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THE MIDDLEPORT Pottery, home of Burleigh Ware and known for many years as the ‘Model Pottery of Staffordshire’, is one of the most remarkable gems of Grade II listed industrial architecture in the Potteries. It has the Victorian lot: cobbled alleys the width of a mews leading down to the Mersey and Trent Canal, the giant old listed fissured bottle oven built into the factory walls, the directors’ office left totally intact with its two sloping desks and a cupboard full of dozens of notebooks noting in fine handwriting all the coloured glazes ever used by Burleigh and sheaves of handpainted designs. There is a bath-house, complete with its rolltop bath, installed by benevolent employers for those “working in the lead”, Burleigh’s priceless collection of copperplate engravings going back to the founding of the factory in 1862 as Burgess & Leigh, and most sensationally the mould room, with 15,000 master moulds of every piece of earthenware made by the factory since the 19th century.

And it is still an independent working factory, bought in 1999 by William and Rosemary Dorling, a remarkable entrepreneurial couple who put up everything they owned to save the Middleport factory from receivership and who have renamed the firm Burgess, Dorling & Leigh.

So, from the ordinary papers, notebooks and battered leatherbound ledgers of Burgess & Leigh comes the story of five generations of the Leigh family, sole owners of the pottery from 1912 until 1999, a story which offers a remarkable view of the traditional manufacturing process and the working life of a respectable ‘potbank’ founded in 1862 by solid sons of Stoke. One was a money man, Frederick Rathbone Burgess and the other was a potter man, William Leigh, whose modest aims were “good products at a fair price”.

Julie McKeown, former curator of the Sir Henry Doulton Gallery and a historical researcher for pottery manufacturers, latterly in the Spode Museum, has done a masterly piece of research in this book. Its seven chapters include notes on the company’s earlier domestic and table- and toilet wares, decorated with popular underglaze blue transfer printed patterns, such as Asiatic Pheasant, the influence of Edmund Leigh MP, a member of the influential Burslem Association for the Prosecution of Felons, who in 1903 launched the worldwide company brand name by which the firm’s products are known today: “Burleigh Ware is all over the Globe” ran the slogan.

One of the most productive times for Burgess & Leigh was the period between the wars from 1919 to 1939 when, alongside the popular blue printed patterns like Dillwyn Willow and Bluebird, the pottery went Burleigh Art Deco, hiring Charlotte Rhead in 1927, by then a top tube-line designer. Charlotte, it is noted, accompanied by her small dog and wearing a clean smock that she had designed and embroidered herself, was given a large room where she could work and supervise the other tube-liners. One of Charlotte’s highly coloured patterns around 1928 was the wild, wild yellow and coral Carnival, introduced in an attempt to dim Clarice’s Bizarre star.

In this chapter too are the flower jugs modelled by Charles Wilkes and Ernest Bailey. The post-war period saw the New Look or the ‘Contemporary’ style, showcased at the 1951 Festival of Britain and which was beginning to be readily accepted by an increasingly affluent and independent public, with Burgess & Leigh producing new designs to tempt young homemakers. One of the most successful of these and one which typifies 1950s design was Harold Bennett’s inspired black and white Fantasia pattern of overlapping flasks, pots, cups and bowls, block-coloured in black and which the pattern book simply describes as bottles.

The last two chapters deal with the introduction in 1968 of the most popular of the blue and white Burleigh patterns, Calico, which walks off the shelves and into the glossies and the story of the fight to save the Middleport Pottery. Saved for sure but now the fight is on to restore and preserve the Grade II listed Victorian working pottery that is bang in the middle of a site designated as a regeneration area; grant funding is dribbling in here for what has to be a tourist heritage winner.

With a full section of marks, patterns and Charlotte Rhead patterns, this is a remarkable story of a remarkable pottery in which the pug, the jolly, the monkey’s tail, the whirley, the tommy stick, the dobby, the fettler, the sherd-ruck, the diddler, the bung and the potter’s rot all combine, by hand, to turn clay into tableware, using the traditional styles and skills of English pottery manufacture and which, by its association with blue and white printed ware, earned Burgess & Leigh such a fine reputation. Buy this book and visit the place. It’s magical.