Vic Keegan’s Lost London 80: The Lambeth roots of Royal Doulton

Vic Keegan’s Lost London 80: The Lambeth roots of Royal Doulton

Few places better illustrate dramatic changes in the landscape of London then the road between Lambeth Bridge and Vauxhall Bridge on the south bank of the Thames. Walk along it today and you pass end to end hotels and luxury flats, apart from the headquarters of the International Maritime Organisation. If you had done the same journey in the 19th century, it would have been end to end factories, wharves and potteries. Especially potteries. 

Potteries in Lambeth can be traced back to Tudor and even Roman times. But their presence achieved revolutionary status with the arrival of the Doulton family, who, in around 1826, teamed up with John Watts to form Doulton and Watts and eventually the Royal Doulton company. After a slow start it expanded, gobbling up rivals, to transform the whole stretch from Lambeth to Vauxhall into the home of an internationally successful pottery industry. In its early days, the company supplied drains, pipes and sanitary ceramics for the industrial revolution. One of its factories was dedicated to making drainpipes, which were loaded onto Thames barges and exported all over the world.

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The most fascinating stage of the development of Doulton was when it linked up with Lambeth School of Art, run by a pioneering headmaster John Charles Lewis Sparkes, who, realising the difficulty of getting money out of the government, started to cultivate local firms, Doulton included. This led to an extended period of co-operation between the two, which gave a huge impetus to the company’s foray into artistic ceramics. These soon became internationally famous and highly collectable.

According to Hannah Renier in her book Lambeth Past, by 1885 there were no less than 250 artists in Doulton’s pottery department and all but 10 had come from the art school. This was an extraordinary collaboration between art and industry and would have delighted Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s husband, who was the mastermind of the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the subsequent development of museums like the Victorian and Albert, dedicated to industrial design. How fitting that the road where Doulton had its main factory – long since demolished – is now the Albert Embankment.

In 1956, Doulton had to move its activities elsewhere as a consequence of clean air regulations, ending 400 years of pottery manufacture in Lambeth. It is now owned by a Finnish company, Fiskars Corporation. However the former head office (attached to what used to be the art studio) is still there in Black Prince Road in all its art deco glory. Further down the road are some lovely examples of Doulton artwork on the walls. 

Had I been told in the 19 century that all of the industries that peppered the south bank of the Thames would disappear, I would have feared for the future of London. But somehow we survived. Let’s hope we do in future. 

Please find all previous instalments of Vic Keegan’s Lost London here.


Categories: Culture, Lost London

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