Pick up a pub and shake it and the chances are a Toby jug or two will fall out, along with a porcelain dog advertising whisky, a few dusty bottles of Royal Wedding beer and some foxed and faded Victorian prints.
What is a Toby jug? It’s a colourful pottery vessel, usually depicting a seated man in embroidered coat and tricorn hat holding a mug of beer and a pipe – decorative rather than useful.
More than that, though – Toby jugs are a symbol, a marker, of a Proper Pub. Like other forms of greebling, they add depth, detail and hint at antiquity.
They’re also a sort of summoning totem: this jovial, hollow-legged fellow is exactly the kind of customer we want.
Because Toby jugs are collectible, they’re also well studied. The website tobyjugcollecting.com has a concise history, for example, and there are numerous books.
What most experts seem to agree on is that they emerged in Staffordshire in the West Midlands of England in the 18th century and evolved from earlier character jugs which turned the typical tricorn hat of the period into a handy pouring spout.
The Toby of Toby jug fame is often given the full name Toby Fillpot and this ballad dating from 1757, around the same time as the jugs became popular, would seem to make the connection clear:
Tom this brown jug that now foams with mild ale,
(In which I will drink to sweet Nan of the vale,)
Was once Toby Fillpot, a thirsty old soul,
As e’er drank a bottle or fathom’d a bowl.
In boozing about ‘twas his praise to excell.
And among jolly topers he bore off the bell.
It chanc’d as in dog days he sat at his ease.
In his flow’r woven arbour as gay as you please;
With a friend and a pipe puffing sorrow away,
And with honest old stingo was soaking his clay.
His breath-doors of life on a sudden were shut,
And he died full as big as a Dorchester butt.
His body when long in the ground it had lain,
And time into clay had resolv’d it again.
A potter found out in its covert so snug.
And with part of fat Toby he form’d this brown jug;
Now sacred to friendship and mirth and mild ale.
So here’s to my lovely sweet Nan of the vale.
Vale, sweet Nan of the vale.
That’s right: the Toby jug is literally made from decomposed, recomposed flesh of Toby Fillpot himself. How’s that for a macabre magical totem?
That poem was anonymous on first publication but was later claimed by Francis Fawkes, a clergyman from Croydon.
In his 1968 book about the history of Toby jugs, however, John Bedford traces this ballad back to an original 16th century text, originally in Latin, by the Italian Geronimo Amalteo. That piece also talks about a pitcher made from corpse-clay.
It seems likely that Fawkes’s poem, which was much reprinted, inspired the production of Toby jugs in Staffordshire in the 1760s as a kind of cash-in or spin-off. The poem was certainly sufficiently well known that inspired a popular print that first appeared in the 1780s and was reissued several times thereafter.
Toby Fillpot by Carrington Bowles, 1786. SOURCE: The British Museum, CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.
Could it be the other way round – did the jugs inspire the poem?
Well, probably not, as the mug described by Fawkes is plain and brown. The Potteries take on the idea is more literal: the remains of Toby Fillpot’s body used to make a jug in the shape of Toby Fillpot’s body.
Ralph Wood of Staffordshire, AKA Ralph Wood II, was one particularly famous early designer of Toby jugs but there were multiple manufacturers by the end of the 18th century.
Early Toby jugs, including several by Ralph Wood (155-157). SOURCE: The Earle Collection of Early Staffordshire Pottery, 1915.
Toby jugs continued to be produced throughout the 19th century, mass produced in traditional styles as ornaments, and also taking on new forms: characters from Dickens, for example, or John Bull, or Father Christmas.
By the early 20th century, Georgian Toby jugs had become collectible antiques, evoking a romantic vision of the pre-Napoleonic era. Writing in The Queen magazine in 1903 columnist ‘The Collector’ said:
Old English pottery is subject to a good deal of imitation… [especially] Toby jugs. These have been turned out in Staffordshire by the thousand, and the country is flooded with them, the makers having taken the trouble to besmear the coloured ones with matter to produce the semblance of age. Genuine coloured Tobys are very scarce, and for a pair with the tops complete five guineas would be asked, or perhaps more.
During the Boer War, Toby Jugs representing Lord Kitchener emerged; then, during World War I, other military and national leaders got the same treatment – Lloyd George, Admiral Jellicoe, General Joffre. Later on, Winston Churchill got his own Toby model, too.
Mass production, nostalgia and nationalism – the perfect conditions for the infestation of pubs by Toby Jugs.
It’s probably no coincidence that Toby jug collections started to appear in pubs in the post-war period, just when pubs themselves felt at a low ebb – battered by bombs, imperiled by the rise of bottled beer and television. This is how it used to be, they said, and could be again.
If you’ve read 20th Century Pub you’ll know that before the theme pub emerged, it wasn’t unusual for publicans to use their personal collections as a way of giving unique character to their establishments. In the post-war period, many pubs had displays of model ships, ties, horses brasses and, of course, Toby Jugs.
Take George Henderson of the Priory Hotel, Larkfield, Kent, for example, whose Toby Jug collection took more than 30 years to put together and was worth thousands of pounds.
At The Old Mint House at Southam, Warwickshire, landlord Fred Dards had a “museum” of Toby jugs, willow pattern plates and spirit measures above the bar. (Birmingham Weekly Post, 04/05/1956) while The Roebuck Inn at Rugeley had its collection of around 50 Toby Jugs destroyed when a lorry drove through the pub (Rugeley Times, 14/04/1956).
And when the owners of The English Pub in Miami, Florida, wanted to ensure it had the correct flavour, they decked it out with 200 Toby jugs, along with 300 other assorted beer mugs. (Daily Mirror, 08/05/1962.)
Toby jugs also became part of brewery and pub branding. In fact, London brewery Hoare & Co registered a Toby Jug as their new trademark as early as 1907, and had a beer branded Toby Ale.
An advertisement for Toby Ale from 1955. SOURCE: British Newspaper Archive.
The Toby Jug. SOURCE: The Builder, December 1937.
Charrington took over Hoare in 1934 and adopted the Toby jug logo, as well as continuing to brew Toby Ale. They even built a flagship inter-war ‘improved’ pub called The Toby Jug at Tolworth, Surrey, in 1937.
In 1983, Toby Bitter became one of Bass Charrington’s flagship national brands and the Toby Grill and Toby Carvery chains – a response to the success of Berni Inns, we suppose – were launched in the late 1980s.
It now feels almost unusual to find a pub with any pretension to Properness without at least one Toby jug somewhere on the premises, though they more often come in packs, leering down from high shelves like tipsy homunculi – gloriously grotesque English kitsch.