Lady Gwillim’s China

I am glad I brought out China desert set for here is so much glass that tho’ it costs so much they do not value it & here is no china except mine & a few things Sr. Thos Strange has – both that & my Wedgwood have been admired beyond everything, For except Lord Clives I do not see any Wedgwood but what looks as if it had been bought in Covent Garden. As well for pattern as shape.

Elizabeth to her sister Hester James, February 7, 1802

By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Wedgwood and other British manufacturers dominated china imports to India, not for sale to the indigenous population but to the British residents on the East India Company’s settlements.

Prior to her departure for India in March 1801, Elizabeth Gwillim visited Wedgwood’s London showroom on November 26, 1800 to select her china.

Wedgwood & Byerley in St James’s Square; the London showroom in 1809.

The next day she cancelled her order for eggcups. Her letter is preserved in The Wedgwood Museum Archives.

Mrs Gwillim when she was in Mr Wedgwood’s yesterday ordered 12 Egg cups to her dinner set,  and 12 to her breakfast set. She has since ordered some silver ones & therefore begs that neither  of those she ordered yesterday may be done as she will not want them.

The Wedgwood Museum Archives

Less than a year after they arrived in Madras, the Gwillim family realized they needed additional china.

Polly wrote to you to send me some more dishes &c the same as our dinner set, we do not want plates but a great many dishes all sizes. one soup Tureen & it must be the best shape – the tall sort – sallad bowls & vegetable dishes – no sauce boats – one plate each person goes through the dinner here it is laid at first but they all use China water plates which are set on the plate & these water plates are changed – They keep kettles of water boilling outside the house to fill the plates constantly. – I want also from Wedgwoods’ – 2 doz[e]n plates to match my breakfast set – one doz[e]n small dishes of different shapes for fruit which is always set here at breakfast — 12 breakfast cups & sawcers & 12 coffee cups with Muffin plates or any little things but no Chocolate cups – several slop basins, & bread & butter plates I will draw a bit of the pattern but I fancy they know it for I told them to write it down – I do not know whether Polly mentioned it before but I want from the Derby China Warehouse 12 plates to match my desert set & 12 dishes. The dishes must be 4 of each shape for corners.

Elizabeth to her sister Hester James, March 18, 1802

And in August 1803 she received them:

Amongst the innumerable things sent me I hardly know which to thank you for first – but  first to put out of the way the things of little interest & yet of Value my cases of China & of  Wedgwood came without any fractures & now my sets are very full & compleat.

Elizabeth to her sister Hester James, August 14/15, 1803

Lady Gwillim’s Breakfast Pattern

In 1805, Mary Symonds wrote to her sister in London to ask for more pieces in the breakfast set.

I have just recollected one thing we are in great want of, which is some more of the  Wedgwood breakfast Cups, both Tea & Coffee cups; pray have the goodness to send them  by the first opportunity 2 dozen Teacups & one dozen Coffee cups with Saucers & two  Teapots to match I will sketch the pattern.

Mary Symonds to her Sister, Esther  “Hetty” Symonds James, September 9, 1805

And she did sketch the pattern! The Archivist at The Wedgwood Museum has identified it as pattern 219, and is described in the pattern books  as “Red berries, brown leaves, fine line and edge.”

‘a great many dishes’

Why did the Gwillims and others of their station require quite so much chinaware? Partly it was what they ate, and partly how they ate. A formal English dinner in the fashionable style of dining à la française might consist of three courses, and each course might have twenty or more dishes. After a first course, which included two or more varieties of soup in tureens, entrées and small dishes of hors d’oeuvres, a second course arrived, perhaps a large roast accompanied by dishes of salads and vegetables. Once this was removed, the table was cleared and the dessert service was laid, with china baskets, fluted bowls, lidded sauce compote dishes on stands, and fancifully shaped serving plates.

Even informal occasions, such as a joint birthday dinner in fall 1806 for Mary Symonds and one of the many young men who frequented their home, required quantities of tableware. Elizabeth described the party to her sister: “On the 18th which was Biss’s & Mary’s birthday we had a grand Gala – 27 sat down to dinner.” For such a dinner, a hostess might easily use 60 individual bowls and plates, plus 50 or 60 serving dishes of various kinds, not to mention the dessert service.

By Victoria Dickenson