History of the factory, its Directors and personnel

Pilkington's Lancastrian Pottery & Tiles.

In 1889 the Clifton and Kersley coal company sank a pair of pit shafts with the intention of working the coal seams lying adjacent to the geological feature known as the Pendleton fault.

However, the work was made increasingly difficult because of the excessive quantity of clay that was encountered. It became clear that the work would not produce coal. The owners, Alfred, Charles, Lawrence and Edward Pilkington, decided to use the marl that had been encountered to make white and coloured glazed bricks.

By a fortunate chance the secretary of the coal company knew a Mr. William Burton who was a chemist with Josiah Wedgwood & Co. Mr. Burton undertook to make tests of the marl and suggested that a more commercial venture would be to make tiles. The use of decorative tiles was becoming quite fashionable and there was a high demand for them in the growing city of Manchester. (In fact the clay was not suitable for this purpose. In the end the clay was only used to make saggars to contain pottery during firing and a small volume of floor tiles.)  

The site of the proposed factory had many natural advantages. It was adjacent to a canal. It was close by a railway station and of course there was abundant coal nearby in the local Wet Earth Colliery. William Burton was in his late twenties when he became the Manager of the new company. However, he was under contract to Wedgwood until October 1892. He suggested that the company should appoint his younger brother Joseph, also a qualified chemist. Joseph's contract was dated December 1891 and Joseph became the "eyes and ears" for his brother. William did not move to Clifton until well into 1893.

William Burton had enormous drive and charisma and soon attracted many of the most gifted artists and craftsmen to the new company.

The debt to its artists is recorded in many works of appreciation. In the early days much of the tile design and the excellent quality was owed to John Chambers. A tile modeller, Joseph Kwiatkowski, was also a major contributor. The principal early external contributors to the firm were well known artists of their time. Internationally renowned artists were employed including Walter Crane Alphonse Mucha and C.F.A. Voysey. Crane's most notable tile designs - "Flora's Train" - may be seen at the V&A Museum. Tile designs and, later, vases were illustrated in The Studio magazine and other art journals.

Lewis F. Day was responsible for numerous early tile designs and was held in considerable esteem in the late Victorian art establishment. 

William Burton over a long career was recognised as one of the foremost authorities on pottery and matters to do with pottery. The influences on the young Burton were varied. In particular the work of Bernard Moore and the production of flambé ware should be mentioned. Other links with Oriental pottery abound. Burton recounts that the introduction of pottery to the firm was in order to show off the number of new and fine glazes that had been discovered and which the flat surface of tiles did not really do any justice. (The Wedgwood archives reflect the work of William Burton in glaze experimentation, especially lustre glazes.)

The first items of pottery were glaze experiments using ware made by the Firth family of potters in Kirkby Lonsdale - an example of this ware may be seen in the Peter Scott Gallery at Lancaster University.

Burton employed many fine craftsmen. Perhaps the most famous of these was Edward Thomas Radford. Radford was a thrower of pots and had almost magical ability. It is widely recorded that he could throw a pot of large size and then, with the benefit of hand and eye only, fashion a lid to fit it exactly. Radford threw huge pieces of pottery. He was also capable of work of the utmost delicacy. Salford Museum & Art Gallery has examples of small vases no more than an inch and a half (4cm) tall made by Radford to amuse the Pilkingtons' young children. So famous was Radford that towards the end of his career he gave demonstrations of pottery throwing in Hayward's china merchants in Manchester. In later years Radford signed the pots he threw with the initials "ETR". Some examples of these can be found amongst pieces in the museums mentioned on this web site.

If Radford was the craftsman par excellence then the artists and designers that Burton employed were of a similar standing.

The company chose the name LANCASTRIAN for the new ware because it was sited in the county of Lancashire. At a later date some of the more famous glazes took their name from Manchester and hence "Cunian" glazes were named. Other glazes were used, e.g., sunstone and flambé glazes, streaky and curdled glazes and fiery crystalline and aventurines. The discovery of these glazes is meticulously recorded by Abraham Lomax, the works’ chemist, in his book Royal Lancastrian Pottery.

In particular two glazes were used in quantity. An orange vermillion glaze became the trademark of Lancastrian ware. It was very fashionable (especially as an Art Deco colour). A kingfisher blue glaze was developed which also became a standard colour.

Not just content with glaze effects Pilkington’s also produced glazes of different textures. These fruit skin glazes had surfaces like orange peel or apricot. They were first shown commercially at the 1904 exhibition in the galleries of Henry Graves, London. However, it was lustre (1906) pottery which made Pilkington's world famous.

It is in the quality of the artists that Pilkington’s' really surpassed all others. Writing in the American Pottery Gazette Arthur Veel Rose (pottery expert for Tiffany and Co.) stated:

"The novel and beautiful glazes of Pilkington’s Lancastrian Pottery made at Clifton Junction Manchester, have paved the way for what promises to be the most wonderful lustred-pottery the world has ever seen."

Of the pottery artists who worked at the factory several had reputations that brought the firm many international awards and enormous prestige.

Walter Crane designed several notable vases, in particular "The Sea Maiden" and "Bon Accorde".

Richard Joyce, Gordon Forsyth, Charles Cundall, Gwladys Rodgers, W.S. Mycock, Dorothy Dacre, Jessie Jones and Annie Burton are the most well-known. Their work is held in many museums. Information on each of these artists is in A.J. Cross's book Pilkington's Royal Lancastrian Pottery and Tiles (Dennis, 1980).

A complete modern history of the tile company is given in our own work Pilkington’s Tiles 1891 – 2010 (Pilkington’s Lancastrian Pottery Society, 2013).

Perhaps the peak of the early period was Pilkington's stand at the Franco British Exhibition in 1908.

In 1913 King George V and Queen Mary visited Lord Derby where several Lancastrian vases were proudly displayed. It was then that permission was granted for the Royal Warrant to be used and the pottery was renamed Royal Lancastrian.

Burton insisted that all artist decorated pieces were marked with the artist’s name. All pieces, even plain glazes, were stamped with a factory mark, year of potting and many also had a shape number.

Whilst Pilkington’s pottery was unique there was a price to pay and that was the high cost of production. The firing of lustre pieces is not a precise science even now. It was much more variable when the company began. The cost of Pilkington's most expensive pottery pieces would be beyond the pocket of many people. They relied upon sales of their ordinary wares to middle class homes and their lustre wares to more affluent patrons. An ordinary vase would be almost a week’s wage and the bigger lustres equal to a month’s wage.

After the First World War sales became slower and several of the artists left. However, in 1928 the discovery of a new glaze had the short-term effect of lifting production. Lapis ware was so named after the appearance it had of Lapis Lazuli.

Lapis was an entirely different glaze. The colours of lapis are soft and the edges of patterns are blurred. Gwladys Rodgers chiefly took up this decoration.

In 1938 the firm closed its pottery production because of falling sales and the loss of particular artists.

Production restarted in 1948 but by then the kilns used to produce lustre ware had been demolished. The new pottery was very much of a 1950s style. Production did not last long and ceased in 1957/8. A last, brief and final attempt in Blackpool was made in 1973 but by then the resemblance to its illustrious past had been lost altogether.

Pilkington’s tiles continued until 2010 when it closed following the economic crash.

A. & B. Corbett 2020