Wednesday 24 July 2019

Middleport Pottery and Etruria

Today's Canal - Trent and Mersey

Last night we booked online for a tour of the Middleport Factory, just a short distance from where we were moored. As the tour was not until 11 am, with about 20 minute walk, we had a slow start to the day although we had woken early.

Yesterday ended very warm but overnight there had been heavy rain and thunderstorms (although only one of us can testify to this!) By the time we set off to walk to the pottery the sky had cleared and the temperature rose quickly.

The pottery is one of the oldest still operating in Stoke on Trent. The company began in 1851 in central Burslem but was taken over by two people called Burgess and Leigh - hence the name of the product range, still used today, is Burleigh.  As the business expanded they needed a new site which they built at Middleport in 1889.

We arrived a the pottery with five minutes to spare but the guide was just beginning his introduction - so no time to dally. Throughout the almost two hour tour he was very friendly, informative and willing to take any questions thrown at him. There were just 8 of us on the tour. We began in the old Victorian offices, now preserved as a one part of the Heritage Tour.

We should explain (it was not obvious to us at the start!): The original design for the factory had seven bottle ovens, covering several distinct stages in the process. Gradually they were demolished as newer techniques were adopted and today only one remains, but is no longer in use. In 2011 the site was still being used to make Burleigh pottery but in a very poor condition and was bought by United Kingdom Historic Building Preservation Trust, (UKHBPT) who commenced a £9 million renovation project which included opening to visitors in 2014. The Trust organise the preservation and visitor side of things which Burgess and Leigh (now part of the Denby group of potteries) run the actual factory. In turn they have acquired other brand names including the famous Poole Pottery which is manufactured here alongside the Burleigh lines.

The factory abuts the canal which was originally very important for the transport of its products around the country as well as the arrival of raw materials - china clay from Cornwall gradually became an important component of the clay used, the majority continuing to come from local sources.

The site is still being developed and last year a Bath House was discovered in an otherwise long bricked up section. Burgess and Leigh were especially attentive to the welfare of their workers and the provision of on site washing facilities made a substantial reduction in the number of diseases caused by the lead and other ingredients used in production. Sadly, the overnight rain had flooded it so we were unable to see it for ourselves.

This view shows two of the historic structures - the one remaining bottle oven and also the drying tower. Inside the structure was a mechanism that, on a continuous basis, raised trays of products up to the top and back down again whilst a stream of hot air flowed upwards.

We now began our factory tour - starting with the slip production where the original clay is mixed with water in a large container and stirred to produce a pourable form. This is then piped into the holloware section.

Two part moulds are filled with the slip, excess drained out (and returned to the slip mixer) leaving the correct thickness of clay inside the mould. This is then left to dry before being carefully removed from the mould. At the same time, the large pieces of excess clay are removed.

At this stage the items are quite weak and have to be further dried, either in the air or in a heated space. It is just possible to see in the above picture that the items are fairly dry at the op but the bases still have some way to go.

Most of the production we saw was of Burleigh ware but these two pictures are from the Poole range, which is well known for its birds as well as he stylish shape of vases and bowls.

The next stage is fettling where all the rough edges are removed, mostly using damp (but not wet) sponges. This is a skilled and time consuming process. This worker has a large range of sponges, each used for a different part of the item.

Simpler items, such as plates, are processed with the help of these rotating sponge machines.

There is then a further drying stage as it is important that there is no water at all left in the clay when it goes for biscuit firing.This is the only time when it is possible to stack items that actually touch each other. From then on they have to be kept separate.

Our guide then told us about what he considers to be one of the ,most important inventions in pottery production - Bullers Rings. These date back to the days when the bottle ovens were used but are still key to ensuring that items are properly fired. In the bottle ovens. small gaps were left in the bricks so that the workers could pull one of the rings out to see whether the correct temperature had been reached.

They were tested using gauges such as the one above which gave a quick read out of the amount by which the ring had shrunk.

The 'proper' name today is pyrometric ring.

Some items are placed two together with an adhesive to keep them in place so that the rim is not distorted during biscuit firing.

The output from all the work up to this stage - by now each item has gained its final strength but has a kind of porous texture - is held here until the final work is ready, putting on the pattern and glaze

Here are a few more Poole items - in passing, but now in their decorated stage.

Burleigh pottery   made using the ancient tissue transfer technique, one of the oldest production methods that took over from hand painting. The design is engraved onto a roller - this takes between 1000  and 2000 hours of painstaking work.

The roller is then mounted in a machine that coats its surface with the oils that will decorate the surface of the product, only taking on their finished colour once they are fired for the final time. A sheet of tissue paper is then ;passe over the roller and the pattern transferred to the paper which is hung on a 'washing line' until a worker is ready to use it.

Burleigh style is mainly an all over pattern which means that the worker has to cut a suitable piece from the sheet and place it on the surface of the item, carefully rolling and smoothing it down to ensure that all of the ink goes onto the ware. Scissors and other tools are used to remove any excess tissue. The items are then sent through a catering sized 'dish washer' which removes the paper which would otherwise catch fire in the oven.

These products are under glazed decorated which means that they are now ready to have the final layer of glaze over all of the surface. Simpler items are sprayed. The glaze at this stage, usually pink, has that colour so that the worker can check that there are no gaps in the glaze - it ends up transparent after firing.

More complex items, such as teapots and jugs, are dipped by hand.

Once more they pass through a dryer.

After all that they are finally ready to be loaded into an oven.

And here is a batch that came out from firing earlier this morning.

After we had completed the factory tour we were taken inside the remaining bottle oven. To our surprise, the structure which is seen outside, once famously belching out large quantities of polluting smoke, contains a much smaller oven where the firing takes place. The items were packed into saggers, protective clay cases, and stacked 20 high in the oven. Fires were then lit around the bottom edge of the oven, in the space between it and the outer wall. The heat the rose through the oven and circulated back via the space between the walls. As far as possible, the smoke from the coal fires was directed away from the oven to avoid contaminating the products an spoiling them. Firing in these bottle ovens would take at least two days.

This one of the Burleigh designs that was on sale in the shop at the end of the tour - after all that skilled manual work, they are not cheap - that requires the impersonal work of industrial machinery used elsewhere, such as in the Steelite factory next door.

It was definitely lunch time now and we needed fortifying before walking back to the boat so we took advantage of the on site tea room - most of the tour participants did likewise!

After a quick look at a few features not covered by the tour, such as the Boulton steam engine, we took our leave and walked back. Just outside the factory is a row of houses that the Trust have bought and are planning to turn into a further exhibition.

Despite almost wilting in the heat we decided that we needed to be a little further on so we headed on for just over an hour to Etruria Junction - any further and we would have had to go some distance and at least five locks.

A little way and we spotted another couple of bottle ovens - such as that above - they seem go be waiting for decisions about their future. At one time over 2000 were dotted across the Five Towns, giving the area its colloquial name The Potteries. The local council is concerned to preserve the last of this heritage and has discovered that only 46 still remain in some stage of repair or dereliction.

We passed the Middleport Pottery, this time from the other side.

The canal then goes through open space that was once the huge Shelton Iron and Steel Works, long since disappeared.

Festival Park is now a small marina and one of the Black Prince hire bases.

We could not see from a distance any space to moor as we neared the top lock at Etruria but, luckily, as we arrived a boat pulled out leaving just enough room for us. By later afternoon, the sky had clouded somewhat and a light breeze brought the temperature down just a bit.

2.6 Miles - 0 Locks

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