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In search of Toby Fillpot

In 1761, the Reverend Francis Fawkes published a volume of Original Poems and Translations that included a poem called The Brown Jug. It was the first time the name Toby Fillpot appeared in print and it introduced to the world a character of prodigious drinking ability immortalised in the Toby jug, writes Julie Carter.

Well, that's one theory. Another associates the Toby with Sir Toby Belch from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, or perhaps Uncle Toby from Laurence Sterne's Tristam Shandy, which was published around 1700.

Then there was a Yorkshire man called Harry Elwes, whose nickname was Tony Fillpot and who is believed to have drunk two thousand gallons of strong ale - yes, you read that correctly, two thousand gallons - before he died in 1761. Almost as impressive was Paul Parnell, who was also from Yorkshire (there must be something about that part of Britain) and whose obituary in Gentleman's Magazine asserted that: '...during his lifetime drank out of one silver pint cup upwards of £2000 worth of Yorkshire stingo, being remarkably attached to stingo tipple of the home brewed best quality... This calculation is taken at 2 pence per cupful. He was the bon vivant whom O'Keefe elaborated in more than one of his Bacchanalian songs, under the appellation of Toby Fillpot.'

Regardless of how Toby Fillpot arrived in the world he's been a popular character for more than 200 years, dressed in 18th century regalia that includes a full-length frock coat with low-set pockets, a waistcoat and cravat, knee breeches and stockings and buckled shoes. In the early earthenware models his tricorn hat, which has a spout for pouring, featured a hollow cap that sat within the hat and doubled as a drinking vessel, and he usually holds a beer jug, drinking glass or both on his knee. He's rarely a good-looking fellow - he was modelled as a character of his time, often complete with missing teeth, smallpox scars and cutting a very portly figure that today would see him going straight to a heart surgeon.

The Toby wasn't the first earthenware figure to appear in Staffordshire, where potters were turning out soldiers, midshipmen, musicians and other characters from the early 18th century, but he was definitely the most popular. The earliest examples were unmarked but are thought to have been made by either John Astbury (1678-1743) or Thomas Whieldon (1719-1795). They were soon followed by other potters working in the Staffordshire, Leeds and Portobello areas of the UK. There are no written records and one potter often copied another. The early Toby jugs held about two pints of beer and appear to have originally been used to carry beer from the barrel to the table.

Ralph Wood I (1715-1772) and his son Ralph Wood II (1748-1795) both produced Toby jugs at their Burslem premises. The colouring and modeling of the Wood Tobies was far superior to anything that had been produced before, with luminous colours on an opaque white ground achieved by painting the colours with translucent glazes. The Woods were one of the first English potteries to identify their work with their names.

Production of the Toby jug expanded in the 19th century to include a variety of figures, but all are identified as Tobies by their modeling of a full length seated or standing figure. This is separate to the character jug, which only features the head and shoulders (and is often incorrectly described as being a Toby jug. A direct derivative of the Toby jug, the character jug was introduced in 1934 by Royal Doulton's Charles Noke).

It's been estimated that by the early 20th century there were more than 200 different producers of the Toby jug, including Royal Doulton, Shorter & Son, Lancaster-Sandland, Royal Worcester, Beswick, Clarice Cliff and Wedgwood. There were also makers operating in France, Germany, Japan, the United States and here in Australia. New enamel techniques and mass production meant many more jugs were put into production, but most collectors will look for the earlier examples because of their finer detail in the modelling and painting.

The standard size for a Toby is usually around 24cm high and the typical figure is modelled as a seated male figure dressed in a long frock coat and tricorn hat, with a pipe in one hand and a foaming jug of ale in the other. But there are a number of variations...

One of the most sought after Tobies is The Thin Man. Dating from the 1770s and thought to be modelled by Ralph Wood, he's a very slender figure depicted drinking an ale while seated, but can also be found holding a pipe and jug.

Another sought after Toby by Ralph Wood is the Raised Glass, which was first potted in the mid-1780s and depicts the drinker with the glass raised towards his mouth. The Raised Glass is sometimes found with the number 51 impressed to the underside of the base.

The Sailor - also by Ralph Wood - dates from around 1780 and shows the figure sitting on a chest, with an anchor at his feet or waves lapping around the base.

The Hearty Good Fellow is one of the Tobies modelled with the figure standing rather than seated. He's placed on a grassy mound with a tree trunk behind him, the branch curling around to form the handle. Although he's usually found with a jug in one hand and a pipe in the other, he's sometimes found with a goblet instead of a pipe.

The Snuff Taker is another figure modelled standing, shown gleefully taking a pinch of snuff with one hand and holding the snuffbox in the other. He has been made in a number of variations and is sometimes found holding a jug. The female Snuff Taker, by contrast, seems to be enjoying her pastime far less. She was produced from around 1840 and wears typical mid-19th century clothes. She is far less common than her male counterpart.

Martha Gunn, another female Toby, is also uncommon. Modelled on the real Martha Gunn, who worked as a 'dipper', helping the gentry from their horse-drawn bathing machines into the sea at Brighton, she became famous when she daringly extended her duties to assisting the Prince Regent (men usually bathed in the nude). Martha can be found modelled holding either a beer mug or a gin bottle.

The Squire, who is usually bigger than the standard Toby at around 27.5cm high, is modelled with a more slender figure. There have been suggestions he is a representation of Ralph Wood I, but there's no proof of this.

The Drunken Parson ranges in size from around 15cm to 25cm high. Dressed in the clothes typical of a cleric at the time, including the full-bottomed wig popular in the early 18th century, he looks a bit the worse for wear with a leering expression and a slightly skewed hat, which is only to be expected given the drinking level to which he aspires - two thousand gallons is a lot of ale...

This feature first appeared in the Spring 2016 edition of Antiques and Collectables for Pleasure & Profit.