Skip to main content

Fenner, William snr. (1792-1844)

Fenner, William; Fenner & Co.

Tunbridge Wells, Kent; Tunbridge-ware manufacturers and retailers (fl.c.1792-1844)

A 1796 trade card of William Fenner (printed by Jasper Sprange) indicates he was selling a wide range of print-decorated wares 'in the TURNER or CABINET line' on the Parade, but he may have traded as early as 1792 when he is recorded as a subscriber towards the repaving of the Walks. 

In 1797 he became a partner of James Nye who was carrying on a similar business on the Parade. James Nye died in 1808 and Nye’s son, Edmund became Fenner’s new partner, the business trading as Fenner & Nye. The turnery on Mount Sion was closed and production centred on extended workshops at the Repository (later called the Chalet), on Mount Ephraim. This arrangement continued until February 1820 when the partnership was dissolved and the Mount Pleasant site was in the sole use of William Fenner.

Fenner’s trade card illustrated The Repository, which was a substantial building facing the Common, probably containing showrooms as well as his home, with a wide workshop to the right with the legend FENNERS MANUFACTORY sign. The citizens of the town decided to raise a fund to make a presentation to Princess Victoria and they applied the 25 guineas raised to commission a writing table of fine quality. To this end a number of Tunbridge-ware makers in the town were considered and William Fenner was employed. The table he created was veneered in kingwood and decorated with 'party- coloured  woods from every part of the globe', providing facilities for writing, reading, needlework, painting and drawing, and fully fitted with the appropriate tools  and materials. The presentation took place in September 1826 and described in local guide- books for the town.

Fenner died unexpectedly in 1827. His daughter, Anne, and her husband Charles Butler, inherited her father's property (married 27 March 1819 at St. Vedast Foster Lane, London). Charles Butler had a chemist, druggist and patent medicine business at 4 Cheapside, London. He was related by marriage to James Talbot Ubsdell, who by 1829 took over and operated the Tunbridge ware manufactory on Mount Ephraim. As a result of financial mismanagement, the Tunbridge-ware manufactory was recovered from Ubsdell by 1836 and began trading as Fenner & Co. 

Some efforts appear to have been made to revitalise the reputation of Fenner & Co. and the scope of its trading. Two different trade labels are recorded on their manufactures, one featuring the repository and manufactory (noted on a labelled rosewood needlework table), and the other on a small workbox where the company claimed to be 'Inlaid & Mosaic Wood Manufacturers to HER MAJESTY & THE ROYAL FAMILY', no doubt trading on the fame of William Fenner’s Princess Victoria table. Sales in the London market were pursued: in May 1837 Fenner & Co. displayed their wares at Cosmorama, 209 Regent Street, a fashionable public attraction. Another London contract was the supply of 'TUNBRIDGE WELLS PORTABLE PENS' i.e., pen nibs in wooden Tunbridge-ware boxes, retailed by Philip Oriel, a wholesale stationer at 159 Aldersgate Street.  

A guide book published by Edwin Marks of Calverley Library, Calverley Promenade, listed Fenner & Co.’s wares. These ranged from small trinkets to tables, priced from £2 12s 6d to £15 and teapoy tables from £6 to £12. Although not producing tessellated mosaic veneers, he was obtaining some from other makers for sale at his outlets. The business was seemingly successful despite Charles Butler apparently being an unreliable businessman. His creditors held a hearing in October 1833 and a combined debt of £18,000 was revealed. In 1837 Butler was imprisoned for theft, though later pardoned. By June 1841 he was a prisoner in the Queen’s Bench Prison, Surrey. However, the Tunbridge-ware manufactory in Tunbridge Wells was listed in the separate ownership of his wife, Anne. She died in November 1842, bequeathing the business for the benefit of her five children. She appointed Charles Butler as executor but one of Butler’s debtors was opposed to this arrangement alleging that he was an unfit person having been 'so often bankrupt and insolvent … to be trusted'. Miss Ann Butler (one of the daughters) was therefore entrusted with closing the Tunbridge Ware manufactory. A sale was held on 31 July 1844 and the three following days. The first day included the stock of the manufactory “including work tables, chess-tables, tea trays, work, card, netting and other boxes, portable and other inlaid writing desks, cigar cases, a large assortment of turnery, together with a quantity of rosewood, palmyra, ebony, kingwood, maple and other woods in blocks and veneers, an excellent sawing machine, and several turning lathes.”          

An engraving of the showrooms and workshops at Mount Ephraim in a mosaic parquetry frame made by Fenner & Co., c.1835, is illustrated in Furniture History (1997) p. 268.

Sources: Austen, ‘Tables by Tunbridge Ware Makers’, Furniture History (1997); Austen, Tunbridge ware (3rd ed., 2001); Furniture History Newsletter, May 2015.