Open for business: The restored Victorian factory

Making history

Charles Saumarez Smith believes the restoration of an historic factory in the Potteries can be a model for preserving our manufacturing past

This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

In October’s public inquiry into the fate of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, it became clear the inspector was having to decide between two entirely discrepant views of the ways to preserve historic buildings. On one side were those I regard as the anti-sentimentalists. These take the view that once the historic use of a building has come to an end, the only thing that is worth preserving is the historic fabric of the building. To them, it is healthy to allow the building to move into a new era as a café, bar or the lobby of a hotel: what is important is the residue of the original use as expressed archeologically through the exterior structure and ground plan of the building, but not their content or activity. This is the view that has been taken by Historic England at Whitechapel: narrowly preservationist, concerned with a legalistic requirement to protect the fabric of a building, not its use.

On the other side are the historic archaeologists. They feel the interest of a building only goes so far in terms of an understanding and appreciation of its door jambs. What is important about historic buildings is the way in which they allow and encourage a better understanding of life in the past. This is what led in the 1970s to a big movement for the preservation of industrial architecture, including so much of Ironbridge. 

This is why historic railways have always been so popular: they allow someone to experience the puff of a steam train as it rolls through the countryside and permit steam train buffs to spend their weekends tinkering with the original machinery. The historic archaeologists are less interested in a precisely documented preservation of the historic fabric of a building, than in maintaining the currency of how it was originally used.

Bottle kilns at a derelict pottery in the late 1960s. This site is likely to be around Middleport or Burslem

Through the discussions about the preservation of the Foundry lurked the ghost of Middleport Pottery, which reopened in a revised and revitalised form in 2014 under the auspices of a historic conservation agency, Re-Form Heritage. Since I have only ever seen it from the outside at dusk at the end of a long day exploring Stoke-on-Trent, I thought I should put it to the test and see how viable its view of conservation is as a potential model for the restoration of the bell foundry.

Middleport Pottery first opened on the banks of the Trent and Mersey Canal in 1889 — a monument to high Victorian confidence in the country’s manufacturing capabilities with the Empire as its market. It was designed by Absalom Reade Wood, a prominent local architect, whose family had been potters in Burslem, the town immediately adjacent to Middleport. He was a Victorian functionalist, believing that providing one focused on the use of a building, the design of its façade could look after itself — although this did not prevent him providing a highly-ornamented terracotta inscription announcing MIDDLEPORT POTTERY over the factory’s entrance. 

The factory was built to house the pottery of William Leigh and Frederick Rathbone Burgess (hence the ornamental “B&L” over the arch). Burgess came from a prominent family of potters in the area. His father, Richard Burgess, was a partner in a firm called Gibson & Burgess in Tunstall and was listed in the 1851 census as an “Earthenware Manufacturer in a Firm of 2 Employing 33 Men 15 Women 13 Boys and 9 Girls”. It is likely that Frederick, born in 1832, trained in his father’s works. 

When a large site became available on the banks of the Trent and Mersey canal down the hill in Middleport, they snapped it up

William Leigh was 12 years older, born in 1820, orphaned at an early age, and educated at the Wesleyan Day School in Tunstall. He started working in a local potworks, but took evening classes and became works manager. In the 1851 census, he is listed as “Clerk at Earthenware & China Manufactory”.

They joined forces in 1862 to take over the Central Pottery in Burslem, trading under the name Burgess Leigh & Co. Central Pottery was a relatively small-scale operation with two bottle kilns located just behind the pub in the Market Place. There, they turned out ordinary earthenware: kitchen and tableware, as well as utilitarian sanitary and hospital wares including chamber pots and so-called “toilet sets” consisting of a basin and jug. 

In 1870, they sold the Central Pottery to Richard Alcock, and bought the earthenware department of the defunct Hill Pottery nearby. But they were clearly looking to expand, and when a large site became available on the banks of the Trent and Mersey canal down the hill in Middleport, they snapped it up. There they commissioned a factory designed to be as efficient as possible in such a way that the raw materials could arrive by boat (kaolin had previously been carried by packhorse from Cornwall). Each part of the manufacturing process was placed sequentially in such a way that the pots never had to go outside. 

The factory originally had seven huge bottle kilns surrounded by large rooms in long sheds on two floors, built to accommodate the specialist skills required to make ceramic ware, from the Slip House next to the canal, through to the Turners and Throwers and the Potters’ Shop, where the pots were made in large batches from moulds, to the Printers’ Shop on the front range, a room to accommodate the engravers and designers next door to the showroom, where the work was sold. Their pots were aimed at the middle market, not just in Great Britain but all over the world. 

It is surprising how little is known about William Leigh and Frederick Rathbone Burgess. But not much was done to celebrate or even document the lives of  potters, unless, like Josiah Wedgwood, they were brilliant at self-advertisement and promoted themselves in London. Burgess and Leigh were typical Victorian manufacturers, happy to concentrate on their work and business. They were not so interested in the design of their wares, unless it led to increased sales, and were happy to remain anonymous. Leigh died in 1889, just after the opening of the new works, Burgess in 1895. 

Open for business: The restored Victorian factory

They were succeeded by their sons, Edmund Leigh and Richard Burgess. Richard Burgess was an engineer, interested in photography, and the factory diversified into making photographic equipment as well, including “developing trays for photographic film”. Edmund Leigh was born in 1854, educated at the Wesleyan Day School in Burslem and started work in the family firm aged 14. 

He was responsible for sales and marketing, travelling the world in order to help develop the firm’s export market, selling tableware to hotels, as well as devoting himself to public works, serving on Burslem Borough Council and Staffordshire Council, as president of the local Liberal Association and founder of the British Pottery Manufacturers Association. His portrait survives in the offices — a classic bearded late-Victorian worthy who installed baths and basins for the workers in the factory.

Richard Burgess died in 1912. The company was taken over by the Leigh family and turned into a private limited company, Burgess & Leigh Limited, in 1919. Three of Edmund Leigh’s sons joined him as directors of a classic family firm. Kingsley Leigh ran the works from the age of 21 and was interested in the research side of the business. He was a member of the Council of the British Pottery Research Association, which was founded in 1937 and which in 1948 became the British Ceramic Research Association, with its headquarters in a grand postwar neoclassical building in Penkhull. The youngest of the three brothers, Denis, took over from Kingsley as chairman and was vice-chairman of the British Pottery Manufacturers Federation until his death in 1968.

The company, which started trading under the name “Burleigh” in 1903, remained very successful in the 1930s with a huge international trade. Their trademark consisted of their name wrapped around the globe. Their style changed from highly ornamented, late-Victorian ware to the new art deco. In the 1920s they started producing the perennial willow pattern, and in the 1930s they employed designer Charlotte Rhead, now less well known than Clarice Cliff and Susie Cooper, but in her time just as successful.

So what went wrong?
Part of the problem must have been a radical change in taste during the Second World War. The company  had specialised in producing highly-ornamented tableware and vases, but during the war, they were required to produce plain Utility ware instead. When normal production was resumed in the 1950s, the hand painting and enamelling that had been a prominent feature of the company’s designs was unfashionable and too expensive. 

In 1956, the Clean Air Act was passed and the highly-polluting bottle kilns had to be demolished. Cheaper ceramics from  Indonesia and Malaysia undercut the market. By the 1960s, when highly-decorated ware once again became fashionable, the company traded on existing designs, rather than pioneering new design as it had in the past. 

A failure to innovate and increased labour costs due to union unrest brought terminal decline. In 1999, the company went into receivership and was sold to Rosemary and William Dorling, who ran a chinaware shop in Winchester, but by 2008, it was again in danger of going bust. Now called Burgess, Dorling and Leigh, it was sold in 2010 to Hilco Capital Partners, a private equity company which owns Denby Pottery.

This is an everyday story of British manufacturing: a period of innovation and invention in the mid-nineteenth century; a period of expansion in the late nineteenth century as new markets opened up worldwide; maintaining production through the First World War; design-led and innovative in the 1930s but with continuity ruptured during the Second World War; increasing bureaucratisation in the 1950s as British companies lost out to Asia and their ability to innovate became sclerotic, followed by a period of decline, and a loss of corporate nerve as British manufacturing was allowed to go to the wall.

Dust-covered pottery moulds for character jugs in the attic of the Middleport Pottery in Stoke on Trent. The moulds, made by the Burgess and Leigh company, date from 1888

What happened next? By 2010, when Denby Holdings took over ownership of Burleigh Pottery, it was clear that Burleigh was unsustainable as a business if it had to take responsibility for the upkeep of its Victorian buildings. The cost of maintaining the site, which was listed for the importance of its historic buildings, was prohibitive. English Heritage was worried about the future of the site, put it on its “buildings at risk” register, and approached the Prince of Wales for help. He put the Prince’s Regeneration Trust on to it as a possible urban regeneration project and they used a subsidiary charity, the United Kingdom Historic Building Preservation Trust which had been established in 1996 and had already done work on the site, to fund its purchase and restoration, using public money to do so. 

The site has been restored, using as architects Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios, a Bath firm which specialises in historic properties, renewing the roofs while the pots carried on being made down below. Everything has been made good, but without damaging the atmosphere of the working buildings, which are exceptionally atmospheric, using the original Victorian moulds, retaining much of the original machinery, made locally by William Boulton & Co, with the liquid slip pumped mechanically through the building 24 hours a day. It cost £5.5 million to restore and rightly won a Europa Nostra Prize for European Cultural Heritage Conservation. 

There is a big difference between a historic working environment and a museum environment

In the front of the building, close to the large and very professionally run shop, there are three museum rooms which preserve the history of the site, give some sense of the very extensive documentation which survives (in the next phase of the project’s development, they are going to have a proper archive centre opposite), and show examples of the work made over time by the pottery, much of it magnificently over-decorated in the most ornamental of late-Victorian styles. 

Beyond this, there are spaces which are sub-let to a range of local ceramic artists and other makers, mostly working in a semi-revivalist way. In two of the old warehouses is Clay College, which gives specialist instruction to those, many of whom have already been to art school, who want to learn the skills of pottery making. But the bulk of the site is still occupied by a working pottery, still producing Burleigh ware, still doing transfer printing, still operating more or less as it has since 1889, except with fewer people.

So, what are Middleport’s lessons for the Whitechapel Bell Foundry? The answer may be obvious, but it still needs stating, because Historic England has been impervious to the argument in Whitechapel. 

There is a big difference between a historic working environment, managed as a branch of historic archaeology, and a museum environment, which may protect and preserve some aspects of the past, but normally only the artefacts and not the working practices which led to their production. A museum will document and record what happened in the past. But a working environment keeps alive the whole sense of the processes of manufacture, the way that skills were passed down through the generations, the atmosphere of people who have devoted their lives to the craft of making. 

It is the story of England: we have allowed manufacturing to die, and not celebrated those who were manufacturing pioneers

In London, we have forgotten that this is how much of the population lived their lives in the past, in frequently tedious and often repetitive labour, sticking the handle on to a teacup over and over again. But, it is also worth remembering that at its best, hand labour was fulfilling, allowing an opportunity for people to learn specialist trade skills as apprentices and then to enjoy their practice through a life of productive labour.

Ever since the publication of Robert Hewison’s book The Heritage Industry, which gently mocked the amount of effort which went into the preservation of heritage sites, there has been a tendency among smart architectural historians to disparage the desire to keep working environments alive. There is probably a class element to this as well, heritage being regarded as part of the leisure industries, looked down on by those who are interested in fine art. 

This is maybe partly why Historic England has chosen to ignore the plight of the Whitechapel Bell Foundry. It was not designed by Robert Adam, but instead occupies a set of ordinary industrial buildings. It is in East London, not Stoke-on-Trent, a relic of how important manufacturing was to London as well as the North of England. So, they choose to ignore it and are happy to let it be converted into a luxury hotel. It is the story of England: we have allowed manufacturing to die, and not paid attention to and celebrated those who were manufacturing pioneers, the factory owners alongside the bankers and politicians.

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