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Six Degrees of Separation

Six Degrees of Separation:
Early English Pottery Connections

Are you familiar with the “Six Degrees of Separation” theory? It says that each of us is connected to every other person on the planet by an average of six people. Even complete strangers are connected by a chain of such acquaintances. For example, I know person A who knows person B who knows person C who knows person D who knows person E who knows Queen Elizabeth II. Voila! Queen Elizabeth II and I are connected by six degrees of separation! Sometimes there are fewer people in the connecting chain, sometimes more. The trick, of course, is finding the “right” intervening people.

Well, guess what? The theory works pretty well for early English pottery, too! I discovered this when I became curious about five pieces of pottery – a J. W. Pankhurst biscuit jar, an Alfred Meakin platter, and three pieces of Johnson Bros. – that were lovingly passed down through Ol’ Swaphos’ family from his great-grandma to his grandma to his mama and finally to him.
 

Alfred Meakin platter

Pankhurst biscuit jar

Johnson Bros. platter

Johnson Bros. gravy boat

Johnson Bros. tureen

They were true antiques by the time we got them, so I set about researching them. Luckily for me, they were all marked, so discovering which companies made them and when didn’t prove too difficult. But then things started getting really interesting! Turns out our pottery pieces are indeed connected, not just because Ol’ Swaphos’ great-grandma bought them, but also because they started their lives in three interconnected potteries. What I wound up with is a fascinating glimpse into 19th Century English potteries and the men who founded them and passed them on through generations of their respective families.

J. W. Pankhurst

In 1850, James William Pankhurst (1809-1899) bought the William Ridgeway potteries in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, England. For the first two years the Pankhurst mark consisted of a crest flanked by a lion and a unicorn (both lying down) with “Stone China,” “J. W. Pankhurst,” and “Hanley” below, as shown on the bottom of our biscuit jar. Starting in 1852, the mark changed to “J. W. Pankhurst & Co.” Pankhurst ultimately went bankrupt in 1882, but that wasn’t the end of the Pankhurst pottery works.

Alfred Meakin

In the meantime, James Meakin (1807-1852) was busy running his own Eagle pottery works in Hanley and establishing an English pottery dynasty by siring 12 children. One of his sons, Alfred Meakin (1848-1902), opened the Victoria & Albert Works in Tunstall in 1874. His mark, as shown on the bottom of our platter, was a crest, a lion, and a unicorn (both rearing), with “Royal Ironstone China” above and “Alfred Meakin” and “England” below. After 1897 the mark became “Alfred Meakin Ltd.,” still with “Royal Ironstone China” above, but no “England” below. On Alfred’s death in 1902, his son, Alfred John Meakin (1875-1908) succeeded him and ran the pottery until his own death in 1908. But that wasn’t the end of the Alfred Meakin pottery works.

James and George Meakin, two more of James Meakin’s sons, took over the Eagle pottery works when their father died in 1852 and built up a huge business under the name of J&G Meakin. A fourth son, Charles Meakin, founded the Eastwood Pottery in 1883 that was taken over by his brothers James and George in 1889. J&G Meakin was bought by the Wedgwood Group in 1970 and continued producing pottery under the Meakin name until the year 2000. The Eagle pottery works were demolished in 2005. See our Classic White J&G Meakin dessert plates introduced in 1963.

Johnson Bros.

James Meakin also had a daughter, Sarah Meakin (1828-1890). She married Robert Johnson (1821-1917) and they set about establishing an English pottery dynasty of their own by having eight children, four sons and four daughters. Two of their sons, Frederick George Johnson (1858-1923) and Alfred Johnson (1863-??), founded the Johnson Bros. pottery in 1883 by buying – are you ready for this? – the old Pankhurst pottery works in Hanley that had gone bankrupt in 1882! And Frederick had been manager of the Alfred Meakin pottery works prior to founding Johnson Bros!

During the transition from Pankhurst to Johnson Bros., the Johnson Bros. mark was very similar to Alfred Meakin’s mark of a crest, a lion, and a unicorn (both rearing), with “Royal Ironstone China” above. But instead of “Alfred Meakin” and “England” below, the transitional Johnson Bros. mark had both “Johnson Bros.” and “Pankhurst” below, as shown on this pottery shard discovered at an archeological dig at the old Marshall-Firehole Hotel that operated from 1884 to 1891 in Yellowstone National Park.

This transitional mark had given way to a simple crown with “Johnson Bros England” below and the pattern name above by the time a third brother, Henry James Johnson (1852-1931) joined Johnson Bros. in 1888. This is the mark on the bottom of all three of our Johnson Bros. Geneva pieces. The fourth brother, Robert Lewis Johnson (1856-1909) later joined Johnson Bros., too.

As if all this weren’t enough, the marriage of Robert Johnson and Sarah Meakin had further consequences. After her nephew Alfred John Meakin (son of her brother Alfred Meakin) died in 1908, her son Robert Lewis Johnson, bought the pottery for his own son, Arthur Stuart Johnson (1885-1970).

Whew! Got all that? Is your head spinning? Mine certainly was as I wended my way through dozens of pages of family and pottery histories. Took me forever to get all the people and all the potteries straight in my own mind so I could distill everything for you. Hope you’ve found it enjoyable, if more than a bit confusing at first reading, and are now convinced that early English pottery, too, is often connected by six (or fewer) degrees of separation. Happy collecting!

Santa Fe Trading Post

swaphos@santafetradingpost.com

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