Nantgarw Chinaworks Museum is at Tyla Gwyn, Nantgarw, in the River Taff Valley, 8 miles north of Cardiff, Wales. Established in November 1813, when artist and potter William Billingsley and his son-in-law Samuel Walker, a skilled technician, rented "Nantgarw House" on the eastern bank of the Glamorganshire Canal, eight miles north of Cardiff in the Taff Valley, Glamorganshire, Wales, and set about building the kilns and ancillary equipment in its grounds, necessary to transform the building into a small porcelain pottery.
Billingsley had been instrumental in the development of the porcelain recipe for Flight, Barr & Barr at Royal Worcester, he and Walker, had signed an agreement not to disclose their new porcelain recipe to a third party, but there was no clause preventing them from using that recipe themselves. They had left Worcester in secret and started the venture at Nantgarw with only £250 to invest in the project between them. By January 1814, the Quaker entrepreneur William Weston Young had already become the major share-holder in their venture, having invested £630 into the first production period at Nantgarw, as his diaries at the Glamorgan Record Office testify, where payments are recorded to a Mr "Bealey;" an alias Billingsley travelled under since leaving Royal Worcester. It is assumed Young was acquainted with Billingsley through a mutual friend, and fellow earthenware decorator Thomas Pardoe, whom Billingsley had approached at Swansea's Cambrian Pottery, while seeking employment in 1807. Young's work across Glamorganshire as a surveyor may have put him in the position to advise Billingsley whilst still at Royal Worcester, of the suitability of the site at Nantgarw. Its proximity to the Glamorganshire Canal enabled heavy shipments of china clay, as well as the pottery's delicate porcelain wares to be smoothly transported to and from Cardiff docks by barges.
With the pottery established, Billingsley sought to produce a soft paste porcelain. Nantgarw porcelain was made to Billingsley's secret formula. Bones, burnt and mixed with clay, were ground by miller David Jones in a mill adjoining the Cross Keys public house, in the village. The water wheel was powered by a leat running from the canal to the River Taff. The high temperature needed to produce perfect pieces made Billingsley soft paste method difficult to fire. The vast majority of the pieces warped or shattered in the firing process. The resources of the three associates soon ran out and the group approached the British Government's Committee of Trade and Plantations (The Board of Trade), requesting a grant of £500, referring to the subsidy afforded to the famous Sèvres Porcelain Factory by the French Government. They were not successful, but one member of the committee, porcelain enthusiast Sir Joseph Banks, suggested his friend and potter Lewis Weston Dillwyn of the Cambrian Pottery of Swansea, Glamorganshire, should make an inspection and report on the matter.
Dillwyn made the inspection, observing that 90% of the porcelain was ruined in the firing, but was so impressed with the quality of the surviving pieces that he invited Billingsley and Walker to use his facilities at the Cambrian Pottery to improve their recipe and process. An annexe was built for porcelain production at the Cambrian Pottery, where Walker and Billingsley were based from late 1814. The recipe was modified and improved, but was still wasteful enough for Dillwyn to abandon the project in 1817, when the pair returned to Nantgarw. Royal Worcester's attempts to sue Dillwyn, Billingsley & Walker for breach of contract was a further reason for Dillwyn to cease porcelain production at the Cambrian Pottery. The contract signed at Royal Worcester prevented the recipe being disclosed to a third party, which superficially, Flight, Barr & Barr could not prove. However, when Dilwyn's notebooks were interred at the V&A Museum, South Kensington, London in 1920; Bilingsley's recipe was found, but had never used in Billingsley's absence. In the second phase of production at Nantgarw, Young invested a further £1,100 in the pottery as well as mustering a further £1,000 from "ten gentlemen of the county". Billingsley and Walker continued to fire their porcelain, which by this stage was of the finest quality Billingsley had ever attained but still at a loss until one day in April 1820, while Young was away in Bristol, the pair absconded to Coalport leaving behind them the lease to the pottery and several thousand pieces of undecorated porcelain in various stages of production ("in the biscuit and the white").
Young put the Nantgarw Pottery and its contents up for sale via public auction in October 1820, enabling him to buy out his minor partners, become sole proprietor and manage the completion and sale of the stock; effectively salvaging the business. He invited his friend and former co-working artist from the Cambrian Pottery, Thomas Pardoe, to aid him with the completion and decoration of the salvaged porcelain. Young and Pardoe experimented to perfect a glaze for the biscuit ware, but were unable to add to Billingsley's stockpile of porcelain, having no access to his recipe. The final sales of the finished porcelain (sold between 1821 and 1822), paid Pardoe and his staff's salaries in arrears, but failed to recoup Young's total losses, leaving Young narrowly avoiding bankruptcy. Besides the porcelain decorated by Young, but predominantly by Pardoe at Nantgarw, many pieces were sold in the white to be decorated in London. These wares are known to have been decorated by Thomas Martin Randall (working for John Mortlock at the time), John Latham, William Peg and probably Matthew Colclough.
Nantgarw porcelain is identified with the mark "NANTGARW" impressed, often with the initials C.W. (for China Works) underneath. The word "NANTGARW" in red script is also seen on some of the finer specimens. In 1833 William Henry Pardoe, son of Thomas Pardoe, took over the vacant Nantgarw Pottery and began manufacturing stoneware bottles and brown glazed earthenware known as Rockingham pottery. He also began manufacturing clay tobacco pipes, many of which were exported to Ireland. The business continued under Pardoe's descendants, and at its peak produced around 10,000 pipes a week, until its closure in 1920, when cigarettes replaced such clay pipes. In 1989 the semi-derelict site was bought by Taff-Ely County Borough Council, who still today own the site. After the start of archaeological excavation and restoration of its kilns and buildings, the site opened it to the public two years later as the Nantgarw Chinaworks Museum. Closed at the end of 2008 due to budget cuts at Rhondda Cynon Taff council, the Nantgarw Chinaworks Museum was reopened during the week in November 2010 by two artists. The museum is wheelchair accessible. There are disabled toilets. Assistance dogs are welcome.>
The museum is housed in Nantgarw House where a collection of Nantgarw China is on display. While visiting the museum you can find out where this now world famous porcelain was made. You can also see a bottle kiln, find out the history of The Glamorganshire Canal and discover the history behind the man who produced the now famous Nantgarw porcelain, William Billingsley. In the pottery you can view the potter at work and find out some of the processes that are used to produce the work. You can also visit the shop where there is a large variety of work on display which ranges from functional pottery to the more sculptural; one off pieces. It is also possible to have a go at throwing your own pot which will be fired for you at the pottery.
Location : Nantgarw China Works Museum, Tyla Gwyn, Nantgarw, Cardiff CF15 7TB
Transport : Trefforest Estate (National Rail) then bus (111 or 400). Bus Routes : 26, 111, 120 and 400 stop close by.
Opening Times : Wednesday to Sunday 10:00 to 16:00
Tickets : Free (Donations accepted)
Tel. : 01443 844131