Article written by Pam Woolliscroft, former curator of the Spode Museum:

For over 200 years bone china has been famous as a particularly English porcelain. Exported worldwide from its creation, it was the new and fashionable choice for the very best of wares.

In 2015 Valentine Clays, a ceramics company based in the heart of the potteries, is one of very few manufacturers left who still produce the bone china body today. Currently sold, along with other top quality clays, to customers ranging from large commercial pottery manufacturers to individual craft potters.

The Invention of Bone China
Spode coffee cup, bone china, pattern 2812, handpainted & gilded c1820

The Spode company, under Spode I and Spode II, is credited by potters, collectors, researchers and other experts with having perfected the bone china formula before 1800.

1799 is the most likely date but it could perhaps be even a little earlier from circumstantial evidence.

Spode II took this new pottery body to perfection and it was unrivalled for many years. Both Wedgwood and Minton followed with production of their own bone china bodies at the beginning of the 1800s. It seems they could not compete with Spode and both ceased production of bone china for a while.

Often, incorrectly, Josiah Spode, as an individual, is named as the inventor. Why not Josiah Spode? Because there were 3 potters with this name associated with the Spode company, spanning nearly 100 years, so this can be confusing as well as misleading.

No direct documentary evidence has yet been found recording the exact date of the invention of bone china – no dated pieces, ‘receipt’ (recipe) books, diary entries, experiments or trials. But recipes for bone china from a slightly later date do survive and are now in the Spode archive. These are important business records, which were often closely guarded, handed down and carefully kept for production purposes at the Spode factory.

Bone china, invented or perfected at the Spode manufactory, is thought to be the result of experimentation initially by Spode I and then, after his death in 1797, by Spode II, who came back from running the London end of the Spode business, to take over the reins of the factory in Stoke. Like his father, Spode II was a Master Potter but also brilliant at marketing and selling.

The Spode manufactory was the first to perfect a body using about 50% animal bone combined with the ingredients for true porcelain i.e. china stone and china clay. This is the formula which is now described as bone china.

The production and success of this beautiful new English porcelain from Spode led to this description from Antoinette Fay-Hallé, Curator of the Sèvres factory in France:

‘The Spode factory was without doubt the most important factory in the 19th century.’

Spode’s bone china was translucent, very white and resonant and was intended to compete and be on a par with the Sèvres porcelain much loved by the well-to-do of the period. It was also possible to produce large pieces for the table in bone china which was not always successful in 18th century English porcelains which didn’t keep their shape during firing.

Coffee cup, pattern 2812, detail showing translucency of Spode’s bone china

Once bone china was in production, and soon a huge success, it did not stop further development at Spode. Recipes from the early 1800s record different combinations of the ingredients along with further experiments. The recipes used by the Spode manufactory were varied and numerous each given a number e.g. ‘China Body No 5’; specific objects such as toilet ware, vases and bowls had adapted bone china recipes to suit size and use.

Who were the Spode Potters?
Josiah Spode I (1733-1797), born near Stoke, came from a poor background. Working in the Staffordshire pottery industry as a child he would learn the rudiments of potting skills. He must have shown an aptitude for potting as, at the age of 16, he found employment with Thomas Whieldon – one of the foremost potters of the time. Whieldon engaged him under these terms:

‘Hired Siah Spoude to Give him from this time to Martlemas next, 2s. 3d or 2s. 6d, if he Deserves it’

Josiah Spode I (1733-1797)

Spode I probably worked for Whieldon until 1754 the year he was 21. What he did next is not clear but by 1767 he had a partner who could provide capital to feed his skills as Master Potter and was on his way to building a successful business. Spode I seems to have been a man of energy and action and a budding entrepreneur. In the second half of the of the 1700s, as well as training his 2 sons Josiah Spode II and Samuel Spode in the business of potting, he ran 2 partnerships – Spode & Tomlinson in Stoke; and Mountford & Spode in Shelton.

Eventually, in 1776, in his forties, Spode I’s long-term ambitions came true and he was able to purchase a ‘ready-made’ factory in Church Street (formerly High Street), Stoke. Since the closure of the Spode company in 2009 it is often described as ‘the original Spode factory site’. However it is much older than the association with Spode. Since 1751 the site had been a ‘potworks’ and at the time of the Spode purchase it was described as: ‘potworks potovens pothouses workhouses warehouses compting house…’

Josiah Spode II (1755-1827)

Now the Spodes were able to be independent with no partners. Together with the London business, set up in 1784 by Josiah Spode II to market and sell the finished goods, this led to great commercial success firmly establishing the Spode brand and leading the company to worldwide acclaim.

Backstamp c1808

What’s in a name? Bone China, English China, English Porcelain, British Porcelain and Fine Bone China
The modern term Fine Bone China cannot be used in an historical context as it was a term created by the major pottery manufacturers in the 20th century to describe their products.

In 1796 Spode sold wares to Tatton Park in Cheshire and described some of them as English China – could this be Spode’s earliest name for bone china? In 1806 bone china from Spode was known as English Porcelain – this is in the wording of the Royal Warrant awarded to Spode II (right) appointed as ‘Potter & English Porcelain Manufacturer to His Royal Highness’ in that year.

Spode tableware, Stafford Flowers pattern, bone china, lithographed & gilded 1986

So beautiful, desirable and successful was Spode’s bone china, that the phrase ‘the inventor of bone china’ was consistently in use to market Spode’s bone china throughout the 20th century up to the closure of the factory in 2009.

Spode’s bone china wares were some of the most desirable ceramic products for the wealthy and discerning customer for 200 years.

Bone as a raw material
For some, the revelation that bone china actually includes animal bone comes as a surprise!

Pottery manufacturers had experimented with using bone ash in porcelain recipes in the 18th century so the use of this ingredient was not new. Bow Porcelain, London, introduced bone ash in about 1749. It is fascinating to note a link (discovered by Spode family historian Peter Roden), between Spode I and John Wetherby, proprietor of Bow porcelain. Spode I, in 1759 when just 26, is recorded as acting in the responsible role as power of attorney for Wetherby in a business transaction in Stoke whilst Wetherby remained in London. A clue perhaps to Spode I’s knowledge about bone ash in porcelain…?

Not just any old bone can be used in bone china. An early 19th century manuscript in the Spode archive (ref SD1440/MSS 797/6) specifies the type of bone required:

‘This is a material which requires great care in its selection, the best that can be used are the leg Bones of Oxen & Cows but on no account Horses bones as they are open and spongy whereas the former are solid.’

The treatise continues with much detailed advice on preparation including:

‘picking them [the bones] over before grinding so as to get rid of all iron & other impurities…’

For many years the bones were prepared, calcined and ground at the Spode factory alongside most of the processes required by an early 19th century pottery manufactory. A factory that was self-sufficient.

Bone china in the modern era
Bone china had a huge impact on the pottery industry. It was always the choice for the best of wares. The Spode recipe became the industry standard. Initially about 3 times the price of earthenware when it was first produced, it remained an expensive product. Spode’s bone china was always the whitest even in the modern era. Side by side with other top manufacturers’ bone china stood out even when, by the 1970s, the Spode recipe had changed in order to make it work better with machine manufacture.

Angela Verdon working with bone china at Gladstone Pottery Museum

Still in production today (2015) bone china is used by both commercial manufactures and studio potters including renowned potter, Angela Verdon. She began experimenting with it in the 1970s and now produces beautifully polished forms using clay from Valentine Clays.


Acknowledgements, references & bibliography:
Researched and written by Pam Woolliscroft, former Curator of the Spode Museum, author of the Spode History blog:

With grateful thanks to:
Peter Roden; Robert Copeland; Hannah Ault, Valentine Clays; Spode archive, Potteries Museum & Art Gallery; Terry Woolliscroft

‘Closer to the Bone: the Development of Bone China’ Robert Copeland, Journal of the Northern Ceramic Society Volume 9 1992

‘Spode & Copeland Marks & Other Relevant Intelligence’ Robert Copeland, Studio Vista, 2nd edition 1997 ISBN 0 289 80069 2

‘Copyhold Potworks & Housing in the Staffordshire Potteries 1700-1832’ Peter Roden, Wood Broughton Publications, 2008 ISBN 978-0-9559317-0-3

‘Josiah Spode (1733-1797): his formative influences and the various Potworks associated with him’ Peter Roden, Northern Ceramic Society Journal Vol 14 1997

‘Collections towards a history of pottery and porcelain, in the 15th, 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries with a description of the manufacture, a glossary, and a list of monograms’ Joseph Marryat published 1850

The Spode archive papers can be accessed by appointment at the Stoke-on-Trent City Archives:

Spode dessert plate bone china, handpainted & gilded c1800