A’WIGHT ME OLD CHINA – PROPER COCKNEY CROCKERY, AN’ NO MISTAKE (NEARLY) !
Well, we’ve taken a look at several of the provincial porcelain manufactories around the UK over the last few months, time now to delve in to goings on in and around the nation’s capital – London – with a look at the Bow china works, which dates back to the 1740’s
To be strictly accurate, at that time Stratford at Bow (its full name) was little more than a village, some two miles east of the farthest extent of London’s ever-growing sprawl which then barely reached beyond Whitechapel or Mile End (other than on the Thames waterfront, where the commercial development extended through Wapping and Shadwell to Limehouse). It sat in splendid isolation on the River Lea, crossed by the bow-shaped 12th century bridge which had given the settlement its name. Also on the river, though a little to the south of the Roman road which headed off towards Colchester, was a site now known as Three Mills Island, where even then there had already been mills of varying sorts for almost 750 years. Having first provided flour for the bakeries at Stratford Langthorne – immediately adjacent to Bow itself, and which supplied London - they took to producing gunpowder in the 16th century to arm Drake’s navy when the Armada threatened invasion, returning to grain processing when the Spaniards no longer posed a menace. Then, in the early years of the 1700’s, another new business plan presented itself as the gin craze took hold of London – and the mills set themselves up as distilleries, taking in the same crops as they had always procured from local farmers, but turning out something a little more inebriant than mere flour. The distillation process had a thoroughly useful by-product – the mashed grains, which as it transpired made for ideal pig food. The mills, therefore, took up pig farming as an extensive side line, with the stock being slaughtered to supply London’s more staple, somewhat less dipsomaniacal requirements. This wholesale slaughter of porcine quadrupeds in turn lead to a vast surfeit of bones, which, as luck would have it – and of sudden relevance - could be ground down and used as a constituent part in the production of ceramics (hence bone china, of course).
Meanwhile, away from the stench and filth of butchery on an industrial scale – a Dublin-born artist by the name of Thomas Frye and a Welshman, Edward Heylyn, were pursuing rather more esoteric ends. Frye was an accomplished portrait painter and engraver, commissioned – amongst others – by the Worshipful Company of Saddlers. Heylyn looked to make his way in any number of different fields, with sundry divers schemes underwritten by his family’s not insignificant wealth. It was as a merchant that he was probably best known, trading with the New World, particularly outposts in the Carolinas, where his brother owned tracts of land. It is likely that these two men met in the aforementioned Saddler’s Halls at Cheapside, with Frye taking studies for portraits, and where Heylyn was installed as a Freeman of the City of London as a result of his father John’s standing (he had made a fortune supplying saddles to the armies of the Duke of Marlborough). Edward also carried out experiments with glassmaking in Bromley, just south of Bow, and would therefore have been at least partly appraised of the use of kilns, where to source raw materials and to have been in contact with some at least moderately-skilled craftsmen.
The key to these two gentlemen taking up an interest in ceramics had its roots – as did the industry as a whole – in the Far East. Research was going on across Europe as to how best the highly sought-after pottery from China could be replicated, with the source for china clay – the most vital of ingredients – primarily being material taken from Chinese trading vessels which used it as ballast. The masters of the Oriental manufactories soon realised that they were quite literally handing the secrets of their trade to would-be competitors, and found alternative material to use in their ships, thus depriving the early European ceramicists of their most readily available source of raw material; the search was, therefore, well and truly on for an alternative supply…
Heylyn’s trade routes in to the Eastern seaboard of the United States would have made him at least dimly aware that the indigenous people – Cherokee Indians (or Aniyvwiya as they called themselves) – were renowned for producing some remarkably high-quality pottery, as they were able to take advantage of local deposits of fine, white clay which was a close match to the newly-scarce Chinese material. He imported quantities of this clay, given the name “uneka” by the Indians, to London – via his mercantile links with Bristol and Leith – and began to give serious thought as to how it could best be put to use. Initially, Heylyn and George Arnold (see below) purchased a house close to St Mary’s Bow church, and – working with Frye - established some rudimentary kilns in the large gardens of the property, which backed on to what is currently Grove Hall Park. The new partners had some initial success, to the point that in October 1744 they were able to draft a patent for the production of a fine china, utilising “uneka, the produce of the Chirokee nation in America”. The salient part of this patent application, ratified in the in the names of Heylyn and Frye in December of that same year, states that they had developed:
“a Method for the Improvement of the English Earthen Ware, and have at last invented and brought to perfection, a new Method of Manufacturing a certain Material, whereby a ware may be made of the same nature or kind, and equal to, if not exceeding in goodness & Beauty China, or porcelain ware imported from abroad.”
Archaeology in the area has revealed a number of kilns in the area of the Grove Hall site, with a large amount of “wasters” – pieces broken during manufacture – in situ, indicating that, although the basic mechanics of the production process were in place, the ability to produce saleable quantities of finished material was lacking. The patent was issued to Heylyn as being “of the Parish of Bow, in the County of Middlesex” which indicates that he was, at the time, working somewhere to the west of the River Lea – namely, the Bow church property.
It was time to take things to the next stage, and Heylyn called on local contacts from the glass trade to assist. Wholesalers John Crowther and John Weatherby, and Alderman George Arnold – a wealthy businessman known to Heylyn having held interests in the Carolinas – were invited to participate. By the late 1740’s, sources of china clay in the west of England were able to provide sufficient and more readily available raw material for UK interests, obviating the need for either misappropriated Chinese ballasts or expensively imported Cherokee clays; Heylyn was well placed to obtain the crushed silicates also needed, and the ground bones from the Three Mills piggeries formed the final element of a second patent for porcelain production which was submitted in 1749, putting the newly-formed business partnership in a position to accelerate production. All that was needed was a factory big enough to support a worthwhile business, and the decision was taken to relocate the operation away from its original site in Grove Hall, half a mile or so over Bow bridge towards Stratford. Again, modern archaeology has revealed the position of these new facilities, which extended across a number of buildings over an area between Sugar House Lane and Marshgate Lane, with direct links to Heylyn’s glassworks at Bromley and the Three Mills site by way of the River Lea itself and a parallel cut, the Three Mills Wall river. It was an enterprise which was a perfect fit for the local geography, with the method, means, materials and manpower all having been drawn inexorably towards what would become the centre of one of the UK’s first – and foremost – porcelain production concerns.
It can be also demonstrated that manufacturing had been scaled up to a commercial footing by February 1749, with the existence of the first Bow Porcelain Company invoice, issued to a Miss Bruce for the supply of “8 Arguile cups and saucers; 2 pint Sprig’d Mugs and 6 handled Sprig’d cups” for the princely sum of one pound, nineteen shillings and sixpence. Dated 7th of July of that same year, there is an insurance policy assigned to four of the co-conspirators, drawn up to cover “…their China Manufactory in Stratford Road in the County of Essex”, so the move eastward was clearly complete.
The first evidenced pieces from the new factory - known as New Canton due to a supposed similarity to the highly regarded manufactories in the Far East - are extant examples of inkwells bearing both the date 1750 and the name of the premises. Thomas Frye had, by this time, taken over the management of the factory, and looked to impose his own artistic influence on the outturn. To date, products had tended to replicate the original oriental materials - which all early ceramicists sought to reproduce - and also the early wares being contemporaneously produced at the Chelsea factory of Gouyn and Sprimont with their French influences. Frye set out to recruit the most adept painters and modellers that he could find, advertising across the length and breadth of the country and snatching accomplished craftsmen away from the workbenches of competitors. The workforce under his control grew to around three hundred in number, a third of whom were engaged in the finer points of sculpting, painting, enamelling and the assembly of pieces made from multiple pieces. Travelling salesmen travelled the country hawking the Bow wares to the great and good, and the exalted clientele closer to home were able to buy high-end material from two London shops (one being situated in “Mr Mitchell’s Toyshop…in Cornhill”, with “toys” being the name for miniature porcelain figures) or a warehouse for wholesale biscuit-ware pieces. Both the reputation of the manufactory and its profits grew exponentially throughout the 1750’s, with sales approaching a present-day value of four million pounds a year in the middle of the decade.
Just as things seems set fair for a prosperous and long-lasting future for all concerned, so did the first metaphorical cracks begin to appear in the Bow company’s firmament. Thomas Frye was taken ill in the latter years of the 1750’s, citing his many years of proximity to the furnaces as being the likely cause of a chest complaint which was to incapacitate him for an extended period, and would eventually develop in to consumption (though this is, of course, now known to be a bacterial disease, rather than one prompted by any external environmental causes). He repaired to a retreat in Wales in 1759 hoping to recover away from the environs of the factory, but chose to return to London shortly afterwards, concerning himself primarily with portraiture and engravings when he did so. His health, however, did not improve and he died in April 1762. His two daughters who had formerly worked as artists at the Bow factory moved on to similar employment at Worcester and Wedgewood. John Weatherby also died in the same year as Frye, and John Crowther fared little better, being declared bankrupt a few months later due to the failure of his glass wholesale business. Alderman Arnold had long since already expired (in 1751), and Heylyn survived until 1765, though living out his later years in a state of growing financial discomfiture. Crowther continued to operate the business, albeit on an increasingly precipitous downward curve. Along with his daughters – Frye’s painstakingly assembled and expert workforce began to drift away, and the volume of finished pieces made wholly at Bow grew fewer and fewer. Porcelain production did continue, but – increasingly – blanks were sold for decoration and finishing elsewhere by any number of different painters (all of whom were required to mark the pieces with the same red anchor and dagger mark, so the source of the blanks could be identified).
One of these artists was a certain Mr William Duesbury, who was to go on to great renown with his own works at Derby, and when the Bow premises finally ceased production in the mid 1770’s, it was Duesbury who bought up all the moulds, materials, printing plates and blanks, removing everything in its entirety to his factory in the East Midlands.
Finally, we must – as is often the case, and with some dread – consider the somewhat nonsensical title of our piece. It is, you may have realised, a rather poorly affected “cockney” turn of phrase, given that anyone who regards this peculiar lingua franca as their own tongue is said to have been born “within the sound of Bow bells”. You may quite reasonably expect that this refers to the bells of St Mary, Bow – the church in the shadow of which Frye and Heylyn first undertook their experimental endeavours, what with the area being considered as the heartland of East London’s cockney territory – you would, however, be completely wrong ! The Bow bells to which this actually refers are those of St Mary-le-Bow in Cheapside, in the centre of the historic City of London itself, some three and a half miles to the West of our featured centre of porcelain making excellence. So, although a “china plate” may well be one of the better-known cockney phrases, it certainly doesn’t refer to a Bow china plate – gawd blimey !
link to all our currently listed Bow porcelain for sale:
for more blog entires about British porcelain, check the links below:
William Billingsley's Artistic Genius
Welsh Porcelain (Nantgarw, Swansea etc)