Raise a glass to the world of Toby jug collectables

Our antiques expert Allan Blackburn look back at the history of the Toby jug

By Henry Widdas, Communities Content Page Manager
Friday, 28th January 2022, 9:33 pm
Updated Friday, 28th January 2022, 9:34 pm

A month past the shortest day, you can feel the evenings starting to lengthen, just a little, but I’ll raise a glass to that. Or maybe one of this week’s jolly classics: the Toby jug.

Original Toby jugs, produced with a brown salt glaze in the Staffordshire potteries from the 1760s, typically portrayed a heavy-set, jovial man holding a mug of beer and tobacco pipe, whose tricorn hat forms a pouring spout.

Full-length figures, they depicted sporting squires, sailors, female characters, and military personalities.

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These jugs are interesting as they form a collection of Dickens characters and cost 15 pounds each

The name ‘Toby’ has been ascribed to many sources, including Sir Toby Belch, from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and renowned Yorkshire drinker Henry Elwes, who featured in the popular 1760s song ‘Brown Jug’. His nickname was Toby Fillpot; ‘Fillpot’ is an alternative name for the mug.

As early depictions often had a dishevelled, roguish appearance, others point to the Highwayman’s on-foot counterpart, the ‘Low Toby’, equivalent to the modern-day mugger!

Canny collectors focus on mid-18th to mid-19th century jugs. Look for Ralph and Enoch Wood, Thomas Hollins, William Pratt, Thomas Whieldon and John Astbury.

Late 19th century onwards mass-produced Toby jugs are easier to find but worth less, as are the huge number of reproductions which have caused the market to decline in recent years.

Creating Toby jugs since 1815, Royal Doulton were among the first to refine the design to just head and shoulders. Their colourful ‘character jugs’ (as this style should strictly be called), launched in 1934, featuring figures from literature, history and legend, like John Barleycorn, symbolising whisky.

Depending on age, rarity, detail, historical interest, provenance, and condition, mugs can be found for a few pounds to hundreds. The most valuable Toby Jug I’ve ever handled was a 1780 Ralph Wood featuring a full-length character. His feet overlapped the plinth of the jug, making made him quite rare and worth £360 back in 1996. I hope his new owner kept him safe!

These vintage jugs are interesting as they form a collection of Dickens characters. Produced by Kingston Pottery in the 1960s, Bill Sykes, Mr McCawber and their pals are priced £15 each in the centre.

In 2012, a collection of rare Toby jugs depicting a range of dictators, politicians and military leaders raised thousands of pounds at auction. Former US President John F Kennedy alone fetched £21,000; I’d say ‘Cheers’ to that!