Middleport Pottery is one of the best craft experiences I have had and a fascinating insight into a craft evolving into industrial manufacture. The pottery has a long history which is well documented, it was faced with closure and in 2011 was saved by the Prince’s Trust for Regeneration. The idea was not to keep it as a museum but to regenerate the business and keep alive valuable work in an area that badly needs it. There is much info online about the buildings I am going to show you the craftspeople and the pottery processes.

I visited with the management team from Portland works a cutlery works in Sheffield facing very similar issues. This is the main yard with the surviving bottle kiln, these were last fired in the 1950’s I remember seeing many of them as a child driving through Stoke but there are not many left now.

 This is the boiler that powered the steam engine that powered the factory into the 1970’s

and here’s the engine

Now on to pottery, the first stage in production is making an original piece out of clay or plaster. From this master you take a cast to make a mould and use that to cast a long lasting master mould. From this master you cast plaster moulds which have a limited lifespan so this chap is cleaning up a master ready to make plaster moulds, if you see the master to the left foreground it is a design of mug I liked, we will see more of those as we go through the pottery.

This is the master mould maker.

Moulds are stored for future use, there are moulds here of pieces that went out of production over 100 years ago.

 This is where the casting takes place. The moulds are cleaned up each day, assembled and set out on the benches, then maybe 120 of them are filled with slip, that is liquid clay.

After an hour or so the plaster has drawn the liquid out of the slip so that a layer of just the right thickness has solidified, the excess slip is tipped out of the mould. When the mould is opened we have a teapot, mug or whatever. Some pieces are simple one piece castings and just need the mould joint lines cleaning up others are made of several castings which are joined together before they dry.

This is skilled work, there is a nice flow to the whole process and the chaps clearly enjoyed it. They do maybe 120 casts in a day depending how complex then start cleaning up the moulds for the next batch.

 dry pots.

Now we get on to the sort of work that I really am not keen on. It is called semi-mechanised. This machine churns plates out 1200 a day and I would not like to be working it.

It is remarkably efficient and ingenious but I can’t help feeling once you get to this stage you may as well go all the way and fully mechanise with a robot to do the job, it can’t be fun standing all day putting lumps of clay on the machine taking plates off and sticking them in the drier.

The machine above leaves a burr round the edge of the plate and this lady cleans them off, 1200 plates a day, it’s a job but a bit tedious. I don’t know if they swap around machines, that is one way to make this sort of factory work more interesting.

 Dry pottery is loaded onto trolleys which wheel straight into the big gas kilns.

 Here is one of the kilns for biscuit firing, thats the first firing before the glaze.

 After biscuit firing each pot is checked and brushed over this lady checked for flaws by tapping each mug and listening to the pitch of the ringing tone.

 Now this is the room I would work in, these girls were having fun. Middleport makes a special type of glazed pottery that no one else makes any more. I can not remember the techincal term but I can explain the process.

 It starts here with this lovely old printing machine. A hand engraved drum with a pattern is spread with glaze and prints onto tissue paper. The paper is also coated with a thin layer of hot glue then fed along a moving washing line down the room.

 Now you tear off a piece of tissue paper and wrap it around your pot. I can imagine making a complete hash of this if it was a smooth cylinder but wrapping a globular mug or teapot I don’t understand how it doesn’t just all crumple up, suffice to say it is very skilled work and it looked physically quite hard too the tissue has to be rubbed really hard with a brush to get rid of all creases then the excess at top and bottom is trimmed off. They told me it takes about 2 years to learn to do it but they have all been doing it for ever. The room reminded me of a sewing room at a lingerie factory I worked in when I was 19 in Leicester quite an intimidating environment for the men but a great fun atmosphere too. What made this fun? lots of hard skilled work? no noisy machines so there could be banter?

 The next stage is the tissue paper is washed off leaving just the glaze.

 Next door another range are being hand painted. William Morris would perhaps prefer this saying that here the workers are expressing their individuality, there is no question though there was much more fun to be had in the previous workroom and no less pride in the skilled job.

Then on to glazing interesting how gender segregated the trade is.

Now another dull job. I hope this poor chap gets a break from this machine. It is printing a standard glaze pattern on, as they come out he has to take them off and stack them with spaces so they don’t stick in the kiln, pretty dull.

Middleport is being redeveloped, half the factory will stay in production and open for tours, the rest will be shops, tea rooms and they are planning an area for training people in ceramic skills too. I can not recommend a visit highly enough. And if you can’t visit then buy some Burleigh ware online here  I bought a couple of the seconds which frankly are more perfect than I would like, they are wonderful mugs and by buying them you are helping preserve a party of our heritage and keeping a lot of folk in work.

Author Robin Wood

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