Visiting the Home of Burleigh

Middleport Pottery: the history of the factory home of Burgess & Leigh Ltd

As World Tourism Day approaches, we thought this was the perfect opportunity to tell you more about our home of Middleport Pottery, where the cobbles are steeped with history and the clay continues to be churned here, as it has done for centuries gone before. Tourism continues to be at the epicentre at Middleport Pottery, where visitors flock from around the world to see our craft in all of its glory, unchanged and unmatched. Lovers of Burleigh continue to gather around the last remaining bottle kiln, where you can enjoy the passers by on the canal with a cup of tea, served in Burleighware of course, and shop the largest range of Burleigh in our famous Factory Shop.  

Visiting the Home of Burleigh - Middleport Pottery

Why was Middleport Pottery’s location chosen all those years ago?

Middleport has ideal transport links and having spent many a decade making pottery in the town centre, having the space and proximity to transport links was hugely tempting to Burgess & Leigh. The site sits proudly alongside the Trent & Mersey canal, and although the heyday of canal use was over by 1889 when Middleport Pottery was built, it was still a popular option to bring in raw materials, and to despatch finished goods worldwide. Likewise, running parallel with the canal just a few yards further away sits the rail Mainline running from London Euston to Manchester, providing a high-speed alternative to the canal.

Another draw the area held was to be found on the other side of the canal, where empty plots of land which were considered impossible to build on could be purchased to use for waste purposes. Sherd-Rucks, or Shardrucks, were used by manufacturers to tip broken and waste pottery. The move to Middleport meant the company had an extremely short journey (of less than 100 yards) to the waste site that would serve the company for decades to come. It is believed that this waste site still holds many treasures from years gone by beneath the soil.

Visiting the Home of Burleigh - British Ceramics Biennial artist, Elspeth Owen
British Ceramics Biennial 2023: artist, Elspeth Owen

The Model Pottery

The unique design of the building at Middleport Pottery was a true collaboration between Edmund Leigh and the architect AR Wood. For many years after completion, people would come to visit the factory as it was considered the ‘model pottery’ a perfect and efficient set up, where everything had been thought of.

Prior to this period, factories on the whole were a product of an industry built around rapid growth. In little more than 100 years the area went from a cottage industry of pottery making in cottages and small holdings, to a vast swath of complex factories.

Each department at Middleport was laid out with a thought to the previous and next stage in production. Raw materials arrived at one end via the canal, production ran through a large ‘u’ shape, and finished goods came out at the other end onto the canal. The first side of the factory was made up of the ‘clay end’ where clay was mixed and items were fashioned, then along the top side ‘decorating departments’ were situated, finally the third side of the ‘u’ shape was the location of the ‘Glost’ where finished goods entered into stock, and ultimately despatched to the outside world. Aside from the efficiency of having departments laid out in an orderly fashion, the way the workers moved around the site was thought of. Walkways raised above the ground made easy passage, and many staircases and walkways were covered, giving protection to not just the ware, but also the workers.

Edmund Leigh was the real visionary of Middleport; he took a thriving company and took it to the next level. Alongside Richard Burgess they increased production, diversified and by 1930 the business could boast over 700 workers in the building, which still stands today.

Visiting the Home of Burleigh - Burleigh Pottery Factory

Few changes have happened at Middleport Pottery since the building was erected, but in the inter-war period the demand for hand painted goods increased, this is when the ‘town hall’ was added. This building is now home to the factory shop, and was designed to house additional decorators and an overseas warehouse. One the biggest changes occurred after the second world war, when the clean air act meant the end of Bottle oven firing with coal. At Middleport, 6 of the 7 bottle ovens were demolished, leaving one that stands today, and is a true tourist attraction of which we are so proud to house here at Middleport Pottery. The one bottle oven that remained was actually only by chance, as it was too costly to demolish due to it being woven into the rest of the building structure.

The company managed to ride through many hurdles that they were faced with over the coming years, until the greatest asset the company ever had proved to almost cause its total destruction. The building was showing terrible signs of age and it had started to make it increasingly difficult to make pottery to a good standard. Yet in the story of Burleigh, as is often the case, the building itself finds an answer. After several close calls, HM the Kings charity at the time ‘the Princes Regeneration Trust’ stepped in. The King himself was utterly charmed by the story of the fine old building that is Middleport Pottery. Unlike so many buildings producing ceramic ware, this one had people working inside, still doing the very thing the building was designed and built to do. In fact, those people were carrying out a process which by now had been lost in every other factory in existence, it had the very last transfer print shop. From hundreds in Stoke-on-Trent alone, to just one.

Hope was not lost, and so in 2010 the Kings charity took ownership of the building while the company continued its work as tenants. £9M was raised from various charitable bodies and private donations, and the site was carefully and regenerated. The key was a light touch, with the idea that it should not look brand new, the building had to carry its scars that had taken so many decades to form. Whilst making pottery is no easy feat, it is hoped the Burgess and Leigh can continue to making ‘Burleigh Ware’ for at least the next 100 years, if not beyond right here at Middleport.

Visiting the Home of Burleigh - All Made Here in Stoke-on-Trent

Read more about how Burleigh is made and book your factory tours here.

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