Tributes to a hero of the British Empire in antique porcelain and Worcester dinner services

It is September 1741, and after an extended sojourn on the Islands of Juan Fernandez, Anson’s crew were once again in a fit state to put to sea, albeit drastically reduced in number. Half of the ships which had set out from England had been lost, and nearly two thirds of the men were dead, but their intent from the outset was to wreak havoc on Spanish shipping and other interests, and that is what they now resolved to do.

The last of the ships to have reached the relative calm of Cumberland Bay had been ­one of the mercantile pinks, the Anna, but although her crew had fared better than most during their year of voyaging, the ship herself had been irreparably damaged. The decision was taken to augment the much reduced complement aboard the Gloucester, and the Anna was broken up (to render her abandoned hulk unusable to any Spanish foe who may later come across her) with her crew seconded to the formerly depleted company aboard the fourth-rate ship of line.

For once, things then began to take a turn for the better, even while preparations for the forthcoming sortie remained unfinished. A sail was sighted approaching the fleet’s haven and, relishing the prospect of combat at last, the Centurion set off to intercept. The first contact was lost, but another ship immediately hove in to view, and – when challenged – it surrendered meekly, offering little or no resistance. It was a Spanish merchant vessel, Nuestra Señora del Monte Carmelo, which although laden with largely inconsequential cargo, was the source of some invaluable information, and the ship herself was added to Anson’s retinue. The news was of the Spanish squadron under Pizarro which had been sent to shadow and ultimately intercept Anson; although it must have been difficult to imagine a passage even more miserable than their own had been, the English sailors were regaled with tales of starvation, hardship, desolation and disease which rendered the ships utterly helpless, and left those that had not been not lost at sea heading back from whence they had come, more concerned with self-preservation than the pursuit of English bounty. A hastily assembled flotilla of four newly-assigned vessels was intended to replace the foundering escadrille, but these vessels suffered crippling damage in the storms which had so ferociously assailed Anson’s own ships and were forced to return to port seeking shelter and repair; to all intents and purposes, Anson was at liberty to cruise up the coast of South America at will, with little threat of impediment from the Spanish navy.

The armed sloop Tryal then managed to out-manoeuver and capture a ship almost three times her own size and – already being incapacitated by storm damage – she was scuttled with her crew then taking over control of their prize. Two further vessels also fell victim to Anson’s marauding force, but once again it was the intelligence that they carried rather than any great plunder that were to prove the most significant booty.
Anson learned that in the first instance the shore-bound Spaniards has been alerted to the presence of his ships and, more importantly, that plans were afoot to relocate a vast repository of treasure further north almost immediately, in the hope that it could be made safe from the buccaneering English seamen.

The Spanish gold was held in the fortified town of Paita at the northern extremity of Peru, and Anson resolved to attack it immediately. The swift execution of his plan caught the defenders completely off their guard and they were easily overwhelmed; the Gloucester – cruising offshore under a watching brief – captured two further ships, another which had been anchored at Paita was also taken, and the nett worth of the plunder in modern terms ran in to several millions of pounds – all for the loss of a solitary British life.

It was while the Gloucester was stationed off the Gulf of Panama that she put a boat ashore on the island of Quibo, the matelots being despatched in search of food. It proved to be an abundant source of sustenance – prodigious birdlife which was culled by the English muskets - monkeys and even deer. However, the local wildlife saw fit to redress the balance of the plunder by way of “flying snakes which cling to the boughs of trees…and dart upon man or beast giving inevitable death with its sting” and equally perilous “large alligators…of considerable bigness”.

Suitably cheered by their successes, plans to go in pursuit of a bigger prize were drawn up, and it was resolved to sail north towards Acapulco in an attempt to capture a treasure-laden galleon which plied a regular route between Mexico and Spanish-held Manila in the Philippines. Unfortunately, the vagaries of 18th century maritime navigation methods, the inaccuracies of charts and the fact that the Spaniards were now on high alert and being supremely cautious after the sacking of Paita conspired to foil Anson’s endeavours, and after just over four months of somewhat aimless cruising off Central America, a course was plotted for home, by way of a Pacific crossing and around the Cape of Good Hope.

Anson now shuffled the cards at his disposal, choosing to abandon three of the captured Spanish ships and allow a number of prisoners to go ashore so that the requirement to feed them did not become an unwanted burden; with the fleet suitably rationalised and considered to be a leaner, more manageable force, they struck westward on the next leg of their great adventure on May 6th 1742.

It might be imagined that the well-provisioned fleet would now have enjoyed a relatively untroubled passage, but the protracted battering that the ships had taken began to take its toll, and progress was slow as ongoing repairs were effected. The hoped-for trade winds which should have pushed Anson westward failed to materialise, and the fetid tropical air soon saw bouts of scurvy and calentures leaving the crews once again febrile and debilitated. When the winds did eventually gain strength, they bore down with such fearful force that the Gloucester was rendered unseaworthy – at least without the benefit of a lengthy refit in dry dock – and the decision was taken to remove her crew to the Centurion and burn the abandoned hulk. The storms also blew the ships nearly 300 miles off course and, having intended to make for the Island of Guam, they found themselves – some fifteen weeks after leaving South America – within sight of more northerly members of the Ladrones Islands (now known as the Northern Marianas). Initially foiled by the prevailing currents and yet more unfavourable winds, they were eventually able to make landfall on the island of Tinian. This was an inhabited and intensively cultivated place, rich in fruit, vegetables and farmed animals, all of which were to go a long way towards restoring the wellbeing of the debilitated seamen.

Most significantly for our story, the island was the home to a great many breadfruit trees. Related to the mulberry, this singularly abundant and heavily-cropping tree provided the single most nutritious source of sustenance for the Englishmen, who were able to recover a significant part of their formerly hale and hearty constitution whilst feasting on it. It was on Tinian that Anson’s Lieutenant Draftsman, Piercy Brett, was to commit to parchment his sketches of the breadfruit tree – those which were later to be reproduced on the Valentine pattern porcelain – but more of that anon. In the short term, during the restorative sojourn on Tinian, there were more travails to endure. Twice the Centurion was torn from her anchorage by storms and blown out to sea with only a short-handed crew on board – that she survived was down to good fortune as much as the seamanship of the sailors, by now seasoned veterans proficient in handling the worst excesses of the oceans.

Eventually, towards the end of October, Centurion set sail bound for Macao and Canton, near Hong Kong. The voyage was – for once – relatively uneventful, with only the outbreak of a potentially disastrous fire on board as they rounded the southern tip of Formosa (now Taiwan) threatening to throw their otherwise balmy passage in to the more usual ongoing state of confusion. tumult and despair. Crisis duly averted however, Centurion anchored in the Straits of Macao in the first week of November, only to then become embroiled in a protracted period of politicking and bureaucratic wrangling in which local authorities excel the world over. Under the normal course of events, any vessel entering the Pearl River area was expected to pay “honorific duties” and levies to the local government of the Cantonese chuntuk or viceroy, but Anson would have none of this, arguing that as he represented the King of England, if anyone could expect demonstrations of fealty and deference it should be him ! Eventually, conciliation of sorts from both sides resulted in a slightly uneasy peace descending over proceedings. Anson was aware of how vital an extended stay ashore was to his ultimate plans, as Centurion required urgent and significant repairs to render her properly seaworthy, and although his crew were goaded almost to breaking point by the numerous transgressions of their hosts – petty thievery, beatings handed out whilst on shore leave, the imposition of ridiculous charges for the simplest of tasks and so on – he made it abundantly clear that there should be no retaliation of any sort. Under the strictures of this slightly onerous stand-off, Centurion was able to undergo nearly five months of repairs, and put to sea in April 1743 in relatively good order.

Anson had done much to foster the belief that once fully vittled, careened and refitted he would simply head home for England, but once back on the open ocean he announced to his crew that they were now to go after the Spanish treasure ships, known to run in and out of Manila. Centurion took up station to the east of the Philippines, quartering the known seaways that the galleons were wont to traverse whilst honing the gunnery and sharpshooting skills of the newly invigorated crew. It was ten weeks or so before their quarry deigned to show herself, but on 20th June the Neustra Señora de Covadonga hove in to view, Anson hoisted his colours and the chase was on. Centurion quickly outmanoeuvred the galleon, bringing nearly all of her guns to bear and an opening salvo immediately set fire to coir mats which the Spaniards had stuffed into their skeins of rigging to provide some cover from Anson’s snipers stationed high in his own rigging. With the mats, rigging and lower sails all ablaze, King Philippe’s mariners had little choice but to cut away all the burning material and cast it in to the sea, reducing their motility and the ability to steer away from their attackers. Centurion was able to rake the Spaniards with grapeshot and musket fire from close quarters, rendering the open decks a killing zone which was soon thick with corpses. Barely an hour and half after the first shot, the engagement was over, and the Covadonga surrendered, having had 151 men killed or wounded; there were just three fatalities amongst Anson’s crew. The galleon was boarded, made at least temporarily seaworthy, prisoners secured below decks, a skeleton crew set aboard to run her in to port and the two vessels laid in a course for Macao.

This time, emboldened by his success, Anson was in no mood to observe procedural niceties and anchored in the Pearl River, making a point of firing a salvo with his largest guns twice a day to make it abundantly clear that he was not prepared to be messed about. This had the effect of rendering the previously interminable machinations of Cantonese regulatory red tape down to a more timely process, and within a fortnight all the relevant permits had been issued, duties waived, pilots procured, protocols seen to be observed and Centurion once again berthed dockside in Canton. However, although the Cantonese were permitted to provide fresh provisions to Anson’s crew in order to sustain them on a day to day basis, an embargo was placed on the provision of the “sea stores” that were vital for the long voyage home, half way around the world. Anson prepared, once again, to engage the chuntuk’s mandarins in the games of administrative chicanery required to maintain the perception that the Cantonese had in no way been coerced in to doing his bidding, but fate was to cut these pointless artifices short and – ultimately – to lead directly to the creation of the very first Valentine pattern porcelain dinner service !

During November Anson took up residence on shore, awaiting an audience with the Viceroy to expedite the provision of supplies to his crew, and while he was thusly encamped with a small retinue of his crewmen, a fire broke out in the dockside buildings. Being of typically flimsy oriental construction – almost entirely wooden framed and, in this particular instance, also crammed full with combustible materials – the warehouses, workshops and shacks along the waterfront burned at an alarming rate and the fire quickly threatened to get entirely out of hand. The Cantonese locals proved wholly incapable of doing anything practical to stop the fire spreading, waving idols at the flaming buildings and chanting at them which, obviously, was to no useful end whatsoever. Anson quickly surmised that the only thing to do was to try to isolate the fire by pulling down as yet un-burned buildings to create a firebreak, but the Cantonese refused to join him in such an eminently sensible venture as there was no-one in authority on hand to absolve them of responsibility for destroying the buildings that needed to be demolished. Anson made a bee-line for the English interests in the vicinity and, unencumbered by such misgivings, did what was necessary to ensure that they escaped harm. At this point, what amounted to the Cantonese volunteer fire brigade turned up, and busied themselves with more pointless genuflection and the witless display of deities in the general direction of the conflagration which continued to rage unabated. At last, one of the local mandarins came to the conclusion that the only way to save the city was to give Anson free rein to do whatever was required, and duly conferred such latitude on the Commodore and his men. Now able to do as they pleased, the seamen set about pulling down the insubstantial buildings to corral the conflagration and soon had it under come semblance control; Cantonese merchants whose warehouses were in the most immediate danger exhorted the men to come to their aid, and each individual triumph over the fire ingratiated Anson and his crew to more and more of the mercantile folk of the city. Now the thus far ineffectual local firemen were able to be of some use - damping down embers and the remaining outbreaks, pulling down smouldering buildings, pushing the more substantial debris in to the harbour and generally ensuring that the fire was well and truly extinguished. Eventually, it was out, and the English sailors and their commodore were feted as heroes and saviours of the city.

Anson was granted an audience with the viceroy and given the sort of reception reserved for those held in the very highest esteem; all the issues with the provision of supplies disappeared, and a fortnight or so later on December 7th, Centurion set sail for home waters.

The merchants of Canton, meanwhile, had resolved to present Anson with a token of their regard for his efforts in saving their livelihoods, and had arranged for service of their finest porcelain to be decorated in his honour. The details of the decoration can be seen – and are described in more depth - on the pages of our website which list relevant items for sale, but in simple terms, the Cantonese enlisted the help of Lieutenant Draftsman Piercy Brett in determining how best the porcelain could be decorated to make it particularly relevant to its revered recipient. Hence the original pieces bearing what was to become known as the Valentine pattern bore Anson’s coat of arms, numerous nautical images, elements relating to love and courtship - and the breadfruit tree, which had proved so crucial to the survival of the crew and the ultimately successful completion of their voyage.

Finally (huzzah !) it should be noted that the Anson armorial soup dish shown below contains – in addition to the other standard elements of the design – a set of bagpipes – if I can ever work out why, I’ll let you know…

To see more English porcelain related articles please follow the links below

Bow Porcelain

Lowestoft Porcelain

Billingsley Porcelain

link to our relevant website content

The images below show:
- a world map showing the route of Anson’s voyage
- Anson’s squadron attacking Patia
- the breadfruit trees on Tinian
- Lady Elizabeth Yorke – the object of our hero’s affections
- examples of Valentine Pattern pieces in the British and V&A museums


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