The workbox is a rare and fine example of the cabinet-maker's art. It was manufactured by Gillows of Lancaster for Miss Elizabeth Giffard of Nerquis, Wales, in 1808.
Its maker, Francis Dowbiggin, was employed by Gillows from 1787 to 1816. He was the father of the celebrated royal cabinet-maker Thomas Dowbiggin (1788-1854). Thomas must have received his early training from his father. The piece is fully documented in the Gillow Archive in Westminster City Library and contains a printed list of specimen woods supplied by Gillows, which also confirms its provenance as having been made by them for Miss Giffard. The workbox also contains a splendid collection of early 19th century and later needlework accessories.
The workbox is characteristic of a type of furniture popular in the early 19th century, in which rare specimens of marble, sea-shells or wood (as in this case) were incorporated into its design. Such popularity had been encouraged by voyages of discovery to hitherto unexplored regions of the world, which awakened the curiosity of scientists, collectors and public alike. In this case, the woods used came from locations which include the newly discovered Australia, the Mediterranean, Middle East, India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and Indonesia, North and South America, the West Indies and Africa. A number of the woods, named on a printed list accompanying the piece - Angola Wood, Cape Ebony, Black Ebony, Brown Ebony, Green Ebony, Gambia Wood, Iron Wood and, believe it or not, Jamaica Satinwood - came from Africa. However, it is more than likely that Gillows obtained these woods not from Africa, but from the West Indies, where they were freely available.
The Slave trade was abolished in Britain in 1807, but in the West Indies it was to continue until 1833. The piece is therefore of interest in casting light on Gillows' commercial activities in the West Indies in the years following the abolition of the Slave Trade in Britain. The Gillow company's role in the Slave Trade is well concealed. However, it is known that in 1756 they bought a slaving vessel, The Africa, formerly called The Jolly Bachelor, and sent it with its same captain, William Saul, to Antigua. In addition, most of the vessels named in the account books of Gillows in the 1750s and 60s are now known specifically to have been those used by slave traders.
Miss Elizabeth Giffard is an interesting character. The Nerquis estate in Flintshire, which Miss Giffard inherited in 1790 on the death of her grandmother, had been passed down through the female line for five generations.
When Miss Elizabeth Giffard was a child, her father John and her grandmother Elizabeth Hyde, had a dispute over the religious upbringing of Elizabeth and her sister Eleanora. John Giffard was accused of abducting his 2 daughters and taking them to France to be raised as Roman Catholics, against the specific wishes of his mother-in-law. Miss Giffard remained unmarried, and ran the estate with 11 live in staff. She was interested in the new discoveries being made around the world, she collected an extensive library and grew prize pineapples on her estate.