Famous places within 5 minutes walk of my house Number 16 - Bow Porcelain Works
The most famous place within five minutes walk of my house today is the Bow Flyover, closely followed by the church in the middle of the road that many people mistakenly believe contains London's Bow Bells. But 250 years ago my corner of Bow was nationally famous for something completely different - the manufacture of porcelain. Nothing as high quality as Japanese or German porcelain, alas, this was rather more mass market material. But the processes developed here proved ground-breaking, with Bow reputedly the first location where soft-paste English porcelain was successfully manufactured. And still famous enough for Bow-sourced wares to be found in museums around the world, including shelves of the stuff at the V&A.
That'll be the sixth floor at the V&A, which is higher than most visitors ever know to ascend. Climb the stairs from Architecture or Glass and you'll discover the Ceramics galleries - 10 rooms linked across the entire front of the building that contain a world-beating collection of finely glazed art. And here, amongst beautiful Chinese vases and Middle Eastern plates, sit hundreds of figurines and items of crockery from the East End of London. The figurines were the Bow Porcelain factory's finest work, even if to modern eyes they resemble the sort of gaudychina advertised at the back of Sunday tabloid newspaper magazines. Petite statuettes in floral dresses, garish harlequins, twee babes draped in leafy garlands - the kind of porcelain that you might offer to dust for an elderly relative and then "accidentally" smash. But in the late 18th century these were some of the first must-have knick-knacks for Britain's emergent middle classes, and one of these on your mantlepiece signified fashion and good taste.
In a separate cabinet are some of the Bow Works' less upmarket pieces. Dishes, plates, a teapot, the god Neptune, a sauceboat, even a couple ofparrots. The majority are hand-painted with bright enamels or an underglaze blue, the latter being the characteristic colour of much of the factory's output. Some look like the sort of tat you might find laid out on a table at a car boot sale, but you'd be extremely fortunate if you did. We take mass produced pottery and painted figurines for granted today, but the manufacture of such material was a heck of a lot more difficult back then. Shelf 4 of case A in Room 139 contains the most ordinary-looking wares of all (some cups, a cream jug, a saucer, etc), but these are also the most ground-breaking. Known as "A-marked" after the code letter on the base, these are the first recorded items created from Edward Heylyn and Thomas Frye's pioneering patent - the first in Britain to use china clay for making china.
In 1744, the year their patent for porcelain was taken out, Heylyn and Frye bought a property on the Bow side of the River Lea. Its precise location is unknown, but has been identified as "a substantial house with a stable and large garden near St Mary's church." The magic new ingredient was unaker, a form of kaolin imported from North America, then mixed with glass. A rare snuff box made to the "First Bow Patent" is up for auction at Bonhams next month with an estimated sale price of £30000-£50000, which seems amazing for a tiny object once manufactured on my doorstep.
By 1749 the porcelain manufacturing process had been much improved and the company acquired fresh premises on the Stratford side of the river. These were the Bow Porcelain Works, whose main factory was called New Canton as a nod to the Chinese imports against which the company was competing. The riverside location provided water, and by being located to the east of London no noxious fumes were blown across the capital by the prevailing winds. By 1760 more than 300 people were employed here, at least a quarter of them painters, making this one of the largest industrial premises of its day. The Bow Porcelain Works had competition from a similar company in Chelsea - slower to issue its patent but quicker to enter production, and with a much better reputation for quality. Both churned out figurines, vases and painted crockery to a voracious audience, but both fell into terminal decline in the early 1770s following the loss of key staff through ill health.
Quarter of a millennium later, no physical trace of the Bow Porcelain Works remains. The precisesite lay along Stratford High Street, backing onto the Bow Back Rivers (and the Olympic Park) between Cooks Road and Marshgate Lane. A selection of 21st century apartment blocks have risen in their place, as appears to be the depressing destiny of so much land on the borders of the Olympic Park. On Bow's eastern works now stands Central House, a massive ugly Barratts development whose residents live snugly behind gated railings. And on Bow's western works are four interlinked blocks, part-gated, three named with a pleasing nod to the history they replace. Thomas Frye Court faces the river, John Wetherby Court (named after one of the company's original investors) faces Stratford High Street, and Edward Heylin Court runs perpendicular to them both. The inhabitants of these shoeboxes are unlikely to be the sort to decorate their surfaces with gaudy figurines. But they do at least represent the consumer mass market to which Bow Porcelain Works appealed, and which in some ways it helped to create.