William Duesbury and the growth of porcelain manufacturing in Derby

The history of porcelain manufacture under the Derby name can be traced back to the mid 1700’s, though a coherent chronology is a little hard to discern at first glance. The earliest production processes in the town are generally ascribed as having taking place in premises owned by the Hutton family, at the eastern end of the Derwent weir opposite John Lombe’s famous silk-throwing mill and just downstream from St Mary’s Bridge in the city centre.

Tradition has it that the first name to be properly associated with porcelain production in the truest sense should be that of Andre Planché, a Frenchman already resident in Derby before Hutton’s workshop was operational. He is purported to have made small figurines, principally cats, dogs, lambs, sheep and the like, which he fired in a pipe-maker’s oven owned by a Mr Woodward, and situated near his home in Lodge Lane. There was already a rudimentary pot works in the town, the ubiquitous Cockpit Hill concern which is always referenced in early histories of Derby porcelain, and which had been operational since 1708 under the auspices of Alderman John Heath.

The same William Duesbury – enameller - whose name is writ large in the annals of Chelsea porcelain then arrives on the scene, having taken note of the fact that the porcelain blanks now beginning to emerge from Derby were at least the equal in quality of those he was able to source, and subsequently decorate, from London – at least with regard to the moulding and finishing as the substrate itself had not yet been formulated to perfection.

Duesbury obviously had the nose for a worthwhile business proposition, and he drafted a deed under which Heath, Planché and he undertook to cooperate in the production, decoration and sale of porcelain, using Hutton’s former riverside establishment outlined above as their base of operations.

Although Planché then seems to have become somewhat marginalised in the extent to which he took an active role in managing affairs, in as far as the company is referenced at the time as “that of Duesbury and Heath”, the quality of out-turn increased steadily, and by the early 1760’s the partners were sending significant consignments of finished pieces down to London, with one such shipment having a present-day value of £1,650,000.00 (adjusted for GDP per capita). Study of the bills of lading for this consignment illustrates the extraordinary variety and volume of pieces which were now being produced, and I have reproduced below the inventory for just four boxes of goods from a total of forty two which have been itemised, for your edification and delight, along with a summary of some of the other items.

It was at this time that the reputation of the factory’s products was at its (contemporary) height, and in admittedly self-published advertising material, the “Derby Porcelain Manufactory” was proclaiming itself to be “the second Dresden” as a measure of the quality of its products. Hutton’s former works were incrementally extended, albeit in a rather piecemeal fashion, and Duesbury - who was now firmly at the helm with regard to production matters - set about recruiting the best available talent and setting up apprenticeship schemes to secure the long-term future of the concern. It also became apparent, by the late 1760’s, that the Derby operation would benefit greatly from having a dedicated resource on the doorstep of its main market in London, and moves were initiated to enable Duesbury to purchase the Chelsea works in their entirety. This deal was finalised on 8th February 1770, although protracted legal wrangling about the ownership and re-sale of goods formerly under the auspices of Nicholas Sprimont in the capital proved “greatly vexatious” to Duesbury during the transitional period. The closure of this deal obviously brought an end to the production of Derby ware in its own right, and the era of Chelsea-Derby ware was formalised when the identifying marks of the two production facilities were combined in to one unified stamp.

Duesbury maintained what would today be termed a “retail outlet” independent of the Chelsea works, at a former pub – The Castle Tavern – in Bedford Street, Covent Garden. This was both a warehousing facility and exhibition area, and was front of house for what had by now become “a very thriving and lucrative trade”.

Ultimately, of course, the Chelsea site was to be closed down and the name Derby continued in increasingly splendid isolation, to the point where continued Royal patronage afforded Duesbury license to append a crown to his trademark to denote his illustrious patrons. It’s worth noting that Duesbury also added representations of the marks used on Sevres, Dresden and Berlin-made porcelain, as he considered his own wares to be superior to every other available source other than those three, and wished to reinforce the point that his wares were worthy of mention in such exalted company.

However, Duesbury was to die in 1785, at which point his son – another William – took over the reins of the burgeoning company. The pressure of running such an auspicious business and serving its illustrious clientele clearly weighed heavily on William II, and in spite of enlisting the help of his father’s former colleague, the Irish enameller Michael Kean, he was to also expire before the 18th century had run its course. Kean not only then took on overall charge of the business, but also married William’s widow; this, however, was deemed to be “a sorry arrangement…for reasons into which it is needless to enter”, and the works passed in to the control of a grandson of the founding father, yet another William. The bearer of this third incarnation of the family name proved somewhat more durable than his father, and shepherded the business up to the close of the Regency period under the operating name of Duesbury & Sheffield (the latter being his father in law), at which point he chose to entrust it to the running of a former clerk to his father, Robert Bloor. The new man unfortunately did little to further the ambitions or reputation of the company, due to a parsimonious attitude which one might readily expect to be associated with an accountant of sorts. The Duesbury’s had always been rightly proud of the high esteem in which their wares were held, and did much to ensure they remained so by refusing to sell any item which bore the slightest imperfection. Unfortunately, these “seconds” were warehoused in large quantities rather than being destroyed as was the norm, and Bloor went about securing significant amounts of easy money by selling on the imperfect pieces with reckless abandon by way of auctions. There was also a noticeable drop in the quality of newly-produced material, and – once Bloor had died – it was a fairly elementary decision by the newly incumbent manager, Thomas Clarke (who had his predecessor registered insane to effect a takeover), to sell all the patterns and moulds to other concerns in Staffordshire and finally close down the works entirely in 1848.

This closure left a number of disaffected former employees with little or no income and fewer prospects of betterment, but rather than bow to the iniquities of long-term unemployment, these gentlemen pooled their resources, girded their loins and resolved to revive the esteemed name of Derby china under their own volition. With two of these former workers to the fore, Sampson Smith and William Locker, the business was reconstituted at new premises on King Street, making much currency of the fact that theirs was an enterprise which was very much a continuance of the best practices of the Duesbury’s - highlighted by the fact that they retrieved many of the original moulds and patterns from the various recipients to whom Clarke had disseminated them during his contemptuous dismantlement of the company. So successful was this reanimation of the business that Royal patronage continued, although to be strictly fair this tended to entail only the provision of replacement pieces to make up for damages to parts of an extensive dessert service supplied to Queen Victoria while the company had been under Bloor’s desultory stewardship.

And that brings us to the most recent point to which my contemporary records of the history of Derby porcelain extend; for those who are interested, the yet more recent travails of the mark are detailed by numerous other on-line resources which can be accessed by way of a simple search. Just time to point out that the following link will take you to our catalogue of Derby pieces, so do feel free to take a browse….

Derby Porcelain site search

for more blog entires about British porcelain, check the links below:

Bow (London) Porcelain

William Billingsley's Artistic Genius

Lowestoft Porcelain

Welsh Porcelain (Nantgarw, Swansea etc)

Chelsea Porcelain

British Porcelain - overview

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