Ragland Castle & Tea

If you’re thinking—or hoping—the Ragland Castle is now open for high tea, I’m sorry to say that isn’t the case. However, you can have tea in a china cup featuring the Ragland Castle.

About the Ragland Castle China

The Ragland Castle was one of many castles in a china pattern made by the Johnson Brothers. For those of you who collect china, you’ll recognize the Johnson Brothers name as well as their transferware.

The cup is part of the Old Britain Castles by Johnson Brothers. The original pattern (Blue with Earthenware Stamp) was produced from 1930-2003. The pattern featured many different castle ruins throughout Britain—and Wales in the case of the Ragland Castle.

The pattern was so popular that it was later produced in blue, pink, lavender, brown, black, green, and even a Christmas pattern.

Transferware

Transfer printing is a method of decorating pottery or other materials using an engraved copper or steel plate from which a monochrome print on paper is taken which is then transferred by pressing onto the ceramic piece. Pottery decorated using the technique is known as transferware or transfer ware.

It was developed in England from the 1750s on, and in the 19th century became enormously popular in England, though relatively little used in other major pottery-producing countries. The bulk of production was from the dominant Staffordshire pottery industry. America was a major market for English transfer-printed wares, whose imagery was adapted to the American market; several makers made this almost exclusively.

The technique was essential for adding complex decoration such as the Willow pattern to relatively cheap pottery. In particular, transfer printing brought the price of a matching dinner service low enough for large numbers of people to afford.

Apart from pottery, the technique was used on metal,  enameled metal, and sometimes on wood and textiles. It remains used today, although mostly superseded by lithography. In the 19th century methods of transfer printing in color were developed.

Johnson Brothers

Johnson Brothers was a British tableware manufacturer and exporter that was noted for its early introduction of “semi-porcelain” tableware. It was among the most successful Staffordshire potteries which produced tableware, much of it exported to the United States, from the 1890s through the 1960s. They were also important manufacturers of large bathroom ceramics.

Some of its designs, such as “Eternal Beau,” “Dawn,” “Old Britain Castles” and “Historic America,” achieved widespread popularity and are still collected today. The company’s success was due in part to its ability to identify and follow trends that appealed to its customers in the United States, and in part to the high quality of its designs, produced by skilled artists.

The company’s name derives from the names of the company’s founders. The four original “Johnson Brothers” were Alfred, Frederick, Henry, and Robert. Their father married the daughter of a master potter, Alfred Meakin. In 1883, Alfred and Frederick Johnson began production at a defunct pottery, known as the Charles Street Works, that they had purchased at a bankruptcy sale in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent. At first, they specialized in the manufacture of durable earthenware, which they called “White Granite”. The success of this venture led to rapid expansion. In 1888, the Rev. Henry Johnson joined them, followed ten years later by a fourth brother, Robert Johnson.

Having established a solid reputation producing basic “whiteware,” the company developed a product known as “semi-porcelain,” a range of pottery that had the characteristics of fine china, but the durability of ironstoneware. This kind of tableware soon became very popular in the United States due to its durability and low cost. In 1889, the Hanley pottery was opened, later the Alexander pottery, and in 1891 the Imperial Works Pottery. In 1896, the Trent Sanitary Works was opened for the production of non-tableware products, and Alfred Johnson left the business to establish his own pottery. By 1898, Robert Johnson had relocated to New York City to manage Johnson Brothers’ rapid expansion into the North American market.

Two versions of the “Britannia” lavatory bowl, 1890s-1905 (source: wikipedia)

Johnson Brothers 1883-2015

Johnson Brothers continued its growth in the tableware industry throughout the first half of the 20th century. After 1918, the popular “Dawn” range of coloured bodies was launched, and Johnson Brothers began exporting its tableware throughout the British Empire. The pattern “Old Britain Castles” was introduced in 1930, followed by “Historic America” in 1938. During the 1930s, the original factory in Charles Street closed, and new technology was introduced with the development of modern systems of firing using electricity rather than coal. This in turn led to a better quality product, lower prices, and better conditions for the workforce. However, World War II nearly halted production, and shipments to the U.S. became sporadic.

The post-war period saw a major overhaul of equipment and facilities. Various plants in Britain, Canada, and Australia were purchased for decorating, glazing, and firing of pieces. Johnson Brothers gained Royal Warrants from Queen Elizabeth II and the Queen Mother. The company was twice awarded the Queen’s Award to Industry for its contributions to the British economy.

Despite this award, the late 1960s saw changing popular taste, rising competition, and spiraling production costs which led Johnson Brothers to curtail further expansion. In 1968, in order to remain competitive, Johnson Brothers joined the Wedgwood Group. Johnson Brothers was discontinued in 2015.

Johnson Brothers’ Old Britain Castles

Some of the castles featured include Bolsover, Cambridge, Dunstable, Dudley, Exeter, Haddonhall, Kent, Oxford, Ruthin, Saltwood, Stratford, Warwick, and Ragland. The china made through transferware.

I first learned of this china as a young girl. I inherited the bowl featuring the Ragland castle from my Ragland grandmother and she received it as a gift in the 1930s. At that time I didn’t realize it was part of a popular Johnson Brothers china pattern. I’ve proudly displayed this piece of my Ragland heritage for more than forty years—always saying, I may not have the Ragland title but I’ve got the bowl.

If you are interested in collecting some of the Old Britain Castle pieces I know of two sources: Replacements.com—it specializes in all brands of china. Various Etsy shops carry the pattern as well as eBay.

Coffee mug depicting the Ragland Castle in 1792.

Now you know…

More than you ever expected to or probably wanted to know about transferware, Johnson Brothers china, and Old Britain Castles. But for the Ragland clan, here’s your chance to show off your heritage while drinking your morning cuppa.

Debora Buerk
Writer, Editor. and
sometimes family historian