It’s always gratifying to afford some recognition to lesser-known manufactories – be they adept in the production of glass wares or ceramics – and our latest subject, the potteries of Lowestoft – certainly fall in to this less-exalted category. In common with the rest of the UK, the first ceramics intended to replicate Chinese porcelain were first made in this East coast herring fishery during the early part of the 18th century. It’s worth taking on board from the off how difficult overland travel was in those days – rudimentary roads of appalling quality, roving highwaymen, unreliable carriages and wagons, and every single journey being dependent on the soundness or otherwise of horses and the limitations of their endurance. Given its isolated situation and these travelling travails, it’s unsurprising to learn that the easiest journeys of any distance which could be undertaken from Lowestoft and neighbouring Yarmouth were not cross-country, but rather over the North Sea to the Low Countries – the Netherlands in particular.

There were thriving trade routes in to The Hague, Rotterdam, Haarlem and Antwerp along with a significant amount of human traffic which always ran parallel to such mercantile conduits (similar to the influx of glass making expertise that underscored the development of that trade in Newcastle). It is, therefore, not entirely unexpected when one learns that the first accomplished potters in East Anglia were of Dutch origin, producing a crude form of Delft-ware. These somewhat rustic craftsmen would, for the most part, work with raw materials sourced from home rather than relying on English china clay which would have had to come all the way from the West Country, or on coal to fire their kilns from Newcastle far to the north. This second commodity did, however, have a ready-made reciprocal passage in place, as it could be brought back in to Kings Lynn on the bilanders, boejers and busses (of the sailing variety) which plied the east-coast routes taking high-quality glassmaking sand up to Tyneside and Leith.

The question of a supply of china clay in potentially commercial quantities was resolved in the mid 1750’s by the extravagantly–named Hewlin Luson, son of a merchant who resided in Gunton Hall just to the north of Lowestoft. A somewhat apocryphal tale suggests that Luson took in a Dutchman by the name of Van der Huvel, the sole survivor of a shipwreck on the shore of his estate where it ran down the sea, and that he was walking with him during his rehabilitation when the bedraggled matelot remarked that the clay which was sticking to their boots would be ideally suited for making pots. Luson dug up a quantity of this material, and sent it for analysis to an existing manufactory in London – rumoured to have been the Bow works – where the Dutchman’s suspicions were confirmed. On hearing this news, Luson immediately set up a somewhat crude furnace and kiln at Gunton, and lured some of the London ceramicists to join his venture. However, the proprietors of the factory where the clay testing had been carried out were loath to see a new competitor flourish, and it is rumoured that they approached their erstwhile employees and – by way of financial inducements and promises of future re-employment – cajoled them in to undertaking some early industrial espionage by way of “exercising every art in their power to render his (Luson’s) scheme abortive”. The less prosaic version of events, by the way, dictates that the clay was first dug in order to be used at a local tile-works, rather than sticking to the clogs of a marooned “zeevarderman”.

Although this first scheme was thusly scuppered, Luson’s neighbours resolved – the very next year, 1757 – to establish another nascent factory. A consortium of local worthies – Obed Aldred, James Richmond, Robert Browne, Philip Walker and Robert Williams – set up shop in buildings provided by Aldred and his wife, Tryphoena, which is one of the most splendidly obscure names I have ever come across (a misspelling of the name of a Ptolemaic princess, you’ll be beyond ecstatic to learn, I have no doubt). Their factory was in the centre of Lowestoft, under what is now the carpark of the First & Last pub on Dove Street. The first actions of Walker & Co, as they were to be named, was to do away with use of Luson’s Gunton clay, and use kaolin brought up from the west country on fishing vessels owned by Obed and Philip Walker, which were already a regular sight on the route down the English Channel to the Isle of Wight, Newlyn and back. It is almost certain that this is the same source of clay which supplied the Bow china works, and this in turn is the source of the suggestion that the Lowestoft enterprise “used artifices and connivances to replicate the recipe for fine porcelain such as had given the Bow works such renown” – specifically the suggestion that Robert Browne, (one of the Lowestoft partners) hid in a clay-storage hogshead in the factory on the River Lea to spy on the manufacturing process and misappropriate the secrets, thus offsetting the confounding artifice that had done for Luson’s enterprise

What is evident from existing pieces is that the quality of early Lowestoft ware is not that great; very early examples – sometimes credited to Luson’s works, such as they were, at Gunton – were overworked and insubstantial, had glaze applied in varying thicknesses and generally had a pinkish hue, which is attributed to the use of the local tile-clay. By the time production had become established in the town – and kaolin was being brought in from farther afield – an underglaze blue was being used, derived from a cobalt oxide wash; although the substrate was now greatly improved, decoration was not at that time a Lowestoft forte, and rather insipid black-blue designs seem to have been “finished” with the use of a pen to add detail and outline.

Whether it was as a result of Browne’s barrel-hiding escapades or otherwise, the quality of out-turn from the site on Lowestoft’s Common Pasture (the site’s contemporary name) improved steadily. By the mid 1760’s the underglaze became darker and more even, decorating skills improved, and the range of products expanded to include more unusual pieces such as spoon trays, eye baths, cruet sets, vinaigrettes and mustard pots alongside the more standard selection of cups, saucers, plates, pitchers and jugs. The finishing glaze was made clearer and harder and the introduction of coloured enamelling gave the manufactory a full repertoire of well-executed production and finishing techniques.

An individual whose skills were instrumental in this overall improvement, and who deserves his own entry in our piece, is Robert Allen. He was one of the first employees of Walker & Co, joining the payroll in 1758 whilst in his early teens and was placed at the painting tables where an innate artistic ability soon became apparent. Working his way assiduously up the hierarchy within the company, Robert was made factory foreman, and ultimately “manager of all the works” at which point he was in sole charge of pretty much everything that went on, from the composition of the substrate to the formulation of paints and glazes. Incidentally, he married the daughter of James Richmond – one of the factory’s founding fathers – in 1785, taking the not-quite-as-unusually-named-as-it-might-at-first-seem Tryphoena as his wife ! Allen extended his artistic and creative talents by developing an interest in stained glass, and created numerous pieces for the decorative betterment of the town of Lowestoft, including ornate windows for both the parish church and private chapels. He also installed a glazing kiln at his home, and undertook the decoration of pieces other than those which were made locally – most notably blanks that he acquired from the Rockingham works in Yorkshire. He used this “homework” to experiment with the process of applying gilt decoration, working alongside the resident Lowestoft expert James Mottershead – any gilded examples of the company’s outturn will have been embellished by one of these two gentlemen. Allen was also responsible for the vast majority of Lowestoft’s sought after “trifles” – small scale, almost miniature pieces which would bear the legend “a trifle from Lowestoft”, or from Bungay, or Beccles or any other local settlement from where a storekeeper or hotelier would commission what amounted to early souvenirs of their locale. Robert remained an employee of Walker & Co until the closure of the business in 1803, racking up 45 years continuous service, and having brought a lifetime’s experience to bear on proceedings.

One of the projects in which Allen will have taken an active part would have been the introduction of the use of transfer printing in around 1770. It proved somewhat trying for all concerned to embrace this new process, and there was a noticeable decline in the quality of the products as the decorators struggled to get to grips with the techniques required. Conversely, some of the better painters were taken off this irksome enterprise and encouraged to concentrate on traditional hand painting and enamelling, to ensure that there was at least one range of products that maintained the highest possible quality and would still command premium prices, to underwrite this somewhat trying period for the more utilitarian wares. It was this decade which saw the unnamed “tulip painter” come to prominence, with several outstanding examples of work bearing this particular flower being produced – these are now some of the most highly collectable Lowestoft artefacts. A similarly unidentified French artist – purported to have fled his homeland to escape the tumult of revolution – both specialised and excelled in the depiction of roses. Signing his works with a tiny depiction of the same, he was said to be “able at times to produce depictions of such exquisite detail as to give the appearance of those fashioned in the Midlands by Mr Billingsley” – a comparison with the itinerant genius William being just about the highest praise imaginable. Sadly, the Frenchman’s eyesight failed him in later years, finishing his painting career, and the company and local well-wishers furnished him with a pair of donkeys so he could eke out a living carrying fresh water around the town ! There is speculation that this gentleman was known as Thomas Rose, but there is no definitive confirmation of this (somewhat fortuitous if accurate) fact being true.

It is these last two decades of the 18th century that saw the production of Lowestoft’s most collectable wares – other than the tulip and rose ranges – and the company seemed to be on the verge of establishing themselves as one of the leading players in England’s burgeoning porcelain trade, but the self-same trade with the Netherlands that played a part in the factory’s inception was to lead indirectly to its downfall. Competition from other UK facilities was placing an increasing burden on the business, as the great Staffordshire potteries rose to prominence, and the difficulty of having to import coal and clay from remote sources was beginning to take its toll as rival suppliers with less onerous overheads came to the fore. Lowestoft’s leading London agency went bankrupt due to mismanagement by its local officers, cutting off the immediate route to that most lucrative of markets, but it was our longstanding friends the perfidious French who dealt the fatal blow. Great quantities of Lowestoft porcelain had for years been exported to Holland, and warehoused in Rotterdam before being sold on across the near continent. However, this was the time that Napoleon Bonaparte was flexing his muscles in pursuit of empire, and although his operations were generally farther afield, his successes inspired the French armies to strike wherever they could when given the opportunity. A hard winter left the rivers and canals of the low countries frozen, and the French were able to march across usually impassable waterways and sack Rotterdam, making a point of seeking out British interests for special treatment. The Lowestoft stores were duly razed to the ground, and tens of thousands of pounds worth of porcelain pieces were smashed and, obviously, rendered unsellable. The company was unable to bear this combination of grave losses, and closed shortly afterwards, in 1803.

Lowestoft porcelain has always seemed to have been somewhat under-appreciated, if not overlooked – with the exception of the specific floral ranges mentioned above which were highly regarded only for the quality of their decoration. This perhaps dates back to an enduring 19th century misconception that Common Pasture was primarily a site almost entirely devoted to the decoration of imported blanks, presumed to have been of oriental origin given the high quality of the china itself. The supposition was that Lowestoft’s production never really gathered momentum after the subterfuge and sabotage instigated by its competitors at Bow which bought Hewlin Luson’s first undertaking to its knees. However, in the early years of the 20th century, extensive building work was undertaken on a malting which then occupied the site of Walker & Co’s earlier factory – the pub car park – and excavations uncovered vast numbers of wastage-pieces broken during manufacture, and of moulds used to cast any number of extant pieces of undoubted Lowestoft provenance; clearly actual production on the site had been effected on a properly industrial scale. Perception of the work carried out by Robert Allen, the unnamed tulip painter, his French colleague and their cohorts should therefore be revised – not only were they highly accomplished artists, but they worked with locally-produced material that was the product of a talented and capable group of ceramicists too – Walker & Co should rightly be considered to have been a properly high-end concern rather than little more than a provincial curiosity.

Link here to all our Lowestoft stock (pictured below):


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

Bow (London) Porcelain

William Billingsley’s Artistic Genius

Derby Porcelain

Welsh Porcelain (Nantgarw, Swansea etc)

Chelsea Porcelain

British Porcelain – overview