Burleigh – where the past is very much in the present

24 Sept 2016

A few weeks ago I was delighted to visit the Burleigh factory in Stoke-on-Trent. It was a fascinating visit which demonstrated the traditions and skills of over 150 years of producing English handmade and decorated pottery. Being a longtime fan of the novels of Arnold Bennett it was extra special because the Middleport pottery is as near as you can get to stepping back in time.

In 1862 Frederick Rathbone Burgess and William Leigh joined together to set up the company, initially called Burgess and Leigh, which later became Burleigh as we know it today. These men were forward thinking and compassionate employers who built up the company so successfully that they were in a position to buy an ideally situated piece of land when Davenport closed down in the 1880’s. The Middleport pottery of 1888 was a model pottery with excellent communications sited as it was between the Trent & Mersey canal and Longport railway station. It maximised production using a combination of modern machinery and an effective layout, logically moving from process to process around the factory.

The factory largely exists in this way today although only one bottle kiln (dormant since the Clean Air Act) remains in place and we were shown around a series of ‘shops’ where the skilled workforce uses much of the original machinery and methods of the Victorian era.

The slip house is still using the original blungers to mix the clay and water into slip which is then stored underground. Although the filter presses are no longer used as this is outsourced they are still in place alongside the pug mills which produce ‘sausages’ of malleable clay.

Upstairs working moulds are produced from some of the many original master moulds accumulated by the company. This means that from time to time shapes appear in the range which may not have been in production for decades. Every piece of Burleigh ware goes through 25 pairs of hands from start to finish – they are fettled and sponged and are fired a total of three times after being decorated by the now unique method of tissue transfer printing.

This is what I had particularly wanted to see as I knew that Middleport is the only pottery using this old printing process, other manufacturers having now moved on to mass production or to easier lithograph printing. The tissue is printed from rollers which have been hand engraved by talented artist craftsmen. The new roller for the resurgence of the 1913 Regal Peacock design took Chris Glendinning 2000 hours to complete! The decorators then have between 30 minutes and 2 hours to use the tissue before it dries. They skilfully cut the designs to fit each piece and deftly apply them to the biscuit ware.

There is no room for error as once the tacky tissue makes contact it cannot be moved. The piece is rubbed down with a soft bristle brush and the piece is then washed to remove the tissue, leaving only the transfer. At each stage the vigilant staff are on the lookout for mistakes in the pattern or colour and these pieces rarely make it through to the retail shops. However, look closely and you will see the evidence of the hand applied transfer in the way that each piece may be subtly different from the next and if you spot a speck of pink on a blue design don’t hurry back to the shop to complain, treasure the piece – it is merely where a scrap of ink was left on the roller when the colours were changed and proves the authenticity of Stoke-on-Trent produced Burleigh ware.

There is much to make a visit to the Burleigh factory enjoyable. In 2011 the factory was falling into disrepair and was saved by The Prince’s Regeneration Trust which works in deprived areas to encourage regeneration and economic growth. It has certainly preserved a link with the past and has respected the sense of identity that the area has tied up with the manufacture of ceramics.

The Victorian offices are atmospheric and you can see a display of Burleigh’s rich heritage of shapes and patterns. The cafe was our first stop and our last where we enjoyed Joyce Iwaszko’s murals and a delicious lunch of local Staffordshire oatcakes.

I would urge you to visit the factory yourself but if you don’t get the chance then you can see the Middleport Pottery as a backdrop to BBC2s The Great Pottery Throwdown www.bbc.co.uk or soak up the atmosphere by reading Anna of the Five Towns by Arnold Bennett.

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