Middleport Pottery: Regenerating the Love in Stoke-on-Trent

Every January, the first-year fellows of the Winterthur Program and several students in MA and PhD programs from the University of Delaware take part in British Design History: a three-week course on design and material culture with one week at Winterthur and a two-week field study in Great Britain. Traveling to cities including London, Stoke-on-Trent, and Bath, the students have an opportunity to study American Material Culture within a greater global context. Students’ posts in this section are centered on their experiences in England or working with British objects in the Winterthur collection.


“The site is not a relic to be viewed at from behind a red rope, but instead is a traditional British pottery being developed to restore pride, create possibility and unlock the area’s potential for growth.” -The Prince’s Regeneration Trust

Middleport Pottery’s brick bottle kiln standing among several red brick buildings. Two large, metal trash containers filled with recently broken pottery can be see in the left foreground.

Photographed here is Middleport Pottery’s lone surviving bottle kiln. Thousands of these bottle kilns were once scattered across the Stoke-on-Trent landscape. Today, only forty-seven remain standing. Photograph courtesy of the author.

I believe I speak for many on our field study when I say visiting Middleport Pottery was one of the unpredicted highlights of our January 2018 trip to England. The week before we crossed the pond there was a lot of excited chatter about visiting such places as Dennis Severs’ House, World of Wedgwood, and the Goldney Hall Grotto. Those sites absolutely lived up to our expectations; although, by the end of the trip several of us continued to marvel at our enchanting Middleport Pottery experience.

A woman sits at her workbench as she rubs the paper transfer print onto a teacup. She is holding the teacup in her left hand and a bristled brush in her right. Several teacups sit on top of her workbench.

This employee has mastered the art of paper transfer printing in her more than 40 years of employment at Middleport Pottery. Here she is seen sturdily rubbing a Pink Asiatic Pheasants paper transfer pattern onto a teacup. The teacups on her workbench are waiting for similar treatment. This employee has become so efficient at her job that she will decorate several dozen ceramic pieces in one day. Photograph courtesy of the author.

Not wanting to give too much away for those who may make a highly recommended future trip, Middleport is a fully operational pottery factory that produces beautiful Burleigh brand ceramics. Tracing its roots to Victorian Britain, Middleport Pottery is the only manufacturer that still uses hand-applied paper transfer patterns in its ceramic production. The tactful way in which Middleport’s interpretive team is able to balance the pottery’s role as a 21st century business and its significance as a living history site is one of the major reasons I found the factory tour to be so fantastic. This skillfully crafted balance would not have come to full fruition, however, if it was not for The Prince’s Regeneration Trust which saved Middleport Pottery from closure in 2011.

A man stands in front of a spinning stone wheel with his hands on a circular plaster, master mold. A shelf with several plaster molds lines the back wall. On either side of the Middleport employee are molds with pottery in them.

A Middleport Pottery employee is working with a plaster, master mold that will be used to form plates. He is spinning a stone wheel to form the mold. When complete, this plaster mold will be called a hump or drape mold. Photograph courtesy of the author.

Founded nearly twenty years ago by Charles, the Prince of Wales, The Prince’s Regeneration Trust was created to “address the problem of the UK’s historic buildings being left to decay.” The charity specifically aims to regenerate historic buildings for practical use in the 21st century. Following a £9 million renovation and regeneration project, Middleport Pottery has successfully become the showpiece of the Trust’s vital work in protecting the UK’s built heritage. The regeneration project successfully kept the Burleigh brand in Stoke-on-Trent which retained fifty local jobs and created sixty-six more. Equally important was the renovation of the late 19th-century factory—including an original industrial bottle kiln. Of most significance to the ceramics trade and field of material culture is the Trust’s preservation of the craftsmanship and techniques that have been used at Middleport Pottery since the 1880s. I can tell you from experience, there is not enough luggage in the UK to accommodate fourteen material culture enthusiasts in a store full of pottery crafted using historic techniques.

With his arms crossed, a man stares at the sky-blue pad transfer printing machine. The red pad of the machine is pressed against a mini teapot tray. Several other mini teapot trays are on a table in the foreground.

Using a machine from the first half of the twentieth century, a Middleport Pottery employee explains how pad transfer printing differs from paper transfer printing. In an assembly line type routine, the pad printing machine transfer prints Burleigh’s Arden Blue design onto a mini teapot tray. The mechanization of transfer printing greatly increased the speed at which potteries could produce transfer printed ceramics. Photograph courtesy of the author.

Middleport Pottery and The Prince’s Regeneration Trust have given me a foundation of tools and ideas to begin rethinking the interpretation of built heritage in the United States. Like Stoke-on-Trent, there are several places such as Detroit, St. Louis, and even areas in my home state of Wyoming where heritage sites could benefit from interpretation that puts the visitor in front of the red rope rather than behind it. Even the most minor tweak in interpretation could help “to restore pride, create possibility and unlock the area’s potential for growth.”


By RJ Lara, WPAMC Class of 2019

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *