Middleport – The last working Victorian pottery factory

Posted on November 2, 2015 by Toothpicker There have been 0 comments

Trent & Mersey canalTrent & Mersey canalTrent & Mersey canalTrent & Mersey canalTrent & Mersey canal Trent & Mersey canalstoke on trent canalstoke on trent graffiti Trent & Mersey canal  

Trent & Mersey canal

 

I had pre-booked a guided factory tour at the last working Victorian pottery factory – Middleport pottery factory the morning after my visit to the British Ceramics Biennial. I decided to take a scenic route (also recommended by the B & B owner) along the Trent & Mersey canal as the factory is located next to it.

The one-hour walk offered a glimpse into the past of the city. Engineered by James Brindley and completed in 1777, the canal played a crucial role in the thriving pottery industry at the time. The pottery manufacturer Josiah Wedgewood was one of the major backers of the canal, as he saw the canal as an economic option for transporting huge amounts of china clay and other raw materials such as coal between the ports and his factories.

Unfortunately, with the demise of the potteries industry, now there are only derelict factories and kilns along the canal. In 2011, Middleport was at serious risk of closure, and the Victorian factory was in a state of disrepair until Prince Charles and The Prince’s Regeneration Trust stepped in and rescued it from being turned into a car park by the pottery giant Steelite interational next door (informed by our guide at the tour)!

 

middleport pottery factory

middleport pottery factory middleport pottery factory middleport pottery factory

The facade of the Victorian factory

 

The Grade II* listed site was constructed in 1888 for a well-known local ceramics company, Burgess & Leigh Limited. The company was founded by Frederick Rathbone Burgess and William Leigh in 1862, and it was Leigh who had the idea of constructing a new pottery factory next to the canal. An architect was hired to design the factory (which was unheard of at the time), and it became widely recognised as the "Model Pottery" in the Staffordshire pottery industry. With its 3 biscuit and 4 glost bottle ovens, the factory was known locally as the "Seven Oven Works".

Sadly, only one biscuit oven is left standing today; all the glost ovens were demolished in 1949, whilst the other 2 biscuit ovens were removed in 1965. The last biscuit oven survived solely because it is attached to the building, hence it escaped the fate of demolition.

 

middleport pottery factory middleport pottery factory

middleport pottery factory middleport pottery factory middleport pottery factory

middleport pottery factory middleport pottery factory

Top left: Original factory signage; Top right: The Victorian steam engine; 2nd row right: The entrance to the last kiln at the factory; Bottom row left: Old factory machinery; Bottom row right: A vintage poster of the factory

 

After a three-year, £9 million regeneration of the site, the restored Pottery opened to the public in July 2014. It has resulted in the safeguarding of 50 local jobs and the creation of 66 more. Aside from a visitor centre – featuring the original Victorian offices – the site also has an open kiln with a small museum, an art gallery, a room with a Victorian steam engine, Prince of Wales Studios for young designers and craftsmen, a factory shop and a cozy cafe serving wholesome local specialities.

 

middleport pottery factory middleport pottery factory

middleport pottery factory

middleport pottery factory middleport pottery factory

middleport pottery factorymiddleport pottery factorymiddleport pottery factory

middleport pottery factory

 

Before the factory visit, I had no idea that this is the last of its kind in Britain, and I was glad that had pre-booked the guided factory tour. The tour was not only informative, it also enabled us to understand the processes of the pottery manufacturing. We were led into different parts of the working factory and chatted to workers who are not only locals, but the 2nd or 3rd generation workers of the same factory!

 

middleport pottery factorymiddleport pottery factory middleport pottery factorymiddleport pottery factory

middleport pottery factory middleport pottery factory

middleport pottery factory

The underglaze tissue printing room (except for the lady working on the Fortnum & Mason pottery in 2nd row right)

 

Burleigh is renowned for its traditional printing technique – the underglaze tissue ceramic transfer printing which first developed circa 1850. I was surprised to learn that Burleigh is now the only company in Britain (or the world) to employ this time-consuming but skillful technique. Other companies now use either screen printing or digital printing to save time and costs. Although Burleigh also employs these printing techniques, the underglaze tissue printing is what makes the company special.

Seeing the workers happily applying their skills and enjoying their tasks really made my day. I wish that more British companies would continue to support local manufacturing as it is part of their heritage. These skills and craftsmanship would be lost forever if these companies continue to set up factories overseas to cut costs.

 

middleport pottery factory middleport pottery factory

middleport pottery factorymiddleport factory middleport pottery factory middleport pottery factory

middleport pottery factorymiddleport pottery factory middleport pottery factorymiddleport pottery factorymiddleport pottery factory

Top left: The art gallery; Top right: The studios for young local designers/artists; 4th & bottom rows: The factory shop

 

After the tour, I spent some time browsing in the factory shop and I ended up buying an English ceramic tea set for my brother as part of his wedding present. Having just met the workers at the factory, it felt good to know that each piece of the set was made with care, skill and passion.

If you are going to spend one or 1/2 day in Stoke on Trent, then I highly recommend this guided factory tour. It is not only about ceramics, but fundamentally it is about the British history and heritage.

 

middleport pottery factory middleport pottery factory

middleport pottery factory cafe

Top left: The display of pottery in the visitor's centre; Top right: The Burleigh pottery board game; Bottom: The popular cafe by the canal decorated with murals painted by local artist

 

A short film about the Middleport pottery factory


This post was posted in Architecture, British designs, Travel, Traditional arts & crafts, Britain, Architectural conservation, Design, ceramics & potteries, British heritage and was tagged with British design, heritage, traditional crafts, Stoke on Trent, ceramics & potteries, Middleport pottery factory, England's canals

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