Coronation souvenirs boost struggling English ceramics industry

AFP , Sunday 26 Mar 2023

Just six weeks before King Charles III is crowned at Westminster Abbey on May 6, an historic English pottery is working flat out to meet demand for the fine bone china souvenirs.

Ceramic Industry for Coronation of Britain s King Charles III
A pottery worker works on a range of fine bone china, designed to commemorate the coronation of Britain s King Charles III, at Duchess China 1888 in Longton, central England on March 20, 2023. AFP


With an expert flick of a gilt-covered paint brush, a craftswoman puts the finishing touches to commemorative mugs marking the first coronation of a British monarch in 70 years.

"You just feel so proud. There's been nothing like this since the queen's coronation," said Gary Fraser, production manager at Duchess China 1888 in the central English city of Stoke-on-Trent, home of the country's pottery industry.

Fraser, 57, whose father and grandfather also worked in the potteries, remembers them coming home with commemorative pieces from previous royal occasions such as Queen Elizabeth II's silver jubilee marking her 25th year on the throne in 1977.

"You get a sense of being part of history. People will pass these things on to their grandkids," said Fraser.

Established in 1888 in Longton, one of the six towns that make up the city of Stoke-on-Trent, Duchess China has been making fine bone china for over 130 years.

The commemorative plates, mugs and other items Duchess China is making now were inspired by items produced in 1937 for the coronation of his grandfather King George VI.

The bold red, white and blue design incorporates the Tudor crown of English monarchs from the time of Henry VIII with the words "God Save The King" in large gold letters.

Produced using meticulous techniques honed over generations, each piece will go through the hands of over 20 craftspeople before it is finished.

Time-honoured skills

The factory is as busy as ever with three major royal events -- the queen's platinum jubilee and her death last year, and now Charles's coronation -- all in the space of less than 12 months.

"Obviously, a coronation year (is) something we've never experienced before and something I don't think you can ever prepare for," said director Jason Simms, who took over the struggling firm four years ago with business partner Andrew Tooth.

The factory is currently producing its ceramics five days a week instead of the usual two to three and has had to take on extra staff.

The sharp decline of the Stoke-based potteries in recent decades, with many firms going bust or moving production overseas, however, has made recruiting difficult.

Fraser was working for Dudson, a firm that dated back to the very start of the 19th century, when it closed down in 2019.

"Grown men were crying. Within 20 minutes all the machines were turned off, the gates were locked, and we were escorted off the premises," he recalled.

With so many firms having moved their production out of the country due to production costs, staff have retired or disappeared into different industries, interrupting the time-honoured passing of skills from one generation to the next.

"It is a tragedy to see the industry like this. Recruiting becomes difficult because the skills are lost," Fraser added.

'The pots'

For now, Duchess China is bucking the trend thanks to Simms and Tooth, who share a passion for "the pots".

"If we had listened to what people said, we wouldn't ever have tried to do this," said Simms.

Since taking over in February 2019, the pair have weathered successive crises, from Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic to the massive hike in energy prices triggered by Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Just a handful of ceramics firms remain in Stoke and Duchess is the last dating from the 19th century that still manufactures its products from start to finish in the city.

Design expert Simms said the style of the commemorative coronation range was meant to be "bold" and "impactful".

"We wanted it to look very British and very sort of traditional.... Hopefully we've done something befitting of the king," he said.

Simms hopes the firm's royal collection will be the start of a new era for the firm.

An illustrious but rather forgotten history once saw the "much sought after" Duchess China used in the Ritz Hotel in the 1920s and 30s before it fell by the wayside in the face of competition from firms such as Wedgwood and Royal Doulton.

Reversing the decline of the pottery industry in Stoke is impossible, said Simms.

But what might be possible however is to get Duchess "back where it belongs, providing a really great British product and keeping the traditional skills going for the generations to come".

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