Toby jugs – comic or commonplace, English or not?

toby, jug full of ale
A Toby with a foaming jug, plenty of painted decoration on jacket, hat and red-nosed face. Photograph by scrappy annie

Toby jugs portray a character whose story is rather unclear. He reminds some people of Shakespeare’s jovial, disreputable Toby Belch, and he very likely has something to do with an old song about Toby Fillpot.

Dear Tom, this brown jug that now foams with mild ale,
(In which I will drink to sweet Nan of the vale),
Was once Toby Fillpot, a thirsty old soul,
As e’er drank a bottle, or fathomed a bowl…
(1761, by Francis Fawkes, a clergyman)

This ceramic character was born in the English Staffordshire potteries region in the 18th century, fully clothed in breeches, coat, and a tricorn hat, seated, and clutching his own jug of ale. Sometimes Toby holds a pipe, takes snuff, or has a barrel between his feet.

Although Tobies are real glazed jugs with a handle behind and a spout in front, usually formed by the front point of the three-cornered hat, they have probably never held much liquid, and were originally intended to be decorative pieces of pottery.

Toby inspired many other character jugs, and they have been made more or less continuously over the last 250 years. Some are fictional personalities, and some are based on real people. They generally have humorous, earthy faces. Character is drawn in their wrinkles, and there may be an element of caricature. Themed sets are also possible.

Were any early Toby jugs made outside England?

toby jug from Brittany
This jug is very Toby-like, well-supplied with drink and a clay pipe resting between his legs, but he was made in Brittany, not England, probably before 1800, and he has a bicorne, 2-pointed hat. Is he drinking wine? Photo by Pymouss

Everyone knows Toby is an Englishman, and that’s why I was surprised to find that a French museum (Musée de Bretagne) has a Tobyish jug made in Rennes, probably 18th century. (See photo) His jug says Boy-Tout or Drink-All. In France of the 1700s this was a slangy, joky word to do with finishing your drink in one swig:* rather like the Toby Fillpot character, that “thirsty old soul”. As far as I can discover, Toby’s French cousin is called Jacquot, but please comment if you know more.

Victorian and Edwardian attitudes to Toby jugs

In 1904 the writer Gertrude Jekyll thought of a Toby jug as an ornament to sit above the fireplace on a cottage or farmhouse mantelpiece along with other “coloured glazed pottery and low-class porcelain”.

She was not the only person of that period who was unimpressed by earthenware Tobies, whether recently-designed Victorian ones or earlier jugs from the Georgian period. Edward Downman, who wrote English Pottery and Porcelain in 1896, doesn’t sound too enthusiastic, even when he admits that the older antique jugs were made by expert craftsmen.

…the most eminent potters of a bygone age may be associated with this grotesque and commonplace ware…

Now Toby jugs are admired by many and collected by enthusiasts. Genuine antiques may cost several hundred pounds in their home country. Collectors can specialise in particular types – pearlware or Wemyss ware, sailor or farmer Tobies, for example – and they expect the best jugs to be sold by upmarket auction houses and antique dealers.

This Toby jug's handle is reflected in the mirror behind him. Photo by HomeThingsPast.

Photographers credited in captions. Links to originals here: First jug picture, Breton Toby jug
More picture info here


*Various old French dictionaries on Google Books explain boy-tout aka  boi-tout: like this one.


10 thoughts on “Toby jugs – comic or commonplace, English or not?

  1. Like the french toby jug, very unusual, but I would put the age slightly after 1800. If you notice it leans slightly to port, like a yorkshire toby. Also if he has a small cup to his face he’s known as a Benjimin. Is the cup round or octagonal ? Any markings on the base ? He does look continental, the way the eyes and eyebrows are painted in, if you notice stafordshire jugs have very good face definition and so dont have the face painted. Does it have hollow legs ? Any chance of some more pictures ? I have been doing a sort of toby jug identifier for the last 10 years and would love to do a page on this one.



    1. Very interesting – thanks for the detailed response. Great to hear from someone so knowledgeable. My knowledge of the French jug is limited to info from a museum in Brittany which dates it with a question mark!
      XVIIIème siècle (?) = 18th century (?)
      I can’t find a way to link directly to the page, but if you go here:
      and type ‘boy-tout’ in the search box, then hit the ‘rechercher’ button, you’ll find the thumbnail image. Click on the middle square underneath to reach a picture with dates, measurements, name of collection etc.
      If you type ‘pichet’ you will get all their jugs. There are a couple of other character jugs which might interest you.

      This is the museum:
      I do hope they’ll answer your questions. I’d love to see what you come up with (link please!)


  2. Cant get to your url that you tell me about

    What happened is that Staffordshire toby jugs were exported all over the world, and a few countries copied them. But not quite the same quality, some in Portugal had wine skins instead of jugs, and the clothes fashion changed as well. If you look at the URL above, you should see the quality of pottery produced here about the same time, and just look at the difference.


    1. Yes, the features are finely modelled in your pics – I see what you mean about “not quite the same quality”.

      I should have realised the first URL was no use. I think you’ll have to start with the second URL I gave, choose ‘English’ (near top), then click “access the collections”. Then you should be ready to start searching for boy-tout. Hope that works.


  3. Got the 3/4 facing photo now, that’s much better. Things to notice is the biscuit glaze,
    Later the victoarians lost this and did very bad shiny
    this is quite good, but not as good as english contemperary jugs.
    The base seems a bit thin, and the pipe between the legs is very badly moulded.
    Also the the potting can no way be discribed as crisp, just look at the hands,
    the jugs, the face features.
    But on the plus side it does look like a “one off” jug, and you don’t get many of those.
    Do you own any Toby Jugs ?


    1. It’s great having your insights – many thanks. I don’t have any Toby jugs of my own – just enjoy looking at other people’s treasures. Next step for me is getting my eye in re what you say about biscuit glaze.


      1. About 2 years i bought a toby jug scrouge i loved it so much i started collecting toby i have over 200 and still collecting


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