beer bottle it was something special.

Stamped with the year 1849 he thought it could be rare and, indeed, it was a find that would change the course of their lives.

Thirty years, 13 books, two Order of Australia medals, and a pottery collection spanning 2050 pieces later, the National Museum of Australian Pottery in Holbrook is testament to how a curious nature can nurture something special.

It’s one of the Riverina’s best kept secrets and cradles a collection that Kerrie says they couldn’t possibly recreate in this day and age “even if we had a million dollars”.

But let’s backtrack a little first.

It was the late 1970s and Geoff and Kerrie left Sydney in pursuit of the Australian dream. Their single decker bus had been fitted out as a mobile home and they were off to work their way around Australia.

“Australia is an awfully big place,” said Geoff.

“We spent 10 years living and working out of the bus but never got right around. We had a good look at Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia and the bottom ends of both NSW and Western Australia but other influences changed our travel plans.”

The piece that started it all - an 1849 ginger beer bottle.

The piece that started it all – an 1849 ginger beer bottle. Photo: Vanessa Hayden.

Geoff was a cabinet maker and carpenter and had no trouble picking up work on farms and properties as they moved around. It was in Gundagai that the pair would start going to country auctions and clearing sales, more as a means of socialising rather than fossicking for finds.

“At one of these auctions there was a box of bits and pieces, a few kitchen gadgets, a bit of crockery and I’m going through it and a ginger beer bottle came out impressed with T.Fields, Potter, Sydney, January 1849.

“It was actually dated and I’m holding this blessed thing and I’m thinking 1849? How far back is that? We stuck it back in the box and about an hour later we got the entire box for $5.

“And that’s what started us off; if that bottle hadn’t been dated this collection may not have happened because it wasn’t the bottle that hit me in the face, it was the date.”

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Back in “those days” no one was the slightest bit interested in collecting pottery, says Geoff, never mind Australian pottery.

“Quite often the auctioneer would push four or five pieces together and knock them down to 20 cents just so he could sell the table underneath them; they just wanted to get rid of them.

“So, we were going to clearing sales and the like everywhere we travelled and anything we came across with a potter’s stamp on that we could identify as being either Australian or most likely Australian we picked up.”

Their developing obsession led to a thirst for knowledge about these potters but their research showed that there hadn’t really been much produced.

“It took us a little over three years to work our way from Sydney to Adelaide; by the time we got there Kerrie and I wanted to know more about these potters because we still had no idea who they were.

“We made a beeline into the Adelaide library to get a book on the subject and that was our first mistake because very little had been published. So, we started researching and once we got involved with the research we couldn’t let go.

“We’ve self-published 13 books on the subject, and as our knowledge expanded, of course, so did the collection.”

man and woman stand in front of large decorative pottery piece

Geoff and Kerrie are often contacted by families who have discovered historic collections in their midst such as this 1895 press moulded terracotta fountain, made by F. Liebentritt & Sons from Cumberland Pottery, and gifted to the museum in 2015 by descendants of the Liebentritt family. Photo: Vanessa Hayden.

Geoff recounts his discovery in the Adelaide library of a complete selection of post office and business directories from every state in Australia. This is not something too many people would get excited about, but it would lead to the collation of a list of close to 250 potters and would form the basis of what they needed to become national authorities on the subject.

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There are 132 potters represented at the Fords’ museum in Holbrook’s main street. The oldest item is by the convict potter Jonathan Leak, whose pieces are also the earliest pieces surviving marked with a potter’s mark. Their newest addition is a very rare circa 1870 Bendigo Pottery salt glazed acid battery cell.

Kerrie and Geoff might not have known it back then but by 1986 they were destined to be curators. They returned to the east coast to further their research with the bus “fairly loaded” and a Ford station wagon and 8m x 5m trailer “stacked to the brims” with their hallowed horde.

They chose Wodonga to settle as it was located strategically between Hobart and Brisbane – the east coast being the focus area of their continued research.

It was a matter of the right places and the right decade to be collecting, says Kerrie.

“In the last 15 years collecting pottery has become a big thing and we are one of many buyers.

“It is much harder to find pieces and a lot more difficult to buy them with the addition of online auctions and bidding. Anything decent people are paying big money for.”

In 2025 they will be celebrating 30 years of the museum. They operated from a purpose-built wing in their home in Wodonga from 1995 until a multi-state search for exactly the right sort of building landed them in Holbrook in 2004.

Allow yourself plenty of time to take in the 125 metres of displays which showcase more than 130 potters from around Australia.

Allow yourself plenty of time to take in the 125 metres of displays which showcase more than 130 potters from around Australia. Photo: Vanessa Hayden.

A former general store, the grand old building now houses the collection which fills 125 metres of two-metre-high display cabinets.

Opening hours are 9:30 am to 4:30 pm daily except Wednesdays. They are also closed for the month of August.

The collection, spread over two floors, is a kaleidoscope of colour and creativity and includes a stunning variety of wares from simple preserving jars and jugs to ornate cheese covers, beautiful bread plates and elegantly decorated water filters.

It is dedicated to potters and potteries established between 1788 and 1920 and includes pieces from those who continued after 1920 until they closed.

More details can be found at the National Museum of Australian Pottery.

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