General Metalware and Holloware
Henry Fearncombe & Co Ltd
Phoenix Works, Dudley Road
Little is known of the history of this company. Henry Fearncombe was born in Taunton, Somerset, in 1791. The earliest reference to him in Wolverhampton is in a trade directory of 1828/29, which shows him as a Japanner and Tin Plate Worker of 105 Walsall Street. The entry seems to suggest that he was not an employee but working on his own account. One can but speculate that, like many other enterprising young men, he came to Wolverhampton for the purpose of learning a trade and getting into business. Jones says he was a journeyman tinplate man at Old Hall.
An 1833 trade directory has Fearncombe at Dudley Road and this was to be the address of his firm until its final demise. The 1850 trade directory refers to these works as "Pontypool Works" but the 1861 trade directory has them as "Phoenix Works". These are probably the same works. The name "Pontypool" was used in the early days to describe japanned ware generally and it was probably felt insufficiently distinctive. But the new name was not a propitious one. In 1867 there was a large fire at the works, doing extensive damage. The Phoenix Works re-arose from the ashes.
The company’s main business, from the start, seems to have been japanning and tin plate work and it seems that, somewhat unusually for Wolverhampton japanners, though not for Bilston japanner, they japanned exclusively on tin plate and not on papier mache. The 1850 trade directory refers to him as a producing japanned and fancy goods; and the directory for 1861 refers to Fearncombe as a "manufacturer of japanned iron, strong black tin wares and baths of every description". But thereafter the trade directories are more concise, limiting their description to "japanner". It is very likely that, like other, similar Wolverhampton companies, he made anything out of tin plate for which he thought he could find a market, but these would normally be japanned and more or less highly decorated – he probably had both art wares and more prosaic wares.
Fearncombe exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851, which shows that the firm was well established and confident. The "coal vases" they exhibited were well received by the critics and one of them is said to have been designed by a Mr. F. Wright. Whether he was an employee or on outside designer is not known.
Henry Fearncombe died in 1856, leaving the business to "Ann Dalton, otherwise Ann McMann, the daughter of my late wife by her second husband or reputed husband McMann [who] now resides with me"; and to "my nephew, John Oaten, now in my employ". John Oaten was the son of his sister, Susan. Although women did run businesses successfully it is unlikely that at this time Ann Dalton would have done so. Almost certainly Oaten became the general manager of the company. How long the company remained in the control of these two is not known.
Jones says (in 1900) that, after Henry’s death, "the works passed through various hands, and are now carried on by a company under the name of Henry Fearncombe and Co. Limited". Turning a firm into a limited company became popular in the 1890s and that is the most likely date here. In 1902 the business was sold to Orme Evans.
When japanning became unfashionable as a form of finishing and decoration many japanning firms changed their range of goods. Fearncombes would have mostly abandoned the highly decorated japanned wares and increased production of more prosaic and simply finished items. But like many japanners, especially those who had used tin plate extensively, they moved into the making of items of copper and brass, the working of the sheet metal being essentially the same. Brass and copper peices were more expensive than tin plate and more fashionable, it being felt reasonable to classify them as art metalware. These items are marked either with a Phoenix trade mark or simply with the letters HF&Co. Andrew Everett has suggested that Fearncombes very probably bought designs from Christopher Dresser.
In 1902 Orme Evans & Co bought up the whole business, including the Phoenix works. They were also tin plate workers but were, by then, mainly producing enamelled domestic wares. They had their own trade mark (a head of a prince) and used a cipher of OE&Co. But on their headed stationery, at least as late as a known example from 1924, the Fearncombe phoenix trade mark is shown along with their own. Whether they carried on producing at Phoenix works after 1902 is not known but the letterhead suggests that they may have continued to mark some products, such as the brass and copper wares, after 1902.