Updated: Meeting with Phil Mernick

I met with Phil Mernick, who is a member of the East London History Society and a resident of Bow.

I was primed to quiz him on the rumour he knew the site of the original chemical experiments Thomas Frye was involved in to develop the recipes he later patented for Bow Porcelain.

Phil told me the original factory would have been just beyond Bow Bridge, but the site of the first experiments was possibly in the backyard of a house. We know from other records (British History Online) that Heylin and Frye did not have a factory of their own and carried out experiments with a skilled workman in Bow. The Bow Porcelain factory opened in 1747/8. The original patents were filed in 1744/5 so they must have been experimenting throughout this period- with lots of trial and error- to get the process right.There is speculation that this may have been happening in the backyard of a rectory opposite Bow Church. By the late 1740s the rectory was apparently converted into a workhouse. Today this could be the equivalent of the Three Tuns Pub on Bow Road, next to Bow Arts. It is known that one of the people involved in the early patents did live there at the time.

As we walked past a house close to the Nunnery Phil said ‘The odds are its just probably out in the back there- houses at that time had quite extensive back gardens.’

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Phil Mernick

‘I would like to have a better idea of where it was. It’s a shame- I would like to be able to say it was this building rather than this one.’

Phil pointed out that you can tell this building (below) was an older house than the others on the street as it is lower. If it had been more modern it would have been the same height as the buildings it is adjacent to. The rectory behind which Thomas Frye’s experiements took place would have been similar to this, but with a Georgian front.

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Very little is known about the immediate area in the mid 1700s. Michael Peet who used to be the rector at Bow Church wrote Seven Parishioners of Stratford Bow which is available from the church. Phil told me there are paintings in the vestry of the Bow Road area in the 1830s which are an amazing resource in terms of records of the history of Bow. Bow Church was built as a chapel- of- ease so parishioners could have a service there rather than travel to the parish church. Later it became its own church. During this period the Gascoyne survey of Stepney was carried out, but Bow had become a separate parish by this point so was not included.

Any number of people have written about life in the eighteenth century, but the almost exclusively they wrote about were the well- off business people.  The East London History Society have published books on London in the eighteenth century in particular on Mile End and Stepney Green. People generally think that east London ws poor but atually there were lots of wealthy people involved in shipping and trading, exporting to the West Indies. The Sun Insurance company kept records of insurance policies in the 1700s, so today we can see what people were insuring. However there is nothing recorded about poor people- possibly they were too transient. Due to the amount of industry in the area there was a constant need for immigrant labour. London at this time was heavily polluted and with the smoke the native population were rarely healthy enough to do the hard labour required.

Lastly I told Phil about Felicity Hammond’s fascination with the foliage typically depicted on Bow Porcelain wares and her act of ‘Guerilla Gardening’ when as a perfomance she bought Chinese- style house plants and planted them along the canal close to the original Bow Porcelian factory site to recreate the flora which appears on the porcelain produced.

Phil explained that in the first half of the eighteenth century with the expansion of the empire people were more used to seeing exotic plants and demand for them grew. As the city expanded there were more and more nurseries in the fringe areas of London area- for instance Mile End- as in comparison to the centre these were more suburban areas with less pollution. As we saw in an earlier post Artist interests: Felicity Hammond the area surrounding the New Canton factory landscape of fields, trees and windmills. It was fascinating to be told these stories in the context of the present Bow Road, close to the Stratford flyover and recent Olympic Park developments. London continues to change.

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Since meeting with Phil he has contacted me to say he has now found the Bow Workhouse on a map of 1799.

1799

You can see the Work House is located east of the Nunnery gardens, with a vacant plot in between. At that time it still had a long garden going back to what is now Grove Hall Park.

By 1870 what seems to be the same house had been divided into two properties and the gardens built over.

1870

Using the fixed position of The Three Tuns pub Phil has worked out that, if numbered at the time, the workhouse would have been 209-11 Bow Road. Today this location is immediately west of Unity Tyre, which is 213-217.
So, amazingly thanks to Phil’s dedication and reseach we now have evidence of the exact location of Heylin and Frye’s first experiments to into the correct recipe for porcelain- literally just a few doors down the road from the Nunnery, where the Bow Porcelain project is on display today!
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