The Closure of Ruskin Pottery and the Mysterious Journey of the Showroom Pots and Stock
In December of 1933, Ruskin Pottery ceased production, which had lasted thirty five years. William Howson Taylor was suffering from prostate cancer, which claimed the lives of his father in 1912 and his brother in 1932. Taylor did not have the energy, nor the enthusiasm to continue producing his wares.
On December 1st, an article published in the Pottery Gazette confirmed the closure of the factory. Within the article Taylor stated he had not had a holiday since the start of the business and was now going to return to the countryside, to enjoy one of his favourite pastimes- gardening. The article also stated the selling of stock would commence as soon as the factory shut its doors. In fact, the selling of stock would last for fifty years as Fernyhough took over the mantle. Wages continued to be paid to Ruskin Pottery employees, out of Taylor’s loyalty and kindness, up to the closure of the factory at the end of 1933.
The reappearance of Florence Tilley on 19th November 1933, to assist Taylor through his terminal illness, was an indication that pottery production had come to an end. Tilley, a former employee, had left hastily for America in 1907. It was reported that she had been engaged to William Taylor, but his father Edward Taylor disapproved and the engagement was called off.
Tilley left Britain in June 1907 on the SS Baltic, arriving in New York on the 5th July. and was accompanied by Percy H. Pike, travelling under the name of Henry Andrews, each carrying a fund of £200. Pike had also doctored his birth certificate to Percy Atherley. The couple would go on to have two children, Harold Cecil Atherley in 1909 and Phillip Morton Atherley in 1912. It is believed that Taylor had financially supported Tilley’s journey to the States and her stay there.
Planning for his retirement must have been on Taylor’s mind for several years. In December 1931, a local builder in Smethwick William Lee, purchased two houses on Oldbury Road adjacent to the Ruskin Pottery factory. Lee refurbished houses 171 and 172 which he had bought for £333 and sold them both to Taylor for £1100 in May 1932. These properties belonged to his late friend Isaac Pitt and his wife, where he lived and undertook this business. Taylor commemorated his friend with a plaque, which was placed in the centre of the two buildings. A peal of eight bells were installed in 1924 at St Paul’s Church, Smethwick, in memory of Dr Isaac Pitt who practised as a doctor in the Parish for 60 years. One of the bells was inscribed with ‘IM ISAAC PITT 1924’.
Taylor’s new showroom would be erected in the front room of 171 Oldbury Road, with displayed cases made by Edmond’s of Constitution Hill. House 172 would be leased out to Tilley’s brother Harold Richard and his wife Hannah Annetta Gittins.
On the 1st December 1933 the following article appeared in the Pottery and Glass Trade Gazette:
We feel sure that there will be many old-established dealers having connections with high class pottery who will learn with extreme regret of the impending closing down of a distinguished pottery studio which served its day and generation with credit to itself and real satisfaction to its clientele. We refer to the Ruskin Pottery of Mr W. Howson Taylor, West Smethwick, near Birmingham.
We have always entertained a very high regard for the productions of this concern, and we ourselves, quite as much as any of the actual members of this distributing trades, are indeed sorry to learn that the manufacture of the famous “Ruskin” ware will shortly come to a definite termination.
We are informed by Mr W. Howson Taylor that it is his firm intention to retire from the business at the end of the present year, and the concern will then be closed down, except the showroom at the works will be retained until such time as the stock on hand is cleared. If however, we know anything of “Ruskin” ware at all, we imagine that it will not be long before that happens.
No excuse will be necessary at such a juncture as this if we recapitulated something of the history of the Ruskin Pottery, the memory of which is destined, we believe, to live on in connections with the memoirs of twentieth century pottery. Studio potters, it is true, come and go; but there are some who leave behind them an ineffaceable mark, and the Ruskin Pottery, to our way of thinking, is one of these.
It was the year 1898- just about thirty-five years ago- that Ruskin Pottery was started by Mr William Howson Taylor, whose father, the late Mr. Edward R. Taylor, was about to relinquish at that time his position as principal of the Birmingham School of Art. As to the prime reasons for the commencement of the venture, there are some definitely interesting underlying facts of which, perhaps, not everyone may be aware.
The truth of the matter was that the late Edward R. Taylor was himself of direct lineal descent from a long line of potters. To be precise, he came from Staffordshire, and his sires had been connected with, and associates of, some illustrious master potters of a very interesting period of pottery development. His father was William Taylor-one of a group of mid-nineteenth century Staffordshire potters whose names were associated with the manufacture of that once famous brand of earthenware known as “Ironstone”.
We believe-though we are not absolutely sure that Mr. William Taylor operated for a while on his own at a pottery in Brook-St, Hanley, where he manufactured earthenware chiefly
for the Australian market. He was certainly in the running with the potters of his day, and it is worth noting that one of his best friends was the son of the famous Enoch Woods of Burslem (grandson of Ralph Woods, of Staffordshire figure fame).
Mr. Edward R. Taylor’s forte definitely lay in the field of art, and, although he started to work for at his father’s pottery, it was not long before his artistic leanings asserted themselves and he induced his father to release him from the pottery in order that he might study the rudiments of art at the Burslem School of Art. There he made conspicuous progress, and subsequently passed on to South Kensington, where, be it noted, his studies were advanced in the company of such men as Oliver Lodge and the father of Rudyard Kipling. All three were at South Kensington together.
From South Kensington, Mr. Edward Taylor went to Lincoln School of Art, and in 1878 took up the head mastership of the Birmingham School of Art, the first school of art to be taken over by a municipality. It was some twenty years later that he decided to start his son, Mr.
W. Howson Taylor- then a young man in his early twenties- in business as a studio potter at West Smethwick. For some time Mr. Edward Taylor gave his son the benefit of his invaluable help and advice, and he maintained the warmest interest in the development of “Ruskin” pottery until his death in 1912.
During the fourteen years Mr. W. Howson Taylor had the advantage of his father’s advice and cooperation, as well as during the twenty-one years that have since elapsed since Mr. Edward Taylor’s death, it has been a definite aim at the Ruskin Pottery to produce not merely a particular make of studio pottery but a brand combining sound artistic qualities with a real measure of technique. “Ruskin” pottery, from the beginning, was a product of real experimentation. The mere covering of clay with colour and glaze was not deemed to be sufficient; what was aimed at was vitrification effects, the utilisation of special metallic colours capable of withstanding real high temperatures- pottery that could be classed, in the fullest sense of the term, as “true” pottery. We have always regarded Mr. Howson Taylor as more of a chemist-potter than aught else, and we were always eager, when viewing his sample range from time to time, to inspect the new and beautiful effects to which his experiments were frequently rewarded.
Pottery dealers will have good grounds to remember the wonderful colours which Mr. Howson Taylor produced in the earlier years of his concern- the beautiful blues, greens and yellows, and combinations of several of these colours, to say nothing of a delightful turquoise. Similarly, who could forget his productions in peach bloom, sang-de-boeuf and related flambé and crystalline effects, with which he scored so many successes at the leading National and International Exhibitions which took place periodically up to the commencement of the Great War.
At many of the leading exhibitions from Brussels in 1910 (where Mr. Howson Taylor secured a grand prix) down to the Paris Exhibition of Decorative Arts in 1925- to say
nothing of the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley and others of a more commercial kind in between- we saw and took note of the various developments in “Ruskin” ware as they came along, and in the memory of that we shall certainly feel a sense of loss when the manufacture of this particular brand of ware ceases.
Mr Howson Taylor has now decided to retire, and we understand that, immediately Christmas has turned, he will reside in the country, there to pursue his love of the beautiful through the medium of gardening- his favourite hobby. Horticulture may be the richer by Mr. Howson Taylor’s decision, but ornamental pottery will assuredly lose by it; and to that extent we regret having to take leave of him.
It goes without saying that we shall merely be one of a large number who will wish Mr. Howson Taylor every happiness for his future life, and good health and many years in front of him to enjoy those quieter pursuits which shortly be his.
In conclusion, we will remind our readers that there is still time to make purchases of “Ruskin” Pottery but the opportunity of doing so is likely to be of short duration. Need more be said? “
The early 1930s had proven difficult, when staff had been reduced through deaths and others leaving the establishment. After firing the remainder of the biscuit ware and selling off the stock, the factory closed Christmas 1933. Within three weeks of closure, Howson Taylor married. He knew too well that his time was short.
On the 10th January 1934 William Howson Taylor, aged fifty seven, married Florence Tilley on her fifty-first birthday at the Birmingham Registry Office. The Tilley family members attended but there were no Taylor family members invited. The register was signed W.H Taylor batchelor, Florence Taylor spinster and the marriage certificate was prepared. The witnesses were Florence’s brother Frank and his wife Elizabeth Ellen.
An exhibition of Ruskin Pottery started on the 11th January 1934 held at Chamberlain Square. Seventy pieces were exhibited ‘specially chosen for their superb form and colour; the fire pieces of flambe in sang-de-boeuf, peach bloom and other magnificent colours.’ Description of pieces include an oatmeal caddy, a crushed strawberry vase, a Beaker shaped vase, snake-skin, Shagreen vase, moonlight blue vase, ivory bowl and a green and ivory vase.
Interviewed by the Evening Despatch, who also took photographs of him with some of the exhibits, Howson Taylor told the reporter that the greyness was present because smoke had got into the glaze. He also spoke of a certain green that, of late, he had never been able to get. Mottled green, almost emerald, on an oyster grey background. There was also a jar of robin egg blue glaze. Howson Taylor signed the 1913 catalogues and gave them out, some copies with Florence’s signature too. Shortly after on the 15th
January Howson Taylor made his will leaving his entire estate to Florence. The will was witnessed by Andrew Forrester, a potter operative and Harold R Tilley Carpenter.
On January 25th 1935 Howson Taylor wrote a letter replying to a businessman who showed interest in buying Ruskin Pottery:
Dear Mr Turner,
I should be glad if you will accept the 3 pieces of Ruskin ware for your kindness in the past and as a reminder that I finished my work and that nobody shall ever make Ruskin Pottery, which perhaps to you as a businessman seems wrong. Perhaps when you see it in my light it is different. Why let another firm make rubbish and call it Ruskin?
W. Howson Taylor
Many advertisements were run to sell the remaining stock, selling at a third of the original price. Eventually the last firing took place on the 16th March 1935 using all remaining glazes for the biscuit ware. It was recorded in Birmingham Daily Gazette in an article titled ‘Ruskin Ware, Famous Smethwick Pottery Nearing its End’ on Monday 18th March 1935:
An event of interest in the history not only of Smethwick but of the country took place on Saturday at the Ruskin Pottery of Mr W Howson Taylor. It was the charging of the last oven with exquisite wares which this distinguished potter has been making for the past 35 years. Many thousands of notable examples of his art have been purchased and no two have been alike. Some time ago Mr Taylor announced that the Ruskin Pottery was to be closed now the clay has been used up and the potters wheel has revolved in its final mission- to the stocking of the kilns for this last firing.
Mr Taylor is to retire when the stock is cleared. He will take the secret with him, but the memory of his work will live in the twentieth century. It was in 1898 that the Ruskin Pottery was started by Mr Taylor whose father, the late Mr Edward R Taylor was about to relinquish at that time his position as principal of the Birmingham School of Art. The kilns at the pottery have been a familiar feature of the landscape, in close proximity to the great lighthouse works of Chance at Spon End, will soon be raised to the ground.
People present at the last firing were Andrew Forrester, Jack Cooksey, Phillip Atherely, Florence and William Howson Taylor. Jack Cooksey placed a disc into the kiln, written on it was ‘J Cooksey 1903-1935’ Ruskin in red highfire.
house in the hamlet of Tuckenhay near Ashprington which was purchased on 12th July 1935 for £1,600, named Spring Bank. In a letter to a friend, Mrs King, Taylor writes:
I have found my dream home in Devon, miles away from anybody in a village a few houses, hills both sides and streams, but the house is up about 200ft. A perfect garden, peaches on the walls and a lovely rockery. We have electric lights and water and sewerage. We only saw it on Friday and we purchased it today. We could not have found a more beautiful spot in England. You must come and see us when we get settled, that is, if you will ever find us, as it is so difficult to get at…
There is some doubt whether Taylor was present to pack his show room collection and stock and move it down to Tuckenhay with him. The houses 171-172 were sold to his brother-in-law Harold Richard Tilley on 25 July 1935 for £1000 with the intention of Taylor to have Harold look over the factory and showroom until further notice. (The factory would be sold by Florence five months after Taylor’s death.)It is speculated that Taylor may not have been in the right frame of mind to decide where his collection would go. Having lived in Birmingham since he was eleven and his father being at the forefront of the Arts and Crafts movement in Birmingham, one would assume that was the only place for his collection to be.
Taylor’s life in his new house of his dreams was unfortunately short. By 22nd September at the cottage hospital in Totnes he died of prostate cancer. By his bedside were Florence and her son Phillip. With the passing of Howson Taylor his whole estate passed onto Florence. Phillip Atherely reported the death to the Taylor family, friends and colleagues. Howson Taylor’s will was proved on 3rd February 1936 at £13,622 gross, £10,916 net of duty. On the 27th February the factory was sold to C.H White Ltd Chemist for £900. C.H. White would go on to purchase 171-172 Oldbury Rd from Harold Richard Tilley in December 1939 for £1,150.
For the sale to go ahead, a clause in the will had to be administered: the burning of the secret formula, smashing of the machinery and burning of papers. The manager of Lloyds Bank was summoned to the factory with Howson Taylor’s “Book of Secrets” to carry out the releasing of the will.
The following letter was the extraordinary stage of the burning of the book, smashing of the machinery and the removal of the collection and pots. It was told in a letter by R.G. Westwood to the editor of the Smethwick News Telephone 16 October 1975, on people writing in to remember the pottery in their town:
The other day a friend of mine told me that there had been published a book on Ruskin Pottery and its connections with Oldbury. He did not know the name of this book but I would like to know it, as I have a little first-hand knowledge of this subject. About 1935 or 1936 I was involved with the removal of Mr Taylor from Oldbury Road to the Mill at Totnes
in Devon. I was then a driver for the Lewis’s Removal Department and I was sent to the factory (the house was at the side to pack up some valuable china.)
I remember Mr P. Atherely asking me to be very careful with it as it consisted of a copy of every piece of Ruskin china ever made and that he had rented an old mill in Totnes and was going to display it on showcases to the public. The Mill itself was very interesting as at this mill was made the paper for the first British bank notes. As I say, the display cases were made at a firm in Constitution Hill, Birmingham- I believe it was called Edmonds.
After all had been packed, Mr Atherely asked me to stay after all the vans had left as he wanted to have my assistance in smashing up all the machinery and to witness the burning of the formula. This I did and signed an affidavit to the effect of what I had witnessed. He also told me of the family history as regards to the china.
Apparently he was not one the immediate family being the stepson of the previous Taylor but was allowed under the terms of the will to take the name on his mother’s marriage to Mr Taylor. The will stated that on the retirement or death of the last Taylor in the family line, all the papers and machinery involved in the making of Ruskin china was to be destroyed and this was what I witnessed. I hope this letter will be of some interest to your readers and to any devotee of Ruskin china. RG Westwood 79 Grafton Rd Oldbury
Mr Westwood did later say when interviewed he was paid £5 for his services by P. Atherely and that he never met any employees of the factory. Six removal lorries took off from the Ruskin Pottery to Tuckenhay, from there to the Mill and Florence’s house. The proprietor of the paper mill was Arthur Millbourn. It is thought that Mrs Henrietta Ellen Dodsworth who Howson Taylor bought Spring Banks from was his sister. Mr Westwood had also stated that they took the wrong road at Bows Bridge and had to reverse back for two miles as the roads were so narrow.
The village of Tuckenhay rambles beside Bow Creek, an inlet of the River Dart in a secluded South Devon Valley. The Mill is a substantial industrial building, now listed as being of historical and architectural interest. The factory contents were to be stored there on a rental basis. In November of 1936, two months after the death of Howson, Florence purchased a large guest house with a restaurant, garages and petrol pumps known as “Hutcomb Bunny” at Stone Gallows on the A38 near Taunton for £3,450. Spring Banks had rented out to Mr James E. Lee.
The following summer Ernest Porter, a ruskin pottery employee, was touring Devon to visit William Howson Taylor’s grave in Ashprington church, found to his surprise the Tilley sisters, Florence and Beatrice and Andrew Forrester running Hutcomb Bunny. Ernest Porter also noticed that upstairs in a number of guest rooms the ruskin pottery stocks that came down to the Mill in 1935. By 14 October 1938 the guest house was sold for $3150, with a loss of £300.
We believe at this time the Howson Taylor collections and pots were now back in Birmingham at the rear of a painter and decorator shop owned by James A Fernyhough, on 29 Anderson Rd. Fernyhough lived around the corner on Poplar Rd. The Forresters and the Fernyhoughs were well acquainted with each other, James and Robert Fernyhough were presumably one of the children mentioned in the notes of the closure of the Pottery by Mr Westwood.
James and Robert were photographed at the holiday home of Andrew and Beatrice Forrester in 1929. The holiday home was a timber framed building not much more than a shack on a brick foundation with a fireplace and chimney, large lawns and orchards. The house was called “The Red Roof” on Sheepwash Lane, Wolverley. The land where the house sat was sold by Mr Lycett who sold many plots to people who wished to have a bit of the country lifestyle. The area was scattered with caravans, sheds and old Birmingham trams. Andrew and Beatrice Forrester moved into the property in 1939 after the ordeal at Hutcomb Bunny and just before the outbreak of the War. This is the property that the Forresters buried their Ruskin pottery in fear of them being destroyed in the war.
Florence went to live in an apartment near her sister Beatrice in Stourbridge. In 1939 Robert Fernyhough inherited his father’s business. During the war on 15 March 1943, Florence sold Spring Banks back to the person Howson Taylor bought it from, Henrietta Bodsworth for £1700. When the war was over in 1945, Florence travelled to America in December to reunite with Harold and contributed to a flat for him for £3800 in San Francisco. At the James A Fernyhough business the young Robert, 19 years old at the time, would start selling Ruskin Pottery in the shop front alongside antique furniture. He would later take charge in the sale of Florence Taylor’s pieces, selling them as her agent. Florence travelled to England in March 1947. Her visiting purpose was to sell an exhibition of Ruskin Pottery at Frederick Restall Ltd who were house furnishers and interior decorators on Great Hampton Street in Birmingham. It was organised by Robert Fernyhough on 10 July 1947.
The newspaper report of the exhibition stated that ‘the purpose was to display some of this masterly pottery, before the collection owned by Mrs Taylor’s widow goes to America where it will be on view as an example of British craftsmanship.’ More than 300 pieces were on display. The total value was indicated by the fact that individual pieces were priced from about 3-90 guineas.
The exhibition included some choice pieces from the collection of Robert Fernyhough. Fernyhough continued to sell the stock on behalf of Florence. The showroom pieces however were not for sale. Florence did take a few pieces to America with her on visits to her sons, but these were generally small scent bottles and vases. The bulk of the pottery resided with Fernyhough, who in 1959 moved to Bookhouse, Beaudesert near Henley in Arden.
In 1960 Nelly Howson Taylor died. She would be the last sister resident at Highfield Rd (Etty had died in 1957). Robert Fernyhough who remained in contact with the Taylors was present when the house was cleared and renovated. At this time Florence lived two doors away from her sister Beatrice, with her housekeeper Vera Ferguson. She had made a will and left it with Ferguson. Florence died on 6th January 1973, with only one selling exhibition in her lifetime. Her will was never found.