The phenomenon of the successful businesswoman is not a recent one. Women have been operating successful businesses since written records began, and it is clear from surviving evidence that women played a central role in the English goldsmithing trade from its development in the medieval period.
Hester Bateman (1708–1794) is now recognised as one of England’s most successful silversmiths of the late eighteenth century, due to her entrepreneurial genius. She came from a poor background and had no formal education. At age twenty-four she married the goldsmith and chainmaker John Bateman, who was of similar social standing. Upon his death in 1760, Hester Bateman registered as a silversmith in her own right, with the first of her ‘HB’ marks registered at London’s Goldsmiths’ Hall on 16 April 1761. Yet due to her lack of education she was unable to sign her name. The business was located in her house at 107 Bunhill Row, the ground floor forming the workshop, as was often the case with Georgian craftspeople. Her two sons, John and Peter, had served apprenticeships and were fully qualified silversmiths, and thus began a highly successful family enterprise, in the heart of London and presided over by Bateman, which supplied elegant domestic tablewares to the aspirant middle classes. Bateman was similar to many women who worked in family businesses at this time, in that it was not until the death of her husband that she was able to assume her own identity and come into her own. She never remarried,1 In marrying again a woman would automatically have lost her identity behind that of her husband and his maker’s mark. but over the next thirty years until her retirement in 1790, she registered a total of nine marks and ran a thriving silversmithing workshop that took full advantage of new mechanised mass-production technologies.
The meaning of the term ‘silversmith’ is interesting to consider. There is no evidence that Bateman actually produced silver objects herself, despite earlier commentaries that portrayed her as a uniquely gifted craftsperson who suddenly emerged in widowhood with previously untried skills. By the eighteenth century the term ‘goldsmith’,which encompassed the work of a silversmith, essentially applied to someone who was admitted to full membership of The Goldsmiths’ Company. Yet the term was also applied to an extensive range of activities and roles related to the precious metals industry, from the techniques of refining and casting to jobs such as plateworker, goldworker, largeworker or smallworker. By the mid eighteenth century the term goldsmith implied a retailer, while the term silversmith referred to a manufacturer or artisan.2 Philippa Glanville & Jennifer Faulds Goldsborough, Women Silversmiths 1685–1845, Thames and Hudson, London, 1990, pp. 13–14. Surviving documents relating to the Bateman enterprise generally refer to Bateman as a goldsmith or plateworker, yet, given the many applications of the term goldsmith and the focus of her business on silver production, Bateman is more often than not referred to in the literature as a silversmith.
Furthermore, by the later eighteenth century the maker’s mark no longer signified the craftsperson who made the object, but either the sponsor or person responsible to the Assay Office, the organisation that ensured that all legal requirements had been complied with. As the owner of the business, Bateman fulfilled this role. Thus, we see that during the first period of the Bateman enterprise, from 1761 to 1774, the majority of silver was actually commissioned by other silversmiths or retailers and was often over-stamped with the retailer’s mark. From 1774 onwards, however, Bateman began purchasing pre-prepared lightweight units of sheet silver from the Birmingham manufacturer Boulton & Fothergill, and focused on assembling, decorating and finishing works for sale. The production of such silver units reflected advances in manufacturing such as the introduction of steam-powered rolling machines to achieve much thinner gauge sheet silver than had been previously possible. It also reflected the emergence of a new branch of silver production, that of low-level mass production, which enabled Bateman and others to compete successfully with the newly emerging trade in Sheffield plate.3 Sheffield plate refers to a technique developed in the 1740s of plating (fusing) a copper alloy ingot with a thin sheet of silver to produce flatware and tablewares with the appearance of sterling silver, but at a much reduced cost.
From the mid 1770s onwards, Bateman began producing a broad range of wares for the table, including flatware (cutlery), salvers, cruet stands, jugs, salts, mustard pots, tankards and fashionable tea and coffee equipage, as well as civic and church plate. The gathering of pace of the Industrial Revolution saw many people leaving the land and migrating to the cities for work, prompting a general increase in education and wealth throughout society and leading to the emergence of a middle class that had strong social aspirations. The extensive output of domestic wares by the Bateman workshop reflected these enormous social changes and Bateman’s skill at servicing a growing middle-class market.
The taking of tea, in particular, prompted very real changes for women of social standing. Despite the fact that tea had arrived in Europe during the seventeenth century, by the late eighteenth century it still remained prohibitively expensive. Thus, the dispensing of tea was the responsibility of the lady of the house, who presided over the preparation and serving of tea each afternoon, the key to the tea caddy remaining firmly around her neck. This important social ritual therefore became a way for women to begin to enjoy greater participation in social life, albeit only within the upper levels of society. The Bateman workshop produced all the standard elements of the tea equipage: the tea kettle on stand, or samovar, for dispensing the hot water; the teapot on stand, with the stand being a separate footed salver that elevated the teapot off the tray; the milk jug or creamer, as it was known; the sugar bowl; sugar tongs; teaspoons; and lemon strainer. The cups and saucers and slop bowl that completed a tea service would have been made of ceramic, preferably Chinese porcelain if money allowed.
Bateman’s designs reflect the fashionable Neoclassical taste of the late eighteenth century: she used ovals and Classical vase and helmet shapes, along with bright cutting (punching), engraving and pierced ornamentation of foliage, festoons, medallions, shells and diaper patterns. Many works were also edged with minute beading and surmounted with urn finials. The machine processes of punching and piercing, along with the use of factory-made components, allowed Bateman to produce large quantities of objects at accessible prices and ensured a rapid turnover of stock.
Bateman retired in 1790 and was succeeded by her sons, who were subsequently succeeded by other members of the Bateman family that continued the business into the mid nineteenth century. While there were other prominent female silversmiths working in London during the late eighteenth century, and indeed at least two other female silversmiths operating in Bunhill Row, Hester Bateman stands out for the enormous success of her business and her prodigious output. This success was only possible because of her embrace of mechanised production and her business savvy. She anticipated the changing expectations of society and understood what was required to successfully respond to these demands.
In marrying again a woman would automatically have lost her identity behind that of her husband and his maker’s mark.
Philippa Glanville & Jennifer Faulds Goldsborough, Women Silversmiths 1685–1845, Thames and Hudson, London, 1990, pp. 13–14.
Sheffield plate refers to a technique developed in the 1740s of plating (fusing) a copper alloy ingot with a thin sheet of silver to produce flatware and tablewares with the appearance of sterling silver, but at a much reduced cost.