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Hester Bateman - Queen of Neo-Classical English Silver

Martin McIlroy (Head of the Silver Department) retells the remarkable story of Hester Bateman (d 1794), a renowned female silversmith in the male dominated silver trade of 18th Century London.

The scrolling HB of Hester Bateman's sponsor's mark.

The scrolling HB of Hester Bateman's sponsor's mark.

This is a short story of a very remarkable and determined woman, living and working in a trade and world dominated by men. Her tenacity and sheer hard work would earn her high praise and respect amongst her peers. She has gone on to become one of the most sought-after silversmiths by successive generations of silver collectors.

Hester Bateman, daughter of John Needham (or Neden), was born in 1708 in Clerkenwell, London. As far as we are aware, she received little or no formal education and was understood to be illiterate for many of her contracts were signed with an 'X', which given her later success is truly incredible.

In 1732, at the age of 24, Hester married John Bateman, a wire and chain maker, who supplied the silver trade, she produced six children John, Letticia, Ann, Peter, William and Jonathan. The family lived at 107 Bunhill Row in North London and would remain there for over a century.

Whilst rearing the six children, Hester Bateman must have spent time helping her husband and gaining informal instruction in the world of the silver trade. He must have been impressed and it is suggested that she was a fairly accomplished silversmith, for upon his death in 1760, he bequeathed the tools of his trade to Hester rather than his sons Peter or Jonathan, who were both apprentices to silversmiths.

For a hard-working mother with a great deal of common sense, the choice to carry on or sell up was not difficult. She had a family to clothe and feed so, despite being a female business woman in a male dominated trade, she set to work.

One year after her husband's death, Hester Bateman registered her mark of a scrolling HB at Goldsmiths Hall. Her first decision was to move away from wire and chain making and to start making larger objects such as forks, spoons, caddies and teapots.

The first few years were all about establishing her name and many of her early pieces would be sold to other silversmiths who would overstamp her mark. As the business expanded, this shrewd business woman began to make a name for herself. She was joined by her two sons Jonathan and Peter in 1774 and the business began to boom. Known for her attention to detail, a good eye for decorative lines and the pure quality of her work, Hester remained at the head of the business until her retirement aged 82. During this time, she must have also learnt the art of book keeping and accounts, not bad for someone who was illiterate.

The firm carried on producing high quality articles including trays, sauce boats, salt cellars and were renowned for punched designs and bright-cut engraving. In 1791, Jonathan died leaving Peter, who with the help of his sister-in-law Ann, carried on the business. Ann ran the company until her retirement in 1805.

Hester died in 1794 and was buried at St Luke's Church, Old Street, London. This remarkable woman not only brought up six children but expanded a mediocre business into a top selling brand. Several examples of her work can be found at St Paul's Cathedral, the City Guilds, country houses and many silver collector's homes.

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  • Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood
  • Silversmiths
  • Hester Bateman (d 1794)

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About the Author

Martin McIlroyMartin McIlroy
Collectables and Toys
Silver
Works of Art and Clocks

Martin McIlroy is the Head of the Works of Art and Silver Departments at Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood.

Martin McIlroy was educated at Exeter School in Devon and took a gap year before continuing his education at Teacher Training College. He subsequently worked at The Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) in Exeter, cataloguing reserve collections before spending seven years working for a local auction room gaining further experience.

He joined the internationally renowned auction house Philips in 1982, where he catalogued sales in Exeter, Cornwall and London for sixteen years. He then joined Bearne's in 2000 to catalogue silver and works of art and subsequently became Head of these departments.

His favourite subject is bronze sculpture, church silver, toys and collectables.