ROLL UP –THE POT-MAKING HISTORY TOUR IS HOPING TO TAKE YOU AWAY (part one)
In continuing our series looking at some of the less celebrated centres of English porcelain manufacture, it’s time to set a northward bearing, and strike out towards the banks of the River Mersey and the City of Liverpool.
The story of Liverpool’s pottery and porcelain trade is - essentially – that of a service industry which took on a life of its own when the opportunity presented itself. The city itself had not always been a great centre of seaborne trade, or boasted a huge, cosmopolitan population. Until the 16th century it was overshadowed in both respects by nearby Chester, certainly when it came to its role as a seaport. It was the River Dee to which the boats and ships of the Irish Sea would navigate in their droves, up to the point when the first speculative transatlantic merchantmen began to return from the new colonies of North America - harbingers of expanding trade routes which would herald the opportunity for unimaginable opportunity and wealth.
Fortuitously for the inhabitants of the humble fishing haven on the Mersey, nestling in the shadows of its dilapidated castle, nature was to about to play a decisive hand. The River Dee, Chester’s only access to the sea, began to silt up at an alarming rate (to an extent that the city is now around a dozen miles from open water). Liverpool had always served as a point of embarkation for England’s military sorties, with armies departing for campaigns in Scotland and Ireland from its small harbour. It immediately afforded a ready alternative to the increasingly inaccessible Cestrian wharfs, and during the 17th century the Liverpudians grabbed their opportunity with both hands. It was at this time that trade with the West Indies mushroomed, with sugar, tobacco – and, it has to be said – the slave trade all underscoring the near-explosive development of what was soon to become a major port.
To support the new, increasingly labour-intensive enterprises, a new workforce flooded in to Merseyside, and the city grew rapidly as lighter-men, stevedores, rope-makers, caulkers, coxswains and chandlers – and their families – all rushed to join in the great adventure.
Naturally, these new households were going to require staple homewares, and the ancillary trades required to furnish these demands also began to grow apace – potters amongst their number. Fairly crude earthenware was being produced at numerous, ad hoc sites around Liverpool by the latter part of the 17th century – little more than examples of “cottage industry” which sprang up to supply the immediate demand. However, another twist of fate was set to impel Liverpool’s nascent fictile trade on towards the next level. In the 17th century, where there were sea ports, there were Dutchmen – travelling across the world on the ships of the Dutch East India company, which was set to become a trading behemoth in its own right. These natives of the low countries, naturally, carried with them knowledge of the skills indigenous to their homeland, wherever they might make landfall – and it’s no coincidence that the English ports of Lowestoft, Bristol, Newcastle, and now Liverpool, were all to become acquainted with that peculiarly Dutch commodity, Delftware. In simple terms, this was basic earthenware pottery, enhanced with a tin oxide-based glaze which gave it an opaque, smooth, white finish. As well as producing a far more desirable look and feel to pieces compared to unfinished plates, pitchers, porringers and pots, it also lent itself – in its earliest incarnation - to simple decoration by hand-painting. The fact that this Delft-style pottery offered far and away the best contemporary approximation of the constantly sought-after and much higher-quality oriental china also meant that it was something which prudent potters would always look to develop and improve, hoping to chance upon the alchemy required to make their own version of this particularly saleable commodity.
Liverpool’s potters collectively saw out the 17th century producing modest domestic wares - pipes, mugs and pots of indeterminate quality - and it’s not until 1701 that there is mention of anything of more artistic merit being made there. At this time, a Mr Josiah Poole of Liverpool is granted “permission from the Corporation “to make (painted) tiles and pantyles and bricks from local clay” and he was subsequently leased “a pot-house on the corner of Whitehapel and Lord Street”, in the heart of the city’s present-day pedestrian precinct (HSBC bank, if you know the area !). A little later, we then find the first dated piece of Liverpudlian-made faux-delft pottery, and the first mention of a gentleman who would become the city’s earliest ceramicist of note. Up to this point in time, although several merchants of the city are recorded as numbering “delph (sic) ware painted in blue on white ground” amongst their chattels, it is said to have been “coming in to the town”, as in having been manufactured elsewhere and “imported”. As such, it attracted a tax imposed by a convocation of local worthies who sought to penalise non-local commerce – thereby putting their own, home-grown talent in an advantageous position - and the avoidance of this levy was another imperative which drove local producers to pursue the creation of their own similar wares.
As has been mentioned, delftware was being made at various centres up and down the country at this time, with perhaps the foremost manufactory being the splendidly named Pickleherring Pottery at Southwark in London, where the craft had been under development for some fifty years or so. It has been suggested that one of the resident potters there – Robert Holt – moved north to set up his own business on Merseyside in around 1710, but there is little or no evidence to support this, although there was most definitely a family of Holt’s working as potters in the city from that date onwards; it was a John, however, who was the head of that particular household. From at least 1712 we know that there was (definitely) a shop on Dale Street selling “white mettle mugs” which was visited by diarist Nicholas Blundell and his daughter Molly on 23rd April of the following year, when they purchased a punch bowl. A further visit saw Blundell buy “an ornamental jug” but – rather carelessly he managed to “(break) it before he got home”.
So, time to start pointing fingers at the individuals who really gave Liverpool’s potteries their early impetus. At the turn of the 17th century, a family by the name of Shaw had decamped en mass from Newton-le-Willows (between nearby Warrington and Wigan) to an area on the sparsely populated eastern extremity of the growing city. They settled near the point where Dale Street met The Pool – a body of water which once reached inland for around a mile and half from the Mersey shore at what is now Salthouse Dock, pretty much running up the line of present day Thomas Steers Way and Whitechapel. A stone bridge ran over The Pool from Dale Street – known as Town End Bridge to emphasise just how much on the periphery of things the Shaw’s settlement was. Specifically, it was one Samuel Shaw who was to grasp the nettle and set up a kiln on the Prescot Road, out of town, side of the Pool. As it transpired, this was a fortuitous choice as within a decade, engineers had begun to fill-in the somewhat stagnant waterway – now little more than a fetid drain choked with the sewage of the swiftly growing city - and to develop the newly reclaimed land. Shaw’s premises sat proudly – if a little malodorously - at the head of this new hive of industry. Work on The Pool included the construction of a tidal barrier at the seaward end, under the direction of Thomas Steers (one of the leading engineers of the day, whose efforts have seen his name given to the street as detailed above); once completed, Liverpool now had sheltered wharves which could load and unload vessels throughout the day, unrestricted by the vagaries of time and tide, and the development of the port received a hugely significant boost. It was pretty much the death-knell for Chester’s mercantile ambitions, and business was also poached wholesale from under the noses of the port authorities in London and Bristol, firmly establishing the city as England’s main trading gateway.
Amidst all this burgeoning commerce, Josiah Poole - tiler and brickmaker - continued to work with clay to a certain extent, but he also diversified, investing in coal mines and – in 1715 – setting up a glasshouse on Hanover Street which, as with Shaw’s pottery, was on the very edge of the city. However, his sorties in to these other spheres proved to be ill-advised and he was declared bankrupt in 1729.
Shaw had persisted with his development of delft-ware from the outset, and is known to have produced the first properly-catalogued example which can be identified as having been produced within Liverpool’s city boundaries. He manufactured a large, flat tile, twenty inches broad by thirty one inches in length, made of coarse, buff-coloured clay and finished with the prescriptive fine white glaze. It is decorated in blueish-black and overglazed, and bears a panoramic view across the River Mersey from the perspective of someone on a ship to the north of Fort Perch Rock, Wallasey which is entitled “A West Prospect of Great Crosby 1716”. He went on to become known for the production of punch bowls – considered an essential accoutrement for any self-respecting, well-to-do Liverpudlian of the day – hexagonal or octagonal plates, coffee cans and ewers; all functional, domestic wares, rather than the more ornamental fare which was better suited to finer porcelain.
The images that go with this article – apart from the facsimile of the Great Crosby tile – are all somewhat generic Liverpool wares which cannot be attributed directly to Shaw, but all of which pre-date 1750, when his production was at its most prolific; notice how any damage to the pieces reveals the brown earthenware underneath the tin-glazed surface.
By now, Shaw’s Brow – as the area around the Town End Bridge had become known – is said to have been “a veritable nest of potters” with numerous independent producers having gravitated towards the area, sharing resources and raw materials, pooling their knowledge and developing quite an enclave of ceramic endeavour. Local parish registers of the time indicate that the vast majority of people living in the immediate vicinity were employed in the trade, so much so that the area became known as “Clay Town”, which was evidenced in the name of Clayton Street, which ran immediately to the north of Shaw’s Brow for many years until the dualling of the A57, which bulldozed many such historic thoroughfares underfoot, consigning the 18th century town planner’s efforts to the history books (or anally retentive, somewhat obsessive articles such as this one !) It’s worth noting, for those who may harbour an archaeological bent, that the remains of an 18th century kiln were discovered when the foundations for Liverpool’s Central Library were being excavated, between Shaw’s Brow (now William Brown Street) and Clayton Street. The kiln’s exact position neatly bisects both the “Prescot Road outwith” location for Shaw’s original manufactory, and the location of what is known to have been the family home (and another manufacturing site) on the corner of Fontenoy Street, so the excavation is likely to have exposed the soot-charred heart of an enterprise run by one of the other potters who crowded the area.
One of these (*cliché alert*) artisan craftsmen went by the name of Richard Chaffers, who was an enthusiastic and capable apprentice on Samuel Shaw’s books from around 1720 onwards. Having later eschewed his master’s somewhat crude preoccupation with delftware, he chose to devote his attention to the development of material which was far closer to whole-bodied porcelain, rather than merely glazed earthenware. It’s also worth noting that the next generation of the family on Shaw’s Brow, Samuel’s son Thomas, had by now begun to take an interest in the family business. With this in mind – and given the fact that Chaffers, the cup and saucerers apprentice – was looking to set up his own factory within the original “nest of potters” the foundations for the next generation of Liverpool’s ceramicists can said to have been very firmly put in place, and it is to these later developments that we will turn our attention in part two of our look at Liverpool.
And apologies for the title – these really are starting to plumb new depths….
key to the accompanying images:
a) a panorama of Liverpool looking north west from St James’ Mount in 1715, now the site of the Anglican Cathedral. The road running in the direction of the castle is now Duke Street – note the kiln at the edge of the built-up area - Josiah Poole’s glassworks b) The Great Crosby Tile by Simon Shaw as detailed above c) Liverpool in the 16th century showing The Pool; X marks the spot for Town End Bridge d) Samuel Shaw’s home and workshop on Fontenoy Street e) A Liverpool delftware tile from around 1730 f) A Liverpool delftware tile from around 1730 g) A punch bowl from 1736 bearing the legend “Parliament bowl free without excise” railing against the hugely unpopular Spirit Duties (Gin) Act which imposed taxes in an attempt to reduce the debilitating effects of the “gin craze”; this has latterly been mooted to have come from Bristol, but all the original sources published with its first appearances in museums in the 19th century list it as having been made in Liverpool h) as above i) Liverpool delftware plate dated 1736 – I’ve been unable to identify who or what ST might signify j) as above k) Liverpool delftware mug c 1735 l) Liverpool delftware punchbowl c 1740 m) Liverpool delftware plate c 1745 n) Liverpool delftware sauce boat c 1750 – note the handles made like foxes ! o) Liverpool delftware bottle c 1750 – possibly an early transfer-printed piece
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