MIDDLEPORT POTTERY. 

(Written by Mervyn Edwards, Local Historian and Burslem History Club Speaker Secretary, November, 2016)

A recent conversation with Teresa Fox-Wells of the Visitor Services team at Middleport Pottery apprised me as to plans to further develop this visitor attraction in 2017 – through history talks and evening activities. 
 
The firm’s promotional leaflets give the company’s date of establishment as 1851, though Frederick Rathbone Burgess and William Leigh – names forever associated with this pottery – did not begin to work in tandem until 1862. 
 
From their names do we derive the contraction, “Burleigh.” The present red-brick Middleport Pottery building of 1888-89 was the brainchild of William Leigh, who died before it was opened.
 
It backs on to the canal but its frontage faces Port Street.  The arched main entrance embraced a handsome pediment bearing the initials of Burgess and Leigh and the date of 1888.
 
The pottery was designed by A. R. Wood and like most of his work was built to function well.
 
It was designed in such a way as to offer good working conditions for employees as well as efficient production and a free
flow of workers and cart traffic around the premises.
 
Yet its internal architecture echoed tried-and-tested design standards inasmuch as departments were kept separate and had their own access via external staircases. 
 
There was an oriel window – an upper bay window – from which the biscuit clay foreman could supervise on-site traffic and no doubt keep an eye on workers.
 
However, the welfare of workers was considered through facilities such as communal washing and eating areas and a bath house.
 
The factory is listed in a trade directory of 1893 as being a model pottery occupying an acre and a half, opened in 1889. It was a sprawling industrial site of workshops and seven bottle ovens – indeed, the pottery came to be known as the Seven Oven Works.
 
Among the talented artists associated with the firm was Charlotte Rhead, who worked there between 1926 - 1931, producing her “tube-lined” designs.
 
The factory was under threat of demolition in1999 but was rescued by Rosemary and William Dorling of Winchester, – hence the change of name to Burgess, Dorling and Leigh. 
 
The pottery has known many vicissitudes in the last few yrs, but was taken over and effectively rescued by the Prince’s Regeneration Trust in 2011.  Lottery money has safeguarded the future of the site.
 
Middleport Pottery has at least two connections with literature. It is believed to have been Arnold Bennett’s model for his Providence Works, which appears in Anna of the Five Towns (1902). In 2005, the factory was visited by a crew from the French company Maya Films, who filmed a scene for its new film version of D. H. Lawrence’s novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The pottery site was adapted to make it look like a 1920s colliery complex.
 
The pottery today may have lost six of its seven old bottle ovens – in fact, permission for the remaining one to be demolished was refused in 1982 - but it is one of the best-preserved examples of a Victorian pottery in the city and is still operating.  It is grade II* listed building.
 
The attraction today offers tours from knowledgeable guides including Phil Knott and a friend of mine for twenty years, Liz Rhodes, and their contribution to the ongoing appeal of the site cannot be underestimated.
 
My mother, Gwynneth Edwards, worked at the pottery in the 1970s as a “washer-off” – and if you’re none the wiser, I suggest you seek enlightenment from Liz and the other diligent volunteers at Middleport Pottery.






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