Burgess and Leigh,
Longport, Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent
Other relevant Burgess and Leigh pages:
Founded in 1851 under the name Hulme and Booth and it was not until 1877 that the name was changed to Burgess and Leigh. Until 1999 Burgess & Leigh was still being run by the family of one of the firm's founders, William Leigh.
1999 all the directors were descendants of William Leigh.
Edmund Leigh (the former Chairman) and Barry Leigh, his brother, being great-grandsons and their two sons Kingsley and Alan being the fifth generation of the family to be active in the business.
In August 1999 the factory was rescued from the receivers by Rosemary and William Dorling and the name changed to Burgess, Dorling and Leigh. (see newspaper article)
William Leigh was in partnership for more than thirty years with Frederick Rathbone Burgess, a descendant of the Rathbone family, who were pottery manufacturers in Tunstall. The expansion of the business soon necessitated a move from its first home, the Central Pottery, Burslem to the Hill Pottery previously occupied by Samuel Alcock & Co, one of the few firms to make both china and earthenware. Burgess & Leigh acquired at the time a number of Alcock's best known shapes and patterns.
As the business still continued to expand Hill Pottery itself became too small in its turn. Therefore it was decided to build an entirely new factory at Middleport, then a rural district of Burslem and Middleport Pottery embodying all the latest factory developments of the time resulted. This seven oven factory situated on the side of the Trent & Mersey canal to which Burgess & Leigh moved in 1889 was recognised at the time as the model pottery of Staffordshire.
Naturally, in common with nearly all industry, everywhere there have been great changes this century, especially since the Second World War. Bottle ovens, once the distinguishing feature of the Potteries landscape have passed into memory except as museum pieces. There still remains one disused bottle oven standing at Burgess & Leigh which is a listed building. Bottle ovens, so called because of their shape, have been replaced by gas fired kilns and naturally the smoke and dust inseparable from coal fired ovens, have gone too making the whole area much more pleasant. The firm still operates from Middleport Pottery.
The remaining bottle kiln at Burgess and Leigh,
the building in the front was the Joiners Shop
and the low building was probably the Sagger-makers shop.
Following the deaths of William Leigh in 1889 and F R Burgess in 1898 the business continued under the control of their sons, Edmund Leigh and Richard Samuel Burgess. Richard Burgess was an ingenious engineer and designed a number of pieces of equipment used in the factory. He was also a keen photographer and during this period, the firm made a considerable range of photographic equipment. Edmund Leigh, in addition to having played a leading part in the design and equipment of the new factory travelled extensively in America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa and was responsible for establishing a substantial trade in these countries. In 1905 he asked Thomas Wood Heath who was then travelling in the South of England for the firm to go out to Australia to represent Burgess & Leigh. Thomas agreed and after ninety years Woodheath still represent Burgess & Leigh in Australia, the business being carried on by Tom Heath's grandsons, Barrie and Tom Heath. This is surely a remarkable record of a business relationship between two families.
Richard Burgess died in 1912, when Edmund Leigh acquired the whole undertaking, which became a private limited company in 1919, the first directors being Edmund Leigh and his three sons, William Henry, Arthur Kingsley and Edmund Denis. In his later years Edmund Leigh took an active part in promoting the formation of the British Pottery Manufacturers Federation.
Edmund Leigh died in 1924, but his sons continued the policy of developing the company's export trade. W H Leigh acted as the Company's agent in South Africa for a period in the 1920's, but subsequently ill health prevented him from taking an active part and he died at a comparatively early age in 1937. His brothers carried on the business visiting at different times Canada and the United States, Australia and New Zealand. Kingsley the elder, who had been works manager from the age of 21, continued to take charge of the production side of the business. He was much interested in research and was one of the original members of the Council of the British Pottery Research Association and also, subsequently, of the British Ceramic Research Association. He died in 1954, having been Chairman of the Company for thirty years. Denis, the youngest of the three, ran the sales and commercial side with notable success and was for two years Vice Chairman of the British Pottery Manufacturers Federation. He was Chairman of the Company for 13 years until his death in 1968.
A History of 140 years has not been without its problems and considerable adaptability has from time to time been needed to meet them. Before the First World War the firm described itself as Toilet & General Earthenware Manufacturers and toilet ware must have accounted for nearly half the output in terms of firing space and sales volume. In the space of a few years in the early 1920's the toilet ware trade largely disappeared and immediate efforts had to be made to replace it with additional dinner and tea ware.
Only a few years later there developed a fashion for brightly coloured on glaze decorations, which continued through the 1930's and seriously affected the sales of traditional underglaze printed or printed and coloured designs. Again a sharp change of course was called for and was forthcoming. The consequence was that although this was the period of the Great Slump following the Wall Street Crash of 1929, it was a successful and profitable time for Burgess & Leigh.
In 1939 came the outbreak of war, which was soon followed by severe restrictions on production of all kinds, not least in the pottery industry, where the sale of decorated ware in the home trade was banned and output limited to a restricted "Utility" range of undecorated ware. These restrictions combined with strict price controls continued for several years after the war to ensure that any decorated ware that could be produced was exported to alleviate the national shortage of foreign currency. The company took advantage of this and today exports a high proportion of its output.
When normal production was resumed in the 1950's taste was in the main for modern patterns, the hand painting and enamelling that had been a feature of the Company's production in the 1930's was now too expensive in labour cost to be saleable. Consequently the successful patterns of this period were mostly lithographic or screen printed transfers, but with the coming of the sixties, though designs were still contemporary, they were based on the traditional production methods of underglaze printing and banding. Before long, however, there came a revival of interest in traditional underglaze printed patterns such as Willow, Calico and also Asiatic Pheasants, reproduced from Burgess & Leigh's own nineteenth century engravings. These form the backbone of the company's product range today.
The firm's distinctive dark blue Willow pattern was developed in the early 1920s. It owes its origin to the Willow pattern made famous by the Dillwyn Pottery in Swansea between 1800 and 1820. A Dillwyn plate found in an antique shop in 1920 resulted in the Burleigh Willow which has been produced continuously ever since on a wide range of tableware, gifts and bathroom accessories, and is still outstanding today. It has always been the firm's practice to retain at least one copper engraving of any decoration that was produced. This has made it possible to reproduce a variety of patterns that first became popular at the turn of the present century. Such patterns as Pink Victorian Chintz and Blue Arden have been re-engraved with meticulous care, using modern production methods, from old copper plates preserved in this way. There remains a wealth of classical decorative styles that can be brought forward in the coming years by the combination of dedicated craftsmanship and engraving of the highest quality.
In the last twenty five years a substantial export trade with Western Europe and Scandinavia has been developed and whereas prior to 1965 exports to Europe were negligible they now represent a considerable part of the Company's output. Burgess & Leigh exhibit twice a year at the Frankfurt Fair, as well as at the International Spring Fair in Birmingham and the Harrogate Gift Fair in July, and this is followed up by visits each year to the principal countries concerned. The volume of exports to the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand has also increased substantially over the period, more recently a significant trade has been developed with Japan.
Today the Company is still heavily dependent upon the skill of its workforce especially in its decorating departments choosing to retain the high quality, individuality and flexibility that only manual skills can give, rather than installing automated mass production systems, but al the same time continually introducing more effective techniques to keep production costs, waste and lead lime to a minimum.
The flexibility of the company's production facilities is reflected in both the ability to produce a wide range of traditional and modern patterns and the extensive range of articles available. Most patterns are available in bathroom accessories, kitchenware and tableware. Many of the wide selection of patterns available have been brought to the company as ideas or concepts - in various stages of design - by its customers. By working together with the customer the Company has turned those ideas into reality often involving adaptations of existing techniques and on occasions development of entirely new ones. Over the last one hundred and forty years the firm has built up an enormous range of both articles and patterns and these have often been put to good use as part of the process of developing new ideas; but where it is unable to find anything suitable the Company has the ability to have new shapes modelled or surface designs engraved or reproduced as inglaze, onglaze or underglaze transfers - which ever is thought to be the most suitable.
The Company has a policy to protect the environment and is actively engaged in the search for unleaded colours and glazes; constantly reducing the large amounts of energy that are needed to create fine tableware; recovery and re-using as much "waste" material as possible to reduce the effect on the environment that all industry inevitably has. Burgess & Leigh has used recycled packaging materials for many years, but is not complacent and is changing packaging materials and methods to improve "recyclability" still further, whilst still ensuring that the product reaches the consumer in one piece.
Other relevant Burgess and Leigh pages:
Dec 1999 newspaper article on Burgess, Dorling and Leigh
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Selections from From Woodheath Australia