It was a London mystery to rival anything solved by Sherlock Holmes. For decades, there had been a growing interest in Bow Pottery, a mark to sit alongside the more famous Wedgewoods and Meissens. But the location of Thomas Frye’s Bow works remained a mystery. All changed in the last few weeks when the curators at Bow’s Nunnery Gallery got together with dogged local historian Phil Mernick. A little architectural history along the Bow Road, combined with poring over 18th century maps of the area, finally uncovered the whereabouts of the East End’s own porcelain works.
As long as Europeans had been journeying to the Far East, they had been entranced by the fine ceramic pots and plates they discovered there — a far cry from the crude wooden trencher from which a medieval Englishman would (if he was lucky) eat his dinner. So desirable and sought-after did the material become that the English even began to call it ‘China’, after the country of origin, rather than using the French-Italian. But as increasing quantities of chinaware came in to London, much of it on the ships of the East India Company, enterprising English merchants started wondering ‘How is it made?’
Because imported china was hideously expensive. And so began a series of experiments around Europe — with varying degrees of success. The first Chinese porcelain dates from as early as the Han Dynasty, a couple of hundred years AD. They had discovered the secret of superheating clay until it transmuted into glass, giving the characteristic mix of translucence and toughness. More than a millennium later, even the geniuses of Renaissance Italy couldn’t crack the recipe — Medici porcelain, in 16th century Florence, proved both too soft and too opaque. Pot makers in the Saxon town of Colditz were similarly baffled.
But an enterprising pair of Londoners decided to have a go. Thomas Frye was a Dublin man, born in 1710, but had moved to London to make his living as a portraitist in 1734. He was a gifted miniaturist, engraver and expert in mezzotinting and enamel work, and one of his first commissions was to paint the Prince of Wales, for the Saddlers’ Company.
But Frye was also a keen inventor and in his experiments with china clay he discovered a method of making porcelain out of bone ash. In 1744, Frye and his partner, Edward Heylen took out a patent for the production of artificial soft-paste porcelain. The inventors and manufacturers of porcelain in England called their product “New Canton”, a nod to the pottery from the Far East with which they hoped to compete. The pair needed a backer, and found one in the rich and powerful Peers family, directors of the East India Company, and owners of large tracts of land around Bromley, Bow and Stratford. Court deeds of 1744 record Edward Heylen buying a property on the London side of the River Lea, at Bow.
The purists were rather sniffy about Frye and Heylen’s attempts to compete with Meissen and Ming. Describing their tableware as “the more ordinary sorts of ware for common use”. Another called Bow porcelain “a peasant art which appeals to an unacademic sense of beauty rather than taste.” A later critic said that “The wares of Bow do not, even in the years of Frye’s association with the factory, show much consistency either in design or in execution”. To be fair, the pair were blazing a trail. The Chelsea Porcelain Manufactory had opened the year before, but the more famous marques of Wedgewood, Derby and Worcester were still a decade or so away. And business was good.. By 1750, Frye and Heylen were in partnership with John Wetherby and John Crowther, who owned a wholesale pottery business at St Katherine by the Tower. An account of the business returns for a period of five years shows that the cash receipts, £6,573 in 1750-1, increased steadily from year to year, hitting £11,229 in 1755. The firm took a shop in Cornhill, selling chinaware to wealthy City merchants.
But despite his success Frye was still toiling long hours in the factory furnaces as well as designing new lines. Eventually the long hours and gruelling work took their toll. Frye died in 1762, at the age of just 52. He is buried in Hornsey Churchyard, in north London. The work went on, but without his driving force and energy, quality slipped. Their was another 13 years of production at Bow, but towards the end products were underfired and lacked their earlier translucence and in 1776 the works closed.Frye’s legacy remains. His processes changed pottery forever and one of his daughters went on to work for Wedgewood. And the fact you will still find Bow porcelain today – tough enough to last 250 years – is testament to Frye’s vision.
But for 250 years, the whereabouts of the Bow manufactory remained a mystery — until the team at Bow Arts’ Nunnery’s Gallery decided to do some digging. The Heritage Lottery Fund provided the backing for three artists — Lizzie Cannon, Felicity Hammond and Mathew Weir — to develop their own work inspired by Bow porcelain. The artists also hooked up with year 5 children from Park Primary School in Stratford, who produced their own designs while exploring the history of their local area’.You can see the results of their research and experimentation in the Made in Bow exhibition at The Nunnery.
Enter renowned local historian Phil Mernick. He told the team that the original factory would have been just beyond Bow Bridge, but that the site of the first experiments was possibly in the backyard of a house. Some reports have these happening in the backyard of a rectory opposite Bow Church, and in the late 1740s, records have the rectory being converted into a workhouse. A stroll down Bow Road yielded some clues, including one building obviously older than its neighbours. Phil went back to his sources and located the Bow Workhouse on a 1799 map. At that time it had a long garden going back to what is now Grove Hall Park. Checking the location against modern maps, the factory is pinned down to what would have been 209-11 Bow Road. You can find it today next to Unity Tyre, at 213-217. A marvellous piece of detective work, though Phil — modest as ever — dismisses his work in three words, calling it: ‘old-fashioned research’.
No legend mark the spot, and the name of Bow Porcelain isn’t up there with Derby, Wedgewood or Spode … time for Tower Hamlets to commission a plaque of its own perhaps.
Bow Arts Trust,183 Bow Road, London. E3 2SJ.
+44 (0)20 8980 7774
- British History Online: http://www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=22166#n17
- Nunnery’s ‘Made in Bow’ project: www.bowporcelain.wordpress.com
- Bowporcelain.net: www.bowporcelain.net/research-topics-6-10