Guest post: English pot-bellied saucepans



“This was real kitchen bling!”

VFC says: This guest post was written by Roger W.

After reading the post about the kitchen of Windsor Castle which ends with a line-up of pot bellied pans it occurred to me that many interested in copper pots may never have had the opportunity to get a close look at one. They were as far as I know only ever made in England and fell from favour about 150 years ago. The few examples at Windsor Castle are displayed on high shelves even in the 1878 photograph (on the right). Pans of this type are not especially rare nor do they have much financial value, but I think they are of historic interest.

In this spirit the two pans pictured below are exhibited as interesting relics. They were made of surprisingly thin copper and as such rather fragile when compared the pots we are used to. The condition of these is not unusual for bellied pans. Neither has a stamp.

Small (on left) Large (on right)
Height 15cm (5.9 inches) 14.5cm (5.7 inches) without lid
Diameter at rim 13cm (5.1 inches) 14cm (5.5 inches)
Maximum diameter 17.8cm (7 inches) 21cm (8.3 inches)
Weight 900g (2 lbs) 1300g (2.9 lbs)

The handles are forged from wrought iron and strongly resemble the shanks of a gardening tool or a shepherd’s crook.

I have some antique cast iron pans that I use which have this type of hollow tapering handle and they never get too hot to hold. Some owners may have added a wooden handle if using on an open grate.

The sides have a cramp seam running down at the handle and the base is let in the usual way.

Because they are so thin the rim is rolled over an iron ring which accounts for a significant proportion of the weight.

The lid on the larger pot is very close fitting. It consists of a shallow dome with a step around the edge.

Inside is a collar of copper with a flange edge turned out and the top part is folded over this flange and simply crimped on.

These were only ever suitable for boiling water or thin liquid. The English tend to thicken stews with a starch slurry just before serving, so thin walls were not a problem at the time. A wide base makes for quick boiling but I can see why cooks preferred the easy access of a cylindrical pan — it must have been hard even to see inside by candlelight.

I think the original owner must have been quite wealthy, this was real kitchen bling and if it was good enough for the Queen then very desirable!

VFC says: Roger, thank you so much! I certainly had not seen these pots close up and I am glad for the chance to look at and learn about yours. John Fuller Sr. in his wonderful The Art of Coppersmithing wrote in 1893 about how these saucepans were cut and shaped completely by handing during the mid-1800s. Apparently, he not only made them for others, but also cooked with them:

The writer has one made by himself in the year 1856 which was in constant use up to 1872, and is apparently as good as when new, if retinned and made fit for use.

As excerpted in the Windsor Castle kitchen post, Fuller claimed that the English-style bellied saucepan fell out of use starting in the 1860s as demand increased for straight-walled pots he called “stewpans.” He wrote a little more about the transition:

As previously stated, [straight-sided] stewpans seemed to take the place of [bellied] saucepans in a great measure after their introduction, because they were handier and more easily made; then, again, there were long and rapid strides being made in the perfecting of cooking apparatus in general, all tending to a complete revolution of culinary apparatus and methods.The general progress in education and the advances made on every hand were felt by the braziers, as well as others, and the surrounding influences compelled them, though a little reluctantly, to keep pace with the advancing tide about them and acquiesce in the demand for more tasty and shapely goods.

In this case, I think “tasty” and “shapely” are in the eye of the beholder, as I find your two English pieces to be lovely things indeed. Roger, thank you again for sharing them with us.

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  1. I had never noticed these particular English pots before. The bulbous shape of these copper pots remind me of the “archetype” of many ceramic vessels that dominated for thousands of years. Until well into the Middle Ages, vessels made of metal were very expensive and therefore could only be purchased by wealthy people. But in some countries clay vessels for cooking in the oven have survived to this day (for example, “daubieres” in France and “Römertöpfe” in Germany).

    Somehow it is surprising that the hollow handles visible here did not become more widely accepted, as their insulating properties are absolutely convincing when handling pots and pans. Hollow handles alone remained on some sugar pans made of non-tinned copper. My two forged iron pans are also equipped with similar handles; they have never gotten hot.

    1. Martin, I recall from my research into the French term “casserole” that the very earliest cooking pots were sort of long-handled shallow spoons! Perhaps this shape is a direct descendant. It also occurred to me to wonder if this rounded base was better adapted to settle into the coals of a kitchen hearth, or to hang over the flames. The flat-bottomed, straight-sided French version seems better suited to the uniform flat surface of a “modern” (that is, post-industrial revolution era) stove.

  2. Your old English bellied pots remind me of the modern day acorn handle topped Ruffoni-by-way-of-Williams-Sonoma pot. Perhaps this style is not forgotten after-all.

  3. Michele, that’s a good observation. I can see a practical advantage to this shape — perhaps the gentler “corner” from the base to the sidewalls helps with stirring and keeping food from settling in the crevice.

  4. VFC, I fully agree with your assumptions. A good example of how fire encloses a cooking pot as optimally as possible are the woks popular especially in Asia. Virtually the entire semicircular shape is reached by the flames. The bottom and side walls are virtually identical surfaces. Thus, the directly heated surface is much larger than in modern pots and you can quickly cook vegetables or pieces of meat by stirring or swirling.

    Rounded pot bottoms were also common in the Western world for a while. People hung these pots in a (variable) opening of the stove, which was usually wood-fired. These pans with rounded bottoms had a ring about halfway up the side wall that stabilized them on the stove. Water was also heated in an analogous manner. However, the containers set into the stove for this purpose were rectangular. I also recall at this point the pans of parabolic shape used in France for making caramel.

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