How did Royal Crown Derby manage to survive the war time years 1939-45 and grow its export business?
In the book Royal Crown Derby by John Twitchett and Betty Bailey, the Second World War period is dealt with in one sentence “During the difficult war years, 1939-45, production was maintained, but mostly useful ware was made": (page 63 1988 Antique Collectors club). The list of new patterns set out in this website (some 400 during the period in question) and recent research now suggests that this was far from the reality.
An article which appeared in the Derby Evening Telegraph on Wednesday 5th September 1945 (barely 4 months after the end of the war in Europe) gives a rather clearer indication of the level of activity during the period although it is acknowledged that the factory would have supplied this as editorial to the paper.
The article begins “Throughout the war years stocks of the richly decorated Crown Derby China have gradually disappeared in this country, but production at the Royal Crown Derby Porcelain works in Osmaston Road has been maintained at full capacity to provide one of the most appreciated items in the maintenance of our overseas exports”.
After a warning to potential customers that the Board of Trade restrictions still exist and that only white ware could be supplied to the home market it continues:- “The export market alone, however, can keep the firm busy for several years with the orders that are already in hand. They are holding ten times the number of orders for export at the moment than were held before the war on home and foreign markets combined-the maximum ever on the books.” Announcing the intention to modernise the factory to include the addition of large extensions and the installation of electric tunnel kilns to give 24 hour operation the article states that “During the war America and Canada were the main overseas customers, and total shipments, apart from the home market, were about two million pieces of china”. Further explanation followed:-““Rich” services sent to Tiffany’s in New York……cost anything up to £1000, and the New York firm recently congratulated the Derby works on sending out the finest range of patterns from England……..The magnificent showroom at the works is the only place at the moment where it is possible to get any idea of the greatly increased variety of designs that have been introduced during the war, and will become available to the public as soon as the restrictions are removed”
Despite the hyperbole, clearly rather more was happening at the factory during the war than either previous accounts or the Royal Crown Derby official website would suggest. This raises the question how did the factory manage to continue operations during this difficult period and successfully grow its export business? Clearly not by producing white ware alone, which is the most difficult to manufacture. Most plates have blemishes to varying degrees, and a pattern is a very useful way of concealing these so that ware can then be sold as first quality.
There are a number of factors which contributed to this success:-
The management of the business is clearly a significant issue. Harold Taylor Robinson was a very driven entrepreneur who had rapidly expanded his Arcadian business during the 1914-18 conflict when he had very successfully mass produced war related souvenirs. He had known very considerable success and equally considerable failure, and in 1939 had 40 years’ experience in the business. He would have had contacts in the US and Canada from his previous companies, particularly in respect of Cauldon, and had even registered patents in the US in 1929. By all accounts he appears to have been well respected by his staff (Page 35 Gold in my Veins – Betty Wherry). Although key operatives were taken for war work or drafted into the army he motivated the workforce and coped with available staff, a significant issue as faced with severe staff shortages, the RCD situations vacant advertisements appeared in the Derby Evening Telegraph throughout the war.
The arrival of Phillip Robinson in 1940 who introduced an extensive range of new patterns. These are included in the pages below. These are mostly characterised by using patterns raised from the body of the article. Vine, Chinese Birds, Pershore and Kendal are particular examples of this technique.
The resilience and loyalty of the remaining work force. Contemporary accounts reveal that working conditions in the factory at the time were often difficult. With reliance on coal fires for heating in the offices, working in the winter months was an ordeal until such time as pipes for a heating system were secured from a local scrap yard. Factory workers volunteered for fire watch duties and remained in the factory on a rota overnight to deal with the risk of incendiaries. The factory is near to the Carriage and Wagon works and bomb damage was a very significant risk. In 1941 two RAF personnel were killed at the rear of the factory when the band stand at the Arboretum took a direct hit. The kilns when cooled were used as air raid shelters and chimneys capped to prevent enemy planes from seeing the glow from above as firing usually took place during the night time (Page 22 Gold in my Veins Betty Wherry). News of colleagues when reported in the newspaper was not always good. On Friday 26th March 1943 Cpl E Leigh, 27 of 51 Yates Street and former factory employee was reported as missing in North Africa. On the 23rd April he was reported to be a prisoner of the Italians.
Board of Trade restrictions were a particular issue. In a letter to the editor which appeared in the Derby Evening Telegraph of the 3rd June 1942 Harold Taylor Robinson was moved to let the public know that the Board of Trade price controls relating to “domestic white or light ivory earthenware cups, mugs, and beakers (tumblers), saucers, plates, meat dishes, jugs, pudding bowls, pie dishes and vegetable dishes” did not “apply to white bone china, the sale of which remains uncontrolled”. Although possibly coincidental, one could speculate that the use of a revised date cipher for the year 1941 (Ian C Harding Derby Porcelain International Society Journal 6) might have been prompted by a desire to confuse such ware with that showing the 1930-7 date ciphers, although in reality much that was exported lacks any date cipher.
The use of factory tours to market the product, including potential overseas buyers. Regular visits were arranged for US army personnel reportedly based near Uttoxeter. Contemporary reports indicate that these provided entertainment to both staff and guests, and that the visitors, who came armed with chocolates and nylons, were at times difficult to extract when the visit was over. Visits by celebrities reported in the local press included those by Greta Richards “Railway Queen” and Actress Elizabeth Allan. On the 28th April 1945 The Duchess of Kent visited the works
The maintenance of a quality product whilst at the same time introducing mass production techniques. The services of skilled artists such as Albert Haddock, William Dean, Donald Birbeck, William Mosley and Cuthbert Gresley were retained during the period. Jack Saddington would have been included in this list but the sad news of his death was reported in the Derby Evening Telegraph on the 23rd July 1942. Despite the war time restrictions thirty plate centres were designed by Donald Birbeck and were painted by Mosley to form a dessert service for an Indian Prince. The order was reported in full in a Derby EveningTelegraph article of Tuesday 18th February 1941. In this article Harold Robinson is quoted saying that “Craftsmanship built up Derby’s ceramic fame, and only craftsmanship will maintain it” Phillip Robinson attended a meeting in London to finalise the arrangements which coincided with a blitz. The order of 625 pieces in total was completed and shipped, but contemporary accounts suggest that it never reached its intended recipient, being lost at sea. Goods sent by sea, especially to the US and Canada by convoy, were always at risk, especially after the US entered the war December 1941. An exhibition of the flowers for an Indian Prince service was held at the China Room, Derby Museum commencing Monday 16th March 1942.
On the fourth of April 1945 an article in the Derby Evening Telegraph reported the gift of a banqueting Service to the Corporation. Designed by Phillip Robinson the service comprised 1000 pieces in two patterns. Paid for by the Directors of the paper representative pieces were delivered to the Corporation, as reported by the Derby Evening Telegraph, on Saturday 10th November 1945.
It would have been difficult to reveal the full extent of the activities at the factory during the war time period because of the risk of causing resentment in customers in the Home Market. However that situation changed with the ending of the Board of Trade restrictions on production for the home market in 1952. It is therefore rather surprising that the efforts of the workforce during the period are still apparently unrecognised. I intend to consider this and other aspects of the business in subsequent posts.