MIDDLESBROUGH’S first industry had nothing to do ironworking or shipbuilding: it was all about pots.

Middlesbrough Pottery was the first business to be set up in the new railway town, and rare examples of its output are to be auctioned early next month at Tennants of Leyburn.

They will go under the hammer along with pieces made by Linthorpe Pottery which, in its short life before scandal engulfed it, produced some of the most lustrous items ever made in Victorian Britain.

The Northern Echo: Some popular will pattern blue and white items produced by Middlesbrough Pottery. Picture courtesy of TennantsThe popular blue and white willow pattern produced by Middlesbrough Pottery. All pictures are from Tennants of Leyburn and feature items in the sale

Middlesbrough Pottery was formed in 1834 by Richard Otley. He was the surveyor of the Stockton & Darlington Railway who designed the first docks at Middlesbrough to export the coal the railway brought from south Durham. On a slight hillock above the docks, he laid out the first streets of what within decades would become a teeming metropolis.

While working for the railway, Otley saw that the Middlesbrough was ideally placed for pottery manufacture: it was a coal port, so there was plenty of fuel for the kilns, and white clay was brought as ballast on the coal ships on their empty return journeys from the south of England.

Otley lured skilled workers from Tyne and Wear and Staffordshire to his pottery, and by the end of the year the company’s first consignment of earthenware was shipped to Gibraltar.

The Northern Echo: A group of Middlesbrough Pottery items, including a cup and saucer "presented to Frances Maria Strange 1861" and another cup made to commemorate the start of the Middlesbro Weekly News and Cleveland Advertiser paper on July 5, 1855. One of theA group of Middlesbrough Pottery items, including a cup and saucer "presented to Frances Maria Strange 1861" and another cup made to commemorate the start of the Middlesbro Weekly News and Cleveland Advertiser paper on July 5, 1855. One of the plates says "Prepare to Meet Thy God".

From the beginning, the pottery was ambitious, Otley being determined to produce both practical and beautiful goods.

In 1843, Isaac Wilson, a Quaker from Kendal, took over the business and made it thrive: in 1854, the year that Isaac was mayor of Middlesbrough, it exported 279,000 pieces of earthenware. By comparison, the whole earthenware output of Wearside – where there were six or seven manufacturers – was about 300,000 pieces in a year.

Middlesbrough’s most popular products were its transferware, which was designed for everyday use.

A detailed design was etched onto a metal plate which printed the image in oil paint onto tissue paper. The tissue was then applied to the pot and so the image was transferred before the paper was removed.

Some of the designs were produced in-house, but most would have been purchased from other potteries and specialist engravers.

One of the most popular patterns for mass production was the blue and white willow, but Middlesbrough also produced unique items.

The collection being auctioned belonged to Dr John Yule, a Middlesbrough lad who for 36 years was a GP in Meadowfield, to the south of Durham. He was such an expert he literally wrote the book on the potteries of Middlesbrough. One of the unique pieces he owned is in the sale on March 2: it is an 1840 Temperance Pledge Plaque dedicated to Thomas Cooke and his wife, Elizabeth, and daughter, Mary (below).

The Northern Echo: The Middlesbrough Pottery plate made to commemorate the Cooke family signing the temperance pledge in 1840. Picture courtesy of Tennants

Thomas worked an earthenware fireman at the pottery. He came from Staffordshire, the home of pottery. His wife, Elizabeth, came from Durham and their daughter, Mary, was born in Hilton, a hamlet between Darlington and Staindrop. They settled in Middlesbrough and the plaque was made to commemorate the family signing a pledge to give up alcohol.

The heyday of the pottery was the 1850s, but, as the century wore on and the ironopolis grew, workers gained better wages in the new industries.

Customers’ tastes changed: they wanted something more fancy than utilitarian blue and white utility patterns, and in 1879, John Harrison founded the Linthorpe Pottery at his family’s Sun Brickworks at Linthorpe. In a time of recession, the brickworks was going to close, so Mr Harrison safeguarded jobs by making potsThe Northern Echo: A beautiful selection of Linthorpe Pottery from the forthcoming sale. Picture courtesy of TennantsA collection of beautiful Linthorpe pots from the Tennants sale

Dr Christopher Dresser – the country's leading Orientalist, who was head designer at the London fashion house Liberty's – supported with this socially-aware business, and became its chief designer. With rich, lustrous glazes topping off his most remarkable designs and shapes, Linthorpe pots became the most sought after in the country.

The Northern Echo: A twin handled vase designed by Dr Christopher Dresser in the saleA twin handled vase designed by Dr Christopher Dresser in the sale

They won medals in exhibitions in Calcutta, New Orleans and London's Alexandra Palace; in 1889, Linthorpe gained huge kudos when Princess Alexandra, the wife of the future King Edward VII, purchased a turquoise vase.

The Northern Echo: The ladies' painting room inside the Linthorpe PotteryThe ladies' painting room inside the Linthorpe Pottery

Many of Dr Yule’s Linthorpe pots are in the sale, with those made to Dr Dresser’s designs likely to command the highest prices.

Unable to compete, the Middlesbrough Pottery closed in 1887.

Then, on May 3, 1889, Mr Harrison died suddenly, aged only 45, at his home in Pierremont Crescent, Darlington, and Linthorpe Pottery closed almost immediately.

The Northern Echo: The Onward Building Society's headquarters in Northgate from which John Harrison syphoned money to keep Linthorpe Pottery afloatThe Onward Building Society's former headquarters in Northgate, Darlington 

The reason became clear on February 5, 1890, when auditors called at another of Mr Harrison’s businesses, the Onward Building Society, in Northgate, Darlington, for an annual inspection of the books. Under Mr Harrison’s control and with the tacit support of the town’s Quaker industrialists who encouraged their workers to save their money rather than waste it on drink, the Onward had grown into the biggest building society between Newcastle and York.

When the auditors called at what is today a Gregg’s pastie shop, the Onward’s secretary had invited them in, given them a seat and then disappeared. After an hour sitting waiting, the head auditor, Thomas Robson, had explored the office to find him.

He did – in the lavatory.

“Thomas Dennison was sitting on the closed lid of the toilet seat in a stooping position, resting his hands on his knees, and I saw large quantities of blood on the floor which appeared to have fallen from him, " he told the police. "I said: 'Oh, Mr Dennison, what is this that has happened?'"

The Darlington and Stockton Times explained: "Instead of obtaining the documents, Mr Dennison had gone into the lavatory and there shot himself through the head. The ball penetrated the lower jaw, passed through the tongue and lodged behind the frontal lobe."

The Northern Echo: The Onward Building Society logo

Amazingly, Mr Dennison survived, but he was immediately arrested because the Onward was £45,151 11s 9d short (nearly £5m in today's values).

Word shot around the district creating scenes of panic that made the collapse of Northern Rock in 2007 look like a minor accountancy mishap, and Mr Dennison was charged with “felonious and fraudulent embezzlement”.

Yet his defence argued that he “was simply the victim of his employer who held him on terms from which it was impossible to escape". Mr Harrison was taking out loans in the names of well respected local people, like the Reverend William Bowman, vicar of Gainford, pocketing the cash and then fiddling the books to make it look like they were slowly being repaid.

All this came crashing to a halt when Mr Harrison died his “untimely death”, causing the chief beneficiary of his fraud – Linthorpe Pottery – to collapse almost immediately. The pottery had never made money. Its glazes were too expensive, Dr Dresser commanded a huge fee, and rival potteries quickly knocked out cheap copies.

Chartered accountant William Peat, of Middlesbrough, liquidated the Onward and concluded that “the despicable defalcations” at the society enabled Mr Harrison to keep the pottery afloat.

But as the examples in Dr Yule’s collection show, those defalcations have left us with some truly beautiful items, and Linthorpe Pottery is still very collectable today.

It will command the big prices in the Tennants 20th Century Design Sale on March 2, although the Middlesbrough pieces belonging to Dr Yule, who died in 2019, are said to be from the largest and most important private collection of a pottery that is surprisingly crucial to the development of the ironopolis.

The Northern Echo: A large Middlesbrough Pottery jug from the Dr John Yule Collection. Picture courtesy of TennantsA large Middlesbrough Pottery jug from the Dr John Yule Collection. Picture courtesy of Tennants

Viewing at Tennants in Leyburn is on February 29 and March 1, from 10am to 4pm. The sale starts at 9.30am on Saturday, March 2, with Dr Yule’s collection making up the first lots. For more details, go to tennants.co.uk