Burleigh Pottery, An Intricate History

An Overview

In July of 1851 is when it all began for Burleigh; when ‘Hulme & Booth’ founded a business manufacturing Earthenware in the centre of the 'Mother Town' of the Staffordshire potteries, Burslem. Little is known about the lives of Mr Booth and Thomas Hulme, but the company was successful for over a decade, when eleven years later Frederick Rathbone Burgess and William Leigh formed a partnership taking over from Hulme & Booth renaming the company to suit. Their combined skills meant that ‘Burgess & Leigh’ were set apart from the myriad of manufacturers in the area around this time. 

In 1888 growth of the company required two moves first to the Hill Pottery, then finally in 1888 when a more suitable  home was needed the owners commissioned the purpose built factory on the banks of the Trent & Mersey Canal that remains home to the company right up to the present day, Middleport Pottery. The Pottery was was known for being a 'model factory', replete with the most modern steam powered technology and a specially designed layout to help the flow of the ware through the factory. As the business continued to go from strength to strength in the new century, the introduction of a new pattern formed from a portmanteau of the founders names 'Burleigh' in 1903 gave rise to a new brand name which is now known worldwide as a true icon of British luxury and design.

Frederick Rathbone Burgess

Frederick Rathbone Burgess was born in Tunstall and he lived there as a child. His father was Richard Burgess and his mother Matilda; both names which he would give to his children in the future. His mother came from the Rathbone pottery family, making the name important enough to be passed onto Frederick as a middle name.

Frederick Rathbone Burgess was a man with great business acumen and he went on to marry Alice Clulow Oakes, the daughter of a law Clarke who’s family came from Cheshire. Once married, Alice’s mother (Hannah nee Clulow) lived with the Burgess family moving with them as they became elevated from a large townhouse to the palatial surrounding of nearby Porthill.

Neither of Frederick's children married or had children of their own. Richard joined the company and was the last Burgess director. He was a keen photographer and sportsman and he was remembered for often vaulting the railing outside the lodge at Middleport, and riding into work from Porthill on horseback. Matilda was as expected a lady of leisure, however she was philanthropic with her spare time, and money. It is a great sadness to note that only in the last year, the 'Matilda Burgess' ward was demolished within the old infirmary building. Funded by Matilda's wealth, this ward was one of several wards funded by the local great and good. It was still in use right up until the closure of this site in 2012, resplendent with glazed black and white tile work at the entrance the 'Matilda Burgess ward' is no more. All of Burgess Family were interred in the nearby St Margaret’s Church’ in Wolstanton after death.

William Leigh

William Leigh was certainly an orphan and he had to work in the industry of the potteries from childhood, as was the common case with working class children of that era, certainly from around the age of 10 they would be expected to enter factory life. William Leigh was well known amongst the people of the area as a fair and kind spirited man. He understood the importance of running a factory whilst considering the welfare of its workers. He himself had known what it was like to work long hours and was seen as a fair employer in what was a difficult and sometimes dangerous environment.

He worked is way up and became master potter, meaning that like the great Wedgwood he was accomplished in all aspects of pottery making. His eldest son, Edmund, would go on to take the reins and become the significant force within the company. It was Edmund who took the business from successful to world known.

The Leigh family would go on to carry the company forward over a total of 5 generations. They made the property moves of many pottery families. When first established they had a good sized townhouse in Cobridge, as the industry encroached on the once leafy suburb, the family moved to Porthill, and then eventually on to Stone as the pollution even reached the heights of this hill which overlooked Longport/Middleport below. 

The Move to Middleport Pottery

When William and Frederick took over from Hulme & Boothe and renamed the company; they inherited a pre-existing business up that was extremely valuable, they had a list of customers, moulds, a workforce, pattern books with engravings, including none other than Asiatic Pheasants. The site that came with it had been home to many before we took on the tenancy, all leaving their own mark. Breakages, damaged ware, kiln firing problems could all soon become a concern, so it is no surprise that a move to the hill pottery was made. But again, this was another home to many previous tenants, having housed all sorts of businesses. It is with the greatest foresight that William, Frederick and Edmund found a plot of land in Middleport to be the answer. A way out of the hustle and bustle of Burslem, to the comparative calm of Middleport.

It is understood that William never got to see the present factory in operation as he died at home during the switch over. It is often romantically repeated that he saw the first Middleport kiln smoke firing from his home in Cobridge. Now this would be a feat even today, but in 1889 with several hundred other chimneys vying for attention, it is at best wishful thinking. 

What Came Next for Burleigh

The part the Burgess family played on the company should never be forgotten or underestimated. Frederick and Richard gave far more than the first three letters of the name we are best known by. Frederick gave us a steady ground to build a legacy from, and Richard lives on in the sense of fun we have here at Burleigh Pottery. It is nothing short of amazing to see cold, grey lumps of clay transformed into beautiful and useful wares, adorned in designs of years gone by. The myriad of hands and minds that have played a part, both past and present, to make this process work should always be remembered. And our founders really are the most important contributors to what Burleigh is today.

As with most people growing up in Staffordshire in the 1800’s; both founders came from families of potters; so maybe their future occupations were somewhat inevitable. Little did they know what a huge impact they would have upon the history of the industry, and all these years later all of us here at Burleigh would continue to act as guardians to the great legacy that goes before us.

The combination of creative and practical talent from William and Frederick meant that the company was built upon solid foundations and we can only hope that those of us who continue to toll in making Burleigh ware, somehow remain within the image that we can be certain William Leigh must have hoped for in 1889.


Read more about the history of Burleigh Pottery here.

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