Clay miles: Henry Doulton in the Black Country

2016-12-30 10.23.13
Broken water pipe near Iverley

On the North Worcestershire Path, not far from Iverley, there is a broken water pipe lying to one side of the track. It’s a bit forlorn, but clearly a very nice thing: it’s glazed, and the makers have taken the trouble to brand it: Doulton.

There are many industries that have a ready association with the Black Country, but ceramics aren’t an obvious one. We tend to think of North Staffordshire and the famous potteries of the Stoke region as the home of ceramics in the UK, and so they are, but that’s not to say we didn’t have our own contribution to the story around here. Royal Doulton were actually founded in London in 1815, but their reputation was cemented after a much later expansion to the Potteries. Well before that though, they’d established several locations in the Black Country, as H. Doulton & Co., specialising in sanitary earthenware.

Henry Doulton

Henry Doulton (1820-1897) was the mastermind behind the Doulton firm at this stage. He was born in Bridgnorth and helped in his father’s pottery concern in Lambeth, where Henry set up a pipe works in 1846. It was fortuitous perhaps: later on, Doulton’s sanitary ware became very popular among the mass builders of the late nineteenth century, the model dwellings companies. The Guiness Trust‘s Lambeth buildings were just over the way from Vauxhall Walk, where Doulton worked.

In 1847, Henry moved beyond London, expanding his business first to St. Helen’s then the following year into the Black Country. What do you look for when siting your manufacturing business? Somewhere you can get raw materials easily, for sure, but also where you can transport them safely to market. When roads were bumpy and trains still rudimentary, canals were still the best option for this – it’s no surprise that one of the big investors in the Trent & Mersey Canal through North Staffs was Josiah Wedgwood, producing delicate porcelain at Etruria. So Doulton chose a site with access to clay, a decent site to build his factory, and canal access: the banks of the Dudley No.2 Canal at Springfield, Rowley Regis.

Doulton at Rowley Regis

The Birmingham Pottery in 1884. © Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2017). All rights reserved. (1884)

The Birmingham Pottery (I know – perhaps the Cockneys weren’t familiar with the niceties of Black Country cultural geography) is seen here in the 1880s. It’s a large site already. All the circular shapes are likely to be bottle kilns of the sort that you’ll still find at the Middleport Pottery in Burslem, where the BBC potters do their stuff. You’ll also notice the rectangular kilns at the brickworks opposite – kilns came in a wild variety of shapes and sizes. For fuel, there’s the choice of gas or coal processed nearby, and a canal basin for loading and unloading. Doulton was on the paternalistic end of the Victorian employer spectrum and built a huge works canteen to provide for his many Black Country workers. Edmund Gosse speculated that Black Country workers were different to the more convivial Londoners though, and had little thought for the various societies he set up, preferring to get home at the end of the day.

The Springfield Works c.1915 [Black Country Bugle]


Clay for the early works came from close by – probably the quarries at The Knowle, moved by inclined plane to the pottery works. As the plant grew, more was needed though, and this came from just a little farther at Saltwells. We’ve previously discussed this site as Dudley’s short-lived foray into the luxury spa market, but it was more successful for taking minerals out of the ground, rather than bathing in them. The earliest OS maps of the 1880s show the site as woods still, but we can figure out that by the end of the 19th century the woods were cleared, an inclined tramway installed to meet the Dudley No.2 Canal next to the Lodge Farm Reservoir, with a basin known as Doulton’s Basin, and the beginnings of the web of tram tracks that would feed the massive quarry’s clay back to Springfield.

Saltwells in 1939 – the clay pit is at the bottom of the picture, with the tramway meeting the Dudley No.2 Canal next to the reservoir. © Crown Copyright and Landmark Information Group Limited (2017). All rights reserved. (1939)

The clay travelled just two miles, past Hartshorne’s Marine Works, Lloyd’s Proving House and the Netherton Works of N. Hingley & Sons (in fact, all these would eventually be part of the Hingley group); past the Withymoor Goods Station on the now disappeared Bumble Hole Line; across the new cut made when the Netherton Tunnel was built in 1858; past Cobbs Engine House and the abandoned pits of Warren’s Hall Colliery; to the works.


By the 1930s, the brick and tile works on the Western bank of the canal was labelled Pipe Works, and it may well have become part of the much-expanded Doulton site. Dog Lane had been renamed Doulton Road, and the site thrived. It wasn’t Doulton’s only site nearby either: in 1850, Henry Doulton opened up another stoneware/pipe works in Smethwick this time. It was situated on Northern bank of the old canal, designed by James Brindley in 1769, at the point where it runs directly parallel with Telford’s newer improvement. Almost opposite the entrance to the Engine Arm Aqueduct, it was tucked in between the District steelworks, and the Sandwell axle works. I’m presuming the Saltwells clay was sent to Smethwick too – it’s not all that far through the Netherton Tunnel.


Pipes amid the tramway tracks [Black Country Bugle]

What was made there? Tiling was a speciality, and that’s what makes me think the mapped tile works was something to with Doulton. Springfield made tiles for Harrods and the Russell Hotel in London, but its speciality was earthenware pipes by the many thousands. I would think it would be a good time to be in the latter business. In 1848, the hamlets of Rowley Regis were scattered and isolated, but never far from some of the most rapidly-expanding towns in the country. There are some inevitabilities that come with an increased population: houses will be overcrowded until more are built; social relations will change for good (not always the good); and lots and lots of filth will be created. No matter how hard the nightsoilmen worked (and in Wolverhampton, this often wasn’t as hard as they were paid for), they couldn’t clear the human waste from the privies, ash pits and middens of these new cities.

How many pipes does anyone really need?

Henry Doulton was clearly a man of foresight. As villages grew into towns, and towns into cities, they gained new political representation and new reforming energy. Providing clean water and somewhere for dirty water to go were high on the agenda. In London, it was Bazalgette’s famous sewer system that flushed out the Great Wen’s waste. In Wolverhampton, it was a bit more tentative, and sewers took time to put in place – despite repeated calls from at least the 1840s for a centralised sewerage system for the town, it wasn’t until the 1860s that anything was built.

Birmingham on the other hand was at the forefront of municipal leadership on this, as in many other areas. 1847 saw the first member of George Dawson’s congregation elected to the municipal borough council, itself only appointed 9 years earlier. Dawson was the originator of what was later called the “civic gospel” – a model of government which eventually saw Birmingham become “the best-governed city in the world.” As part of this, a sewer system was built in 1851 connecting all new houses (the older ones took a while longer) to the River Rea. And who was on hand with two convenient earthenware pipe factories? Why, Henry Doulton of course, just as his factories were convenient for the contemporaneous developments in London, Liverpool and Manchester.

Henry Doulton – genius?

Doulton’s factories were based across the country by 1946 [source]

Sir Henry Doulton: the man of business as a man of imagination

Later on, Henry would merge with his brothers’ firms and receive a royal warrant – their Art Ceramics department now at Stoke would of course become world-famous as Royal Doulton. The Smethwick site closed for good in 1919, but Rowley was still working until 1979. Doulton retained a foothold in the Black Country as we discovered recently, taking on the Webb Corbett glassworks at Amblecote, eventually leading to the modern development of Doulton Brook. Although best known for cups and saucers, to me Rowley demonstrates Henry Doulton’s genius more than his timing, putting himself in exactly the right place to catch the reforming spirit of the times.

Further reading

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