Last week, I wrote about the exceptional artificial stone created by Mrs. Eleanor Coade, which she sold at her manufactory in Lambeth. But Eleanor Coade herself was a remarkable woman, who, with her creative talent, her business acumen and her perseverance, in an industry dominated by men, built a successful enterprise which flourished for three-quarters of a century, surviving her by more than a score of years. Later in life she became a philanthropist who directed much of her benevolence to women in need.
How a strong-willed young lady from Dorset saved her family fortune and covered the buildings of England with beautiful and durable classical ornaments …
The Coade family originated in Cornwall, and at last report, there are still a few Coades who live there today. But a branch of the family had moved east and settled in the area of Lyme Regis, in Dorset, in the seventeenth century. The Coades were Dissenters, and they found the Dorset area hospitable, because there were so many other Dissenters settled in the region that they were less likely to be harassed for their beliefs. There, in the first decade of the eighteenth century, was born a boy named George Coade. When young George grew to adulthood, he married a young woman named Elinor Enchmarch, in 1732, at which time the couple moved to Exeter. The following year, their first child, Elinor, was born, on 24 June 1733. Their second daughter, Elizabeth, followed a couple of years later. For nearly thirty years, George Coade was a successful finisher of wool cloth. But by the mid-1750s, the wool trade was in decline and in 1759, George Coade was forced to declare bankruptcy. Soon thereafter, George Coade moved his family away from Exeter.
The next record of George Coade has him, and his family, in London, in 1762. In that year, he was a fellow of The Society for the Encouragement of Arts and Sciences (now known as the Royal Society of Arts) after which he went into business again. In 1766, his daughter, Elinor, who was now signing herself as "Eleanor," had set up as a linen-draper and insured her stock for £200. The following year, she was listed as a merchant, and had her own lodgings, which she shared with her younger sister, Elizabeth. Alison Kelly, the noted expert on Eleanor Coade and her artificial stone, believes that Eleanor had set up her own business and taken separate lodgings from her father to prevent him laying hands on her assets, as he was once again on the verge of bankruptcy. He did indeed go bankrupt in 1769, and died soon thereafter. Kelly also speculates that the main reason that Eleanor Coade never married was that she valued her status as a free woman, subject to no man’s authority. That status stood her in good stead upon the death of her father, since she was not liable for his debts, and was able to take in her widowed mother, who had been left nearly destitute. Fortunately, Eleanor’s uncle was eventually able to pay off his bankrupt brother’s debts and clear the family name, though he was either unable or unwilling to support her or her family.
Eleanor Coade may have been investigating other business opportunities for herself even before her father lost his own business to bankruptcy. What is certain is that she acquired the premises of a fellow Dissenter, Daniel Pincot, who had attempted to develop his own formula for artificial stone, which had not been successful. With these new facilities, she was able to experiment and develop her own, very successful, formula for artificial stone. She never took out a patent on the formula, and for that reason, for many years, it was believed to have been a secret which she took to her grave. It was known that she shared it with the men she hired to manage her manufactory when her business expanded, though they also kept the secret. However, in recent years, modern analytical methods have established the exact formula which she used: a combination of white ball clay, with which she was familiar, since it was mined near her birthplace in Dorset, in addition to sand/flint, crushed glass and grog, i.e., ground and powdered previously fired stoneware, known as "wasters" in the trade. It was this already fired material, the grog, which helped make Coade stone so durable, and created a clay body which shrank no more than 8% when it was fired in the kiln, even at high temperatures for several days.
When Mrs. Coade initially took over Pincot’s property in Lambeth, she kept him on as manager of her manufactory, since he had practical experience with the running of a ceramics factory. However, it is fairly certain she never shared her formula for artificial stone with him. But there was a rift between them when, in 1771, he began representing himself as Eleanor Coade’s full, and in a few cases, senior partner. Once this came to her attention, she soon thereafter terminated his employment and advertised in the leading London newspapers that she was the sole proprietor of Coade’s Lithodipyra Terra-Cotta or Artificial Stone Manufactory, located at King’s Arms Stairs, at the Narrow Wall. Those advertisements also included a statement that she was the sole creator of the formula by which artificial stone items were made at her manufactory.
For thirty years, Eleanor Coade ran her manufactory almost single-handedly, hiring staff, keeping the books, and directing operations. Sadly, her younger sister, Elizabeth, died within a year or two of the opening of the factory and was thus not involved in its development or expansion. Her mother, also named Eleanor, had little business experience and would have been in her mid-fifties by the time her daughter opened her artificial stone manufactory, so was also not much involved with the running of the firm. Mrs. Eleanor Coade, Senior, apparently did keep house for her daughter, since they shared a home, until she passed away, in 1796. "Mrs." Eleanor Coade, Junior, had the further responsibility of making important contacts with the leading architects and the more prominent members of the building trades, all potential buyers of her products. In addition to all of that, she was involved in the modelling and hand finishing of some of the manufactory’s more iconic products.
Sometime in 1771, Mrs. Coade hired John Bacon, a fellow Dissenter and a professional sculptor, who had come to the attention of King George III in a most unique manner. A couple of years before, the King sat to Bacon for a bust which had been commissioned for Christ Church, Oxford. At the time, it was customary for sculptors to periodically take a mouthful of water and spit it on the clay as they worked it, to keep it moist and malleable. Bacon thought such an act would be most unseemly in front of the King. He therefore had a small silver filter made by which he could moisten the clay and avoid spitting in the King’s presence. His Majesty was very pleased with what he considered to be both elegant and considerate behavior towards a monarch. The King used his influence to secure a number of other commissions for Bacon, and sponsored his admission into the Royal Academy. Bacon was an intelligent and talented man who provided a great many designs for the more artistic objects made at the Coade manufactory, particularly the classical figures, many of which were copies of well-know antique sculptures from the ancient world. He was also responsible for personally sculpting a number of the prototypes from which molds were made so that they could be easily reproduced. Within a couple of years, he was also assisting with the management of the artificial stone manufactory, especially with the production operations, which freed Mrs. Coade to focus primarily on administration and sales.
Throughout the 1780s, Coade’s Lithodipyra Terra-Cotta or Artificial Stone Manufactory exhibited a number of their best new classical figures at the Society of Artists exhibitions in London, which significantly increased public awareness of the artistic quality of their products. This public awareness, coupled with the well-known durability of their products, served to further expand sales as the Neo-classical style continued to increase in popularity as the most fashionable architectural style of the latter eighteenth century. By the 1790s, the Coade artificial stone manufactory had become extremely successful and supplied Coade stone products not only all over the British Isles, but across the world as well. But just as the eighteenth century was coming to a close, a painful misfortune befell the Coade firm. John Bacon, the principal sculptor and production manager, died in 1799. Eleanor Coade was then sixty-six years old and was finding the full-time management of the firm more than she could handle on her own. Within a few months she had taken on a partner, her cousin, son of her mother’s sister, and also a fellow Dissenter, John Sealy. Sealy had been working at the manufactory since 1792, primarily as a modeller, so he was very familiar with the operation, and he had his cousin’s confidence. When the nineteenth century dawned, the products of the firm were all stamped COADE & SEALY.
Even before the eighteenth century slipped away, Mrs. Coade was making an extensive expansion to her manufactory. It is not certain if this expansion was solely her idea, or if it might have been developed with the encouragement of either John Bacon or John Sealy. Alison Kelly, the noted scholar of Coade stone, believes this expansion was done primarily at the instigation of John Sealy. For the first thirty years of its operation the Coade artificial stone manufactory was a large working yard, where various items were placed wherever it was convenient while they awaited delivery. This print shows how the manufactory yard appeared in the 1790s. This print shows the front of the manufactory premises as it appeared in the 1790s. But as Coade stone grew in popularity, more people wanted to see examples of the factory’s output. But few people wanted to have to wait to be rowed over the Thames by a waterman to the foot of King’s Arms Stairs, climb the stairs, only to have to tramp around an unpaved yard which was often muddy and which did not contain examples of all the objects which could be made in Coade stone. These problems were understood by both Mrs. Coade and John Sealy as a growing impediment to even higher sales.
Those problems were to be solved by the construction of a separate building, several hundred yards upstream of the Thames, near the end of Westminster Bridge. This attractive building was large and spacious enough to house a carefully finished example of every Coade stone product made by the manufactory. More importantly, the Coade stone objects were displayed in luxurious and fashionable surroundings which would not offend even those of the highest social classes. Before his death, John Bacon had designed an elegant "card of direction to the Manufactory." The design from that "card of direction" depicted "the Attempts of Time to destroy Sculpture and Architecture, defeated by the vitrifying aid of Fire." Mrs. Coade had this design enlarged and made into a Coade stone bas-relief which was set into the pediment over the door to the new gallery building. This new Coade Stone Gallery was also much more readily accessible to its upscale visitors, since it was conveniently situated near the south end of the Westminster Bridge, an easy drive from the West End, thereby eliminating the need for a boat trip across the Thames. This print shows the exterior of the Coade Manufactory Gallery soon after it opened in the early nineteenth century.
Not satisfied with simply opening a gallery for the products of her manufactory, with only basic labels and prices provided for the objects, Mrs. Coade wrote full descriptions of each item. Many of those descriptions included pertinent quotations from the best-known classical and modern authors of the day. She then organized all these extended descriptions in the order in which each item was placed in her gallery, and had this information printed up in booklet form. Each visitor was offered a copy of this booklet when they arrived, thereby providing them with a guided tour of the gallery, but also serving to further spread information about her products when those booklets were carried away by those same visitors. Fortunately, a copy of this Coade stone gallery guide still survives, in the collection of the British Museum. Sadly, the Coade Stone Gallery itself no longer survives. It was open to the public throughout the Regency, and visitors were still offered a copy of Mrs. Coade’s booklet. In fact, the gallery was open to the public right through the reign of George IV, but was demolished sometime during the reign of his brother, William IV. [Author’s Note: Mrs. Coade’s artificial stone manufactory was located approximately on what is the site of the Royal Festival Hall today. A section of the manufactory yard was excavated by archaeologists prior to the construction of the Festival Hall complex in 1949. The great grinding wheels used to crush the stoneware wasters and the furnaces which heated the kilns were unearthed in the excavation. Mrs. Coade’s elegant gallery building was further upstream and stood on the site now occupied by the London County Hall.]
John Sealy himself did not survive the Regency, dying in 1813. At the time of John Sealy’s passing, Mrs. Coade was eighty-years old. She was no longer able to take any part in the management of her artificial stone manufactory. Within a few months, Mrs. Coade appointed another relation, a sculptor and a fellow Dissenter, William Croggan, as the new manager of the firm. Perhaps because he was forty-five years her junior, she did not make him a partner in the firm and at this time, the stamp on all artificial stone products of the Coade manufactory reverted to COADE. Croggan managed the manufactory for the remainder of the Regency, until the death of Mrs. Coade, in November of 1821. Though he was a distant relation, he had expected the manufactory to be left to him when Mrs. Coade died, but it was not. He eventually purchased the firm and it was during this time that the Coade manufactory supplied vast quantities of artificial stone pieces for the expansion of Buckingham Palace for George IV. William Croggan died in 1833, and the firm continued on under various managers until it finally closed it doors permanently in 1843.
Though Eleanor Coade had ceased to be involved with the daily operations of her artificial stone manufactory after 1800, she was still a rather busy woman from that time, right though the Regency. She was a Baptist and all her life she had been a devoutly religious woman who truly lived her faith. She was a quiet philanthropist, giving privately, without any fuss. She assisted those in need, usually women, many of them fellow Dissenters. She also provided assistance to the less affluent younger members of her own extended family to help them get a good start in life. Her will may be one of the most remarkable documents of its time. She left bequests to several clergymen, with the expectation that they would distribute the money to the needy among their flocks. Interestingly, she also provided legacies to the Baptist Minister in Lyme Regis, to where she had retired, but also to the Independent Minister and the Church of England Vicar of that city as well, again expecting her ecumenical generosity to be distributed to the poor and needy of each denomination. She had set up an annuity so that her maid would be provided for, in addition to leaving her much of her household furniture. There were several other women who were mentioned in her will, many of them spinsters or widows in straitened circumstances.
Eleanor Coade’s will also included bequests to three married women. In those bequests she specifically stated that none of the women’s husbands were to touch the funds left to their wives. Mrs. Coade also specified that the women themselves must sign for their legacies in front of her executors, though by law, their husbands had the legal right to do so. It has not been possible to discover if any of these last bequests were actually made, because they could have been denied since they were not technically supported by the laws of the time. But in making these bequests, Eleanor Coade sent a very clear message that she, much like Mary Wollstonecraft, did not hold with the current views that women were not capable of managing their own resources and required the guidance of men. It is also telling that Mrs. Coade left £100 to the Girls’ Charity School at Walworth, but only left the Boys’ School there £50.
Though Eleanor Coade was no longer personally managing the day-to-day operations of her artificial stone manufactory during the Regency, she was still involved as the owner right through the decade. The elegant gallery which had been built to display the wares of the manufactory was open through the reign of George IV, and visitors continued to receive a copy of the booklet which provided them with a guided tour of the many products on display there. In the last decade of her life, she divided her time between her summer home in Lyme Regis and her home in London. She had the time to visit with her large extended family in Dorset, to practice her religion and to carry out her many quiet acts of charity, a large portion of them in support of women in difficult circumstances. She died in November of the same year in which the Prince of Wales was finally able to indulge himself with his elaborate coronation ceremony that July, making him King George IV. Even after her passing, her manufactory continued to turn out a vast quantity of high-quality artificial stone objects for another twenty years. By the beginning of the Regency, there would have been literally thousands of Coade stone items in place all around the world, a large number of them in the British Isles. Many more Coade stone objects were put in place during the decade of the Regency and the decades that followed it. All of them small monuments to a determined woman who met life on her own terms in an age when women were expected to be subservient to men.
Dear Regency Authors, might Mrs. Coade be the benefactress to one of your heroines or another female character in an upcoming novel? If your female character comes from Lyme Regis or the surrounding area of Dorset, particularly if she is a Dissenter, she is a perfect candidate for a bit of charity from Mrs. Coade. In addition to charity, Mrs. Coade also hired a number of women to work in her artificial stone manufactory in Lambeth. Perhaps you have a character, either female or male, who is a talented sculptor in need of a job. They might apply for work at Mrs. Coade’s manufactory. Though they would have the best chance of getting the job if they were a Dissenter, neither Mrs. Coade or any of her managers were known to discriminate on the basis of religion. Or, does one of your female characters need a sponsor/patron/champion to protect them from some arrogant, chauvinistic male? Mrs. Eleanor Coade may be just the real-life historical figure for the position. Even in her eighties, this redoubtable woman took no guff from any man, regardless of his position. Then again, maybe you are looking for a new and interesting setting for a scene between some of your characters? The Coade Stone Gallery was open throughout the Regency and was a popular place to visit by many among the better classes, even if they were not contemplating making a purchase. With Mrs. Coade’s informative booklet in hand, a stroll through the gallery could be an edifying experience for those interested in classical sculpture. Perhaps the heroine has a younger brother who is deeply interested in the classics but he has become bored with the collection at the British Museum. To keep him occupied and out of mischief, she takes him to the Coade Stone Gallery to view that collection. At the same time she and her brother are in the gallery, the hero arrives, seeking just the right garden sculptures to ornament his new maze and/or the fountain in it, or perhaps the fountain in the garden of his London townhouse.