Article from the Daily Telegraph newspaper

Saturday 17 June 2000
 

 


Would you risk everything to buy a rundown pottery shed?
 
William and Rosemary Dorling have gambled everything to pursue a dream which they admit is completely irrational. Chris Arnot asks why.

WILLIAM and Rosemary Dorling had the house of their dreams in Crawley, one of the most sought-after villages in Hampshire. They particularly loved the walled garden with its orchard and carpet of primroses.


The Dorlings: "We had a nice house but when something calls and you drop it all, your life can become richer

Every morning, they cycled across Chilbolton Down to a barn in Stockbridge which housed their shop and mail-order business, specialising in Staffordshire pottery. "It was one-and-a-half miles and we could do it without touching a road," Rosemary recalls. "We could hear skylarks and pick wild flowers. It was idyllic." "

Half-an-hour's ferry ride away was their two-bedroom Victorian holiday flat on the Isle of Wight. And across the water in Ireland were their five acres of land in Kerry, with planning permission to build a cottage there. At one time they saw themselves retiring there.

Not any longer. Last summer, the Dorlings, now in their forties, put almost everything they owned on the line to buy a neglected Victorian factory in the back streets of Burslem, near Stoke-on-Trent.

Now their Hampshire home has been remortgaged, they have sold their holiday flat and they are now on the verge of parting with their Irish plot. Not that they have seen much of any of them in the past 10 months.

Instead, they have been working seven days a week, transforming the fortunes of Burgess and Leigh's Middleport Pottery, which they bought from the official receiver last summer. The business is now back in profit and the original workforce of 18 has more than doubled.

"We spent the first four months living out of a suitcase in a bed and breakfast, half an hour away," says Rosemary. "We'd fall into bed at 10 every night, get up at six, down breakfast and set off for work. The staff would bring us sandwiches to eat at our desks. Everybody has been so supportive."

Rosemary sits in an imposing management office, crammed with bulky furniture, much of it dating back to 1888 when the Middleport works was built as the "perfect pottery". Adjoining the Trent and Mersey Canal, everything was designed to run like clockwork.

The only change in the intervening 112 years is that raw materials are no longer delivered by water. Clay is still processed on the premises, pounded by the original steam-driven machinery. Cup handles are still attached by hand, as are the blue-and-white patterns. Apart from push-button phones and a computer screen or two, Arnold Bennett would not have much difficulty in recognising the factory he featured in Anna of the Five Towns.

Shelves of the company's distinctive Burleigh earthenware are displayed in a huge, glass-fronted cabinet that takes up one wall of the office. The cupboards below are packed with notebooks inscribed with copper-plate writing. One contains company brochures from 1912, a First World War helmet and an unopened bottle of Edwardian cough mixture. Over an oak fireplace is a portrait of Edmund Leigh, the son of the founder, who installed baths and basins for the workers in the factory basement.

By the end of the 20th century, five generations of Leighs had run the pottery - plenty of manufacturing experience but little grasp of modern marketing, hence the closure.

The Dorlings had known about the threat because they travelled up from Hampshire once a month to buy stock for their business. "We were horrified that it might close down," Rosemary recalls. "We knew it was a hidden treasure of national importance. One of the favourites to buy it wanted to put modern industrial units behind the facade (Grade II* listed). Somebody else would buy the moulds and patents and it would all be broken up."

They approached the National Trust and the Prince's Trust, but to no avail. Time was running out. Late one Friday last August, they made their last collection, aware that the sale would take place the following Tuesday. That night they slept fitfully at their farmhouse b & b. By dawn, William proclaimed: "We've got to buy it." Rosemary agreed. "It was completely irrational," she says. "We had a nice house in the South and everything was cosy. But when something calls and you drop it all, your life can become richer."

At the time, they had just 400 in their current account. They phoned relatives and begged for loans, then drew up a business plan and presented it to their bank manager first thing on Monday morning. By 10.30, the bank had agreed to lend them a sum.

'The manager knew we had equity," Rosemary acknowledges. He also may have been aware that they had some experience of the City of London - he as an IT manager, she as a legal executive - and that, in 1992, their first year in business together, they sold more than 70,000 worth of pottery.

The Dorlings are coy about revealing what they paid for the factory. Millions? "No. Let's just say it ran into hundreds of thousands." And what do they have for their money? Seven acres of land, pitted with fragments of china, and two acres of factory, complete with fixtures and fittings. Among them were 10,000 moulds in the attic, and Burleigh flower jugs, decorated with cricketers and tennis players, are now being produced again for the first time since the 1930s. "I know what people want to buy," says Rosemary.

We walk over the Minton tiles in the hall into a cobbled yard. Running off it are the "cup house", the "flat house" (where plates are made), and the "slip house" where the clay is processed. We feel the intense heat of the kiln and marvel at the turn-of-the-century boiler, which still works. Some of the building, though, is in far from perfect condition. The brickwork on the bottle kiln is crumbling and the roof needs attention. Rosemary's son, Simon, has been investigating industrial heritage grants. Public tours are planned, a factory shop will soon open and a coffee shop and visitor centre will follow.

"We even thought about buying a terrace house over the road to do up and rent out to visitors," says Rosemary. "They go for about 7,000-10,000."

She and William, meanwhile, have been living in a rented stone house in the north Staffordshire moorlands, 35 minutes' drive away. "We're now going to buy a place round here," says Rosemary. Preferably, no doubt, with a beautiful orchard.