Royal Doulton celebrated 200 years of the pottery business in 2015. John Doulton, who formed the company, started very small but now the prestigious Royal Doulton is one of Britain’s foremost and largest pottery companies, with over 30,000 products and an international clientele
The story really starts way back in 1688. John Dwight, master potter, established the Fulham Manufacturing Company – the first to produce English stoneware. One of the apprentices was John Doulton, who was born in Fulham in 1793.
In the year 1815, King George III was firmly on the throne, the Battle of Waterloo was won, slavery was legally (although not always in reality) abolished – and those convicts who escaped the gallows were being transported across the globe to Australia. (827 people transported in 1815, mostly for petty theft)
A vigorous, energetic and harsh time, a time for a young man to either sink without trace – or go on to make a name for himself.
And that is what John Doulton did.
The early days
In 1815, at 22 years of age, having served his pottery apprenticeship with distinction,
John Doulton was offered a job by Martha Jones. Martha was widowed and owned a tiny pottery by the River Thames in Lambeth, London. John invested his life savings – around £100, in the business. Together with her foreman John Watts, the three formed the Jones, Watts and Doulton company. They specialised in utilitarian, salt-glazed stoneware, so John Doulton would have been familiar with the process.
Stoneware differs from earthenware, in that the particular clay is fired at a higher temperature (1,200 C as opposed to 1046 C), this makes it stronger and waterproof, and it doesn’t need to be glazed, although it often is. However, the salt-glazed pottery produced by the early Doulton company had the additional process of throwing salt into the kiln. The sodium in the salt reacts with the silica in the clay to produce a shiny coating in brown, blue or purple.
In 1835 John’s son Henry joined the business at just 15 years of age. He was to become one of the major influencers and innovators in the pottery industry.
England suffered major cholera epidemics and 1854 Dr John Snow demonstrated that the water from the pump in Broad Street, Soho, was a major source of the infection, and not the air as previously thought. 616 people died in this outbreak. New sewer pipes were laid to replace the old brick-lined ones. And the new sewer pipes were manufactured by Doulton and Watts (Martha Jones having left the company in 1820).
Indeed, the firm flourished. They moved to new premises in Lambeth Street, London. New ways of engineering the industrial products made Doulton and Watts recognised globally as experts in this field.
In 1854 John Watts retired and the company became Doulton & Company.
Innovation and Colour
In 1860 a major innovation took place when pupils from Lambeth School of Art joined forces with the company. Many beautiful pieces were made, quite different from the original, industrial salt-glazed potware. Now bright colours, delicate modelling and brilliant decoration were offered to a voracious worldwide market.
The pottery continued to develop and experiment with many new ways of decorating pottery. These included faïence, marquetry, impasto and rouge flambé.
One innovation brought in by Henry was the steam driven potter’s wheel. This gave the firm about a 10-year advantage over competitors.
1873 saw the death of John Doulton, but his son Henry was gaining a reputation for innovation and sound business practice.
In 1882 another factory was built at Burslem, and this still operates today. It produces handmade stoneware ceramics, high-quality figurines, handmade, hand-drawn and hand-painted vases.
Another step in the progress of the company was the purchase of a small factory “Pinder, Bourne & Co” in Staffordshire. Thus the company entered the potteries region of Britain. Such companies as Spode Minton, Wedgwood and Royal Crown Derby were already ensconced in this area.
This new acquisition gave them the opportunity to produce fine bone china, winning accolade at various international exhibitions. They produced a wide range of decorative pieces in vibrant colours, using on-glaze and under-glaze enamelling techniques. Examples include figurines, tableware, gifts, collectables and glassware. This last was due to the purchase of Caithness glass in Scotland. They also produced jewellery, curtains and lighting.
The search for better and better didn’t end. It wasn’t until 1960 that Doulton brought in “English Translucent China”. The company were pioneers in this medium, which differs for the usual bone china in having the expensive calcined bone removed, which made it not only cheaper to produce but enabled people of more modest means to acquire beautiful china vases and tableware.
In 1885 Henry Doulton received the very prestigious “Albert Medal” from the Society of Arts for his artistic work.
Honours for Henry
This was a considerable honour as only one such medal is awarded each year. And then in 1887, he was knighted by Queen Victoria, the first knighted potter. And just 4 years after Henry’s death, the company received the royal warrant from King Edward VII and became “Royal Doulton”, the name we are familiar with today.
When in 1897 Henry died, his son Henry Lewis took the helm.
In the following years, the tradition of innovation and design with talented artists continued. The headquarters of Royal Doulton was in Lambeth, at Doulton House, London on the south bank of the Thames. When the Lambeth factory closed in 1956, because of new regulations regarding pollution, which did not allow for the production of salt glazes within a city, the work was transferred to the potteries.
But Doulton House has its own story to tell.
The Dramatic Rescue of the Frieze from the Jaws of the Demolishers
Doulton house was a fine example of an art décor building, built in the 1930s. T.P. Bennett was the architect, and it became a prominent landmark facing the River Thames. Along the front, over the doorway, was a magnificent 50-foot long polychrome stoneware frieze created by Gilbert Bayes, Britain’s foremost Art Deco sculptor. This depicts pottery through the ages and was manufactured by the Doulton factory under the watchful eye of the artist, who ensured the delicate blue and brown colours were perfect. The whole façade of Doulton House was faced with cream and stoneware ceramic tiles and the frieze was set off by the black and gold pilasters. It looked very impressive.
After the sale of the property in 1956, the building remained empty for several years.
In 1978 the building was to be demolished. While this didn’t cause an outcry, Royal Doulton did receive telephone calls from horrified members of the public. With no official help (except in turning a blind eye) volunteers from the Ironbridge Gorge Museum (159 miles away) chipped off the frieze in a few hundred irregular blocks which were then transported to Ironbridge where they were stored while people tried to find a suitable place to display them.
Eventually, the Victoria and Albert Museum London acquired them and the frieze was restored in 1988. (in fact, Royal Doulton have funded the rescue, the restoration and the display).
While the factory was demolished in 1978 and the friezes eventually restored in the Victoria and Albert Museum, the office part remains in situ in Black Prince Road, where you can see a frieze of potters and Sir Henry Doulton over the main entrance. These were completed by the noted artist George Tinworth.
Meanwhile, the Royal Doulton was expanding, perfecting new techniques to produce high-quality work at more affordable prices for the growing middle-class family. The also moved to simpler and elegant designs.
They bought the famous Minton China company, thus acquiring the acid gold decorating process, Parian statuary, a pate-sur-pate relief style of decoration and encaustic tiles. Encaustic tiles are those where the pattern derives from different colours clays, not from the glaze. So as the tile wears down the pattern remains.
While two colours are usual there may be up to six colours.
Dunn Bennett of hotel tableware was added to the holdings and then Webb Corbett and Beswick, which made lead crystal, ornaments and tableware, later to rebranded by Royal Doulton.
In 1966 a new manufacturing plant was established in Indonesia, in part to counter the high cost of local labour. Now, much of the work is carried out in Indonesia, although high-end products continue to be made in England.
And the expansion involved not the just the products but also the senior staff. While the family continued to be integral to the business, so more outsiders were brought in. Michael Doulton joined in 1970 and founded the Royal Doulton International Collectors Club, to collect and preserve Doulton products.
1972 – Huge Ceramic Merger
Pearson PLC bought Doulton & Co. The Pearson empire grew to include such famous pottery names as the Lawley group, Royal Albert, and Royal Crown Derby. In 1974 the Royal Doulton Tableware Ltd took about a third of the British tableware industry and products continued to increase with the needs of the times, evolving into dishwasher and microwave safe pots.
However, stormy days were ahead, despite greater efficiency drives and the investment of £10,000. Pearson PLC shed Royal Doulton in 1993 and it was listed on the London stock market with a value between £150.000 – £200,000.
Stuart Lyons took the driving seat and more acquisitions were made, including Caithness glass and Holland Studio Craft. Crystal paperweights and many small collectables of such subjects as frogs, dragons and wizards were produced.
However, sales were flat. Lyons resigned suddenly after 12 years in 1997, and a failed takeover cost the company £1,6 million in fees. Both the workforce and the variety of products were vastly reduced. Restructuring put the company £45,000 in the red during 1988.
Sales continued to decline, software problems cause further huge losses and then their arch-rival Wedgwood bought a 15% stake in Royal Doulton on the open market.
But at the beginning of the present century, by skilful diversification, the company’s losses gradually lessened, the sale of the Royal Crown Derby subsidiary helped to reduce the losses. But the Royal Doulton company was in a precarious position.
Waterford Crystal, Wedgwood and Royal Dalton merged to become known as the MMRD group. Then in 2015, this was acquired by the Fiskal Group, a huge multinational corporation, originally from Finland. So now Royal Dalton is a respected part of this empire. The Royal Doulton Company includes famous brand names like Minton and Royal Albert as well as its own Royal Doulton Brand.
Consumers today are very aware of quality and value. Our eating patterns have changed from formal family meals at the table to casual meals in front of the television, and so the company have produced a range of casual tableware to suit this market. As opposed to this, we continue to entertain, so a range of contemporary, but practical pieces have been developed.
The popular range of children’s pottery features Bunnykins, Winnie the Pooh and the delightful Brambly Hedge series. The market for ceramic gifts has also grown and there are indeed many attractive and humorous pieces available. There are also “heritage” gifts, which retain their monetary value well. In addition, the company’s Hotel and Airline division is one of the world’s largest suppliers of bone china to the international airline’s industry.
Looking to the future
History is a moving story and one of the measures of the standard of civilisation has
been the pottery shards and fragments dug up out of archaeological digs. Royal Doulton under the umbrella of the Fiskal Group, continues to provide a wide range of elegant and practical pottery, as well as the more utilitarian products.
Perhaps, when we are long gone the archaeologists of the future will glean some idea of the measure of our own civilisation.