The Story of Burleigh Ware

How a legendary British pottery company became one of the last great standard-bearers in tableware

Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. With pinpoint accuracy, Chris Glendinning strikes his pointed metal graver with a small hammer, slowly and delicately marking lines and dots onto a copper roller. He’s been working on the same design for weeks, and will continue for weeks, possibly months, more. It’s a job that requires immense skill and patience, but Glendinning, 71, knows his stuff—he has been doing it since he was 15. Right now he’s the only engraver working in the pottery industry left in the world.

Burleigh is like that. Everywhere you turn you find the last, the only, the unique. This English pottery company is a lesson in living history. In an industry that has suffered greatly from mass production, falling demand, increasing costs, and downward-spiraling prices, Burleigh has stuck to its guns and stayed on in the heart of the area known as the Potteries, still making the highest-quality printed earthenware by hand, using time-honored processes with machinery from the 1940s and ’50s (plus some that dates back to 1889), all in the same factory that was purpose-built for the company in the late 19th century. Much of the staff have been there for decades, and in some cases their families worked there, too, passing their craftsmanship down through generations. “There are skills at Burleigh that just don’t exist anywhere else,” says the company’s creative director, Steven Moore. “When I first arrived here last year, it felt like going back to a time when there was a proper craft culture that was valued, unlike in so many other places, where it has completely gone.”

This appreciation of quality, tradition, and painstaking craftsmanship is what makes Burleigh and Ralph Lauren such a good fit, and the companies’ collaboration over the years has included some beautiful ranges, such as Arden, a late-19th-century design of twining hawthorn branches; Calico, an allover floral designed in the 1960s; and Regal Peacock, a favorite of Queen Mary’s, which was launched in 1913. Each and every Burleigh piece has a subtle depth and individuality that just can’t be replicated by modern machine processes. Yet the company’s survival has not been without a struggle.
Today’s artisans at work in the Burleigh factory, flanked by archival images from the 1890s (far left) and 1960s (far right)
Today’s artisans at work in the Burleigh factory, flanked by archival images from the 1890s (far left) and 1960s (far right)

The story began in 1851 when Messrs. Hulme and Booth set up the Central Pottery in Burslem, one of the seven towns that together formed the most important, and prolific, centers of ceramic manufacturing in the world. The British took their tableware seriously (they still do) and had been making pottery on a large scale in the area for at least 400 years. Down the road could be found the factories of Wedgwood, Spode, and other great names, which had been established almost a century earlier; the skyline was dominated by the silhouettes of more than 2,000 bottle kilns (so called because of their shape; almost all now demolished), and the air was often black with the smoke of industry. In 1862, William Leigh and Frederick Rathbone Burgess took over the Central Pottery, renaming it Burgess & Leigh and introducing more intricate patterns to its expanding range of tableware. The firm flourished and, in 1889, moved to its current home, a purpose-built, steam-powered works called Middleport Pottery, perched on the eastern bank of the Trent and Mersey Canal.

Today the redbrick factory is a wonderfully picturesque maze, with labyrinthine passageways; steep, worn stairs; doors leading who knows where; attics stacked high with Victorian pottery molds (it’s the largest collection in Europe); and individual “shops” that are home to each of the different production processes—but at the time it was the height of Victorian modernity and efficiency.
Making ceramics the Burleigh way is, as it always was, a complex business, and by the time an item reaches your table it will have passed through at least 25 pairs of hands.

“If you took a piece of Burleigh from 1890 and compared it to one from today, they would be almost identical,” states Moore. “There’s an essence of DNA that’s been passed down because we’ve been here so long, and a spirit of place that you just don’t get with other brands. The products we make are still the same and the processes are the same.” Emphasizing his words, in the background can be heard the gentle thud of the 19th-century pump that works day and night to pipe liquid clay around the factory.

Since its earliest days, Burleigh has concentrated on a type of printing called underglaze transfer, a labor-intensive method developed more than 200 years ago. One by one, other companies have moved to cheaper and easier lithography, and now Burleigh’s the last one standing in this highly skilled game, which involves carefully cutting out the designs from printed tissue paper and rubbing them down (more vigorously than you might expect) onto each piece of pottery, making folds around curves and joining where necessary—especially tricky with, for example, a teapot covered in a dense pattern like Calico. List some of the other processes—jiggering (plate making), jollying (the forming of hollowware), fettling (trimming rough edges)—and these traditional terms give an even greater idea of just how much Burleigh’s past melds with its present. Making ceramics the Burleigh way is, as it always was, a complex business, and by the time each item reaches your table it will have passed through at least 25 pairs of hands, including the sponger and the caster, the biscuit brusher and the glost placer. “When we say handmade, we mean it,” says Moore.
The printed tissue paper that provides the patterns for Burleigh pottery
The printed tissue paper that provides the patterns for Burleigh pottery

In the early 20th century, Burgess and Leigh developed the brand name Burleigh, and during the 1920s the company’s decorative ware was highly sought-after. But a decline followed World War II, and although its future was secured with a sale to British ceramic manufacturer Denby in 2010, it still faced one huge problem: a decrepit factory that would be impossibly expensive to repair. Its savior? None other than Prince Charles, whose Prince’s Regeneration Trust bought the buildings and land and sensitively restored them in a “£9 million, three-year-long project.”? There’s now also room for small businesses, a craft studio, a café, and a to-die-for factory shop with the most charming displays. The transformation has created a hub of enterprise and craftsmanship, and helped Burleigh more than double its workforce and rapidly increase its exports and online sales.

Moore and his team are leading Burleigh into the future, introducing new shapes such as rice and pasta bowls and turning to the incredible resource of the original mold store to reissue classic pieces that work for the modern customer, such as the Etruscan jug (from around 1830), which is perfect for a flower arrangement. It is innovation done in the gentlest way, with the utmost respect for this brand’s one-of-a-kind heritage. As Moore says: “I’m treading in the footsteps of hundreds of people before me. Nobody else has this legacy, and it gives Burleigh an authenticity that you just can’t fake.”
Burleigh: handcrafted at Middleport Pottery
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KATHERINE SORRELL is a writer based in Cornwall, UK. Specializing in interiors, design, antiques, and craft, she is a regular contributor to leading British lifestyle titles and has written 20 books.