THOMAS TURNER, CAUGHLEY AND THE INGRATE POTTERS OF SHROPSHIRE

Ever the champion of the underdog here at Scottish Antiques, it’s time to take a look at one of Britain’s lesser-known porcelain manufactories – not one of the names that first springs to mind, but certainly one which has – albeit a little obliquely – left a lasting and instantly recognisable legacy.

Caughley – the modest Shropshire pottery started by Ambrose Gallimore (brother in law of one Josiah Spode, as it happens) and then expanded by Thomas Turner – near the small town of Broseley and close to the cradle of the industrial revolution which was Ironbridge.

Firstly – to reflect on one of those delightful idiosyncrasies of the English language that so endears it to those from abroad who try to get a handle on our obtuse wittering. Taking its name from an existing residential property, the first part of Caughley (originally Corsley) can best be said to rhyme with “laugh”, so it’s pretty much “Calfley” if spelled as it should be pronounced; students of such things should be grateful that the minor porcelain works at Wrotham in Kent did not go on to be more significant, and as for the neighbouring village of Trottiscliffe, just a few miles up the road, well, let’s not even begin to go down that particular route…

Anyway, nomenclatural oddities to one side, the site was right at the heart of what was to become the white-hot crucible of English industry in the late 18th century; with transport links on the River Severn a stone’s throw away, easily accessible coal deposits, iron ore, clay and timber – even wagon-ways (the forerunner to railways) all immediately available, the whole area had all the requirements any aspiring industrialist could wish for. Broseley, a little to the north, already had a reputation for pottery of sorts, as it was renowned as the centre of production for clay pipes, and had been since the late 16th century. Earthenware pottery was also produced in the vicinity, and a particular gentleman by the name of Edward Browne set up a manufactory of crude wares towards the south of his family estate at Caughley in order to produce items known as “saggars”. These were utilitarian, clay boxes of sorts which were used to protect more delicate pieces in kilns during firing (the name is a contraction of “safeguards”). In 1750 Edward’s son Ralph set up his own pottery at Linley, also on the family estate, the whole of which was leased to Ambrose Gallimore in 1754.

Ambrose was a Quaker, and as such well acquainted with the early sorties in to porcelain manufacture by his spiritual cohorts William Cookworthy at Plymouth and Richard Champion at Bristol. The china clay from Cookworthy’s mines in Cornwall was already finding its way to the nascent potteries of Staffordshire, partly by way of barges on the River Severn, and Ambrose must have given some thought as to how he might best turn his hand to a similar enterprise. Gallimore’s niece unwittingly had a hand in furthering this ambition as she had caught the eye of a talented artist and painter of porcelain who had been working in Worcester, one Thomas Turner. The smitten pair were eventually married after a lengthy courtship, during which time Thomas took over the lease on Caughley and begun to develop the works to produce increasingly refined products. Already a capable student of chemistry, and well versed in the manufacture of soapstone porcelain, Thomas travelled to France around 1780 in order to enhance the depth of his knowledge of the processes used at Parisian manufactories. He returned not only armed with an understanding of new skills, but in the company of a number of capable craftsmen – one of whom was also an accomplished architect. This was to lead to the design and construction of Turner’s new home, Caughley Place near the site of the old saggar works, and the nearby factory that had thus far been limited to the production of albeit high-end earthenware and creamware was also to benefit from the addition of new, improved and extended facilities.

In the wider sphere of porcelain-making endeavours at this time, production was for the most part still intended to replicate the style of the original “china” products imported from the Far East, and there was a great demand for material in the decorative “chinoiserie” style copied from these original pieces. At Caughley, Turner had always leant towards this type of patterning, working alongside another ex-Worcester engraver, Robert Hancock. These two were then joined by a particularly adroit exponent of the art in the shape of Thomas Minton, and – with the assistance of an engraver called Thomas Lucas – the Salopian China Manufactory, as their business was now named, had assembled what constituted the 18th century “dream team” of Chinoiserie decorators, and began to produce the first readily identifiable pieces that could be categorised as the now ubiquitous blue and white “willow pattern” design. Purists, however, may baulk at labelling these Caughley pieces as items which can properly bear the willow name – the early designs did not include what came to be considered almost obligatory elements of the “properly formed” images in that details such as foreground bridges and fences were missing. Bear in mind, though, that Willow Pattern pedants are a curious breed, who differentiate between different styles on the basis of such nuances as the relative “tightness” of fishing lines, the size of fish and the orientation of specific elements of the decorative borders. Suffice to say that to a general historian rather than an expert. Caughley’s blue and white transfer-printed pieces, made from engraved originals by Lucas and Minton and transferred on to the blanks by printmaker James Richards are about as direct an antecedent of recognised Willow pattern material as you could wish to find (so there).

Of course, it’s not just patterning that makes the materials issuing from any manufactory enduringly popular, the nature and form of the wares must also be appealing in order to present a range of products that prove to be financially viable and able to sustain a business.

Caughley seems to have carved a niche for itself by producing a range of slightly odd pieces – not for Mr Turner and his colleagues the run of the mill fare which was dinner services, tea and coffee cans and vases to mirror the products of their contemporaries. I’m sure that other producers also turned out scallop-shell relish dishes, porcelain monteiths (known as verrieres), medicinal eyebaths, purpose-made asparagus servers, miniature full tea-sets, radish/root vegetable plates, disguised-mask pitchers, small perforated dishes (often wrongly identified as being tea strainers but in actual fact used to serve poached eggs) and writer’s pounce pots, but Caughley’s inventories do seem to include proportionately more of these slightly arcane articles than those of other manufactories, and a collection of these oddities would make for a very engaging display indeed.

However, the same family ties which had helped give rise to Caughley in the first place then sowed the seeds of its demise, as Lucas and Richards both left Turner’s employment in around 1783 to work for the aforementioned Josiah Spode who was by now producing a more refined type of willow-pattern transferware at his premises at Stoke on Trent. Two years later, Minton struck out on his own, also settling in Stoke, where – in cahoots with Spode, and evolving the original Caughley engraved printing plates – he was to formalise English willow pattern designs and go on to carve, decorate and overglaze his own niche in the porcelain hall of fame.

Prior to these departures and/or defections, Turner’s business at Caughley had prospered, and the Salopian China Manufactory acquired a substantial warehouse in London to showcase and dispense its wares to the affluent marketplace in the nation’s capital. Housed in the former Lincoln’s Inn Old Playhouse Theatre in Portugal Street (now the site of the Royal College of Surgeons) this was to later see service as a warehouse for both Copeland and Spode’s London ventures.

Also in 1783, Robert Chamberlain was to set up a factory at King Street in Worcester, and immediately became a valuable customer for Thomas Turner, buying in a great many unfinished blanks for decoration and onward sale. The Caughley works still applied the basic transfer prints, but they were finished with overglaze enamelling and newly-fashionable gilding at Worcester; the fact that Caughley did the spadework and Worcester reaped the rewards mirrored the fact that Thomas had helped to underwrite Chamberlain’s initial investment, and then watched as his protégé went on to take the plaudits for the finished pieces that were sold. Turner not only shared a great many of his own manufacturing secrets (developed in a purpose-built laboratory in the attic space of Caughley Place) with Chamberlain, but also provided financial assistance when Robert moved to an expanded facility at Severn Street in 1788, which went on to manufacture its own porcelain, thus ending the need for blanks to be sourced from Caughley at all. Turner’s largesse and generosity contributed yet further to his ultimate demise with the career of one John Rose. The son of a neighbouring farmer, Rose was taken under Turner’s wing, taught every aspect of the trade and then exhibited his gratitude by moving out, taking over an existing pottery at nearby Jackfield and immediately pursuing the production of porcelain in direct completion to Caughley. Rose soon moved his business over to the other side of the River Severn at Coalport, went in to partnership with his brother Thomas, and Messrs Anstice and Horton, and proceeded to make such a resounding success of things as to “greatly reduce the works of Mr Turner and gradually beat them out of the market”.

Thomas was now some 50 years of age, and becoming increasingly incapacitated through ill-health, and in 1798 he drew a line under the burdensome load of running his own business in the face of competition which he himself had helped to flourish, and sold the Caughley works in its entirety to Rose. The coal deposits on Ambrose Gallimore’s old estate had also begun to run out, and Rose noted that it was becoming more and more unsustainable to transfer Caughley blanks over the river for completion at Coalport. The onerous nature of this albeit short journey was underlined in October 1799 when a ferry carrying kiln workers and painters from one side of the river to the other capsized whilst under the control of an intoxicated master and twenty-nine people were drowned. Rose began to gradually run down production at Thomas’ original factory, relocating or laying-off staff, dismantling the facility brick by brick, and then re-using the same materials to enlarge the Coalport works. In the midst of this gradual cannibalisation of his factory and home, Turner died in 1809, watching the success of yet another one-time apprentice grow until it surpassed that of his own, having been built quite literally on the ruins of his business. The dénouement came in 1821 when the remaining parts of the Caughley works and its late owner’s home were demolished, leaving us with the current state of affairs where the site shows nothing more than a few imperfections, lumps, bumps and residual foundations to pique the interest of local archaeologists and antiquarians in the otherwise green and pleasant Shropshire countryside.

I can’t help feeling that it’s quite a sad story – an innovative and accommodating man who gave a well-intentioned leg-up to any number of aspirant knaves, all of whom were to later turn round and do him a disservice in one way or another. Still, any sour taste can be countered by properly recognising that Thomas Turner did invaluable services to English porcelain by preparing the ground for willow pattern decoration, and the Worcester, Coalport and Minton marks to all achieve their own prominence. That he can also be remembered for perforated egg-drainers, asparagus serving dishes, pickle plates and pounce pots can only enhance his legacy, and I’d have no hesitation in drinking a hearty draught to his memory, poured from a disguised-mask pitcher and then taken from a gilded Caughley tankard, even if they both feature the sort of rather crude willow-pattern design that would have the eyes of a connoisseur collector narrowing with thinly-disguised contempt – cheers, Thomas !

We’ve got a few Caughley pieces detailed on our site, with the usual selection of fine images for each one, and there are some excellent collections of the more unusual pieces that can be easily tracked down and admired via the wonders of Google – do have fun…

link to our Caughley selection:

https://scotant.uk/2tQQZ1j