|Decorative vitreous enamels were made at
Wolverhampton, Wednesfield, Birmingham and other places but the largest
and most famous production was at Bilston. The artists and craftsmen of
Bilston not only enamelled the boxes and other trinkets but others in
the town also made the boxes and trinkets for enamelling and engraved
the plates from which transfers for enamelling were made.
The story of this trade has been exhaustively chronicled in Tom Cope's "Bilston Enamels of the 18th Century", published by the Black Country Society (undated). The information on this page has been mostly taken from that book.
It is sometimes suggested that the closing of the famous Battersea enamel factory in 1756 lead to the setting up of the Bilston enamel trade; but this cannot be the case as there is clear evidence of the trade's existence in Bilston well before 1750. But, Cope suggests, men and materials, such as the engraved plates for transfers, may have migrated to Bilston after 1756 and improved the standard of work. Probably Dovey Hawksford was the first Bilston enameller, taking up the art to improve the value and attractiveness of the boxes and other toys which he produced on a large scale.
The main period for the production of these enamels was roughly 1760 to 1790. In that period there were many workshops in the Bilston area, mostly small scale, family run affairs - in which, it is worth noting, women seem to have played an important role.
Cope seems to suggest that one reason for the decline of the industry was the establishment of other industries in the area, especially the expansion of the iron and coal industries. But how such a process might have worked is not clear. A more obvious reason for the decline was the Napoleonic Wars and the economic straightening which they produced. This was accompanied by changes in fashion and the increasing ability of the pottery industry to provide small decorative items at a lower cost.
Cope even suggests that the sheer longevity of enamelled wares and the resulting shortage of repeat orders might have contributed. It is also possible that Bilston would have felt any fall in demand sooner than other places because its products were produced cheaply and sold cheaply, making them available to the masses and therefore no longer fashionable. But industrial enamelling, mainly of iron and steel, was taken up in Bilston as decorative enamelling declined and it remained an important industry in the area well into the 20th century.
It is difficult to identify Bilston enamels as neither the boxes nor the enamel work nor the transfer engravings were ever signed. Stylistic identification also seems to have failed. Nor can the enamel itself be identified as the powdered colours were bought it and were not unique to Bilston. The best way to be certain that an enamel is a Bilston one is to have its provenance, such as coming from a member of a family of enamellers.
The illustrations on this page are all by courtesy of the Wolverhampton City Council and are all of items in their possession, many of which are displayed at Bantock House, a visit to which is strongly recommended. We would like to thank Philippa Tinsley, Helen Statham and Susannah Gilbert for their kind assistance with the illustrations and captions. All the photos are copyright of the Wolverhampton City Council and may not be reproduced without their express permission.