Formerly the place [Coalport] consisted of a very rugged uncultivated bank, which scarcely produced even grass, but owing to the judicious regulations and encouragement of Mr [William] Reynolds, joined to the benefit arising from the canal and river, houses to the number of thirty have been built there and more are still wanted to accommodate the people employed at a large china manufactory, a considerable earthenware manufactory [Bradley’s Coalport Pottery], another for making ropes, one for bag-making and one for chains….
(Thomas Telford, November, 1800, Coalport China Museum)
Early History Of Coalport And Caughley China
Located on the banks of the Shropshire Canal, Coalport China Museum is one of the ten Ironbridge Gorge Museums. Housed in the former Coalport China Works since 1976, the Museum contains important national collections of Coalport and Caughley china. Earlier this year I was fortunate to be shown around the Museum by Curatorial Officer and Senior Demonstrator Kate Cadman. Kate has worked at Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust since 1982.
The Shropshire Canal was completed in 1793 and became integral to the development of the region’s china industry:
The key to the location of the china works was the canal/river interchange, promoted by the ironmaster William Reynolds. He was responsible for building the Hay Inclined Plane [built between 1788 and 1792], linking the canal with the riverside and also for encouraging different industries to locate here to make best use of the land. This explains the development of Coalport in the 1790s, on a site which had previously been little more than a grassy bank.
(Ironbridge Gorge by Catherine Clark, 1993, p.59, published by B. T. Batsford Ltd)
The canal enabled coal to be transported directly from coalfield to factory where it was used to fire the pottery kilns. China wares could also easily be shipped down the River Severn to their intended markets.
The Coalport Works were founded by John Rose (1772-1841), a local farmer’s son, in 1796 and began trading as John Rose and Edward Blakeway & Co. By 1800, Coalport was Britain’s largest china manufactory. China continued to be manufactured at Coalport until the Works closed in 1926 and the company moved to The Potteries, Stoke-on-Trent.
Caughley china had been produced at a nearby factory (just south of the River Severn near Broseley) since the 1750s. John was once apprenticed to Thomas Turner (1749-1809), one of Caughley’s founders.
In 1799, John expanded his pottery empire by acquiring the Caughley factory as well. However, he soon faced competition from his younger brother Thomas. In 1800, Thomas established a rival porcelain manufactory on the opposite side of the river having entered into a partnership with Quaker ironmaster William Reynolds (1758-1803) and William Horton (trading as Reynolds, Horton & Rose).
Following William’s death in 1803, his cousin Robert Anstice went into partnership with Horton & Rose. In 1814, John brought-out his brother’s manufactory and during the same year production at Caughley ceased. The Coalport China Museum is housed in buildings on the site of Thomas Rose’s former factory and the YHA. now occupy John Rose’s former manufactory on the opposite side of the Canal.
China Production Process
I remember there were half a dozen women kept on just for cleaning the bones and it was laughable to see these women …they carried these bones in these little ‘whiskitts’ and there was one peculiar old woman who waddled when she walked. It was peculiar to see her balancing this ‘whiskitt’ on top of her head, she’d wobble but the ‘whiskitt’ didn’t …Down in this bone hall, where these women used to wash the bones, ooh it were a terrible smell but I suppose we got used to it…They used to say old Bruff (The Manager) had these bones burnt when the wind was in a certain direction, so you can guess which way the wind was blowing when he had these bones burnt, he lived towards the south of the works like.
(Mr A. Lewis, oral history testimony reprinted on a display panel in Coalport China Museum’s Social History Gallery ©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust)
According to the 1841 Census, 285 people were employed at Coalport including a 60-year-old bone washer called Ann Jones. By the 1850s, the number of people employed had risen to 500.
Coalport’s bone china is made from approximately 50% animal bone, 25% Cornish stone and 25% Cornish clay. Upon arrival, direct from the butchers, bones were washed and burned (calcined) then ground-up and combined with the other ingredients.
The powdered ingredients were then mixed with water to create liquid clay (known as ‘slip’). The next stage is ‘slip casting’, slip is poured into a plaster-of-paris mould which becomes coated with a thin layer of clay and excess slip is poured away. When the clay dries it shrinks and the form is removed from the mould. This method is used to produce hollow china ware shapes. The first firing of these fragile shapes was sometimes called ‘biscuit’ firing and took place in the bottle oven at a temperature of 1250◦C:
These biscuit wares were coated with a special oil and the coloured glaze dusted on as a powder. At this stage the china was fired at a low temperature to fix the ground colour, before being dipped in clear glaze and fired again at about 1100◦C. Hand-painted decoration could now be added using overglaze enamels: different colours often required different temperatures so several low temperature firings were necessary for the finest work. The transfer designs produced in large quantities in the nineteenth century used tissue paper as the medium for the colours, printed from a copper plate, and then positioned on the biscuit ware which absorbed the pigment. The spent tissue paper was washed off, the clear glaze was applied over the print and then the second firing.
Gilding – The last touch was gilding. The intricate designs were painted by hand and fired once more to fix the gold. The gilding emerged from the kiln cloudy and full and required burnishing with fine sand and agate tools (very hard and smooth) to bring up the bright finish. This task was mainly carried out by women.
(Ceramics of The Ironbridge Gorge Guidebook, p. 34, ©Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust)
Bone-china clay could not be stored for long periods as it went off. Another, rather pungent, aroma would be encountered if you lingered near to the pattern printing shop. The smell of oil and turpentine was particularly unpleasant, so too was the ‘spirit of tar’ used to clean the copper-plates of the printing press. Other deadly health hazards included a high risk of pneumoconiosis (lung disease) and lead poisoning from china glaze. In 1898, the Home Office tried to introduce legislation to reduce the amount of lead used in glazes. Unfortunately, early attempts to legislate were unsuccessful and the law did not come into force until 1950.
Other popular techniques used at Coalport to create simple round clay shapes involved the use of a ‘jigger’ and ‘jolley’, which were advanced versions of the traditional potter’s wheel. The jigger made flat ware (plates and saucers) and the jolley made hollow ware (cups and bowls). The spinning axle on the jigger and jolley machine was operated by a large flywheel turned by a small boy. This technique is much quicker than throwing and at Coalport its use resulted in about 1,000 items being produced each day.
Coalbrookdale School of Art
In 1853, the Coalbrookdale Literary and Scientific Institute was set-up, followed in 1856 by Coalbrookdale School of Art. Many of the School’s students were successful in gaining employment within the region’s china and tile-making industries. The Coalport factory employed artists from the School to paint individual pieces or create original designs.
The Coalbrookdale Company also provided free accommodation for students as well as paying for a new school building. The latter being designed by Coalbrookdale’s ironworks manager at the time, Charles Crookes. The building was constructed in the Tudor Gothic style and made from bricks produced in the company’s own brickworks.
Classes were presided over by a qualified art teacher who taught 60 students for 2 hour drawing classes, 3 evenings and 1 morning/afternoon a week. Drawing from life was a popular component in Victorian art education. Evening classes cost 3 shillings and 4 shillings a quarter and were subsidised by the employers. In addition to art classes, technical subjects taught included: machine construction drawing; applied mechanics; practical mathematics and magnetism. Between 1870 and 1909 students at the school were awarded 13 Art Teacher’s Certificates; 5 national scholarships; 28 medals from South Kensington and City & Guilds of London examinations.
During the First World War the School continued to run classes for women teachers, pupil teachers and under 18’s. In 1924, The Salop County Council purchased the School and the Coalbrookdale Evening Institute was established. During the Second World War, the School became a centre for evacuees from Liverpool. The School re-opened in 1945 and continued until the late 1960s when it closed it doors to students. The School became a library for a while and in April 1977 the Council leased the building to the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust.
John Randall ‘Shropshire’s Grand Old Man’
John Randall (1810-1910) was Coalport’s most famous painter. He was also a local historian, writer and collector of fossils and minerals. His uncle, Thomas Martin Randall, owned a china decorating workshop in Madeley and aged 18 John became his apprentice. John then spent two years working at the Royal Rockingham porcelain factory in Yorkshire. In 1835, he returned to his home county of Shropshire (he was born in Broseley) and found employment working for John Rose at the Coalport China Works, a job that he remained in for 46 years. During his illustrious career at Coalport his worked was exhibited widely including: the 1851 Exhibition; the 1871 International Exhibition and the 1876 Art Treasures Exhibition.
John had a talent for painting birds, particularly exotic ones. His artistic style was akin to that practiced at Sèvres Porcelain whose factory John visited in 1867. Unfortunately, due to his failing eyesight, John had to retire from Coalport in 1881. Never one to be idle, he became Postmaster at Madeley at the ripe old age of 70. He outlived both his wives, Ann Harvey (with whom he had 5 children) and Louisa Brassington (with whom he had 2 children). He died on November 16th, 1910 and is buried next to Ann and Louisa in Madeley Churchyard. His son, by his first wife, Thomas Julius George, was an accomplished painter in his own right and also worked at Coalport.
China Painters Of Note Who Worked At Coalport
Fred Howard – worked at Coalport c.1900-1920 and specialised in painting fruit;
- Frederick Herbert Chivers – worked at Coalport 1906-1926 (except during the First World War). When Coalport moved premises in 1926, Frederick went on to work at Worcester Royal Porcelain;
- Thomas Keeling – worked at Coalport in the early 1900s, famous for painting fluffy cats and historic figure studies;
- Percy Simpson – worked at Coalport from 1901 for the rest of his life, specialised in painting fish and landscapes. He became an Artistic Director at the factory;
- Fred Howitt – worked at Coalport in the early 1900s, a Sèvres flower and bird painter;
- Arthur Bowdler – worked at Coalport for 40 years, specialised in painting flowers, birds and simulated precious stones;
- J.H. Plant – famous for painting castles and the Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee vase in 1897.
Educational Activities At Coalport China Museum
Today, visitors to Coalport’s Museum complex are treated to many live pottery demonstrations including china flower making and pot throwing as well as hands-on activities such as clay modelling and china painting.
A vibrant, year-round, programme of educational activities for all the family ensures that Coalport’s famous pottery techniques are kept alive in 2013 and for future generations to enjoy.
The Museum has some pretty impressive workshop facilities too. The theme for this summer’s series of workshops is ‘Sea Worlds’. Beginning on Monday 22nd July until Friday 30th August (Monday to Friday, 11-1 & 2-4pm) the whole family can take part in drop-in sessions ranging from personalizing a ceramic mug and making a clay rock pool to modelling your own sea creature. All sounds like terrific fun, for more information on this summer’s educational activities at Coalport, including charges, CLICK HERE.