In its heyday, Samuel Alcock & Co was one of the biggest factories in Staffordshire. Its domestic wares – especially its line of rococo-inspired ceramics – populated the homes of the Victorian middle class.
Founded in the 1820s by Samuel Alcock (1799-1848), it operated for over three decades producing vast quantities of high-quality porcelain and earthenware.
Its pieces came in a multitude of styles and designs, including floral vases, miniature statuary, dinner services and relief-moulded picture jugs. At its peak, the factory employed a workforce of around 700 before the bankruptcy of two of Alcock’s sons who had taken over running the firm forced its closure in 1859. It was subsequently bought by Sir James Duke & Nephews.
Despite its popularity, comparatively little is known about the firm today. Its pattern books are lost and many pieces were left unmarked. In ceramics circles, it has a reputation for being difficult to identify.
“Samuel Alcock porcelain is everywhere but the majority of it is misidentified as made by other factories, due to the lack of knowledge”, says porcelain dealer Willa Latham of Gentle Rattle of China.
The firm’s rococo-inspired tea wares, produced in the 1840s-50s, are among the most common to be mistaken for other potteries. Confusion, Latham says, also stems from the “dizzying array of designs” the factory produced and its method of numbering its patterns that “seemed to make no sense at all”.
That is, until now. She has been tasked with bringing a vast private collection to the market which sheds new light on the factory, including its pattern numbers.
“Having this collection in the public domain will change everyone’s view of Samuel Alcock and it will have many collectors scratching their heads about what they thought were pieces from other makers”, says Latham.
It was assembled by Murray Pollinger (1932-2022), a porcelain enthusiast and successful literary agent who worked with well-known authors and illustrators such as Roald Dahl, Quentin Blake and Rosemary Sutcliff.
In the mid-1980s, Pollinger quietly set about researching the factory with the help of his friend and fellow collector Stephen Bressey. Over the years, he made numerous trips to Staffordshire and purchased thousands of pieces, meticulously cataloguing each one.
Rumours of a knowledgeable collector circulated in the trade, but Pollinger’s identity remained unknown until after his death last year when Latham was contacted by his family.
“He attended every fair and knew every little shop in every little village. I asked many dealers, and many remember him – yet nobody knew he was such a serious collector”, says Latham “He would buy a piece of ‘Minton’, smile politely, leave, and add it to his Alcock collection, carefully researched and catalogued.”
In Pollinger’s ‘porcelain room’, located in an outhouse of his Georgian home in Norfolk, Latham discovered stacks of scrap paper with long lists of numbers scribbled down from which Pollinger had deciphered the firm’s pattern number system.
“Murray cracked the secret code and found the logic behind the pattern numbers, finally making it possible to correctly identify Samuel Alcock porcelain”, says Latham.
Aside from writing one article with Bressey (which is not widely available), Murray did not publish any of his research. Latham suggests that it was probably because he did not consider himself a writer.
“For Murray, who did not excel at school but turned into an extraordinary literary agent representing authors of great talent, publishing a book himself was clearly unthinkable.”
Released in batches
So as not to flood the market, the collection is being released in batches over the coming year.
The first instalment features some 100 highlights spanning the factory’s entire period of operation and including vases, dishes, pen trays, dinner sets, plates and jugs.
Though many have light damage, says Latham, they include “the most interesting, beautiful and, in many cases, rare items of interest to collectors” and come in shapes and patterns previously misidentified as Coalport, Minton or Ridgway.
These include a rococo revival serpent handle vase commonly thought to be Ridgway (several were miscatalogued as such at an auction recently) and a cobalt blue gilt flowered teapot mistaken for the work of H&R Daniel.
The collection is currently available to view via Latham’s website exclusively to those signed up to the mailing list. Prices range from around £100 for a floral cup and saucer to £7000 for an early, complete dessert service. A website dedicated to Pollinger’s research will follow in the coming year.
Samuel Alcock timeline:
1799 – Samuel Alcock is born in Kingsley, Staffordshire, the youngest of nine children.
1822 – Alcock goes into partnership with Ralph Stephenson, a potter of bluepainted earthenware, manufacturing pottery in Cobridge under the name The Hill Top Pottery.
1826 – The factory is renamed Samuel Alcock & Co and over the next decade expands to employ around 700 people, becoming one of the biggest factories in Staffordshire.
1840 – Alcock opens another factory in Burslem, built in the Venetian style. He holds a grand ball and banquet hosting fellow potters and local nobility and providing food for 900 friends and employees.
1842 – As chief constable of Burslem he helps put down the Chartist-inspired uprising, which was focused on the Staffordshire potteries including his own factories where the workers were paid low wages.
1848 – Alcock dies. The firm is taken over by his wife Elizabeth and two sons, Samuel and Thomas, whose bankruptcy forces the factory to close in 1859.