Toby or not Toby – the joy of Toby Jugs

By Geoff Harris

Toby Jugs – love them or hate them, they are a staple of the British antiques world, normally depicting rubicund 18th century types sporting a tricorn hat and clutching a tankard of ale.

While they are a regular fixture at car boot sales and charity shops, the most valuable ones can sell for serious money. Back in January, for example, Bonhams set a new record for a Toby Jug auction sale, with an Admiral Lord Rodney jug from around 1785 selling for a whopping £65,000, plus buyer’s premium. We’ll certainly drink to that…

To find out more about the current market for Toby Jugs, we got some insights from an expert called Allan Blackburn. Allan is the owner of GB Antiques Centre at Lancaster Leisure Park. An antiques enthusiast for more than 30 years, his indoor centre now houses 120 dealers over 40,000 square feet.

Allan Blackburn

When did you first become interested in Toby Jugs and why?

It was at the same as I became interested in antiques – in the later 1980’s

Have prices gone up in recent years, or are they fairly stable - depending on age etc?

Actually, the opposite is true. The Toby Jug market has all but collapsed in recent times. This is mainly due to the amount of reproductions around today.

So as we saw with the Bonham’s sale, it’s only the rarer ones which sell for a lot?

Yes, very old Toby Jugs- from around 1760-1800 are the only ones holding their value.

A diverse group of jugs

Where is a good place for a collector to start? With a specialist dealer, or just keeping an eye out at online auctions and antiques fairs, when they open?

There are plenty of Toby Jugs around, especially from prolific manufacturers like Royal Doulton, available at rock bottom prices in antique centres fairs, shops, car boot sales and online. They can be picked up for just a few pounds.

Any advice to avoid getting ripped off?

If you are spending more than a few pounds, always ask the dealer you are buying from the age of the Toby Jug as there are so many copies out there. Stick to Tobies from the 18th or 19th century or well-marked items like Royal Doulton.

A classic Royal Doulton jug

What is the most valuable Toby Jug you have ever handled or sold?

The most valuable Toby Jug I’ve ever handled was a Ralph Wood Toby Jug of a man drinking with his feet overlapping the plinth. The fact that his feet were overlapping made him quite rare. It was made in 1780 and sold for a magnificent £360 back in 1996!

Do they still tend to crop up in attics etc or have most of the valuable ones come on to the market already?

No – they don’t tend to just “crop up” anymore. Most of the valuable ones are already safe with collectors.

The Admiral Rodney jug which recently sold for £65,000 at Bonhams

Are they popular with overseas buyers too?

Toby Jug collecting is still a very British speciality. Overseas buyers only really tend to buy the faces they recognise on the jugs and these, you’ll find are mostly (again) made by Royal Doulton. So, for the overseas buyers famous people like Winston Churchill or a member of the royal family are the most popular.

A brief history of Toby Jugs

As mentioned in our introduction, the classic Toby Jug depicts a cheerful man holding a beer tankard and sometimes a pipe, with a tricorn hat which forms the spout. The jugs started out as brown salt-glazed models and became popular from the 1760s, but unlike, say, John Bull, they developed to depict a wide range of different characters, including women, and celebrities from the world of politics and the armed services.

Female characters were also depicted

Nobody is quite sure where the name ‘Toby’ comes from, but suggestions include “Low Toby, an old word for a mugger, Sir Toby Belch from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, or as a tribute to famous Yorkshire tippler Henry Elwes – nicknamed Toby Fillpot.

The best examples were made by a range of companies from the Staffordshire Potteries from the mid-18th to 19th centuries, including Wood, Hollins and Astbury; Royal Doulton has also been a major producer from 1815 onwards.

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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