A Lady’s Workbox

The Judges’ Lodgings museum has a variety of historically important fine furniture and objects manufactured by Gillows of Lancaster. You can find more details on the box and its marquetry on the Judges’ Lodgings website and Wikipedia, and more photos on Red Rose Collections.

Lady’s Workbox, Judges Lodgings Museum, Lancaster

This workbox is a rare and fine example of the cabinet-maker’s art. Now part of the collection at the Judges’ Lodgings Museum in Lancaster, it was manufactured by Gillows of Lancaster for Miss Elizabeth Giffard of Nerquis, Wales, in 1808. Its maker, Francis Dowbiggin, was employed by Gillows from 1787 to 1816. He was the father of the celebrated royal cabinet-maker Thomas Dowbiggin (1788-1854): Thomas must have received his early training from his father. The piece is fully documented in the Gillow Archive in Westminster City Library and it contains a printed list of specimen woods supplied by Gillows, which also confirms that it was made by them for Miss Giffard. The workbox also contains a splendid collection of early 19th century and later needlework accessories.

Castle Hill, Lancaster. Gillows original eighteenth century premises, coincidently situated adjacent to the Judges Lodgings

The workbox is characteristic of a type of furniture popular in the early 19th century, in which rare specimens of marble, sea-shells or wood (as in this case) were incorporated into the design. The popularity of this design had been encouraged by voyages of discovery to previously unexplored regions of the world, which awakened the curiosity of scientists, collectors and public alike. In this case, the woods used came from locations which include the newly discovered Australia, the Mediterranean, the Middle East, India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Indonesia, North and South America, the West Indies, and Africa. A number of the woods, named on a printed list accompanying the piece – Angola Wood, Cape Ebony, Black Ebony, Brown Ebony, Green Ebony, Gambia Wood, Iron Wood and, believe it or not, Jamaica Satinwood – came from Africa. However, it is likely that Gillows obtained these woods from the West Indies, where they were freely available, rather than from Africa.

Gillows traded with merchants in the West Indies. One of the earliest indications, in the Gillows Archive Waste Book 1731-42 – a register, containing an inventory of a merchant’s debts and effects, with a record of his transactions in date order – shows that they were buying and selling exotic wood from April 1732. Their imports were not restricted to wood, but also sugar and spirits. They exported their beautiful furniture in return, to places like Barbados, Antigua, and Jamaica; often with the drawers packed full of British manufactured goods.

The Lady’s Workbox was made a year after the slave trade act of 1807, which abolished slave trade in the British Empire, although slavery was allowed to continue until 1833. Many 18th century Lancaster merchants, like Abraham Rawlinson, had made their fortune on the back of this trade. Some Lancastrians lived and worked as merchants and plantation owners in the West Indies, and had direct involvement with the slave trade or used slave labour. Having Lancastrian connections in the West Indies made it easier for Lancaster based merchants, such as Gillows, to trade at such a distance.

Nercwys Hall, photo from Coflein – The Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales

Miss Elizabeth Giffard is an interesting character. The Nercwys estate in Flintshire, which Miss Giffard inherited in 1790 on the death of her grandmother, had been passed down through the female line for five generations. When Miss Elizabeth Giffard was a child, her father John and her grandmother Elizabeth Hyde, had a dispute over the religious upbringing of Elizabeth and her sister Eleanora. John Giffard was accused of abducting his two daughters and taking them to France to be raised as Roman Catholics, against the specific wishes of his mother-in-law. Miss Giffard remained unmarried, and ran the estate with eleven live in staff. She was interested in the new discoveries being made around the world, she collected an extensive library and grew prize pineapples on her estate.

Editorial note: This article underwent significant content changes in September 2020 to clarify the relationship between Gillows and the slave trade.

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