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Workroom Profile VI: Leeds Pottery & Middleport Pottery

26 March 2015
Ben Pentreath
21 Comments

After last week’s final call on the Wedgwood Museum Ravilious mugs, it is with a very heavy heart that I have to tell you our beloved Hunslet Creamware has now been discontinued.

Pentreath & Hall (29th October 2014)

I can’t say it has come as a surprise; I have noticed when placing orders for the shop over the last few months that less and less have been available. I am particularly sad about it because I visited Stoke-on-Trent some time ago and its rather bittersweet that I now share with you the experience I had.

It was spring and I had been invited to visit Leeds Pottery – before it relocated to the Middleport Pottery some fifteen minutes down the road.

It was my first time in Stoke-on-Trent and the first time I had knowingly visited an area within the U.K, which had been built by its industry. Since then I have taken the time to learn a bit more about the history of building such a great British industry and how at its peak it was literally the centre of the universe (I grew up in New Zealand, so our history classes didn’t cover this). I love the power and innovation that there was and I am sad that it has all but been moved offshore when there are still the highly skilled craftsman and resources here to carry out the work.

Pottery production was established in Stoke-on-Trent because this is where the best clay was. The statue of Josiah Wedgwood, arguably the greatest potter in English history, greets you from his plinth outside the North Stafford Hotel opposite the train station, once both great buildings. Being driven through Stoke I couldn’t help but notice the many, now defunct but still beautiful, chimneystacks of the old kilns – remnants of better and busier days. I’ve never been to a place and seen so many boarded-up shop windows and empty factories that once would have been bustling. I found it really quite upsetting.

Arriving at the pottery I was warmly greeted and shown around by Debbie, I’d had a telephone relationship with her for years and it was so nice to finally meet her in person. Seven people worked there, each from a long line of pottery workers and each had started out as an apprentice to then go on to become highly skilled at what they did. At one point Debbie rather poignantly said ‘I can’t think of one family member who hasn’t worked in the pots, it’s just what you do here.’ I visited at a point when the Leeds Pottery was weeks away from moving down the road to Middleport and the staff was nervous. The daily fifteen-minute drive there and back was a big deal.

The Leeds Pottery.

The Leeds Pottery

Traditional life at the potteries meant that you lived in a potter’s cottage a very short walk away from where you worked, your entire life could be lived out within five minutes walking distance from your home. So the upheaval was huge, ‘We may as well be commuting to London.’ one of the potters said.

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The tour took me from workstation to workstation and I was talked through each process in enthusiastic detail, I was astonished at the amount of work that goes into each piece and the quantities these seven people were able to so proudly produce.

Each pottery has their own Slip Master with their own secret slip recipe that they used.

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 This is the beginning of the lovely Hunslet footed mug.

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       Each handle is expertly applied by hand.

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  Here is the apprentice glazer.

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Sadly, it was the lack of demand that saw to the demise of their Creamware.

As the market has become so competitive and saturated with cheap imports I feel the back-story and importance this kind of product has in our lives has been all but lost. I don’t think people see the value in this kind of everyday object any more, when it should be the opposite; the things we use everyday really should be the best! Historically pottery was among our most prized possessions.

      Also known for their pierce work, each item is pierced out by hand using the most basic of      guides.

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P1010677These were the moulds for what I think were called Spry’s

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The handles and spry’s are twisted and applied by eye.

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 A jug full of slip I fell in love with and wondered why it had been discontinued.

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Leeds Pottery was very popular in the U.S. these were made exclusively to send there. Lucky Americans.

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A lovely stack of Hunslet bowls ready for packing.

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After the walk around Leeds Pottery I was taken to see the Middleport Pottery. On the way, we passed the rather impressive and unmistakable duck egg blue building of Wedgwood. I hope to return there on another visit. At this point I was told a rather fascinating piece of information about Waterford Crystal who are owned alongside Wedgwood: After they were bought by a private equity firm a few years ago, quite unsurprisingly the bulk of production was moved to China, except for the very highest quality pieces of Waterford that were still produced in Ireland. The biggest consumer of these? The Irish Travellers! Talk about prizing your heritage, I wonder what the history to that fact is?

The Middleport Pottery

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One of the kilns under restoration.

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 My tour guide Colin.

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Having been taken on by the Prince’s Regeneration Trust, the Middleport Pottery is the home of Burleigh and takes up 10 acres, made up of the Burleigh Pottery and a number of other smaller potteries. It’s a beautiful Victorian factory where everything, with the exception of electricity for the kilns and the clay which now comes from Cornwall – but still by way of canal, is produced the Victorian way. I was shown a rather complicated gadget and told that this was their most modern piece of machinery; it was from the fifties.

This is it.

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Similarly to the Leeds Pottery visit, I was taken from station to station and warmly greeted by the workers, always happy to demonstrate what they were doing whilst at the same time never missing a beat in production. I was bowled over by how many hands a cup and saucer would pass through from start to finish. I counted seven. Seven highly trained craftsmen, each with their own specialist stage in the production. Two apprenticeships were offered every year here. ‘What was the staff turnover like?’ I asked. ‘There is none, these jobs are so specialised and highly prized.’ was the answer.

The Slip Master’s domain at Middleport.

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This lady was smoothing off any rough edges.

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And this lady holding a smoothing stone would tap each piece after its first firing, if it rang out it went on to the next step if not it was rejected. Every single piece of pottery passed through her.

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This was a magical workshop where all the transfers were applied to the Burleighware.

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Patterns printed out on cigarette paper hanging on the line.

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 This was the pattern roll they were using the day of my visit.

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 This is the printing machine, another relic from another era. Look at the roll of cigarette paper.

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The process of getting the transfer onto the cup is one of brute force, these ladies wet the cup and then push in the transfer dissolving away the cigarette paper.

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 Each piece is washed by hand after receiving it’s transfer before going on to a final firing.

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It was nearing the end of their day so time to be taken back to the station. A typical working day at the pottery starts at 8am and ends at 4pm and there were two compulsory two-week holidays every year, this would have been the time the wood burning kilns were cleaned and serviced. I love that the tradition is still maintained.

Google ‘potter’s holidays’ and you’ll be as surprised as I was by the nod to it’s past.

After being dropped off at the station with a little time before the train was due I went to the North Stafford Hotel for a drink. I asked what wine options were available. ‘Red and white’ the barman answered helpfully, there was no choice beyond that and it was happy hour so it cost £2 a glass. It was perfect. I will never forget my first visit to Stoke-on-Trent and look forward to the next.

So now, sadly, Leeds Creamware is no longer being made. We still have quite a bit in stock but are faced with a huge conundrum. What do we replace it with? Who makes a creamware collection as beautiful as this?

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How I like to use my dinner set at home.

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Having stood the test of time, from its original place ‘below stairs’ within grand country houses (you can see it in the staff kitchen on Downton Abbey) to pride of place in our modern day homes, it’s a tragedy that Hunslet Creamware’s significance and beauty is no longer valued enough to secure its future. Its simplicity, colour and shape are hard to beat and it is going to be very difficult if not impossible to replace.

 

 

 

 

 

21 comments on this post

Rebecca Coxonsays:

I have just found a website – englishdesignergifts.co.uk – where Hartley Greens Leeds Pottery can be purchased, including the iconic Hunslet.

Nora Cartlidgesays:

Bridie, a most interesting and enlightening blog about my favourite Pottery, Middleport Pottery!
It is along story as to why.. ? However, I think to follow on to what I think is your fondness of The Potteries and its industrial decline, a viewing of a DVD called BOTTLE KILN WALK is a must.
Incidentally I am responsible for writing and performing the poem ,There once was a Time …. It is written to depict the demise of those iconic architectural landmarks once so synonymous with the area.
I was born in the Mother Town of Burslem in 1940, number 8 of nine children. Many of my older siblings earned their living on the Potbanks so my fondness for the area and my roots is well documented and knows no bounds.

Rene Morleysays:

So sad to hear that Leeds Pottery is no longer being made. I have been collecting this for 25 years, and its always being admired by visitors to my home. A sudden breakage means I am looking to replace the creamware ginger jar and two coffee/tea cups with the twisted handles. Any chance of getting a replacment?

MisZ Katherinesays:

To Jonathan Rickard:

I am wondering if you were aware of Norman Driver’s substantial investment in Leeds Pottery before if passed on to John Croft? I am assuming that the intended marketing in the United States would have been under his direction. Unfortunately, John Croft is probably not aware that Mr. Driver spent a good portion of his retirement years nearly destitute, and without true friends.

It still amazes me today the number of people that disappeared from his life once all his money was gone.

Pierosays:

Fantastic!!! I am breathless and spechless at the beauty of everything written and shown in such a most divine “Spitalfields
Life” – Thank you for giving us//me such a most cosmically beautiful and fantastically interesting bits of all the “worlds” you are introducing me//us into!!! Piero

Sad. Beautifully written, though, and lovely pictures. I’ve not been to Stoke. I probably should.

Suesays:

This post makes me want to weep. I have worked in the Potteries for over thirty years and the people are the loveliest, most unassuming, most skilled and most undervalued people ever. We have given away our heritage here and the skills that are being lost won’t easily be replaced. The heritage brands that are being made in China are an affront to the Potteries and should be made to rebrand.

Such a sad state of affairs when quality trumps inexpensive tat made off-shore, and these British companies are faced with the painful fallout. I’ve always loved British creamware and remember various pieces from my childhood such as the classic pudding basins and even the caneware mixing bowls made by other long-gone companies such as TG Green.

RIP Hunslet

Katyasays:

Oh this is heartbreaking. I shall have to get over to Rugby street and stock up. I believe Branksome was rescued from Poole and has moved to Stoke. They maybe too ’50s and colourful for you but they are softer and brighter in colour than they were and beautiful to use. The teapots pour perfectly, I’d love an outlet for them in London as Liberty’s are selling the old black stock but not getting any of the new line in. Might you consider?

GillCsays:

Another piece of our heritage lost. One of my first buys with an early pay packet years ago was a beautiful Leeds cream jug. I had it for years but one day my cat jumped onto the table to finish off the milk dregs, got her head stuck, took a few paces in panic and shook the jug free right off the edge of the table. It was one of those slow-mo moments in life as I realised what was happening, rushed forward to save the jug (and the cat!) but it all happened too quickly and my precious jug was no more. Sad to think it will no longer be made here. Keep championing the best of British in your lovely shop and blog.

Margheritasays:

It’s sad, for sure, but also a bit worrying. I worry about finding myself, someday, in a world where everything will be either cheaply and carelessly mass-produced or awufully, prohibitively expensive. This is why I’m trying to learn to buy less, but only sustainable and beautiful, and I realized that the more I do that, the easier it gets to resist the impulse to buy quick and cheap. For years now I have been buying mostly second hand. A lovely oak wood cabinet doesn’t cost more than a cabinet from worldwide spread furniture brands, but it is much more elegant, beautiful, good quality and has a story of itself

Jonathan Rickardsays:

Sad reading this as I was largely responsible for the shapes that became known as Hunslet. It was in the early 1990s that I worked with Hand & Partners to develop the molds in Longton, Stoke, and Roffenmark in Stoke, printers for a modern, dishwasher and microwave-safe line of mocha ware for Hartley Greens & Co Leeds Pottery in Longton, under the direction of John Croft. John liked the shapes and, with my encouragement, decided to produce them as well in undecorated creamware. The mocha line ran into US v. British price fluctuations and were never seriously marketed in the US—the intended market. A few years ago John sent a message saying he was reinstating our commission agreement but never heard from him again. I never saw a dollar from all of my work.

MaryGroversays:

Bridie, what a sad and beautiful account. For a non-potter it explained the skills in creating these lovely but apparently simple things. What a loss.

Lowri Pottssays:

Hi Bridie
I feel sad about this too.
You may be interested to peruse the following http://makeworks.co.uk/about when you are thinking about sourcing British/Scottish goods. Their vision is inspirational.

Bridie how wonderful that you have highlighted the tremendous skills that made Stoke-on-Trent the place it once was, but sadly is no longer. I came to live in Staffordshire in 1972 when ‘the Potteries’ was still humming. My step father was a tile manufacturer and the cousins were ‘pot’ makers. Before he so sadly died he saved the Gladstone Pottery (museum) which continues to illustrate a history in part, of the 5 towns. It is heart breaking to drive through any part of the Potteries these days and difficult to accept that a once thriving industrial area, producing the most wonderful, skilled, useful and beautiful products has been so diminished and has not survived the crippling decline. There are glimmers of light in small corners of the Potteries but nothing I fear that will support a return to British pot making on the scale that made the ‘Five Towns’ what they were. As you suggest the people and working families who were involved in all the various pottery factories, were more usually loyal to the same businesses generation after generation. There was a language too, peculiar to the area, and I wonder now if anyone can still speak ‘potteries’. I learned a few words as a child and now only remember the word ‘shraff’ – rubbish/waste. My stepfather championed British Industry around the world from his factory base in Tunstall, which he took on from his own father, and he would be particularly devastated to witness the decline of the town that was centre of his world. I was saddened and touched to read your blog. You are a great Champion. Anna

Thank you for this Bridie,
My first job in the UK was working for Eric Knowles cataloguing Decorative Arts. We had to learn about the different British potteries and the history of each one to be able to catalogue everything properly for sale at auction. It is such an important part of the British heritage and such a shame that these pieces will no longer be made. I love creamware pieces for their simplicity and timelessness.

Keven Hawkinssays:

Sad to hear this. Over here, across the pond, we are simply mad for all things British: Aga cookers (I have one and so do many of my friends), Mary Berry, BBC, Ben Pentreath, “bespoke”, and yes, all things Downton Abbey. Keep the pottery works alive by sending loads of inventory over here. As a shop owner I wanted to stock Hunslet – it was near impossible. They could fill very cupboard across the US with Hunslet creamware, just call it the Downton Abbey Collection.

Alexissays:

A friend bought a footed mug from your shop for me and I’ve used it every day since. It is such a simple and beautiful piece. Loved your post. Workmanship of this kind may be on the decline but I’m certain people like you will prevent it from disappearing entirely.

Andrewsays:

Totally agree, a sad loss but beautifully celebrated by your blog.
My grandfather relocated to the potteries during the war where the women stopped making and decorating china to make asbestos brake linings for aeroplanes instead. They were a talented, versatile group of people whom he completely appreciated, these people make great pots because they are great people.

Mary-Anne Borrowdalesays:

Terrific post Bridie, so interesting to see the factories & the traditional processes and tools. It’s a great shame, but I know you will replace these items with other beautiful stock. Many thanks from New Zealand, where my Burleigh mug my mum gave me is still my favourite mug.

Such sad news. Hunslet creamware is the ultimate marriage of utility and beauty!

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