The Belleek Story…
In 1853 John Caldwell Bloomfield, owner of the Castlecaldwell estate, commissioned a mineral survey of his lands. It discovered that in an area approximately eight miles from Belleek at Larkhill, there were sufficient deposits of Feldspar and Kaolin (china clay) to make mining commercially viable.
A crushing mill was built at Belleek on the site of an old corn mill and where there was waterpower from the River Erne to drive the machinery necessary to process the raw materials.
These materials were exported to England and a large contract was established with the firm of Kerr & Binns of Worcester, later to become Royal Worcester.
It was through this link that John Caldwell Bloomfield, Robert Williams Armstrong and later David Mc Birney met. Each of them was to contribute vital elements to the foundation and success of the Pottery- land, expertise and finance.
The resulting company was known as David Mc Birney & Co. In 1858 construction of the main pottery building started. It is difficult to say exactly when production began but by 1863 making of utilitarian and probably some sanitary ware had commenced.
In the Dublin Exhibition of 1864 the products shown by Belleek consisted of earthen and stoneware in “dinner, toilet and other table services” made by moulding, press and die, or pressure from powdered clay. (Royal Dublin Society, Official Catalogue of the Exhibition of Manufacturers, Machinery and Fine Arts 1864).
The Exhibition of Arts, Industries and Manufactures organised by Sir Edward Lee were held in Dublin in 1872.
The firm of David McBirney & Co. featured Porcelain for the first time.
The list included nine Parian statuettes and busts, twenty-nine different Dessert pieces, sixteen types of table ornaments the latter category including hand woven baskets. Also displayed were thirty-six pattern plates and twenty-four hollow pieces in the dinnerware section. Examples of the Echinus Eggshell Dejuener sets similar to the one purchased by Queen Victoria as well as the Chinese double spouted kettles and tea urns were also on display.
Also exhibited were Earthenware Dinnerware, Tea & breakfast ware, Toilet ware and heavy utilitarian pieces.
The presence of so many expensive heavily decorated, ornamented and gilded pieces, was the beginnings of Robert Armstrong’s goal of making products that would interest the wealthier classes and so raising the aspirational appeal of Belleek to the wider market.
Although Belleek did not win any awards at the exhibition their stand did form the largest section within the Irish and English industrial area of the Exhibition.
The Exposition Universelle of 1900 was a World fair held in Paris, France to celebrate the achievements of the past century and to accelerate development into the next. More than 50 million people attended the exhibition (a world record at the time), yet it still failed to turn a profit, costing the French government 2,000,000 Francs. The fair included more than 76,000 exhibitors and covered 1.12 square kilometres of Paris.
The exhibition lasted from the 14th April until 10th November 1900.
Belleek won their fourth gold medal at this Exhibition for the International Centre-piece and it is displayed in the foyer.
Here are shown some of the other exhibits brought to the Paris Exhibition. Some of these such as the Dolphin Candlestick were in production for many years but others including the Henshall basket were probably first introduced in Paris.
This mirror is, we believe, the actual mirror displayed in Paris, a similar styled mirror was presented to Queen Victoria on the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee in 1897.
The Belleek Visitors Book 1868 – 1884
The first entry is dated October 1st 1868 and is signed by the Earl & Countess of Lanesborough of Lanesborough Lodge, Belturbet, Co Cavan.
Captain John Vansittart Danvers Butler, 6th Earl of Lanesborough was born on 18 April 1839. He was the son of Captain Charles Augustus Butler Danvers and Letitia Rudyard Ross Freese. He married Anne Elisabeth Clark daughter of the Reverend John Dixon Clark, on 21 June 1864.
The Earls of Lanesborough were extensive landowners in both Ireland and England and held estates in Co Cavan and Fermanagh. The villages of Newtownbutler in Co Fermanagh and Butlersbridge in Co Cavan are named after the family.
They arrived accompanied by Viscount and Lady Templetown from Castle Upton, Templepatrick Co Antrim.
George Frederick Upton sat as a Conservative MP for Antrim from 1858 to 1863. In 1866 he became an Irish Representative Peer and sat in the House of Lords as Lord Templetown.
We cannot know if the Visitors Book was purchased specially for the visit of these important visitors but the arrival of such well-connected persons would have certainly been considered well worth recording to impress other visitors who in turn would also record their names.
In the weeks and months that followed many other important visitors are noted. Lord and Lady Enniskillen, Miss Brooke of Ashbrooke Co Fermanagh along with Miss Bloomfield daughter of John Caldwell Bloomfield of Castlecaldwell. Late in December 1868 Mr Richardson the High Sheriff of Co Fermanagh also visited the Pottery.
The first visitor from England is Archibald Anson from Longfield Rectory in Derbyshire signed his name in January 1869.
This entry is followed by a long list of persons from the titled aristocracy of the day to the landed gentry to visitors to the locality.
This latter category would increase in volume over the next decade with the popularity of travelling by train on holiday excursions.
The railway connection from Belleek opened in 1866. Another category visiting were returned emigrants who had made good in the New World and were able to travel back across the Atlantic, to visit the land of their birth. These included Rev William McNulty of Passaic, New Jersey visiting Ballyshannon, also Thomas McElderry Sinclair and his wife Caroline of Cedar Falls, Idaho visiting their families in Belfast.
Today we are ever mindful of the potential of tourism and in particular Belleek has been successfully attracting large numbers of visitors over the last twenty-five years with its Visitors centre and factory tour that encompasses every aspect of the making of Belleek fine porcelain. So it is perhaps surprising that the founders of Belleek had already seen the potential of attracting visitors.
The visit of The Earl & Countess of Spencer, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland and his wife on May 12th 1870 was a remarkable event and it gave the fledgling Pottery an tremendous endorsement by the Viceroy, Queen Victoria’s representative in Ireland. He later placed an order for a dinner service with his family crest and a porcelain tea service of the Echinus pattern also with his family crest.
His visit is recorded by a report printed in the Irish Times.
Echinus Tea set with the Spencer family crest purchased by Earl Spencer.
Part of the Earthenware Dinner Service with the Spencer Crest purchased by the Earl Spencer.
The book continued in use up until sometime after the last recorded date of August 31st 1884. The last page with signed names is not dated. As the book is not completely filled out we can only surmise that sometime soon afterwards the book was either taken, mis-laid or a decision made to no longer record Visitor names.
The complete story is still a mystery but the presence of the book is both a gem of Pottery history and a great source of social history of the latter half of the 19th Century.
We acknowledge the efforts of two members of the Belleek Collectors International Society to purchase the book and to give it to Belleek Pottery on loan to display in the Belleek Visitors Centre Museum.
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