While factories usually grew organically, Middleport was designed from scratch for efficient production and good working conditions. Raw materials were brought in via the canal and the finished product went out via the canal. The Leigh family built up a world-wide market for five generations and the also added to the comprehensive archive and mould collection that forms an important historic resource to this day.
Burgess, Dorling & Leigh mix, mould and fire their own clay and specialise in underglaze transfer printing. Pieces are made from a mixture of ball clay, china clay, feldspar and flint. This mix is cast in moulds and fired at 1160 degrees C to make biscuit ware.
Tissue paper is printed from a pattern hand-engraved on a roller. The transferrers cut out and apply the tissue by hand to the ware, rubbing it on with soft soap. The tissue is then washed off, leaving the coloured pattern. The item is fired, dipped in glaze and fired again. The transfer print is now under the glaze and will not wear off.
Throughout the early history of the firm, Burgess & Leigh bought moulds and engravings from other businesses. Most notably, they hold the archives of Samuel Alcock & Co (closed in 1859) and John Davenport’s factory (closed 1887). Moulds still used by these companies are still made in Burleigh ware.
In 1999 Burgess and Leigh went into receivership and were bought by Rosemary and William Dorling and they now trade under the name of Burgess, Dorling and Leigh. They still produce some of the prettiest blue and white English earthenware, made using tradtional methods perfected over a century by the master potters of Stoke.
The ‘Calico’ pattern, in particular, is an instantly recognisable design of cherry blossom on a deep, cobalt-blue ground. The design has been the pottery’s best seller and still represents 30% of turnover. The American lifestyle guru, Martha Stewart is be a great fan and commissioned some jelly moulds, based on 18th century design, plus a range of tableware reviving the ‘Danish Fern’ motif, first produced in the 1890s.
The Dorlings estimate that they are the possessors of over 6,000 moulds and many hundres of pattern engravings, dating from the 1790s onwards. Some patterns, such as ‘Asiatic Pheasant’, popular in the Victorian era, have been in continuous production since 1851.