It all started in 1750 in Worcester. Dr John Wall, a physician, and William Davis, an apothecary, had been experimenting with new ways to make porcelain, with what success is unknown. They hoped to provide employment for the citizens of Worcester and to raise their standard of living.
Dr Wall and Mr Davies persuaded 13 businessmen to set up the “Worcester Tonquin Manufactory” in 1751. They had premises at Warmstry House on the banks of the River Severn. The investors put up the sum of £4,500 (worth around £50,00 today) to establish the company.
Royal Worcester is probably the second oldest porcelain manufacturer in England whose brand is still with us. (Royal Crown Derby, established in 1750, beat them into first place by a narrow margin).
England in the 1750s would have seemed a strange place for us. To begin with, the date was different – the new calendar wasn’t applied in England until 1752, when 2 September 1752 was followed by 14 September 1752. This change did cause some irritation when it was used as an excuse for early demands for payment, or for delays in settling bills or debts.
And there were challenges for the early pottery industries.
Imagine – England without tea! Tea was just becoming a popular social drink from 1730 onwards. Tea gardens were opening up, usually open at the weekends and there, following or during an afternoon or evening’s entertainment, dancing and perhaps fireworks tea would be served as a treat. It was the fashionable “thing to do”. And it followed that the demand for teacups grew. The Chinese usually drank their tea from cups without handles, but the British decided they preferred to have handles on their cups. So, there was a great need for teacups with handles – and some very beautiful and elaborate cups and saucers were produced.
But it was labour intensive, expensive and slow work – something faster was needed for the pottery industry.
In addition, there was another problem. The pottery of 1730 would crack or shatter if subjected to boiling water. (And you simply must use boiling water to make tea!)
This is where the Worcester Pottery began to face those challenges.
The problem of boiling water
We do not know with what results in the doctor and the apothecary had on with their experiments at the start but they did meet up with a Bristol manufacturer – Mr Lund from Lund and Miller, who were using a completely new way to manufacture pottery. They used soapstone as the main raw ingredient of their wares. And by using this “magic” ingredient they were able, for the first time, to make pots that could withstand boiling water.
The Worcester earliest items were made from this soft-paste soapstone mix, almost identical in chemical makeup to that used by Lund in Bristol.
The advantage of using crushed soapstone was that it was a key ingredient of “soft paste porcelain”, which was the first porcelain which could withstand boiling water without cracking or breaking. It was ideal to make the tea, coffee and dinner services, which the Worcester Company made in quantity.
Soapstone is a natural stone quarried at that time in Cornwall. It’s steatite and is rich in magnesium. The first person to use soapstone porcelain pieces were made perhaps by a potter from Bristol – Benjamin Lund between 1748 and 1751. Like many enterprising business men of the time, Lund was a Quaker.
Nowadays, soapstone is used for such surfaces as kitchen counters since heat does not affect it. Indeed, it used to be used in the manufacture of stoves. (Soapstone was also used in Brazil to coat the well -known “Christ the Redeemer” statue in Rio de Janeiro),
When the Worcester works took over Lund’s factory in 1752, not only did all the undecorated items pass to them but also the licence to mine 20 tons of soaprock per year in Cornwall. In fact, this licence was bought by a major shareholder, another Quaker, a Mr Holdship, which ensured the business could continue to make soapstone pottery. Lund and his staff were taken on by Worcester Porcelain – perhaps to prevent industrial leaks about the secret soapstone?
Hundreds of tons of soapstone were transported from Cornwall through the docks at Bristol and Gloucester. A horse-drawn roller was used to crush the stone, and later it was crushed at Astley Forge Mill.
Printing on porcelain
Another challenge for the porcelain industry was to produce quality decoration in a timely manner. Several people were working on this, but it was in Worcester that printed decoration was first used on a commercial scale.
In about 1757, Robert Hancock was perfecting a method of transfer printing onto porcelain. Hancock was a well-known engraver and etcher, and Richard and Josiah Holdship, who were the managers of the Worcester factory, were very interested in his ideas. He used engraved copper plates for the early pottery printing. Quite soon, their products included underglaze prints in blue and overglaze prints, mostly in black.
They used cobalt blue pigment which could withstand the high temperature, producing a popular blue colour, although the edges tended to blur under the lead glaze used. Some high-cost items like largely moulded tureens were decorated in this fashion – they were well liked and it was difficult to tell them apart from hand-painted porcelain. In the Worcester works, the earliest items were painted with a blue underglaze.
Naturally, this method of decorating pottery spread. Around 1765, Holdship permitted Royal Derby to learn the method although the Derby underglaze prints are of inferior quality. The method even spread to America. By this time, the process began to be increasingly used and by 1775, the Worcester Company used transfer printing as the main method of blue decoration.
Combined the speed of manufacture and the high quality of decorating, the company was able to establish inroads into a vast and swiftly growing market. They produced one of the first Royal dinner services, made in 1770 for the Duke of Gloucester. Of course, there was competition, especially with the imported Chinese wares, which tended to be cheaper.
When Dr John Wall retired in 1774, the work continued at Worcester. Their London agent, Thomas Flight, bought the factory for £3,000. It was run by his two sons. John, the principal, kept a detailed journal from 1785 until his death in 1791. Martin Barr became a partner in 1792, and eight years later Thomas Flight died.
Worcester Royal Porcelain Company Limited
In 1789, the Worcester company was able to add the word Royal to their name when they received the Royal Warrant. This followed a visit by King George the previous year. This allowed the company to use the Royal Coat of Arms as well as the words ‘Manufacturers to their Majesties’. The company still has this warrant today. The quality of their work, as well as the innovative techniques, made this a well-earned honour.
There was a programme of major modernisation in 1862, the company now being known as the ‘Worcester Royal Porcelain Company Limited’.
Further royal Warrants were issued in 1807 and 1808 by the Princess of Wales.
By the late 1880s, 700 people were working at the Royal Worcester factory by the River Severn. But like other pottery manufacturers, trade increased during the 18th and 19th centuries trade and then declined in the 20th century.
Around 1845, Parian ware came on the market. This material revolutionised figure making, they look glossy and marble-like. Indeed, it is named after Paros, a Greek island famous for the fine-textured, Parian white marble used for sculpture in ancient times. There is still uncertainty as to who first used this as a pottery medium in England, but Royal Worcester produced some fine pieces, statuettes, oriental figures with conical hats, wall mounted decorations and so on.
Some of the pieces
Most of the earlier works were blue glazed pots with a Chinese type of pattern – low-cost and low grade. However, they also produced other items like bleeding bowls for the surgeons, although the Worcester ones did not tend to have the inner markings to measure the amount of blood taken. There were also barbers’ bowls with indents for the chin.
There are also the “Wigornia cream boats”. They have the name Wigornia stamped on the base and that is the ancient names for Worcester. One was sold in 2006 for $87,817 and they are considered some of the rarest items and are some of the earliest produced by the Worcester porcelain factory.
They created exhibition pieces. One of these was giant Chicago Vase. This vase was made for the Chicago Exhibition of 1893. It has a ‘pierced’ design like lattice-work, and there are more than 5000 individually cut holes. This piece was so valuable – and delicate – that a special container was made to transport it. The box was covered with white velvet and sported a blue silk lining. The price then was £126 at the Exhibition, (roughly £1,330). There were also Norman Conquest Vases and the Potters’ Vases.
Between 1862 and 1900 they produced 2500 new items, especially figurines and vases.
During the early 20th century, Royal Worcester took a traditional approach to shapes and decoration. The popular “Evesham Gold” pattern was their most popular pattern, moving with the times to “oven to table”.
Royalty, too, used Worcester china, and for many years Queen Elizabeth enjoyed it. And there was a breakfast service ordered by George III, which he ordered when on a royal visit in 1783.
During its life, the company changed names a few times. From the “Worcester Porcelain Factory” to the Royal Worcester Porcelain Company Ltd in 1862 when it received the royal warrant. Another name change occurred when the company merged with Spode and became the “Royal Worcester Spode”, this resulted in many staff redundancies. The brand became popular in the United States, but then came the Wall Street crash, and demand fell off. Indeed, the factory almost closed in the 1930s.
The last trading date for Royal Worcester was 14 June 2009. and they were bought by the Portmeirion Group in 2009 which has a factory in Stoke on Trent.
However, Royal Worcester retains its name and is active in the luxury tableware and gift markets, under the umbrella of Portmeirion. Jamie Oliver, the famous chef, entered an agreement for cook and tableware.
Royal Worcester museum
Financially independent, this museum was started to inspire and motivate the workforce and is still a most interesting place to visit. It is situated in the old factory buildings, otherwise now emptied, in a quiet back street of Worcester, close to the magnificent cathedral. The story of the company and the porcelain is well illustrated and the pieces are nicely arranged. They include that famous Chicago vase well as archives and ceramic collections. The museum is a great place to visit if you have an interest in pottery, especially of the Royal Worcester brand.
The Present Day
For over 250 years, the Royal Worcester Porcelain Company has been producing interesting and sometimes very ornate and quite lovely porcelain pieces. They have a special interest because they were the first to use soap-ware in their offerings so that the English could enjoy a proper cup of tea made with boiling water. They also were at the forefront of printing onto China, which made possible the production of good quality decorated wares more economically and quickly.
They retain a reputation for producing beautiful tableware and statuettes as well as some rarer and very sought after items. Royal Worcester porcelain is collected by people over the world, and the porcelain includes some very valuable and desirable pieces.