Architect Charlie Wellingham describes our work with The Princes's Regeneration Trust at Middleport Pottery to secure the future of pottery production at this magical site
The Prince of Wales officiated at this hugely significant moment which marked the conclusion of a three year collaboration between The Prince’s Regeneration Trust (PRT) and Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios to repair the Victorian buildings and secure the future of pottery production at this magical site.
Burgess & Leigh have been continuously producing Burleighware ceramics at Middleport Pottery in Burslem for 125 years, still using the same hand-crafted techniques in the same Victorian factory ranges as in 1888. It is this ‘unbroken thread’ of skills handed down from generation to generation that makes the story of Middleport unique. A typical example of this ‘inheritance’ is the Burleigh collection of 19,000 unique master moulds, considered to be of international significance in the history of pottery production. A century of hard work has ingrained the fabric of the site with the rich patina of industry and the derelict archaeology of technologies past; steam engines and bottle kilns mothballed in ghostly isolation, laying in undisturbed silence since the day they operated for the final time.
The PRT bought the site in 2010 and committed to refurbishing the factory ranges, securing the future of Burleigh and their 50 employees, and implementing ambitious plans to establish 50 further jobs in the local community. This will be achieved through the upgrade of the factory space and infrastructure, and the provision of additional craft workshop spaces and office units to support small creative manufacturing businesses. The philosophical approach toward the architectural interventions at the site remain true to the matter-of-fact pragmatism with which Middleport has developed over the last century, but also celebrate some of the poetics of its raggedly robust industrialism. The PRT’s ethos of regenerating redundant heritage for the benefit of the surrounding community and economy aligns closely with our own belief in the positive transformation that can be stimulated by the creative reuse of our historic buildings.
The potential for community trusts to secure and revive their own built heritage has never been greater, and the power and support that they can muster has never been more effective. The perceived risk of conservation deficits is being progressively broken down by the financial aid of grant-giving agencies (such as the Heritage Lottery Fund and English Heritage) and the professional support of third sector expertise (such as the SPAB and the Heritage Skills Hub). The successful delivery of every new project establishes a further precedent and demonstrates what can be achieved to the hundreds of buildings in need of regeneration both at home and abroad.
The UK leads the world in conservation expertise, and as the potential of social entrepreneurship and crowd- sourced funding continues to gather momentum it is an exceptionally exciting time to be working alongside communities in the heritage sector. Popular opinion increasingly supports what we ourselves believe to be true: that saving the best of the past is a critical element in delivering a more socially sustainable and culturally meaningful future. It has been a thrill to see the Stoke-on-Trent community step back inside the solemn silence of the Middleport Pottery bottle kiln to learn about the history of the site that has stood quietly among them for so long. The re-opening forges a poignant reconnection between the people of the city and the structures that have been a striking symbol on their skyline for so long. For me as a young architect developing my own passion and expertise in conservation architecture, it has been a great privilege to be involved in the delivery of this boldly innovative and inspirational project.