Lancaster Sandland Hand painted Hanley England”. The inscription was as enigmatic as the design. I held the mug in my hand wondering what the two figures on it meant. You’ll be my first customer today if you buy it, the woman in charge of the stall said. It had just gone two o’ clock on a sun-draped, summer afternoon. I offered her a couple of quid and she took them. I think she’d have even taken 50p for the item.

It was my first time at the Hackney Flea Market. I’d heard of it from a friend but had never visited it. A monthly weekend event that started life as a pop-up project back in 2013, the market is now the go-to place for vintage enthusiasts. The mix of wares on display is amazing and bizarre in equal measure. Old cassette-players (80s boomboxes abound), handmade goods from independent creatives and even some striking taxidermy.

Still, my mug left me scratching my head. As soon as I got home and put my bike away, I went online to dig out some information about the enigmatic inscription on the mug’s bottom. I must add that I did ask the seller where she had got it from. Like a lot of merchandise on sale at flea markets, people do not really know the provenance of the products they are flogging.

Lancaster and Sandland of Dresden Works was a British manufacturer that specialised in pottery. They were based in Hanley, Staffordshire from 1944 until the 70s. This immediately reminded me of an article I had read many years ago about this region. Close to Stoke (whose football, or soccer, team plays in the English Premier League), this was an area known as The Potteries because six of the local towns (Hanley being one of them) were the driving force in the ceramics and decorative arts industry in the UK.

While the range produced was varied, some figures proved very popular. Amongst them were Dickens characters and famous, historical people, like Francis Drake. My very own mug depicted what I can only describe as a pub scene. On one side was the pub landlord tidying up the bar, and on the other there was a customer, hat still on (which did not look normal, what with this scene probably taking place in the 1800s, when “doff yer cap indoors” was less of a request and more of a command) pipe in hand, having a pint. This might have been his local boozer. At least the whole set-up conveyed a sense of bonhomie, comfort and cosiness.

After rinsing my new, special cup (I have a couple of them that fulfil very specific functions. One is for herbal tea, another one is for black coffee), I fixed myself a mocha. As I sat in my lounge looking out onto the back garden, I kept thinking of the pub landlord and his tired-looking face, and the pipe-smoking patron. History has a way of sneaking into our lives. Sometimes in the form of a mug.

Photos taken by the author

London-based, Cuban writer. Author of “Cuban, Immigrant, and Londoner”, to be published by Austin Macauley. Has written for The Guardian and Prospect.

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