The grand pottery firm with its roots right here south of the River Thames

The headquarters of Doulton & Co, one of the country’s most famous ceramics companies, can still be seen in Lambeth. It was renamed Royal Doulton in 1911 as the very ill Edward VII gave the firm its royal charter, and swallowed up a string of other firms in the area.
But the company had made its name by coming up with one good product at just the right time. Its ceramic drainpipes were made from the 1850s – just as London needed massive drainage and sewerage following the mid-century cholera scares.
TOBY PORTER reveals how its business boomed – and then declined in the 1950s, and then disappeared because of pollution laws.

Pottery firm Doulton had 4,000 staff at the death of Queen Victoria.

It would soon be called Royal Doulton – but it had made its name from sewage pipes.

To make your name with drain pipes and water closets and then to diversify into decorated vases, ‘art’ pottery and fine china was quite a feat. But it was so successful, Lambeth was dominated by the pottery industry until the 1950s.

But domination did not save it from decline. By the 1950s the London operation was closing down and the magnificent Italianate factory buildings and chimney that lined the Albert Embankment were pulled down.

Half a century on, it’s hard to find much evidence of Doulton’s dominance of the area as manufacturer and employer, apart from the lavishly decorated former display building on the corner of Lambeth High Street and Black Prince Road.

The surviving part of Doulton’s works in Black Prince Road, Lambeth, which closed in 1956.

The White Hart Draw Dock at the bottom of Black Prince Road is the last reminder of the huge volume of river traffic that the industry created, with clay being barged in and finished goods being barged out.

The firm, which had once been an industrial giant, was created by John Doulton, Martha Jones and John Watts as Doulton.

In 1815, the year of the Battle of Waterloo, they bought – with £100 – an interest in an existing factory at Vauxhall Walk, Lambeth, where Mr Watts was the foreman.

Initially the company specialised in salt glaze stoneware, including rudimentary or decorative bottles, jugs and jars, most of them for pubs.

In 1826 they took over a larger existing pottery in Lambeth High Street. But the breakthrough came in 1846 with a totally different type of product – circular ceramic sewage pipes.

It was the first company to do so, and was to become highly successful at it. Before then sewers were just made of brick, and began to leak as they aged.

The 1846–1860 cholera pandemic eventually led to a scientific breakthrough by Dr John Snow.

He discovered an outbreak near a water pump in Broad Street in the City of London. A pump’s water supply used by most of the infected patients was contaminated by sewage.

A Doulton vase from 1874

That led to a huge programme of improving sewage disposal, and other forms of drainage using pipes. These, and an expanding range of builders’ and sanitary wares, remained a bedrock of Doulton into the 20th century.

But the company soon expanded and diversified.

The so-called ‘Lambeth faience’ from 1872 was “a somewhat heavily-potted creamware used for decorative plaques and vases”.

The year before, Henry Doulton, John’s son, launched a studio at the Lambeth pottery, and offered work to designers and artists from the nearby Lambeth School of Art.

Most of the Lambeth studio pieces were signed by the artist or artists.

The great years of Doulton’s art stoneware were 1870-1900 – and that pottery is the sort of thing which remains very popular with collectors – the kind of artefacts which are likely to pull in the crowds on the Antiques Roadshow.

By 1897 the total employees exceeded 4,000. Doulton also made architectural terracotta, mainly at Lambeth, and would execute commissions for monumental sculpture in terracotta.

In 1901 King Edward VII awarded the Stoke factory the Royal Warrant, and it became Royal Doulton.

Sir Henry Doulton’s tomb in West Norwood cemetery.

Figurines in fashionable styles became big sellers – for example a series of young girls in bathing costumes, in a mild version of Art Deco.

Figures continued to be important throughout the 20th century, but the peak of quality in modelling and painting was between the world wars.

The headquarters building and factory of Royal Doulton were in Black Prince Road, Lambeth, on the south bank of the Thames.

It is a listed Grade-II building with a beautiful frontage of decorative tiling, designed by TP Bennett.

In 1939 Gilbert Bayes created the friezes that showed the history of pottery, and potters and Sir Henry Doulton through the ages.

But by the end of the Second World War, the whole English pottery industry was losing ground.

Doulton’s purchases of other companies was not enough to stem decline.

The Lambeth factory closed in 1956 due to clean air regulations preventing urban production of salt glaze.

Work was transferred to The Potteries. The factory building was demolished in 1978 and the friezes transferred to the Victoria & Albert Museum.

Royal Doulton Ltd, along with other Waterford Wedgwood companies, went into administration on January 5, 2009.

It is now part of WWRD Holdings Limited.

Some items are now made just south of Stoke. Further production is carried out in Indonesia.

 


 

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