The Royal Porcelain Works

The origins of the Royal Worcester Porcelain Company can be traced back to the formation of the Worcester Tonquin Manufacture, a precursor company formed in 1751. Together with ‘Derby Porcelain’, later known as the Royal Crown Derby Porcelain Company which was founded at around the same time, the enterprise was one of the two earliest porcelain manufacturers in Britain, initially producing ‘soft-paste’ porcelain. ‘Hardpaste’ porcelain, pioneered in Europe by von Tschirnhaus and Böttger at Meissen in the early 18th century, was not in general production in Britain until the 1770s.

The Worcester Tonquin Manufacture was established by a Worcester physician, Dr. John Wall, together with William Davis, a local apothecary, and a consortium of 13 other partners; the original partnership deeds, dated 4th June 1751, survive at the Museum of Royal Worcester. (The ‘Tonquin’ of the company name probably reflected the founders aspirations to rival imported Chinese porcelain, much of which was shipped to the west from Canton (Guangzhou) in China and Tonkin in northern Vietnam). The manufactory was based at Warmstry House, an historic property lying some distance from Severn Street, to the north-west of the cathedral and Bishop’s Palace, with extensive gardens extending down to the eastern banks of the River Severn, a site suitable for remodelling and development for industrial purposes. Soon afterwards, in 1752, the rival Bristol company of Benjamin Lund was acquired, together with a license to mine China clay and ‘soaprock’, essential ingredients for their wares, in Cornwall. 

 

View of Warmstry Manufactory, 1952
Used with kind permission of the Museum of Royal Worcester 

 

George Young’s map of Worcester, 1779 showing Warmstry works and the future Severn Street site 

After the retirement of Wall from the business in 1774, the Warmstry business continued under the direction of Davis who had been manager of the factory for a period of 20 years, producing a growing range of table-wares. The 1770s, however, saw a down turn in the fortunes of the company as the original partners grew older and retired from active involvement in the business, and thus it was, in 1783, that the manufactory was purchased by its London agent, Thomas Flight for his two sons, Joseph and John, for a price of just £3,000. 

In 1788, the Warmstry manufactory was visited by King George III and Queen Charlotte, and the company’s standing was greatly enhanced when, the following year, a first Royal warrant was issued. In the later-18th and early-19th centuries, the company went through a series of guises; following the death of John Flight in 1791, his son Joseph took Martin Barr, a local businessman, into partnership heralding an extended period of collaboration between the two families that witnessed a series of Flight / Barr collaborations, namely ‘Flight and Barr’ (1792-1804); ‘Barr, Flight and Barr’ (1804-1813) and ‘Flight, Barr and Barr’ (1813-1840). 

The Severn Street Manufactory was established in the later years of the 18th century by Robert Chamberlain (1736-1798). Chamberlain was a talented local decorator who had been apprenticed to the Warmstry Works from its earliest days and had worked his way up to become head of the decorating department when, in 1783, he left to establish his own, independent concern in Diglis, a burgeoning working-class suburb of Worcester lying to the south of the cathedral.

Based initially at small-scale premises in King Street, immediately north-east of the modern factory site, Chamberlain was involved, at least at first, purely in the decoration of blank wares brought in from third party manufacturers, such as the Caughley works near Ironbridge in Shropshire. By the late 1780s, however, documentary sources indicate that he had established his own manufacturing business, with premises at Frog Lane (as Severn Street was then known) forming the core of the later works. Valentine Green’s ‘History and Antiquities of the City and Suburbs of Worcester’, published in 1796, gives the foundation date as 1788 and, commenting on the manufactory site, states that ‘this work, although in an infant state, is in rapid progress towards perfection...’. Chamberlain opened his first retail outlet in Worcester’s High Street in June of 1789. 

Historical sources indicate that the original factory was limited in extent and consisted of a traditional ‘cluster’ of small buildings around a central courtyard occupying a ‘wedge’ shaped site located to the rear of a terrace of residential housing fronting onto the southern side of Frog Lane. An inventory of 1796 lists the constituent buildings as including a slip house, a saggar room, four kilns (biscuit, glaze and two enamelling), a potters’ room, painting room, gold shop and burnishing rooms, together with the various stores required for wares at different stages of production, all set around a manufactory yard with coach house. 

In 1807, following his visit to the works, the Prince of Wales granted Chamberlain a Royal Warrant and as Prince Regent continued to purchase porcelain from the Severn Street factory. 

 

Samuel Mainley’s map of Worcester and Environs, 1822. Chamberlain’s Porcelain Works to south-east side of Frog Lane, labelled ‘37’ 

The first map to show Chamberlain’s works is Samuel Mainley’s ‘Plan of Worcester and Environs’, published in 1822; the works are annotated as No. ‘37’ and recorded in the accompanying schedule as ‘Mr Chamberlain’s Porcelain Works’. Although schematic in nature, the plan clearly shows a series of discrete structures, five in total, loosely grouped around a yard, and these may reasonably be assumed to have housed the various elements listed in the 1796 inventory. The Birmingham and Worcester canal is shown to the south-east of the manufactory site, though the porcelain works had yet to be extended to take advantage of this new and valuable transport link, only recently finished in 1815, with the area to the south and east of the works shown as gardens. The manufactory site was bound to this side by an old roadway leading to Sidbury and a wall facing onto this road, and the canal and Bath Road beyond, was used to profitable effect, painted with a large advertisement for Chamberlain’s Porcelain Works ‘Manufacturers to His Majesty and Royal Family’. 

 

View of Chamberlain Works from the Bath Rd, c.1820 

Although almost all of the buildings associated with the original works have been lost to subsequent phases of modification, historical depictions of the former ‘Chamberlain Tea Rooms’ (demolished in 1945) give a good indication of the form the early buildings would have taken. Ranges were brick-built of two or three storeys beneath pitched, clay-tile clad roofs, with exterior stairs and linking walkways. 

 

 

 Historical photograph and engraving of the ‘Chamberlain Tea-Rooms’ and adjacent ranges
Used with kind permission of the Museum of Royal Worcester

In 1840, the rival companies of Chamberlain’s, and ‘Flight, Barr and Barr’ at Warmstry joined forces when the former (which was by then being run by Robert’s grandson, Walter) bought out the latter, with the combined company, known as ‘Chamberlain and Co.’, being based at the Frog Lane site.  The amalgamation of the two companies and the associated movement of workers from the Warmstry site to Frog Lane necessitated the expansion and modification of the works. 

A near contemporary ‘conveyance plan’, dated 21st December 1842, affords the first detailed view of the manufactory buildings.  

 

 1842 ‘Conveyance Plan’
Used with kind permission of the Museum of Royal Worcester

The plan shows an irregular group of buildings set loosely around a central yard, accessed via an ‘occupation road’ opening off the east side of Frog Lane (Severn Street).  Frog Lane itself was fronted by ‘6 tenements and yards’ while the angle plot between Frog Lane and the perpendicular occupation road is recorded as having been in the ownership of Mr John Stone. The buildings depicted include ‘potting rooms and counting house’ with attached ‘mould room’ forming a long, rectangular block defining the northern side of the yard and incorporating the principal, transverse entranceway to the site at its western end.  Extending from the eastern side of the mould room was a small projection labelled ‘old stable now used as a store room’.  To the south, and connected via a raised walkway and stairs, the principal structure within the central yard comprised a saggar house, dipping room, biscuit kiln, glaze kiln and printing house (this building was converted in the 1930s to form the ‘Chamberlain tea-rooms’ which survived until 1945).  To the west of this block, a further group of buildings comprised packing house, stone/stove(?) white warehouse and a series of four kilns.   The southern boundary of the site was defined by a further elongated block housing ‘burnishing and potting rooms’.  A small structure housing potting rooms was located backing against the south-eastern boundary wall while a clay pit was located to the eastern angle of the yard.  It is interesting that, at this stage, a paucity of available space meant that the engine room, clay bins, slip kilns and store rooms, representing essential elements of the manufactory complex, were located on the opposite side of Frog Lane (illustrated in an inset to the bottom right of the plan). 

A useful, contemporary description of the arrangements of the early manufactory is afforded by an illustrated account from The Penny Magazine of February 1843:   

‘In this as in many other large factories there is a central court or area, surrounded by buildings of various forms and dimensions, suited to the processes of manufacture.   The general arrangement of these may be indicated by following the processes in their natural order.

First there is the building in which the crude materials are brought into a plastic or working state.  Here we see a ponderous circular stone, nearly four tons in weight, working round in a circle on its edge, and crushing beneath it the stony ingredients of the porcelain.  Then, in another part of the building, is a circular vessel, provided with a stirring apparatus, for further preparing the substances by the aid of water.  The mixing-room, in another place, contains the vessels in which the pounded ingredients are worked up into a smooth kind of clay, fitted for the purposes of the workman.

Following the prepared material to the hands of the workman, we visit the ‘throwing room’ where the remarkable process of forming circular vessels is conducted.  This is a long and busily occupied shop, containing a great number of men employed as we shall describe presently.  Kilns in great number are disposed conveniently, with respect to the other workshops; for these are ‘biscuit-kilns’, ‘glaze-kilns’, and ‘enamel-kilns’, according to the state of the process in which heat has to be applied to the ware.

Various rooms, called ‘placing-room’, ‘dipping-room’, ‘white-ware room’, ‘modelling-room’, ‘mould-room’, ‘pressing-room’ etc. are disposed round the open area, for the prosecution of various processes in the course of manufacture; to which succeed others known as the ‘painting’ and ‘burnishing’ rooms, in which those elaborate decorations are given to the manufactured article which form one of the most marked features of distinction between it and common pottery-ware.  Then we come to the warehouses in which the finished product is stored.  Lastly, there are shops, drying-rooms and kilns, for the manufacture of the ‘tesselated tiles’ which are now becoming so extensively used.’

With the exception of the more specialist buildings, such as the mills, slip house and the various kilns with their associated ‘hovels’, working ranges would have been fairly simple in design and construction, essentially long and narrow in plan and arranged over multiple storeys.  Generous fenestration would admit the maximum amount of natural daylight to the workspaces within, which would have been furnished with work stations or simple benches arranged against the exterior walls, where the various processes of moulding, pressing, decorating and burnishing would be undertaken.   Such ranges would have been eminently adaptable, and this is reflected in early schedules and inventories of the works, where the pattern of use of specific buildings would appear to have been fairly fluid.   

 

 

1810 engravings of workshops illustrating simple internal arrangements (copied from Jones R 1993) 
Used with kind permission of the Museum of Royal Worcester

The period following the amalgamation Chamberlain’s and Flight, Barr and Barr witnessed a period of general decline, however, and by the early 1850s the condition of the works was described as being ‘deplorable in the extreme’.  It was at this point that the company entered a new and exciting stage in its development.  

In 1850, the management of Chamberlain’s passed to William Henry Kerr, in partnership with Frederick Lilley; Walter Chamberlain continued on briefly as a minor shareholder though soon after, in 1851, he withdrew his interest and Kerr bought the company outright, becoming ‘W.H. Kerr and Co.’.  Kerr, born in Dublin in 1823 and thus only 27 years of age in 1850, had previously been heavily involved with Chamberlain’s via his father’s business, James Kerr and Sons of Capel Street, Dublin, a successful china merchants and the principal retailer for Chamberlain’s in Ireland.  A further, familial connection with the Worcestershire company had been established in September 1846 when Kerr had married Walter Chamberlain’s niece, Caroline Louisa Stone.  Kerr brought in a fellow Dubliner, Richard William Binns, as artistic director heralding a period of rejuvenation of the company and a phase of expansion and rebuilding, undertaken in tandem with the modernisation of machinery and of working practices.  

A programme of significant investment saw a number of new buildings being erected.  Principally among these was a purpose-built showroom introduced in 1851-2, Neo-Classical in style and built to the designs Irish architect Robert Williams Armstrong.  Although also only in his mid-twenties at the time, Armstrong was already a figure of some reputation, having built up a substantial practice working in the Staffordshire potteries.   When built, the showroom presented, for the first time, a public ‘façade’ to the manufactory, aligned directly with the ‘occupation road’ and facing towards Severn Street, and this significance is reflected in its prominent use in illustrative materials and as a frontispiece in contemporary guidebooks; throughout its history the showroom has continued to function as a focal point of the works.  The showroom was approached via a wide, arched doorway in the entrance façade, set within a rusticated surround and crowned by a great Coade stone coat or arms of George III, dating to 1806 (and thus re-used from an earlier building/site).  Internally a tall, single-storey room, top-lit by a series of pyramidal roof-lights, afforded an auspicious space for the presentation of the company’s wares in a range of grand display cases and on free-standing tables.   

 

 

Armstrong’s Showroom of 1851-2 used Interior view of Armstrong’s Showroom of 1851-2 as frontispiece to 1853 guidebook. 
Used with kind permission of the Museum of Royal Worcester

Broadly contemporary with the showroom range were a new slip house range, which formed an in-line extension of the former, and a new mill range, both also by Armstrong and replacing their inconveniently sited precursors on the far side of Frog Lane.  

An early guidebook to the works described the mill range as comprising ‘a boiler house, engine house and mill, a three-storeyed building.  On the ground floor are placed the washing-pans, which receive the materials from upper storeys, and the arks where the ground substances are stored.  On the first floor are large pans for grinding flint, feldspar, Cornish stone etc., also pans for grinding the glazes, and a series of smaller ones for colours.  Adjoining these is the mixing room.  On the upper storey are similar large pans for grinding calcined bone, a substance extensively used in the manufacture of chia, mills for grinding gold, and a series of pans for grinding colours.  The room adjoining is the laboratory.’   

The same guide describes the arrangements of the Slip House as follows:

‘Underneath the floor of this building are large arks, which act as reservoirs for the substances from the mill and clay house.  Here are the mixing pots, into which the ground materials are thrown by pumps.  In the mixing pot is a shaft from which radiate arms having arranged on them rows of magnets which work through the materials so as to remove any particles of iron that may by accident or abrasion have got into them.  From the mixing vat the material passes through a series of sieves worked by machinery.  It is then pumped to the clay press.  This is a machine where the slip is received into a number of chambers lined with linen bags, and where by hydraulic pressure the water is expressed until the mass assumes the consistency of a paste.  The clay from the press, being in a state of paste or dough, is taken to a vault or clay cellar, where it is regularly beaten... to make it tough.  When the proper consistency and homogeneity have thus been imparted to the dough it is ready for the workmen.  The usual methods of manufacture are three – ‘throwing’, ‘pressing’ and ‘casting’ – the two former with the clay in a state of paste, the latter when in a state of slip’. 

 

 

Engravings of Mill and Slip House, 1882 by James Callowhill. 
Used with kind permission of the Museum of Royal Worcester

Kerr’s expansion also included the rebuilding/extension in 1853 of the former burnishing and potting rooms defining the south-western side of the site as a three-storey, 11-bay block, and the erection of an additional complex to the south of the mill range, originally housing a bank of four new glaze-kilns, a placing room, potting shops and press rooms, though later converted for the production of Parian-ware, a type of unglazed, bisque-porcelain imitating marble and used exclusively for figurative work.  All of these additional ranges are visible in a ‘bird’s eye’ view of the works, seen from the direction of the Bath Road, of c.1860 (the appearance of the 1853 range is somewhat distorted in this view).  The strip of land to the east of the old roadway, adjoining the Birmingham and Worcester Canal, was purchased variously from Mr. John Shapland and Mr. John James Feild in 1857/8, and would have functioned primarily as a wharf for the reception of coal, clay and other raw materials arriving by barge, though it remained otherwise undeveloped during this period.

 

Engraving of c.1860, factory site from Bath Road 
Used with kind permission of the Museum of Royal Worcester

Kerr returned to Ireland in 1862, at which point a joint stock company was formed, known as the Worcester Royal Porcelain Co. Ltd., with Richard Binns and Edward Phillips as joint managing directors, joined by Edward Evans as company secretary in 1867.  The 1860s witnessed a concerted campaign of expansion of the manufactory premises and surviving company minute books reveal numerous references to the lease of additional land, including the valuable strip alongside the Birmingham and Worcester Canal to the south-east of the factory site.  

A ‘lease plan’ of 28th July 1863 illustrates the expansion of the works in the 20 years that had passed since the preparation of the conveyance plan. The site itself had been significantly enlarged, more than doubling its footprint, reflecting the investment into the company and premises after the 1840 merger with Flight, Barr and Barr and, in particular, the restructuring under the direction of Kerr and Binns from the early 1850s on, this plan dating to the year immediately following Kerr’s departure. 

The manufactory site, outlined in red, retained most of the core buildings from Chamberlain’s early works (though an accompanying schedule indicates fairly widespread change of use), but also included significant extensions to both east and south.  To the north-east lay Armstrong’s showroom of 1851-2 (37), with in-line offices and workshops (41) and slip kiln (42), together with the contemporary bone mill (36) with associated engine and boiler rooms (46/7), the latter replacing the earlier engine house inconveniently located on the opposite side of Frog Lane.  Flanking the south-eastern site boundary were new banks of biscuit kilns (20-23) and glaze kilns (24-7).  Workshops range ‘16’, dating to 1853 and again by Armstrong, replaced an earlier burnishing and potting room block along the south-western boundary of the works site.  The manufactory still lacked a frontage to the canal and onto Frog Lane (by now named ‘Diglis Street’), with the main entrance to the site remaining by means of the ‘occupation road’ and a transverse passageway at the west end of Building 34, the ‘White Warehouse’.

It should be noted that, up to this time, the main factory works had been sited on land leased, at a cost of £550 p.a., from Mr John Stone.  By 1865, however, it was felt that in order to effectively and realistically continue with a programme of investment and expansion of the works, that the site should be brought fully into company ownership. An initial approach to Stone in July 1865 for the purchase of the site for £9,000 was rejected and, pending further negotiations, a plan to relocate the manufactory wholesale to a new site at the Worcester Pleasure Grounds in Sansome Walk was put in place.  The scheme progressed as far as the purchase of the site and preparation of draft design drawings by Walter Scrivener and Sons, architects, of Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent.  The scheme was ultimately abandoned, however, and following further negotiations with Stone for the purchase of the Severn Street manufactory together with a number of adjacent cottages/gardens and a public house for the increased price of £10,000, the original plan of extending the existing works was revisited.

Thus was an ambitious scheme of enlargement conceived and realised, again to the designs of Walter Scrivener and Sons, including for the first time a frontage onto Severn Street.   Plans were initially submitted in April 1866 and, after a somewhat protracted process of land acquisition, construction commenced in August of that year.  The scheme involved the almost complete removal of one of the major elements of Chamberlain’s original works, specifically a group of early kilns (a large and small stone biscuit kiln and nine enamelling kilns together with associated placing house and workshops) and the erection of an administrative range at the corner of Severn Street and the former ‘occupation road’, incorporating a new principal site entrance and lodge, with offices and board room over; a new order room and packing house; a bank of three new glost-kilns aligned perpendicular to Severn Street with associated saggar and placing house, together with a new dipping room and ‘hothouse’ (drying room).  The buildings formed a homogeneous group, ranged essentially around three sides of a central yard, of two storeys throughout, and built in red brick with buff-brick and stone detailing.  The expansion of the works represented a highly significant development, both in respect of the growth of the company and in architectural and aesthetic terms.  The constituent buildings, while for the most part utilitarian in nature, were conceived and constructed with a significant degree of architectural ‘pretention’ in their character and detailing, for example in the use of highly-fired, moulded buff-brick for decorative eaves bands, especially when compared to some of the earlier ranges, and in particular with regard to the treatment of their outward facing ‘public’ façades, specifically the Severn Street frontage.

A series of original plan and elevation drawings for Scrivener’s extensions survive at Worcester City Council Historic Environment Record, while an engraving of c.1868 illustrates the manufactory soon after completion of the expansion.

 

Ground floor plan by Walter Scrivener 1866.
Used with kind permission of the Museum of Royal Worcester 

 

Street elevation by Walter Scrivener 1866. 

 

Engraving of 1868, soon after completion of Scrivener modifications. 
Used with kind permission of the Museum of Royal Worcester

The later 1860s and 1870s saw more piecemeal additions to the works by Scrivener and by George Beardmore Ford of Burslem (retained as company architect in 1874) such that, by 1880, Littlebury and Co.’s ‘Guide to Worcester and Neighbourhood’ could record that ‘during the last few years the present proprietors have greatly extended the works by the erection of new workshops, kilns and warehouses and the rebuilding of part of the old manufactory.’  Of specific interest is the gradual expansion of the works onto the strip of land adjoining the Birmingham and Worcester canal (acquired by the company in stages in the late 1850s and early 1860s), first evident on the ‘Board of Health’ plan of 1870 and depicted in more detail on a ‘mortgage plan’ of 1875.   The latter plan is of interest not only in its depiction of the works at that date, but also in recording the extent of the separate plots of land combining to form the factory site, a record of their former owners and the date of their acquisition by the company.  

 

 Mortgage plan of factory site, 1875.
Used with kind permission of the Museum of Royal Worcester

Specifically, the 1875 plan indicates further expansion to the south side of the site, which now reached as far as to front Mill Street at the southern angle, with the introduction of further enamelling kilns and a mould makers shop, a new dipping house, glost placing room, glost ovens and finishing range.    On the strip of land adjoining the canal, which would have functioned primarily as a wharf for the reception of coal, clay and other raw materials arriving by barge, a bone house, slip kilns, frit kiln, store, and smithy (together forming a single block) had been erected, as well as clay pits, a clay shed, coal yard, an additional saggar house, flint mill, house and stable.  

The principal phases of development of the works down to 1876 are recorded in a late-19th-century plan, preserved at the Museum of Royal Worcester. 

 

 Blue: Original works of Chamberlain’s,1788 to 1840, Brown: Additions by Flight and Barr(sic.), 1840 to 1847 Red: Additions by Kerr and Binns, 1852
Used with kind permission of the Museum of Royal Worcester

Continued colonisation of the canal-side area saw the erection a new range of biscuit ovens, with associated placing room, scouring room and store, design drawings for which are dated 1878.

 

 

Plan and cross-section of 1878 biscuit ovens erected adjacent to canal. 

A secondary phase of extension to the Severn Street frontage was undertaken in the early 1890s in response to a perceived need for additional packing and warehousing accommodation, that provided by Scrivener’s ranges being deemed no longer adequate to requirements.  The company board, recorded in minutes of November 1890, recommended ‘the removal of the five old cottages fronting Severn Street and the erection of offices, stock room and packing house with straw store and cooperage’.  Land for the new extensions had been acquired in December 1873 and January 1875 from the Six Masters of Trinity Charity and Mr Henry Fincher respectively, and that had formerly been occupied by ‘four tenements and gardens’ and ‘eleven messuages or tenements and gardens’.  Outline plans by the local architect Thomas Sutton of Sansome Walk, Worcester were submitted in December 1890, with full plans approved by February 1891; Mr John Kendrick was appointed as contractor for the project, commencing by May 1891 and with work being essentially complete by January of the following year.  The new buildings added 10 structural bays to Scrivener’s 1867 street frontage, though by closely following the style, massing and detailing of the earlier ranges, an essentially unified and coherent façade was created.  The introduction of the new ranges necessitated the demolition of the northernmost of Scrivener’s bank of glaze kilns, though the remaining two were left in-situ, at least in the short term, behind the street frontage. 

 

Thomas Sutton 1891 extensions; elevations. 
Used with kind permission of the Museum of Royal Worcester

 

Thomas Sutton 1891 extensions; ground floor plan. 

An engraving and broadly contemporary ‘bird’s eye’ photograph of 1895 record the appearance of the works at the end of the 19th century.  A feature of particular note is the presence of fourteen distinctive ‘bottle’ kilns in four distinct groups; reference to the 1875 plan indicates one set of biscuit ovens, two of glost kilns and one of enamelling kilns. 

 

Engraving of 1895, soon after completion of Sutton modifications. 
Used with kind permission of the Museum of Royal Worcester

 

Photograph from Cathedral Tower, 1895. 
Used with kind permission of the Museum of Royal Worcester

The ongoing success and expansion of the WRPW allowed for the acquisition of the rival companies of Grainger’s of Lowesmoor in 1889 and Hadley’s of Diglis in 1905. 

The Severn Street site had essentially reached its greatest physical extent by the early years of the 20th century, extending from Severn Street to the Birmingham and Worcester Canal, and south to front onto Mill Street, with the core of the manufactory extending to cover an area of c.5 acres.  Subsequent developments comprised, to a large extent, the introduction of smaller infill ranges and the covering over of former open yard areas, combined with the sequential remodelling and adaptation of extant buildings to suit modified functionality and to reflect technical innovation in the industry.  In particular, the move away from coal-fired, intermittent kilns to cleaner and more cost-effective continuous-cycle, gas-fired tunnel-kilns in the early-mid 20th century witnessed a quite radical modification of the building stock.  Additional premises were acquired at Portland Walk, at the Albion Mill complex (formerly Townshend and Son’s flour mill) and in Willow Street, all to the south-west of the factory core, bringing the overall site to a total area of c.7 acres.  

In the early-20th century, the company struggled through the years of the First World War, the general strike of 1926 and the Wall Street Crash of 1929, all of which had a cumulative, negative impact upon business and the WRPC narrowly escaped closure, being rescued by Charles Dyson Perrins (of the famous ‘Worcestershire Sauce’ family).  Dyson Perrins (1864-1958) had been a director of the WRPC since 1891, but in 1934 he purchased the company outright, and was to have a major influence over the following years; he retired from the Board in 1954 but remained Honorary President until his death in 1958.  In 1946 he created a Museum Trust to administer his own and the company’s extensive collections and on June 8th 1951, the ‘Dyson Perrins Museum’ was opened with the future Queen Elizabeth II in attendance.  It was originally housed in the old company showrooms but was relocated to the adjacent buildings of the former St Peters School in 1967 where it remains today, having been rebranded as the Worcester Porcelain Museum in 2012.

An unusual development of the 1930s was the remodelling of the surviving, central group of early, Chamberlain-era buildings (recorded in 1842 as housing a dipping room, saggar house, biscuit and glaze kilns, and a printing house) to form the ‘Chamberlain Tea Rooms’, which were to prove highly popular with visitors to the site.   

 

Arrangements of Chamberlain Tea Rooms, 1934. 
Used with kind permission of the Museum of Royal Worcester

Elsewhere, the inter-war years saw the introduction of a number of large, steel-framed utilitarian ranges, typically of 2-3 storeys with extensive glazing to exterior walls.  Many of these mid-century additions were built to the designs of Sam N Cooke and Partners of Bennetts Hill, Birmingham, who was engaged as company architects from 1935 on.  Cooke had undertaken previous work at the site, for example the erection of a three-storey ‘strongroom tower’ in 1934, adjacent to a printers and engravers block of 1873/79, including a ground-floor vault for the storage of up to 14,250 valuable copper plates used in the transfer printing process.  A series of overall factory plans of the 1930s and 40s (specifically 1937, 1941 and 1949), produced by Cooke, survive at the Museum of Royal Worcester archives and are useful in elucidating mid-century developments.

 

Sam Cooke’s factory plan of 1949, note new range on site of former ‘Chamberlain Tea Rooms’. 

During World War Two, about two thirds of the factory was devoted to government work, undertaken for the Ministry of Aircraft Production (the MAP project).  One part of the site was taken over by Steatite and Porcelain Products Co. Ltd. of Stourport, Staffordshire for the production of low-tension wireless insulators and valve bases, while another section was used by Welwyn Electrical Company for the production of vitreous enamelled resistors.  Following the end of the Second World War, Steatite removed from the works while Welwyn, specialising in the production of electrical components, was subsumed into the WRPC.  The factory site underwent a phase of ‘reconstruction’, under the direction of managing director J.F. Grimson.  From a historical perspective, the single most significant development of the immediate post-war years involved the demolition of some of the earliest remaining buildings on the site, namely the ‘Chamberlain Tea Rooms’ ranges, which were removed in c.1945 to make way for the erection of a new, two-storey saggar house, modified soon afterwards in c.1950 to accommodate a gas-fired tunnel kiln. 

The WRPC became a limited company in 1954 and soon afterwards, in 1958 a holding company, Royal Worcester Limited, was formed.  In 1976, Royal Worcester merged with the well-known ceramics company of Spode of Stoke-on-Trent and production was gradually switched to the latter’s manufactories in Staffordshire and abroad. In the later years of the 20th century, the company went through a rapid succession of mergers and transfers of ownership, and ceramic production gradually declined throughout the early 2000s.  At this stage, much of the ground floor of the Severn Street ranges was re-purposed for non-porcelain retail use, with attendant structural changes including the removal of internal partitions, blocking up of former doorways/windows and the amalgamation of formerly discrete spaces into large, unencumbered warehousing areas.  One hundred RWPW staff were laid off in 2003 and another 100 in 2005, at which point large parts of the site were sold off for mixed-use redevelopment, before Royal Worcester and Spode finally went into administration in November 2008. The brand names and intellectual property rights were acquired by Portmeirion Potteries of Stoke-on-Trent (later Portmeirion Group) in April 2009; the Severn Street factory site and shops closed for business on the 14th June of that year.

Since the winding down of the factory in the early years of the 21st century, and its final closure in 2009, much of the site has been sold off for mixed-use re-development, such that the surviving section of the works amounts to only c.15% of its extent at its peak.  Many of the more significant 19th-century buildings, including the Slip House range, Bone Mill, Throwing House, Parian House and Exhibition House have been retained and incorporated into the ongoing redevelopment. 

KILNS - BOTTLE  OVENS

A ‘bottle’ oven was a distinctive, bottle-shaped brick structure in which pottery was coal-fired, prevalent from the early-18th century through to the mid-20th century when they were superceded by cleaner and more energy efficient, gas-fired kilns.  Pottery was fired on a number of occasions during the manufacturing process (biscuit/glost/enamelling), with each stage requiring a slightly different type of oven, though the principals were largely similar, hence the large number of ‘cones’ visible in the later 19th-century depictions of the Worcester manufactory.  Ovens could be free-standing, or contained within ranges with only the upper part of the hovel extending through the roof; both arrangements are apparent in historical views.  They were fired intermittently, being allowed to cool between each cycle, normally once per week.

In essence, a bottle oven comprised two main parts.  The inner part, the oven or kiln proper, was cylindrical in profile with a domed top (‘crown’), brick-built and belted around with iron straps or ‘bonts’ to strengthen the structure as it expanded and contracted during firing.  Around the bottom of the oven were a series of ‘firemouths’ , normally eight, where fires would be lit for the firing, the heat being transferred to the inside of the kiln by a combination of short chimneys (‘bags’) around the circumference and a system of below-ground flues.  The outer shell or ‘hovel’ (the visible, bottle-shaped structure after which the kilns were named) acted essentially as a large chimney, allowing for the escape of smoke while creating draughts for the kiln and protecting the oven from the elements.   

Ovens would be loaded or ‘placed’ with wares, which were contained in ‘saggars’, strong protective cases of refractive fireclay in assorted shapes and sizes appropriate to the different wares.  The preparation of saggars for loading would be undertaken in the ‘placing house’, lying immediately adjacent to the kiln.  The ‘placing’ of the oven was a highly skilled job; saggars would be loaded in a series of vertical stacks (‘bungs’) extending all the way from the floor to the underside of the crown, with different types of ware placed in specific locations to account for variations in temperature.  Once the oven was completely full (an average oven could hold c.2,000 saggars and take up to two days work to ‘set’), the doorway (alternatively the ‘wicket’ or ‘clammins’) would be bricked up and the fires set.  In the case of the biscuit oven, the firing process comprised an initial ‘smoking’ period to drive off any remaining water content from the green-ware followed by a firing period proper at a temperature of c.1,100-1,250°C, the full cycle lasting approximately 3 days.  During the firing process, the oven was monitored constantly by the ‘fireman’ who controlled the draughts and thereby the heat within the kiln by a system of ‘dampers’ in the crown.  Once firing was complete, the ovens were opened, left to cool and then emptied or ‘drawn’.  The full biscuit (first) firing process from placing to drawing could thus last up to a week, though these timescales were somewhat reduced in the case of glost (second) firing, where the firing process in particular was less extended and to a lower temperature.  Enamel-firing was normally undertaken in smaller enamel or ‘muffle’ kilns, requiring a lower temperature again (c.500-800°C); wares were here separated from the flames by a system of flues, but no saggars were required.

 

 

Bank of traditional bottle kilns to ‘Princes Drive’. Open ‘clammins’ of bottle kiln with stored saggars. 
Used with kind permission of the Museum of Royal Worcester

TUNNEL KILNS 

The single most important modification reflecting technical innovation in the early-20th century was the abandonment of traditional, intermittent coal-fired bottle kilns in favour of continuous-cycle, gas-fired tunnel kiln technology.  Research undertaken as early as the 1920s had served to highlight the low efficiency of bottle kilns in the firing process, with only a tiny proportion of the heat generated being transferred to the ware itself, while the vast majority was  lost to the surrounding structure and in combustion, with c.50% literally going ‘up in smoke’.   

Tunnel kilns, as the name indicates, were effectively long, brick-built horizontal ‘tunnels’ along which pottery, loaded onto kiln-cars, was slowly moved, passing through a series of chambers, successively for pre-heating, firing and cooling.   Kiln-cars ran on longitudinal rails and as each new car entered the pre-heating chamber, it would ‘shunt’ the previous one forward, thus slowly progressing it along the length of the tunnel.  The heating of the chambers was closely regulated by independent supplies of gas and air, with only the central ‘firebox’ being directly heated, the pre-heating chamber being fed by recycled heat from the final ‘cooling’ section.  The vastly increased efficiency of the firing system meant that a typical ‘push’ for a single car through the full length of the kiln could be completed in c.18 hours.  At the end of the firing cycle, kiln cars were unloaded and the empty car returned to the loading area by means of a second set of rails running parallel to the kiln.

By design, the tunnel kiln worked on a ‘continuous cycle’ and would operate on a round-the-clock basis, only being shut down for routine maintenance and repair work.  The introduction of tunnel kilns, which were essentially horizontal in their arrangements in contrast to the verticality of traditional bottle kilns, required large, open ranges to accommodate them and thus resulted in fundamental changes in terms of factory planning.  This is most succinctly illustrated by the demolition of the early Chamberlain-era ranges (the ‘tea rooms’ buildings) as part of the immediate post-war reconstruction of the Worcester works and their replacement by a large, open-plan, steel-framed building (initially a saggar house, but having a Riedhammer tunnel kiln introduced at ground floor level in c.1950).

 

1945 saggar house, later accommodating a tunnel kiln. 
Used with kind permission of the Museum of Royal Worcester

 

Riedhammer tunnel kiln, 1950. Absence of saggars to kiln car indicates a secondary ‘glost’ firing-cycle. 
Used with kind permission of the Museum of Royal Worcester

 

Demolition of a bottle kiln. 
Used with kind permission of the Museum of Royal Worcester

CLAY PREPARATION

Clay preparation was undertaken in the mill and slip house which, from the mid-19th century, were located in purpose-built ranges introduced under Kerr and Binns in the early 1850s to the designs of Robert Williams Armstrong, and defining the northern side of the manufactory site.   

The process began in the Mill Range (commonly known as the ‘bone mill’), a large, three-storey building combining boiler room, engine house and mill, together with polishing and grinding rooms.  Reduction of materials was undertaken by revolving grinding-stones set within large, circular iron vats or ‘pans’, 3ft deep and c.10ft in diameter.  On the top floor of the range were the pans for grinding bone, gold and other colours; on the first floor were the pans for flint, feldspar, Cornish stone and for the various glazes, while at ground floor level were the washing pans and below ground storage and settling ‘arks’.  Mills for grinding gypsum to make plaster of Paris, widely used to form moulds for slip-casting, were also located on the ground floor of the mill range.  Materials would be moved between floors by a system of mechanical hoists and internal trapdoors/chutes. The times required to grind the various materials down to the degree of fineness required for the quality of product being made by the company varied from 12 hours to a maximum six days.  Some of the materials, for example flint and bone (required in large quantities for the production of bone china) would be calcined (thermally decomposed) in kilns before grinding.

 

Grinding pans in mill range, c.1900. 
Used with kind permission of the Museum of Royal Worcester

Adjacent to the mill range was the Slip House, where the ground ingredients were combined with water in large tanks, known as ‘arks’ to form a liquid ‘slip’.  Impurities were removed by the use of magnets and a series of mechanical sieves, before excess water was removed in the ‘filter press’ resulting in ‘cakes’ of plastic clay.  The clay was allowed to mature in a clay cellar, being kneaded or ‘wedged’ at regular intervals to remove any remaining air and to create clay of a uniform texture, a physically demanding process that was later superseded with the introduction of the mechanical ‘pug mill’.  The slip house was an intensely utilised space, with a company directors’ report of 1872 recording five different types of clay in preparation, namely parian, bone china, earthenware, vitreous and terracotta.

 

Slip House c.1895 with filter press to left foreground. 
Used with kind permission of the Museum of Royal Worcester

Clay was used in two basic states for pottery production, namely a ‘plastic’ clay for pressing and throwing, and liquid clay used in the slip-casting process.

THROWING AND TURNING

Traditionally, products such as cups and other hollow tablewares would have been produced by throwing, with a guidebook of 1875 recording that ‘plain circular articles are made on the potter’s wheel by the thrower’.   The word ‘throwing’ derives from the Old English word ‘thrawan’ meaning to twist or turn and the process entailed the hand-turning of clay on a traditional potters’ wheel, powered by hand or by mechanical means (steam power transferred by means of ‘line shafting’ and belts). Following on from throwing, a vessel would pass to a ‘turner’ for fine finishing.  

By the mid-19th century, however, much hollow-ware would have been made either by pressing (‘jolleying’) or by slip-casting, processes that would allow for increased accuracy and consistency, with throwing retained only for more complex, individual handcrafted pieces.  As the 1875 guidebook pointed out; ‘the articles formed by the thrower in the presence of visitors are made to show the power and working of the potter’s wheel, but are of no use as manufactured articles, cups being made in moulds and saucers by... flat-pressing’.

PRESSING

Pressing took two distinct forms, flat-pressing and hollow-pressing for simple flat and hollow tableware respectively.  

Flat-ware (plates, saucers etc.) would be formed by the throwing and shaping by hand of a ball of plastic clay (a ‘bat’) over the back of a plaster mould mounted on a revolving, horizontal lathe.  The mould would form the front face of the plate while the back of the piece would be formed by a shaped tool (a ‘profile’), lowered over the back of the rotating clay disc.  Traditionally performed entirely by hand, the process was modified during the course of the 19th century by the introduction of the mechanical ‘jigger’ machine, with lathes powered by means of line-shafting and belt-drives, an innovation that met with initial opposition from the workforce who saw it as a threat to their livelihood.  The process of mechanisation was finally accepted however, and vastly increased the productivity of the pressing process - an experienced ‘jiggerer’ might need three boy attendants and over 600 moulds to work effectively.  

 

Plate-making, c.1920s 
Used with kind permission of the Museum of Royal Worcester

Hollow-ware would be formed by slip-casting or by a process essentially similar to jiggering, known as ‘jolleying’.  In the latter, the clay ‘bat’ would be pressed into a hollow plaster mould and the profile tool lowered into the inside of the rotating vessel, squeezing out excess clay.

In both flat and hollow-pressing, the finished piece, complete with mould, would be set aside on ‘stillages’ to dry out to a ‘green’ state, during which process the clay vessel would shrink away from the mould, ready for a first or ‘biscuit’ firing.  

SLIP-CASTING

Slip-casting was the process used to form more complex hollow-ware forms or delicate work.  It was distinct from throwing or pressing in that it used clay in its fluid state (‘slip’) as opposed to its more solid, ‘plastic’ form.  The liquid slip, somewhat the consistency of a thick cream, would be poured into a two-part, plaster of Paris mould of the form of the finished vessel.  As soon as the mould was full, the porous plaster would begin to absorb water from the slip and a skin of clay would form against the surface of the mould.  By setting the mould aside for a set period of time, closely monitored and dependent upon the form and size of the vessel being made, the thickness of the ‘set’ clay, and thus of the body of the piece, could be controlled.  At this point the remaining, superfluous slip would be drained off for re-use.  The mould would be set aside for a further stage of drying before the being opened up to reveal the formed vessel which would, at this stage, be ‘leather’ hard.  After drying overnight, ‘fettling’ and ‘sponging’ would remove any trace of the mould-lines left over from the casting process and the vessel would be ready for its first or ‘biscuit’ firing.  

DECORATING

Once vessels had been subjected to their first firing, known as ‘biscuit’ firing, wares would be dipped in glaze in the ‘dipping house’ and allowed to dry in an adjacent, heated drying room or ‘hothouse’.  Once dry, the wares would be put through a second firing cycle, known as ‘glost’ firing to produce ‘white ware’.  Separate stores for products at various stages of the production process would be known as ‘green-ware house’, ‘biscuit house’, ‘glost-ware house’,  ‘white-warehouse’ etc.  

Decoration would be undertaken in long, open workshops, with artists positioned at benches ranged against the external walls to take advantage of natural light.  Designs were worked up in coats of differing colours, created from metal oxides (copper, cobalt, gold, iron etc.) and prepared in the adjacent colour-shop, while fine details and gilding would be added in a separate workshop.  The application of even and accurate gold ‘banding’ to circular vessels was achieved by the use of special ‘banding wheels’, small tables or stands with revolving, heads.  Decorating was a highly skilled job, and painters were trained from as young as 14 years of age.

 

 The Decorating Department, c.1900 note banding tables.
Used with kind permission of the Museum of Royal Worcester

The advent of transfer printing (also known as lithography) in the mid-18th century was a significant development that enabled decorative porcelain production to be undertaken on a large scale.  ‘Master’ designs were engraved onto copper plates, valuable items that were stored in a secure vault.  The plates were coated with a monotint colour, applied with a pad, and mounted in a ‘mangle’ type press together with a sheet of wetted tissue paper.  The plate and tissue were passed between two heavy rollers, the upper roller being covered with a thick flannel, thus fixing the pattern onto the paper.  Each segment of the design would then be cut out and applied to the ware as required; the remnants of the tissue were then removed leaving the pattern applied to the ware.  Work in this department was traditionally divided by gender, with men undertaking the printing and women applying the prints to the wares.

 

 

Transfer Printing (Litho) Department, c.1920s (note gender division of labour). 
Used with kind permission of the Museum of Royal Worcester

PRODUCT TYPES

Bone China 

A type of hybrid ‘hard-paste’ porcelain composed of calcined bone ash (50%, derived from animal bone), feldspar (‘china stone’, 25%) and kaolin (‘china clay’, 25%).  It produces an extremely hard, intensely white, translucent ware.  Pioneered by Thomas Frye at Bow, London, bone china was first commercially developed by Josiah Spode of Stoke-on-Trent in the early 1790s and subsequently went on to become a staple product of most of the major English potteries.   

Vitreous China

A glass-based enamel coating applied to porcelain after firing, making it tougher, denser and shinier, the word vitreous means ‘glass-like’, describing the high-gloss finish.

Earthenware 

A lightly-fired pottery, normally fired at a temperature below 1200°C, universally used for tableware in Europe prior to the 17th century.  Comprising 25% ball clay, 25% china clay, 35% ground flint and 15% china stone, wares were slightly porous after its first ‘biscuit’ firing, and were made waterproof by the application of a slip or of a clear glaze, traditionally based on tin, lead or salt, tin-glazed pottery being generally known as ‘faience’.

Parian ware 

A type of single-fired bisque pottery, unglazed and imitating marble, developed in the mid-19th century by Mintons of Stoke-on-Trent, and named after the Greek island of Paros, known for its fine textured marble.  Extensively used for ornamental figures and sometimes known as ‘statuary porcelain’.

Terracotta

Terracotta (meaning ‘baked earth’) is a type of porous, generally unglazed earthenware widely used in sculptured objects or more utilitarian products such as floor tiles.

 
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