Middleport Pottery is one of the best craft experiences I have had and a fascinating insight into a craft evolving into industrial manufacture. The pottery has a long history which is well documented, it was faced with closure and in 2011 was saved by the Prince's Trust for Regeneration. The idea was not to keep it as a museum but to regenerate the business and keep alive valuable work in an area that badly needs it. There is much info online about the buildings I am going to show you the craftspeople and the pottery processes.
I visited with the management team from Portland works a cutlery works in Sheffield facing very similar issues. This is the main yard with the surviving bottle kiln, these were last fired in the 1950's I remember seeing many of them as a child driving through Stoke but there are not many left now.
and here's the engine
Now on to pottery, the first stage in production is making an original piece out of clay or plaster. From this master you take a cast to make a mould and use that to cast a long lasting master mould. From this master you cast plaster moulds which have a limited lifespan so this chap is cleaning up a master ready to make plaster moulds, if you see the master to the left foreground it is a design of mug I liked, we will see more of those as we go through the pottery.
This is the master mould maker.
Moulds are stored for future use, there are moulds here of pieces that went out of production over 100 years ago.
This is where the casting takes place. The moulds are cleaned up each day, assembled and set out on the benches, then maybe 120 of them are filled with slip, that is liquid clay.
After an hour or so the plaster has drawn the liquid out of the slip so that a layer of just the right thickness has solidified, the excess slip is tipped out of the mould. When the mould is opened we have a teapot, mug or whatever. Some pieces are simple one piece castings and just need the mould joint lines cleaning up others are made of several castings which are joined together before they dry.
This is skilled work, there is a nice flow to the whole process and the chaps clearly enjoyed it. They do maybe 120 casts in a day depending how complex then start cleaning up the moulds for the next batch.
Now we get on to the sort of work that I really am not keen on. It is called semi-mechanised. This machine churns plates out 1200 a day and I would not like to be working it.
It is remarkably efficient and ingenious but I can't help feeling once you get to this stage you may as well go all the way and fully mechanise with a robot to do the job, it can't be fun standing all day putting lumps of clay on the machine taking plates off and sticking them in the drier.
The machine above leaves a burr round the edge of the plate and this lady cleans them off, 1200 plates a day, it's a job but a bit tedious. I don't know if they swap around machines, that is one way to make this sort of factory work more interesting.
It starts here with this lovely old printing machine. A hand engraved drum with a pattern is spread with glaze and prints onto tissue paper. The paper is also coated with a thin layer of hot glue then fed along a moving washing line down the room.
Next door another range are being hand painted. William Morris would perhaps prefer this saying that here the workers are expressing their individuality, there is no question though there was much more fun to be had in the previous workroom and no less pride in the skilled job.
Then on to glazing interesting how gender segregated the trade is.
Now another dull job. I hope this poor chap gets a break from this machine. It is printing a standard glaze pattern on, as they come out he has to take them off and stack them with spaces so they don't stick in the kiln, pretty dull.