Goussé Bonnin was the son of Henry Bonnin, slave trader of Antigua and grandson of Goussé Bonnin the surgeon
Goussé was born in Antigua, probably around 1741. He was sent to England to be educated and attended Eton College. The Eton College Headmaster’s book records the presence of “Goosey Bonnin” there in 1759.
After his education had finished, he seems to have remained in England and to have learnt something of the art of china making, possibly at Bow. In 1766 he married Dorothy Palmer, daughter of Sir Charles Palmer Bt, of Dorney Court, Berkshire. Their son Charles Henry was baptised in August 1767 at Burnham, Buckinghamshire. In 1768, Goussé and his family travelled to Philadelphia, but in 1769 Goussé, probably alone, returned to England in order to secure a patent from the king for the manufacture of “black lead crucibles”. It isn’t clear why. No crucibles appear ever to have been made and there was no suitable supply of “black lead” (graphite) in the Philadelphia area.
Instead, in 1770 Goussé went into partnership with George Anthony Morris and together they set up the first American China Manufactory, in Philadelphia.(1)George Morris had a rich father, while Goussé had a rich father and an even richer father in law. Between them, they supplied substantial funds for the new venture, and other local backers were also attracted.
There proved to be a good source of china clay close to Philadelphia and the factory was built in the Southwark area, on land previously owned by the Morris family. The wares that were produced were “soft paste porcelain” similar to that being produced at the time in Bow, East London. Bone ash was used to lighten the mixture. A number of workers were lured from England to work at Philadelphia with the promise of free passage and double their UK wages. The first emissions from the factory were issued in 1771 and were sold out. However, the venture was short lived.
The Pennsylvania Non-Importation Agreements of 1768 and 1769 were introduced in reponse to the so-called “Townshend Acts”, which sought to tax the British Colonies. American goods were subject to an import tax if they were brought to Britain. The Americans responded by boycotting imports from Britain. Bonnin and Morris were relying on this protection from competition to get their enterprise established.
However, the Townshend Acts were mostly repealed during 1770, the boycott collapsed and by 1772 Philadelphia was being flooded with cheap English china imports. The factory was producing good quality wares, but it could not compete. The Company was forced to close down. Efforts were made to sell it as a going concern and there was a final firing of the furnaces in early 1773, when a new German china maker showed off his skills, but even this failed to tempt buyers. The land and buildings were eventually sold back to the Morris family and the equipment was sold off at auction. The English workers, unpaid, were reduced to begging. (2)
In 1773 the land was sold back to the Morris family and the equipment was sold at auction. George Morris died later that year in Carolina – he was in his mid 20s. Goussé avoided personal bankruptcy. His daughter Caroline was baptised on 29 August 1773 in Philadelphia and in September the whole family headed back to England. Their son Henry Goussé Bonnin was born in London in 1775.
There are currently only nineteen known surviving complete (or almost complete) items produced by the factory. The pickle stand pictured at the top of the page was acquired at auction by the Metropolitan Museum in 1990 for $82,500.
Goussé and Dorothy returned to England with their children.
Dorothy’s father Sir Charles Palmer had died during 1773. His son having predeceased him, the baronetcy passed to his grandson Sir Charles Harcourt Palmer, who was then 13 years old. Many years later, Charles set up house with his cousin, Goussé’s daughter Caroline Bonnin, but he never married her. In his will he left £4000 “to my cousin Caroline Bonnin”. There were several sons and a daughter by the arrangement and Caroline called herself Lady Palmer. On Sir Charles’ death, the children were found to be illegitimate and the baronetcy extinguished.