Northern Ireland

Book shows Belleek Pottery attracted visitors world-wide

Old book
Image caption The Belleek visitors' book dates back to 1868

Belleek Pottery is one of Northern Ireland's biggest tourist attractions with tourists arriving by the coach-load.

Since the visitor centre opened in 1989, more than 2.5 million people have visited the workshops where fine bone china ware is produced.

But a recent discovery has revealed that the company was on the tourist trail more than a century ago, a time when this remote corner of County Fermanagh was more difficult to reach.

A visitors' book dating back to the founding days of the pottery was found in the attic of a book collector revealing the extraordinary lengths some people have gone to over the years in pursuit of its products.

It records a visit in 1870 by the fifth Earl Spencer who travelled by boat and horse-drawn carriage to get to the village.

The great grand-uncle of Princess Diana, he was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland by Queen Victoria.

The Vice-regal visit was recorded by a special correspondent of the Irish Times on 16 May 1870.

It described how Lord Spencer and his party departed Enniskillen aboard a steam ship: "Notwithstanding the unfavourable state of the weather, rain falling throughout the trip down, their Excellencies remained on deck in order to enjoy the magnificent scenery of the Lower Lough Erne.

"A stiff gale blew, as may be judged from the fact that Lord Spencer lost his hat on the passage."

When Earl Spencer arrived at the pottery he signed the visitors book.

But in 1884 the pottery was sold and the book disappeared - only to turn up again in an attic of a book collector in Tipperary.

When it came up for auction, two avid collectors of Belleek memorabilia, Chris and Bev Marvel, realised the book's significance.

Chris said: "One of the most unusual things that we'd ever seen was this book.

"We couldn't believe it! It came up on the auction search on the internet. We thought, 'Well we have to buy that.'

Image caption Visitors names in the Belleek book include that of the fifth Earl Spencer, great grand-uncle of Princess Diana

"My wife has always been interested in ephemera - the paper pieces of information that get lost.

"Well, all the information from Belleek at this time has been lost. This was the only bit of information that we'd ever seen like this so we bid for it at auction and we got it.

"We decided it had to go back to the pottery. The book is here now at the pottery where it belonged.

"We don't know how it managed to get out of the pottery in the first place but here it is now.

"About the last entry in the book, there's a little note in the margin which has the word sold in 1884 when the pottery changed hands and we assume the book just disappeared mysteriously from the pottery and apparently was then in the possession of a book collector in Tipperary and when he died this past year it came up for auction."

The leather-bound book is now on display in the visitors centre, but it is not only the signatures of dignitaries like Earl Spencer that are revealing.

There are entries recording visitors from all corners of the British Empire.

But why did they make the arduous journey to the pottery on the shores of Lough Erne?

Belleek Group operations director Arthur Goan says it is all down to 19th century marketing.

"Above all else it reveals brand and brand awareness," he said.

"How did people come from some of the places you'll see here - Australia, Calcutta in India, South Africa, how did these people find out about our company? How did they find out about the brand?

"I think it's the brand name that has been carried over to these far and wide places."

The Irish Times reported that Lord and Lady Spencer were highly pleased with all they saw.

And while there may not have been a gift shop in 1870, Arthur Goan says the Spencers - like all good tourists - bought a memento of their visit to take back to Althorp House in Northamptonshire.

"When Earl John Spencer was here, his wife insisted that they purchase a full dinner service and full tea service made by Belleek," said Mr Goan.

"It carries the Althorp crest as well and we're actually trying to find out right now where we could find a piece of this Belleek."