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A very brief history of Bilston enamels

By gavin jones  |  Posted: April 29, 2010

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PAUL LUTER of Netherton is a keen historian and experienced speaker on local topics, and has sent us the following brief outline of an often-overlooked aspect of Black Country history. Paul writes: “Nowadays one occasionally sees the rare sight of a Bilston-made enamel box dating from the unique period between 1760 and 1830. these boxes, which at the time were viewed as toys, now sell for an average of two hundred and thirty pounds of auction websites, and have a distinct and interesting history.

“Enamels were first produced at Bilston about the year 1760 and by 1780 there were at least three enamel box makers in Bilston.

They were Isaac Beckett (1715-1789), Benjamin Bickley who died in 1776, and Thomas Perry. A further engraver and box painter named John Vardon also traded in Bilston as early as March 1756 and he died in Bilston in December 1792.

 “After the death of Benjamin Bickley in 1776, his wife Mary carried on his factory for four years until her death in 1780. Thomas Perry is now believed to have traded between 1760 and his death in 1780, but little more is known.

“The Beckett family tradition of enamel box making was carried on by successive generations of the family and ended with the business being in the hands of Edward Beckett, a nephew of Isaac junior who died in 1831, when the business terminated; and with it, the Bilston enamel box industry.

“The boxes have the distinctive polished steel mirrors, a form which was discontinued from 1785, from which date looking glasses came into favour in the works. It is also known that boxes with corrugated sides cannot be assigned to a date earlier than 1805 and that printed transfer designs do not appear on the Bickley boxes; they can only be attributed to the Beckett factory.

“In February 1929, a collection of Bilston enamel boxes from the Bickley factory were presented by Alderman Bantock, JP, to the Wolverhampton Art Gallery and placed on view in the west room of the gallery in Lichfield Street. These boxes had formerly belonged, from 1880, to the late Alderman Joseph Jones, who was a descendant of the Bickley family.” Paul would be happy to hear from anyone who has any questions of their own Bilston enamels, especially regarding those with unusual motifs or proverbs.

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