Saving Middleport Pottery

It does not take long for the postman to make his rounds in Port Street, on the edge of Burslem in Staffordshire. Almost all the houses are boarded up and the terraced streets following the contours of the surrounding hillsides emerge into empty daylight. The homes have gone, the roads have had their signs removed and the lamp posts stand idle.

The Potteries has a landscape and a society shaped by past industry. Old photographs show a fog of smoke over a forest of chimneys, predominantly the characteristically squat “bottle ovens” of the pot banks. The conical hills are slag heaps, remnants of the coal mines, and the huge cleared area alongside the A500 the site of the last steel works. Most of the potteries have closed or shifted production to the Far East. There’s a hard-won beauty to this landscape, and even if much of the industry has gone, pockets remain.

The mould-making room at Middleport Pottery

Opposite the derelict houses in Port Street is the last working Victorian pottery in the UK. Middleport Pottery was built beside the Trent and Mersey Canal in 1888. Until recently, it was still powered by its original steam engine and the distinctive “Burleigh” pottery is made using traditional under-glaze transfer printing. John Machin has been working in the mould-making room for 34 years. “Nothing’s much altered except for an extractor fan and two plastic tanks,” he says.

In September 2010, facing closure, it was sold to Denby. To stop the production being moved elsewhere and to preserve the Grade II-listed building, last June The Prince’s Regeneration Trust, supported by English Heritage, the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Regional Growth Fund, acquired the site. Traditional production will be maintained, a visitor centre created and other parts of the site restored for craft-based businesses, hopefully inspiring regeneration of the area. It is time to polish these industrial jewels.

Michael Collins is a British photographer. His new series of landscape pictures will be exhibited at the Janet Borden Gallery, New York, in April.

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