The Man who made Belleek. John C. Bloomfield
by John B. Cunningham
John Caldwell Bloomfield was born on the 5th of February 1823, a son of Major John Colpoys Bloomfield of Redwood, County Tipperary who had married Francis Arabella Caldwell, an heiress to Castle Caldwell, Belleek on the 11th of June, 1817. When he grew up and inherited the Castle Caldwell estate after a spell in the army where he had been stationed in China, he was very keen, perhaps recklessly keen, to improve his estate and the condition of those who lived on it. He operated the age old eel fishery at Drumanillar, a steamer on Lough Erne, ‘The Countess of Milan’ which sailed between Enniskillen and Belleek from 1855 to 1859 plus various cottage industries, mines, factories, a cement works, a brick works, a boot and shoe factory and ultimately his creation, Belleek Pottery. Almost all these ventures were financial failures and put the entire estate into an economic decline from which it never recovered and bankruptcy ensued.
Bloomfield failed also in the political arena. He stood for election in the North Fermanagh Elections of 1885 but was defeated by the Nationalist candidate, William Redmond, brother of the future leader of the Irish M P’s at Westminster.
One of John Caldwell Bloomfield’s few ultimate successes was the founding of Belleek Pottery in the 1850s. On the company literature its foundation is dated to 1857 but as the foundation stone of the building was not laid until October 1858 this can only have been an outright guess. This enterprise which flourishes today is a tribute to this man who was chiefly responsible for setting it up. A Mr. David McBirney of Dublin was responsible for supplying the considerable finance necessary to begin the project (about £60,000) and Mr. Robert Williams Armstrong was its first manager. He was an architect and, combined with being a genius in pottery production, presided over the numerous wonderful early designs, many of which are still produced in the factory. Not least in the factors in its survival are the people of the area who deserve great credit and were responsible for keeping the projects going despite some great difficulties. However none of these factors can take away the reality that without John Bloomfield’s raw material from his estate, the site given to the factory with its enormous water power of the Erne necessary to drive the machinery and above all his enthusiasm, drive and determination there would most likely be nothing to make the name Belleek famous today all over the world. Local tradition has it that Bloomfield was something of an amateur chemist and that while in the British army had learned about kaolin, a rare clay used in making hard paste porcelain. He found a similar china clay on his estate and also with it feldspar another of the ingredients necessary for setting up a pottery.
One often repeated story says that Bloomfield had noted a particularly tainted brilliance in the whitewash used by a farmer on the Castle Caldwell estate. It was found in a pit of ‘naturally burnt lime’ and Bloomfield had the place examined and the clay was found present and was admirably adapted for the manufacture of porcelain. Potters from Stoke-on-Trent were brought in to teach the local people their pottery skills and rows of houses were built for some of these workers, namely Rathmore Terrace, Belleek and Saint Patrick’s Terrace, Belleek where these are remembered as the ‘English Row’ and ‘Irish Row’ respectively, relating to their inhabitants in the early days of the Pottery.
The Pottery itself was built on Rose Island one of the three islands then in the River Erne at Belleek. This enabled water power to be used in the pottery making and a large water wheel was constructed for this purpose. Incorporated in the new Pottery building on Rose Isle was a castle built by an earlier generation of the Caldwells in the mid-18th century for the Dowager Lady Caldwell and known as Belleek Lodge. The local raw materials both clay and feldspar were obtained from the Larkhill area about 6 miles from Belleek and transported by horse and cart to Belleek. Later, with the arrival of the Great Northern Railway branch line from Bundoran Junction to Bundoran, these materials were conveyed to Castle Caldwell railway station and brought by a train to Belleek. Flintstone was brought from Rossnowlagh and then burned and crushed in the pottery. Special clay for making saggers – containers in which the pottery was fired – was brought from the brickfields area on the shore of the Erne not far from Belleek.
Local hard black turf and imported coal were used in the firing of the pottery in large outdoor kilns and in almost every respect this was a most self-reliant industry. For the workers the hours were very long, beginning at 6.00 in the morning during the summer months and eight o’clock in the wintertime plus a full day’s work on Saturday. A five year apprenticeship had to be served with slow graduations of pay. Many of the workers when fully qualified went to work in potteries in England, Scotland and even America where ‘American Belleek’ was for a time manufactured. From the beginning, the pottery set out to serve a market for high quality, expensive ware but also to supply the more readily entered market for common ware from plates and mugs to bedpans and baths.
John Caldwell Bloomfield wrote a long article on his struggle to bring reality to his dream of a Pottery in Belleek. It was published in the journal of the Society of Arts in 1883. In his article he concentrated on the example of Belleek pottery as a headline that could be copied for rural industry in other parts of Ireland. Rather amazingly he was inspired in this venture when he attended the Great Exhibition in London in 1851 organised by Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert. The unwritten theory of the time was that Ireland was an agricultural country (read primitive and unskilled) and would provide food for the burgeoning population of industrial England. England on the other hand had ‘intelligent artisans’ who could and would make things and the Irish supply them with food. John Caldwell Bloomfield rebelled at this unflattering presentation of the Irish people and it drove him on his quest for rural industry in Ireland. He writes;-
|Lady Coralie Kinehan, John Maguire, Manager Belleek Pottery, John B. Cunningham (author) and Sir Robin Kinehan with portrait of John Caldwell Bloomfield, principal founder of Belleek Pottery on the occasion of the launch of “The Story of Belleek 1992.|
‘It is near a quarter of a century since on a hill in Fermanagh I first found kaolin and feldspar and then and there registered a vow that, if I lived, I would have a china manufacture in the village of Belleek, one of the poorest hamlets in Ireland filled with ragged children whose maximum art lay in the making of mud pies in the streets. And I call attention to the fact that the shirtless brats then apprenticed and commencing manufacturing life by turning a jigger, are now artisans in broadcloth and receiving wages up to £3 10 shillings per week – the maximum earned by a splendid young man in the sanitary ware department taken out of the Ballyshannon workhouse. Well, here is some food for reflection. An amateur mineralogist just dropping upon a raw material on a mountainside, possessed of an obstinate and determined spirit – brought about by searching for and meeting kindred spirits – lives to exhibit these lasting exemplifications of what the Irish Celt could be brought to and tell the story of hundreds of youths being lifted from the gutter to be able to hold their place in a gathering of first class artisans in china manufacture. Whatever may become of ‘Belleek’ in the future, it has taken its place as a special ware. I don’t, for one moment bring these matters forward as precedents for Imperial Aid in this direction, as the results to myself were worse than nil; and when The Times sneers at the paucity of imitators in such projects as ‘Belleek’, I can only answer that you will find indeed few Irishmen as patriotic as to subscribe £4,700 and give 3 miles of land to secure transit for a contemplated manufacture having previously given the site and 200 horsepower for £3 per annum. No, my experience, if terribly earned, enables me to see that, while it conclusively proves the adaptability of the Celt to become a manufacturing artisan under the most trying circumstances of isolation from technical training, at the same time a large and sudden expenditure on forced manufacturers would but end in calamitous failure touching the circumstances of the only class which requires immediate attention and assistance.’
Of course there were other factors at work in Ireland at this time all contributing to the decline of landlords and their estates. John Caldwell Bloomfield certainly had a gift for getting into financially unrewarding corners and usually with the highest motives of benefits to his tenants and himself.
The estate was eventually made bankrupt and the contents of Castle Caldwell, gathered over hundreds of years, sold off in a three day auction and John Caldwell Bloomfield died in poverty in Enniskillen. It was a sad end for a patriotic entrepreneur and still more galling is the fact that no statue in a public position has ever been erected in his honour. A sad state of affairs for the man who MADE Belleek.