The Burslem Branch and Middleport Pottery

We met in the Middleport Pottery car park where Paul and Kathy were handing out fresh local oatcakes and maps of places of interest in Burslem. From here Steve Wood of the Burslem Port Trust led us along the front of the pottery then across the canal onto the towing path to view the other side of the pottery.

Here he explained that the Burslem branch had been opened in 1805 to relieve the pressure on the Trent and Mersey from the number of boats loading and unloading in the area and provide a link to Burslem town. Only 3 furlongs long, from the terminus a tramway was built to transport goods and materials to and from the centre of Burslem. China clay, stone and other raw materials were shipped in for use at the Burslem potbanks and finished ware was exported via the River Mersey and Liverpool Docks.

The Trent and Mersey has always suffered from subsidence due to coal mining. Because of Harecastle tunnel, the level of the canal had to be maintained which was done by building the banks up, latterly with concrete. Parts of the Trent and Mersey in Stoke are now as much as 11 feet deep. However, some of the concrete used was not of good quality which probably contributed to the breach of the Burslem Branch in 1961.

We retraced our steps and walked down the canal, stopping opposite the site of the junction of the Burslem branch. The junction and first section of the branch had been on a steep embankment and after the breach the junction was infilled and the embankment has been regraded for flood alleviation. Rather than rebuilding the embankment the restoration plans have the junction moved slightly to the north. The first section would be narrow, just a boat’s width. We walked back to the previous bridge where we crossed back to the offside of the canal, here encountering our first bottle kiln, this one being a calcining furnace. It is estimated that there were at one time 4000 bottle kilns in Stoke on Trent, 2000 still remaining in the 1950’s. Today Paul thinks there are under 100.

A short detour through a scrapyard led us to the footpath which is on the line of the Burslem branch. Almost immediately we were on the site of a boatyard which had been situated on the bend of the canal, this is where the breach occurred, the bank opposite the canal would have been weakened by boats being launched opposite this bend. Along the length of the canal are posts with a yellow horizontal line which shows the level of the Trent of Mersey and where the branch would need building up to. By the end of the canal the level is the same as the Trent and Mersey.

Opposite the junction of the Burslem branch

Calcining furnace

Post showing the canal level

At the end of the branch is the only bridge, on the far side of the bridge is the site of the basin—now a car park. There is a remaining canal warehouse in the middle of the modern buildings. On the towpath just before the bridge is also an original warehouse, this is currently being used by a recycling company and has been kept in remarkably good condition. The structure is quite distorted from subsidence and has been heavily supported with internal steel straps.

The current owners kindly let us look around the warehouse, just as the relentless rain turned heavy. The upper room is an impressive space which would make a great heritage display centre/ community space/ etc. We were surprised to find boxes of pottery and papers that had just been abandoned many years ago.

Steve left us at this point and Paul and Kathy took over to lead the group around Burslem. Heading up Navigation road Paul pointed out the site of where the Burleigh steam engine (which we were to see later at the museum) had been built and led us up to the parish church of St. John the Baptist. The churchyard contains the graves of the Wedgewood family and also of a Burslem witch, who, inconveniently having died before she could be executed was buried north to south instead of east to west as an example to others. At this point the rain, which had been getting heavier all morning turned to hail and the decision was made to shorten the Burslem town walk so we headed up to the Wedgewood institute, an impressive building that we gratefully went inside. As we dripped onto the impressive mosaic floor, Kathy explained about the institute and the coat of arms and thankfully when we left the building the rain had abated and we were able to walk up to Burslem’s town halls under a blue sky.

The Wedgewood Institute

Mosiac floor with coat of arms

Burslem’s second town hall, now the school of art

We returned to Middleport pottery for lunch which we were served in the function room surrounded by pottery moulds, getting us in the mood for the factory tour. Each of our 3 groups had very knowledgeable volunteer guides and over the next 90 minutes we were led around the whole process of traditional pottery production whilst learning several new words such as blunging, fettling, jigger and jolley.

The tour culminated in viewing the bottle kiln and seeing the Burleigh steam engine running.

There are many people to thank for a fantastic day: Steve for telling us about the history and future plans of the Burslem Branch, Middleport Pottery for catering for such a large group and the fantastic guides on the factory tour and last but certainly not least many thanks to Paul and Kathy for the delicious oatcakes and sharing their knowledge of Burslem , it was a shame this had to be curtailed but we shall certainly be using Paul and Kathy’s map and returning to investigate the rest of Burslem.