Two Dutch Brothers who Settled in Staffordshire - Ceremonious Tea-drinking of the East - The Spread of Tea-drinking in England gives Work to the Potters - The Elers' Works - A Primitive Speaking-tube - High Price of the Elers' Work - Distinguishing Marks - A Genuine Piece
Secured for Sixpence
A bout the year 1690 two Dutchmen of gentle birth, John Phillip and David Elers, began to make pottery in Staffordshire.
These brothers sprang from a noble Saxon family which had settled in Amsterdam, of which city their father was burgomaster. It is related that the Elector of Mentz and Queen Christina stood sponsors to John Phillip at his baptism.
The brothers Elers had no doubt received a practical training as potters in Holland, where a flourishing trade was carried on in Delft ware, and where much Chinese porcelain was imported and copied. In 1688 they had come to England in the train of William of Orange, and found an opening in this country for their skill in the growing demand for tea-ware.
Since the formation of the East India Company in 1650 tea had been largely imported into England, and with it accounts had reached this country of the wonderful tea ceremonials of the East - the "Cha-no-yu" of the Chinese, a ceremony in which every movement is regulated by laws known only to the initiated. Conversation during the rite is not allowed to touch upon everyday topics, but the host reads some stately lines of poetry or exhibits a masterpiece of art which may be discussed.
The kettle and utensils must be of historic or artistic interest, and the cups from which the infusion is drunk are gems which have been treasured as precious heirlooms, and are often of an archaic description. In place of the spoon of the barbarian West, a little straw broom is used, and this is after-wards laid upon the seventh or thirteenth seam of the matting - a most important point, and one of the small variations practised at different schools, which vary only in minor details.
The rules governing these functions have not changed through many succeeding centuries; their importance can hardly be appreciated in the West by those who have not studied this wonderful people and their ancient and beautiful ritual.
There is little doubt that in selecting Staffordshire as their place of residence the Elers had sought advice from some English potter of the day - possibly from Dwight, of Fulham - but it is not unlikely that they may have heard - to quote Mr. Solon - that ' clay and coal could be had in Staffordshire at that time by merely scratching the earth."
A Jealously Guarded Secret
They settled at a place called Dimsdale Hall, where they lived and had a warehouse, and they built their works at a secluded spot in Bradwell Wood, a mile distant. In the days of the Elers the potter guarded the secrets of his wares very jealously, and it is said that at this time idiots were at a premium in Staffordshire. These brothers were unwilling to introduce into their mixing-room any man of intelligence who might sell their secrets to others. The workmen were locked into their several rooms by day, and they were subjected to a strict examination at night. Strangers were not admitted to the factory, and finished products were removed to Dimsdale under cover of darkness.
Eventually, by feigning idiocy, two men, named A s t b u r y and Twyford, gained admittance to the factory, with the result that they afterwards copied the Elers' wares, and gave the recipe to other Staffordshire potters. It was also owing to the fear that their secrets might be divulged that these brothers invented a way by which they could send messages from the pottery to the warehouse. This they accomplished by means of a speaking-tube made of earthenware pipes, which they laid across the mile separating Dimsdale Hall and Bradwell Wood, and through which they conversed.
By 1692, or thereabouts, the Elers had brought their wares to perfection. These were sold at Dimsdale; and, encouraged by success, David established himself in London at a warehouse in the Poultry, Cheapside, as agent to his brother. In 1710 John Phillip
Beautiful little tea-pot, Elers' red ware, decorated with applied sprays of mayflower and birds in Chinese style. Believed to be a genuine specimen made by the Brothers Elers, and picked up recently for sixpence
From the first the Elers seem to have achieved fame through their tea-pots. It is said that these were sold in the Poultry at from twelve to twenty-five shillings each - a very high price in those days. Writing in 1693, Dr. Martin Lister alludes to the Elers' red ware in terms of high praise; he says :
A Contemporary Verdict
"I have to add that this clay Haematites is as good, if not better, than that which is brought from the East Indies. Witness the Tea Pots now to be sold at the potters' in the Poultry in Cheap-side, which not only for art, but for beautiful colour, too, are far beyond any we have from China. These are made by the English Hematites in Staffordshire, as I take it, by two Dutch-men, incomparable artists."