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From Refined China 'fancies' To Lilliput Lane - The Evolution Of A Family Business

Jun 6, 2008
The Lilliput Lane collection may be small in the stature of its pieces, but positively massive in the force of the impact it has had on collectibles companies around the world. One of these is Church's China, the UK's oldest surviving China and Glass Retail business, was founded in Devizes in Wiltshire in 1858. After moving to Northampton in the 1870s, its growth was remarkable, but no one could have foreseen its development into one of the world's premier online companies for top collectible brands, such as Lilliput Lane.

Wilfrid Church, grandfather of the current Managing Director, Stephen Church, was born literally 'above the shop' in Parade House on the north side of Northampton's Market Square.

Wilfrid remembered the early years well. Next to Parade House were the offices and printing presses of the Northampton Mercury (now the Mercury & Herald). Wilfrid and his friends would prowl amongst the heaps of obsolete machinery and collect odd bits of type discarded by the setters. Much to his mother's annoyance he would slope back home, his clothes covered still black in printing ink.

In those days the market square was full of life and bustle, and not just with the daily activity of the market stalls. Wilfrid remembered the arrival of the fair with "round - a - bouts, boxing booths and snapdragon confections. The glare and tumult persisted until about 11.00pm when the bellowing organ gave its lullaby, 'Christmas awake.'"

"About the first week in June, wagons of wool would arrive drawn by sturdy horses. These were from the outlying farms and soon unloaded, weighed and bid for. The Cheese Fair was also an attraction, when the large cylindrical blocks were brought for sale from many parts. A gauge - like knife could be inserted for the prospective buyer to judge whether the commodity was to his taste or not. On one occasion a menagerie arrived on the square, the roar of wild beasts sounding somewhat fearsome during the night."

The shop itself always seemed to be busy, with a tremendous demand for tea ware and 'toilet ware', with the occasional ornament required, but the demand for collectible 'brands' as we know them today, such as Lilliput Lane, non-existent.

Being the focal point of the town, there was always plenty going on. Wilfrid remembered politicians holding forth from the steps of the fountain. They were sometimes "baptised by little urchins who had climbed up above and flipped water from the ornamental cupolas". Wilfrid also had vivid memories of the noisy activity of the printing presses in the newspaper offices next door, and how when the editions of the 'Mercury' were released, there would be a stampede of newspaper boys along the passageway adjoining the shop. The hordes of youths would pour out in all directions across the Market Square. "As the partition was flimsy, the vases and ornaments would jump up and down and rattle as though in an earthquake."

Stephen Church himself, Wilfrid's grandson, well remembers the printing presses next door. "As a boy working in the school holidays, I was often dispatched next door to get reams of spare paper for use as packing materials. When you consider the sophisticated poly-foam and 'bubble' packaging materials that are used to pack the likes of Lilliput Lane, it's amazing that we tolerated such primitive packing materials only forty years ago".

So the Lilliput Lane collection has certainly made a difference to this company as the company evolved. Such is the charm of the pieces. Without this collection, the world would be duller place.
About the Author
To explore our range of Lilliput Lane collectibles further, please visit our website at http://www.theukgiftcompany.co.uk
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