'Uncle Tom' Staffordshire flatback, c.1852-1880

This pottery figure is Uncle Tom, the main character in ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ by American author Harriet Beecher Stowe. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in 1852 and tells the story of a black slave in America. Stowe wrote the novel because she thought slavery was wrong and should be stopped. She wanted to encourage people to support the campaign to abolish slavery.

The little girl standing on Uncle Tom’s knee is Eva. She and Tom become best friends in the book.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the best-selling novel of the 1800s. In the year after it was published in 1852, 300 000 copies were sold in America alone. It showed the cruel reality of slavery and helped persuade many Americans to support its abolition.

Slavery was abolished in Britain and the British colonies in 1833, but continued to be legal in America and many other countries. Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin partly in response to the Second Fugitive Slave Act in America. This punished people who helped runaway slaves and restricted the rights of runaway and freed slaves.

As this Staffordshire-made figure shows, the story of Uncle Tom was also popular in Britain. The first London edition of the book appeared in May 1852 and sold 200 000 copies. Many British people campaigned for slavery to be abolished in the United States. Slavery was finally made illegal there in 1865.

This type of pottery figure is called a ‘Staffordshire flatback’ because the back has been left flat and undecorated. Flatbacks were made from the late 1830s by over 100 manufacturers in Staffordshire. They were also called chimney ornaments, because their flat backs allowed them to stand against the chimney breast.

Flatbacks showed popular subjects that everyone would recognise. The Royal Family were the most popular. Others included politicians, military heroes, actors, and even notorious criminals like the highwayman Dick Turpin. The fact that Uncle Tom appears on a flatback shows how familiar his story had become in Britain.