A Brief History of Spode – Copeland China: Part I

The world of 18th century English porcelain was a small one. Due to the necessity of soil with just the right mixture of elements in the making of porcelain factories have always been closely bound by geography. The strident apprenticeship system that dominated all trades in England at the time combined with physical proximity to ensure that everyone in the porcelain trade knew everyone else.

Thomas Whieldon, a famous china maker in his own right, was both a one-time partner of the great Josiah Wedgwood and oversaw the apprenticeship of Josiah Spode, founder of Spode-Copeland China. (Incidentally, it seems that more than geography and apprenticeship bound 18th century potters together, every other one is named Josiah.)

Josiah Spode was born on March 23rd, 1733 to nearly impoverished parents in Staffordshire. That corner of England had long been a hotbed of porcelain making and it was the fate of many young men of the region to wind up in the works. Josiah Spode’s father, also named Josiah, died suddenly when the boy was only six and the family was left penniless. The old man even suffered the indignity of a pauper’s funeral.

The record is unclear on how the Widow Spode and her family made ends meet afterwards, but what is know is that Josiah turned up as an apprentice to Thomas Whieldon in 1749. This makes the boy sixteen, a rather advanced age to begin an apprenticeship. It was common for boys to enter their servitude no later than thirteen, so there is something of a mystery there.

In any case, Josiah Spode could have certainly have done worse for a master than Thomas Whieldon. Whieldon was a marvelous craftsman, the most famous of his day and he invented a tortoise-shell porcelain that became exceedingly popular. He was also known as a broad-minded man who helped promote the careers of talented youngsters.

At the age of twenty-one Spode left Whieldon and spent several years working here and there and in partnership with various other craftsman. He eventually settled in to operating his own firm in his native town of Stoke-on-Trent, although the exact year is unclear, it was likely in 1767. By the middle of the next decade he owned the business and the buildings outright and Spode was instrumental in the construction of a canal system that vastly improved the transportation of goods from the area.

Spode married Ellen Findley about the same time as he left Whieldon’s firm. Ellen was a formidable woman who operated a hat making business as well as mothering eight children. The couple would outlive most of their children; five of the eight would die before they were forty. A son called William died at age three and a girl named Elizabeth died at sixteen.

In 1778, Spode’s eldest son, once again named Josiah, moved to London to open a shop there to distribute his father’s wares in the largest urban area and most populous city on Earth.

The London shop was a great success. In part this success was thanks to a breakthrough in transfer printing made by the elder Spode. This advancement allowed much more complicated and colorful images to be printed on earthenware then had ever been possible before. The new printing allowed the English firm to reproduce the popular patterns that before had to come all the way from Canton and was becoming harder to come by as well as more expensive.

By 1780s the younger Josiah Spode had taken over the family business and made a number of technical advances that allowed the firm take make finer and finer china. In 1784 a man named William Copeland joined the firm and applied a enterprising attitude and a tireless energy to the business end of the company that allowed Spode to concentrate on what he did best, making pottery and porcelain.

Copeland contributed so much by his successful operation of the London store and supervising the traveling sales that in 1805 he was made a full partner. His son, William Taylor Copeland, would eventually succeed him at the time of his death in 1826. The younger William Copeland would also serve as Lord Mayor of London for two years during the 1830s.

The company remained in the hands of Spode and Copeland family members until the mid 1960s. In 1970 the company changed its name to simply Spode, an event that could not have pleased any surviving members of the Copeland family.

—-Posted on September 14th, 2006
Silas Finch is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Collectible Antiques Etc. He can be reached at Content and Solutions.

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