As you have probably noticed, the social history behind our antiques – and the people who made them – is an endless source of fascination to me, whether it’s the personal intrigues which inveigled the craftsmen themselves, or the circumstances behind how they came to be following one particular path or another. 


Take the Bow porcelain works, for instance, one of the foremost names in 18thcentury ceramics, employing hundreds of people with supply chains spreading up and down the UK and beyond, to the Americas and the Far East. The roots of the business – which first came to prominence in the late 1740’s – reached back to the time of the Norman conquest, when the insatiable appetite of London’s growing population prompted the establishment of a community of millers and bakers on the banks of the River Lea to the east of the city. They were initially there to process the grain produced by the farms of East Anglia and Essex, selling their produce on to the ravening hordes on their doorstep. The mills were to find another forte, turning their main focus to the production of gunpowder in the 16th century to fettle Drake’s navy as the threat of Spanish invasion loomed large, but when this concern had abated, they returned to their former, less combustible trade.


However, in the early years of the 18th century it became apparent that grain could be put to more lucrative use than mere loaves and pastries, as the gin craze presented an opportunity for diversification once again. So it was that Three Mills Island, just to the south of Bow Bridge, became the site of distilleries - which could barely keep up with the demand generated by London’s besotted populace. 


Almost immediately it transpired that the trade had a propitious by-product, as the spent grains left over from the distilling process made an absolutely perfect fodder – for pigs! Extensive piggeries soon sprang up around the same area, with the unfortunate porcine products being butchered wholesale where they were raised. This led to an enormous stockpile of bones and, as luck would have it, there was soon a marketplace for those, too!


Cut to the drawing room of a property close to Bow Church where an Irishman and a Welshman were wont to scheme as to how they could best invest their growing personal wealth and diversify their interests, having already made a good fist of various artistic and mercantile endeavours. Messers Frye and Heylyn were their names, with the latter – in particular – having had his interest piqued by the discovery of a source of fine china clay on lands owned by his brother in North Carolina. Now, initially Heylyn thought only of monetising this raw material by importing it for the use of others – it was becoming a scarce commodity as existing sources in the Far East were being closed off by the increasingly protective Chinese. However, prompted by Frye and emboldened by the financial support of other associates, Heylyn began to undertake his own experiments in porcelain production at rudimentary kilns in his back garden, having already been dabbling with glassmaking for some time.


This early exploratory work proved so successful that two patents for the production of fine china were registered by the newly established partnership, the first in 1744 being for ‘English Earthenware’ and the second in 1749 for ‘bone china’ – which listed ground pig bones from the ossuaries of Three Mills as a vital constituent part!


Now, it was around this time that the gin craze which had sustained the distilleries at the height of their productive capacity began to subside and increasing numbers of workers saw their jobs made redundant. Hyelyn, Frye and their confrères decided to take the plunge, and as the 18th century reached its midpoint, the New Canton Porcelain Manufactory was unveiled. Things were soon a roaring success and the company was able to recruit the finest painters, modellers, sculptors and enamelers from other factories across the UK. For two decades, the Bow pottery produced some of England’s finest wares – not the most enduring of enterprises, but not a bad effort for an enterprise essentially founded on surplus pig bones and disaffected distillers!




The Hoard Limited (scottishantiques.com ) © 2023 | Designed by Jarilo Design