Burleigh - Britain's last remaining Victorian earthenware pottery
PUBLISHED: 00:00 02 October 2019
David Marley travels to Stoke-on-Trent to discover how Britain's last remaining Victorian earthenware pottery is enjoying a renaissance.
It's the same every year. The end of the summer holidays brings with it an unwelcome seasonal change, and it's impossible not to feel a bit jaded. Offensively early sunsets herald a stark warning that colder, longer nights are rushing in and happy, balmy, fun-filled days on the beach slip into memories and are over for another year.
This is a throbbing cyclical torment that fails to improve with age. For me, the September blues are back again. Searching for a soothing distraction, it is as if by magic that my mobile phone rings in the nick of time.
It's Linda Salt, the long-serving public relations supremo at Denby Pottery, offering a promise of a much-needed autumnal tonic. Having honed her story-pitching technique to journalists to perfection, she skilfully moulds an idea for an article, which to be honest, sounds more like a script from a Hollywood blockbuster.
'It's a tale of an industrial city, home to a pottery powerhouse, once famed for its manufacturing glory across the world, that sunk dangerously close to catastrophic decay and obliteration from history - only to be saved by a prince of the realm,' Linda says. 'It's the remarkable story of Burleigh Pottery, Denby's sister company, which is the last continuously working Victorian earthenware pottery manufacturer in Britain and you simply must come and see it.'
I'm hooked. Line and sinker. A date is fixed and two weeks later we make the 50 minute journey on the A50 dual carriageway from Derby to Middleport Pottery, the home of Burleigh, at Burslem in the heart of Stoke-on-Trent.
As our car emerges from an underpass on the outskirts of the town, Linda reminds me of the town's pottery heritage. 'It's difficult to imagine now, but there was a time when thousands of smoking kilns operated here, employing generations of the same families. Sadly, with the decline of Britain's manufacturing base in the 1970s it took a terrible toll on the pottery industry and many firms went out of existence,' she explains.
'Burleigh, which has been creating beautiful, uniquely handcrafted tableware since 1851, faced similar economic challenges too. And today, it is, quite simply, the last manufacturer of its kind - the skills used in the decorating of its pottery by tissue printed from engraved copper rollers, once commonplace in Stoke-on-Trent, have all but disappeared.'
Burleigh's home at Middleport Pottery was built for its owners Burgess and Leigh, and at the time was considered the perfect 'model' pottery. 'We still use the same manufacturing methods in our production to this day, remaining true to our origins,' Linda explains.
Having passed through the ownership of five generations of the Leigh family, the firm came within a whisker of closure in the 1990s. 'In 1999 enthusiastic customers Rosemary and William Dorling acquired the site and carried out urgent repairs to the building with a grant from English Heritage,' she recalls.
However, by 2010 Middleport Pottery was struggling again and was briefly rescued by Denby Holdings Ltd. A year later The Prince's Regeneration Trust - under the leadership of His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales - breathed new life into the site investing £9 million into its restoration and regeneration raised from a number of sources including private donations. 'The Trust acquired the site and leased back part of Middleport Pottery to Denby so that we could continue to produce Burleigh ware at this wonderful historic Grade II listed building,' Linda explains.
Pulling into the Middleport car park on the edge of the Trent and Mersey Canal, something seems strangely familiar about the location. And it should do, because this is the factory where BBC Two's The Great Pottery Throw Down was filmed.
It's hard not to feel as if you're on the set of a Victorian period drama, as we weave along a series of cobblestone passageways, all pitted against smoke-stained red-bricked workshops at this colossal 130-year-old factory.
A few steps further and we're enthusiastically greeted by Jemma Baskeyfield, Burleigh Pottery's resident historian and retail manager. 'The Great Pottery Throw Down television programme certainly raised the profile of Middleport and since then we've welcomed many more visitors to our factory,' Jemma smiles.
Jemma has worked at the factory since her early twenties and is very much part of the fixtures and fittings at this gem of a pottery business. 'I grew up within a few streets of the factory,' she explains. 'In fact, if you lean that way you can just about see my parents' house from here. I regularly used to nip home at lunchtime for a sandwich and a cup of tea. That's how it is round here.'
Since Denby took over the business, Burleigh has been able to concentrate on putting the firm on an improved financial footing, as well as creating a better working environment for the 80 staff at the site. 'To say the building was a bit dilapidated is an understatement when I started working here,' Jemma recalls. 'But today, with the help of The Prince's Regeneration Trust and Denby, things are heading in the right direction. It's a brilliant place to work.'
Nowadays, there's a café and a magnificent factory shop bursting with a range of vintage styles of pottery, including 'Asiatic Pheasants' which was first produced over 160 years ago. 'Felicity', which was created in the 1930s and 'Calico' launched in the 1960s remain as popular as ever. 'None of these collections have stood still and they have evolved over time - new items have been added to our range, such as rice bowls and pasta bowls, to meet the demands of modern day living and our interest in foods from other cultures,' Jemma explains.
Burleigh is also enjoying popularity in award-winning restaurants in London and makes bespoke ware for high-profile clients such as Ralph Lauren, Fortnum & Mason, Harrods and Soho House.
'Our clients appreciate the high-quality craftsmanship and the "Made in England" provenance of our iconic ware,' says the firm's commercial director Jim Norman. 'Royal Ascot have blue "Asiatic Pheasants" and the Balmer Lawn Hotel have taken a number of patterns to mix and match.'
Burleigh is popular overseas, with 50 per cent of its production being exported to markets including Europe, the United States of America and the Far East. 'Our customers are generally discerning independent businesses who appreciate Burleigh's craftmanship and authenticity. Hotels and restaurants overseas taking our ware include locations in France, Russia, Denmark, Qatar and South Korea,' Jim explains.
The Burleigh product range is particularly well-suited to afternoon tea dining and includes all the pieces needed to create an impressive table from two sizes of teapot, different size jugs - including a characterful cow creamer - two and three-tiered cake stands and rectangular sandwich and cake trays.
'It's safe to say that as fashions come and go, Burleigh's patterns are timeless and yet fit into a contemporary environment. Whilst they are traditional they are casual and can be considered avant garde,' Jim concludes.
After a refreshing cup of tea and a delicious selection of homemade cakes in the on-site café - all served on Burleigh ware - we make our journey back to Derby. Perhaps autumn isn't that bad after all.
For more information visit www.burleigh.co.uk or take a journey to Burleigh, Middleport Pottery, Port Street, Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent, ST6 3PE