An essential Ingredient Towards Worcester’s Prosperity

White porcelain handle-less cup that has been reconstructed from archaeological fragments

Cornish china clay holds a very specific place in Worcester’s history. It is a key ingredient in the production of Worcester’s porcelain and was a driver of the city’s economic health for many years.

The great demand and fashion for Chinese porcelain in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries inspired enterprising Europeans to experiment with the production of porcelain themselves including at the early Worcester factories.

John Flight, one of the early factory owners, kept a diary between 1785 and 1791 (now in the Museum of Royal Worcester’s collection) which includes reports of his experimentation to find the right mix of ingredients to make a stable porcelain. Early pieces made by the factories have a distinctive white surface, perfect for decorating, the colour coming from the china clay.

The Museum of Royal Worcester has the most important Worcester Porcelain collection in the world and so the City and County collections have very few examples. The exception is Worcester City’s archaeology collections, which include excavated factory sites. These unglazed, fragmentary ceramics were found during archaeological excavations at Warmstry House, Worcester’s earliest porcelain manufactory, established in 1751, and tell us much about the times the ingredients didn’t go right.


Kepax Ferry

The Kepax Ferry, pictured here peacefully en route across the River Severn, was one of many ferries that plied their trade on Worcester’s river in previous centuries. The ferries were supported by land- and pub-owners, by the Cathedral Chapter and by the local parishes.

This painting, in Worcester City’s collection, shows the ferry around the year 1900. At this period there were also ferrymen working the Dog and Duck Ferry opposite Pitchcroft, the Grandstand Ferry and the Cathedral Ferry. From the nineteenth century the Severn Commissioners ensured the crossings were regulated businesses, granting operating licences. Licenced ferrymen could only operate between sunrise and sunset. This may have put an end to the Camp Ferry, further upstream between Bevere and the Camp Inn which used to let punters take the ferryboat back themselves after the pub closed, making the ferryman start his morning by swimming over to collect it.

Kepax Ferry gained its customers in the late nineteenth century when Barbourne Park, a private estate, was sold and built up creating the housing around Park Avenue in Barbourne. Today the route is still referenced by the Kepax Ferry Cottage on Park View Terrace.

The next ferry was only a few hundred yards further down the Severn, running from Pitchcroft Racecourse to the old Dog & Duck inn. JMW Turner’s sketchbooks held at the Tate Gallery show that Turner visited Worcester in 1831 and made a series of lively sketches of the river, the Dog & Duck ferry and its passengers. The pub ceased trading in the 1840s and became the ferryman’s house, but the distinctive name lived on with the ferry.

The majority of the River Severn ferries stopped during the Second World War and only the Cathedral Ferry has continued in the decades since.

This serene painting gives no hint of the River Severn being a busy working transport route or of its sheer power as a body of water that regularly floods the city and county today. Instead, the picture focuses on the beauty in the river landscape. We know only a little about the artist, Walter Alfred Firkins, but here he uses impressionist brushstrokes well to capture the light reflecting on the water and the presence of massed trees all along the riverbank.

Woollen Waistcoat from the Second World War

This cosy woollen waistcoat from the Worcester City collection was made during the Second World War out of scraps of wool salvaged from other garments. At a time when materials were in short supply and military uniforms took priority over civilian clothing, people had to be inventive.

In 1943, the British Ministry of Information issued a pamphlet titled Make Do and Mend, which provided households with useful tips on how to be both frugal and stylish in difficult times. Projects included creating pretty decorative patches to cover holes in warn garments and turning men’s clothes into women’s, or adult garments into new ones for children. For those who had little experience of dress making, this could be a daunting challenge, but community groups began to spring up around the country where people could go for help and advice.

An updated version of the book was released in recent years, giving updated ideas and tips to the 21st-century reader.

‘The Dialect of the Gypsies of Wales’

An open book showing writing symbols and a hand-written inscription

Museums Worcestershire recently acquired, supported by the Ellerman Foundation, a significant book to contextualise the Vardo collection at Worcestershire County Museum.

The book, The Dialect of the Gypsies of Wales, is most significant as it was kept on the bedside table of artist Augustus John who travelled as a member of the Gypsy Lore Society. The society was a fellowship of people who shared a passion for Gypsy life, customs, and language. The County Museum is already home to Esmeralda, a wagon that was used by the Gypsy Lore Society for travelling around the north of England and Wales.

Augustus John was a friend of the book’s author John Sampson. Sampson conceived the book following a camping trip in 1894 in which the writer encountered the Wood family, noted speakers of Welsh Romani, a quite pure, inflected Romani dialect. It is the only book that captures, accurately, the original language of the Romani people, a language since lost.

John Sampson was an Irish linguist, literary scholar and librarian. Sampsons study of this dialect earned him the title of Romano Rai or the ‘Gypsy Scholar’. This volume includes a handwritten dedication in Romani by John Sampson to Sir Walter Raleigh (Chair of English Literature at Oxford University).

Vardo Project Curatorial Officer

Worcester’s Coronation celebrations

Page from a brochure listing entertainments and their times, with line drawings to illustrate the text

Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation is often regarded as a television milestone: about 20 million British people watched BBC’s transmission of the ceremony, more than half of them watching on their friends’, neighbours’ or local pubs’ television set.

However this programme of events around that special day in June 1953 in Worcester reminds us of all the other ways that communities came together to celebrate the coronation. Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation ceremony itself lasted until about 3pm, after which Worcester people could enjoy a series of sporting and military displays on Pitchcroft, as well as a fun fair.

The programme also shows us how much changed over Queen Elizabeth’s reign. Eight years after the end of World War II, both the official ceremony in London – where 40,000 service personnel took part – and Worcester’s events strongly featured the armed forces. In 2023, these forces are a fifth of the size they were in 1953 and more specialised, meaning the procession for Charles III’s coronation will feel very different.

Unfortunately we haven’t yet been able to find an account of Worcester’s 1953 Grand Coronation Searchlight Tattoo – if any readers were present or have photographs, please do contact us with your memories.

Celebrating May Day around the Maypole

a tall pole with ribbons around it and flowers on top

The glory of spring has been celebrated for many years in various different forms. It was a way of banishing the winter and welcoming in the warm, long days of summer.

Dancing around a maypole on the village green was a traditional way of marking this time of year. The practice started in the 14th century when a prominent tree in the village was painted and dressed with streamers, flags and flowers. More commonly today, we associate the festival with a painted wooden pole, where streamers that are attached at the top are woven intricately around the pole by dancers.

This maypole is in the Worcestershire County Museum collection.
Maypole dancing wasn’t always popular as it did not fit into the Christian calendar festivities and was viewed as a pagan ritual that should be suppressed. This was especially the case under Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth reign in the 17th century, but the celebration was brought back with the Monarchy in 1660.

children dancing while holding ribbons

Worcester’s history of gunsmithing

The surname Perrins is prominent in the city’s history, linked to Royal Worcester Porcelain and (of course) Worcestershire Sauce. A distant cousin of well-known chemist William Henry Perrins, John Perrins also became a leader in his field of expertise. A gunmaker’s apprentice from the age of twelve, John returned to Worcestershire with his wife and sons to set up his own business in the 1830s.

Establishing himself at the edge of the city centre, his business grew until he was able to expand into St Swithins Street in the 1840s and Mealcheapen Street in the 1850s. Perrins and Sons Gun and Pistol Makers of 6 Mealcheapen Street advertised themselves as makers of firearms and improvers of guns, offering precision alteration and selling patent shot and powder. They were the second Perrins family to trade in the street: no. 68 had been home to chemists Lea & Perrins since the early 1800s. Both companies boasted Royal Warrants.

The City collection includes finished pieces by Perrins & Sons Gun Makers, but here – in the photo – are tools of the trade from the County collection.

The wooden blocks were used for making the mechanism of a shotgun and the barrel of a pistol. Both need to be precise to prevent failure when firing. The mechanism forms the part of the gun that locks it for firing. It is forged in metal, in a single piece, using the wooden pattern. The surfaces are then worked down to fit the finished gun. The front edge will need to support a hinge that allows the stock and barrels to be swung open for reloading, but the closed mechanism also acts as the seal for the firing chamber. The mechanism must be shaped to form an impenetrable seal, ensuring energy travels only down the barrel and not outwards into the user. As well as being incredibly precise pieces of engineering, the mechanism and other components were often finely engraved.

A Runic Mystery

Samian ware pottery is a fancy reddish, glossy Roman tableware which was made in various forms like dishes, platters, cups and bowls, just like tableware today.

The pottery has been found on archaeological excavations across Worcester, often plain but many are decorated with depictions of animals, flowers and foliage.

The majority of samian ware found in Britain was made in Gaul (modern-day France) during the first and second centuries AD, but there is intriguing evidence that some pieces continued to be used or kept for many years after they were first acquired, even into the fourth century and occasionally beyond.

The Worcester City collection includes some beautiful complete and near-complete examples from areas of the city like Diglis, where a Roman cremation cemetery was found in 1860, or the High Street, where wonderfully decorative samian ware was found whilst excavating the deep cellars built for the stores.

This piece is, however, a smaller, fragmented and abraded piece of samian ware. A particularly intriguing, long-lived and unusual find. This relatively small fragment was discovered during the Deansway excavations in Worcester that were carried out ahead of the construction of the Crown Gate Centre in the late 1980s. Worcestershire Archaeology unearthed objects and evidence that demonstrates Worcester’s wonderful archaeology from the Iron Age to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This is a fairly unassuming sherd – a fragment of pottery – but it bears obvious marks scratched into it.

The scratches are Anglo Saxon runes scored into the glaze centuries after the vessel was manufactured and first used. Sadly, not enough of the inscription survives for the meaning to be deciphered and the circumstances surrounding its discovery offer little further clarity. It was found in a post-medieval pit, where it was placed with other discarded objects. Centuries after it was made, someone perhaps in or visiting early medieval Worcester scratched the runes into its glaze.

Worcester Tanneries

painting of a half timbered house with some machinery outside

Documentary and archaeological evidence show that leather has been made in Worcester for centuries, one of the reasons why Worcester became an important centre for glove making. This previous post explains how the leather was prepared and cut to make gloves.

Dyers, tanners and shoemakers are all mentioned in 1356 tax returns showing that leather tanning was concentrated in the All Saints area of Worcester, near the river.  Records from 1466 detail the banning of tanners from the city due to the stench and filth of the process.

Excavated waste horn and bone also place medieval tanners on the other side of the river in the St John’s area, possibly back to the 11th century. 

The industry continued on the west side of the Severn when it could no longer be tolerated in the centre of the city: the Great House on Malvern Road shown in the painting here from Worcester City’s collection was described as a ‘tan yard’ in a 1754 will.  This coincides with the boom in the glove industry in 18th century Worcester.  Later known as The Priory, this building went on to house a glove workshop called Badgery as well as a tannery.

The Severn Bank Tannery and Robert James & Sons were still making leather in Worcester til the mid 20th century, when the demand for leather fell significantly as more artificial fibres were invented.