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This blog makes liberal use of AB's journals, letters, travel notes, and other sources.

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Sunday, 25 November 2012

A lone and wonderful genius

Thursday, November 25th., London

Last night, as I sat alone in the house, reviewing there was a strange knock. I went to the door, and saw old Mr. Boulton in the fog; a hansom was just driving away. He came in, and sat down in my easy chair; a tall, slightly bent figure, with a creased benevolent large face, and the whitest, silkiest hair and long beard: the most venerable and dignified person that has ever sat in this room of mine. I felt proud of the slight connection between us. He began to talk to me about the technique of writing, making naive, original observations - the thoughts of a gifted child; you could see the strong working of the mind that  by means of machinery has revolutionised an entire craft. "I don't know anything about writing," he said, "but give me a bit of machinery, and I could go to bed with it."
I told him I had just bought a folio bible printed at Burslem by John Tregortha, and asked if he would like to see it. "Ay," he said, "I should. It's a book I'm rather partial to." So he got it over his knees, and putting his spectacles on, spelt out the interminable title page. I directed him to the family register which had been kept according to custom between the Old and the New Testaments. When he came to the date 1786 he said "My father was alive then," and at 1826 "I was born just a year before that." Afterwards he examined with the same minuteness my Tregortha Hymn Book and Herbal.

The Quaker John Tregortha, born around 1767 in Cornwall but lived for many years in Burslem, is the earliest printer in Burslem whose work has survived. his press was set up in 1796 and is recorded is having been active to 1816.

At a quarter to ten he must go. He said he always went to bed between 10.30 and 10.45, and answered 20 or 30 letters before breakfast. I asked him how he proposed to get to Bloomsbury. "Oh," he said, "I shall go up this street, turn to the right, and pick up what I can - cab or bus." I had a mind to set him on his way, but he seemed so alert, so equipped, with his 71 years and his magnificent white hair and his tall stooping figure that to offer to do so would have been an insult.
Afterwards, I wondered to myself if he had taken the trouble to sum me up quickly. I felt always with him that he spoke about the hundredth part of what he thought, and I have noticed that he never contradicts.
A lone and wonderful genius, if ever there was one, existing in the world of his own brain, and passing over the earth as if in a dream. yet shrewd in earthly things and never to be fooled ... The force of his character radiates from him a certain fine influence sensible enough to those delicate enough to see it ... I regarded his visit as an event in my life, though he had not come to see me but Tertia, and was disappointed at missing her.

William Boulton (1825 - 1900) The firm which bears his name was founded in 1852 at a time when the manufacture of pottery was evolving from an entirely hand crafted to a semi-mechanised industry. The firm developed many ideas and patented many inventions which revolutionised the mechanical side of the potter, sanitary, glazed tile, electrical porcelains and refractory industries. William Boulton of Burslem was a prolific engineer and produced many pieces of equipment including clay presses, blungers and pug mills. In 1867, he patented a continuous-rope driven jigger. This was much more reliable than the steam jigger and cost half as much. Many potters started to install mechanised processes in their potworks - the blunger was one of them. William Boulton designed the blunger and patented it in 1874. 

In the 1880s Boulton produced a machine which could produce 12 plates at a time and ended the need to 'bat out' the clay which had been the heaviest part of the plate makers task. Machinery has continuously improved so that it is possible to have a fully automated plate making machine, using a revolving roller profile which both spreads the clay and gives the shape. The steam engine at Middleport Pottery was built in 1888 by William Boulton , and was used to run huge amounts of the factory’s machinery.


  1. Great blog! There is a ref. to Tregortha in The Price of Love, which I am guessing is based on this encounter, depending on date - is it 1909? And could you clarify the source? Many thanks.

    1. I wasn't aware of that. I will search it out. The text is from AB's journal 1897 (November 25th.)Thanks for the kind words. Revivifying AB is a labour of love but nice to be appreciated. Let me know if you spot other interesting links. E-mail address is earnoldbennett@gmail.com