This is one of a series of articles published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 15th July 1996 (p.1 & p.3), and reproduced by kind permission of its author, Julie Bunting.

The series is now available as a fully-illustrated paperback, published in 2006 by Wildtrack Publishing of Sheffield (ISBN 1-904098-01-0)


Any item made from baked clay is a form of pottery, whether as heavy as paving stones or as delicate and fragile as fine crockery. The potter's art has been practised by nearly every race since before the dawn of history, in nearly every corner of the world. It was vital to the advance of civilisation yet depended on only two simple basics - ample supplies of clay and fuel for firing.

The Chinese claim that pottery making was discovered around 2,700 BC by Emperor Hwang Tsi, who taught it to his people. This precious gift earned him a place amongst the Gods. According to Greek myth the world's first potter was Keramos (hence our word ceramic), son of the God Dionysus and Ariadne, daughter of King Minos of Crete.

Prehistoric production was known across Europe. Ancient vessels of burnt clay have been found in many sites in the Peak District, being particularly associated with burials of the Bronze Age 'Beaker Folk' on Stanton Moor. Coarser types of pottery are generally described as earthenware, as opposed to the fine, translucent porcelain.

Many kinds of clay can be used for earthenware, burning reddish or brownish in colour and always opaque. Clays have to be cleaned and purified before being shaped into vessels either by 'throwing' on a wheel or by moulding. After being baked, or fired, in a kiln the vessel might require glazing to stop porosity. The glazing on Roman pots found in kilns at Derby racecourse has found to contain lead, probably mined in the Peak.

Commercial production of English pottery really got under way after the secret of manufacturing salt-glaze stoneware was discovered in 1671 by John Dwight of Fulham, who held patent rights until 1698. The raw material was a very siliceous clay, fired at extremely high temperatures. The glaze was produced by throwing common salt into the kiln during firing. With the expiry of Dwight's patent, numerous salt-glaze potworks sprang into business and the Peak was well served by several on its outskirts, including one at Crich. This was established by brothers John and George Dodd, later joined by another brother, Richard, a mug maker. All three became Burgesses of the City of Nottingham.

Other manufacturers set up at Chesterfield, Alfreton, Belper and Derby. Brown stoneware was common to them all, used for a vast array of everyday kitchen ware such as cooking pots and storage jars, teapots, jugs, water filters and jelly moulds.


Porcelain, on the other hand, was too expensive to be found in ordinary homes. The secret of its raw material - kaolin, a fine white clay - was not even discovered in Europe until 1701, whereas the Chinese had been making porcelain for well over a thousand years. In the 10th century, one of their emperors had demanded the teacups 'as blue as the sky, as clear as a mirror, as thin as paper, as resonant as a musical bell'. The Chinese guarded the secret of the translucency of porcelain very jealously. By 1100, some of their exquisite work had been brought back to Europe by Crusaders and it was worth more than its weight in gold. All three became Burgesses of the City of

The first true European porcelain was made in Germany in the early 18th century. Around 1755, 'china clay' was found in Cornwall and very soon porcelain was being produced at Plymouth and further afield.

Suitable clays were eagerly sought and although the geology of the Peak made the region an unlikely source, the following reference was noted in A View of the present state of Derbyshire (Pilkington, 1798): 'porcelain clay of a most delicate white colour and a very fine texture (is got) from a lead mine at Brassington ... what is gotten at present is sent to the potteries in Staffordshire. Also At Newhaven a very fine potters-clay may be had'.

It has been suggested that the Brassington source prompted the establishment of a china works operated in Wirksworth from about 1772 until 1777. In recent years, researchers have pieced together the history of this lone example of china manufacture in the Peak. It came into being through the partnership of Sir Thomas Burdett of Foremark, the Hurts of Alderwasley, Mr. Julius Caesar Robiglio and the Gells of the Gatehouse and Hopton. Philip Gell was the owner of Holland Manor House in Wirksworth, in the grounds of which the new venture began in 1772.

Surviving documents of the next few years indicate the variety of wares manufactured on the site: bowls, cream jugs, teapots, sauce-boats, perfume jars, egg jars, plates, cups and saucers, pepper boxes and mustard pots. Ornamental items are sometimes referred to, as in an invoice from J.C. Stephan, dated 18 August 1773:'

'to Modelling - a flower Pott
Ditto - a Sfinks jar3.3.0
Ditto - a Beaker1.11.6
Ditto - two Dogs0.11.6

Other invoices contain detail such as pedestals ornamented with rams heads and flower jars ornamented with heads and horns, or with women's faces, while some payments relate to hand-painted decoration.

The father of John Charles Stephan was Pierre Stephan, well-known for figures which he modelled at Derby. In May 1774, Stephan senior, writing to Josiah Wedgewood, mentioned having been earlier engaged with the Wirksworth china factory but now would 'be glad have an Opportunity of being Employ 'd by persons of taste and merrits which I hear is the Character of your Manufactory ...'

Wedgewood himself made an interesting entry in his Common Place Book in 1775: 'A China work - lately begun at Wirksworth - by Mr. Gell of Hopton, who has lately made some use of a fine white Clay, found near Brassington in Derbyshire, first in an estate of Mr. Haynes of Ashburn, and afterwards in other adjoining lands ... It is found in low lands, & black soil - about 12 yards and at other depths, - in small lumps, amongst inferior clays & other earths, - and so uncertain, & in such small quantities, as to be worth £10 per ton raising'.

If the Wirksworth factory depended on these sparse supplies, it is not surprising that production was short-lived. In May 1777, the following advertisement appeared in the Derby Mercury: 'To be sold ... On Wednesday the 18th day of this present month of May A great number of elegant Plaister Moulds for Tureens, Plates, Dishes, Sauce boats in Sets, Tea Services and Equipages with all other sorts requisite for a Manufactory or Pot Work. A few very fine large Figures, Vases Urns Lamps exquisitely moulded; Throwing Wheels, lathes and all other instruments necessary. A quantity of Zaffer, Borax Red Lead, Lynn Sand Whiting Umber & Salts with some fine fritt ready made. Enquire of Mrs. Dickins, the Three Crowns, Wirksworth where a person will attend to these, the above article & treat for the same'.

Six months after the dispersal sale, the buildings, warehouses and workshops 'heretofore used for the making and manufacture of China ware' were leased to Richard Arkwright of Cromford.

The site, off St. Mary's Gate, is still known by the name of China Yard. Although pieces of 'Wirksworth china' have been handed down in local families, the absence of a manufacturer's mark has made it almost impossible to attribute them with certainty. Therefore our knowledge of styles and patterns is elusive. Some fragments found on the site have been lost but a small number were presented to the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1938. Wirksworth Heritage Centre is fortunate in having a cup and saucer, in addition to a hand-written bill, in its display relating to the china factory.

© Julie Bunting
From "The Peak Advertiser", 15th July 1996.

Articles by Julie Bunting are reproduced with her kind permission.

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