The growth of Japanning

Corrosion-proof, and heat resistant household items made of metal became a practicality in the late 17th century with the invention of the rolling mill to produce thin sheet iron, and the development of rust-proof coatings. The first of these, tin plating, was originally developed in Germany, from where tin plate was exported to the United Kingdom, until the War of the Austrian Succession in 1738, after which it was manufactured here.

The second invention, japanning, consisted of the application of a varnish, which when heated provided an extremely tough and durable black finish. All kinds of items in every day use were produced using these processes, including candlesticks, coal boxes, coal scuttles, trays, coffee pots, and tea pots. When the varnish was heated, after application, it provided an ideal surface for decoration.

Japanning began in Pontypool in the late 17th century when Thomas Allgood developed his corrosion resistant oil varnish, made from linseed oil, burnt umber, and the coal by-product, asphaltum. Items varnished in this way became known as Pontypool ware.

An example of decorated japanware, a papier mache collection plate. Courtesy of Lawson Cartwright,

Japanned goods were being produced in Bilston as early as 1719 by Joseph Allen and Samuel Stone, and also in Birmingham, where in 1740 a japanning works was set up to produce trays. The rich decoration that appeared on many locally japanned items must have owed a lot to the Bilston enamelling industry, and its highly skilled enamellers.

Around the middle of the 18th century, japanned goods were being produced in Wolverhampton, which had an abundance of skilled metal workers. It soon became an important manufacturing centre for the industry.

Sketchley & Adams’ Directory of Wolverhampton for 1770 lists 8 japanners. Pigot & Company’s Directory of 1842 lists 16, including some notable manufacturers such as Henry Fearncombe, Edward Perry, Loveridge & Shoolbred, and Benjamin Walton at the Old Hall, which became the cradle of the local industry.

A drawing of the Old Hall and moat. From a 1907 edition of the Wolverhampton Journal.

The Old Hall was originally a manor house with a moat, which belonged to the wealthy Leveson family, who made a fortune from the wool trade, and owned much of the land, both in Wolverhampton and the surrounding area.

After the Levesons had departed, the hall came into the possession of the Turton family, who owned, and occupied the building for many years. As a result it was often called ‘Turton’s Hall’.

The Old Hall during demolition in 1883. From the collection at Bantock House.

After being empty for some time, it was rented on a long lease to William and Obediah Ryton, who were tin plate workers, manufacturing Pontypool ware. They lived in part of the building, and converted what remained into workshops. Their business became extremely successful, and for a while the local japanning industry was centred on the Old Hall. One famous apprentice there was Edward Bird, R.A. who became a well known artist, whose paintings sold for large sums of money.

After Obediah Ryton’s death, his brother William continued in business at the Old Hall with a new partner, Benjamin Walton. They specialised in new forms of decoration, and paper tea trays, which were sought after by the wealthy, and sold from £5 to £10 each.

Another successful local japanner who started his career at the Old Hall was Edward Perry. He built-up a large business at Jeddo Works in Paul Street, where much of what follows took place.

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