A charity led by the Prince of Wales has stepped in to try and save the UK's last working Victorian pottery from closure.
For more than 100 years artisans have been turning out sought-after Burleigh earthenware from the kilns of Middleport. But like other potteries in North Staffordshire, which was once the centre of the world's ceramic industry, it has been hit by the economic downturn and competition from overseas.
This week creditors will consider an innovative rescue plan which it is hoped could safeguard the future of the works. The Prince's Regeneration Trust, with the help of a substantial grant from English Heritage, has made an undisclosed offer to rescue the business and its Grade II-listed building.
Burleigh's distinctive blue cups and saucers are made in much the same way as they were when the works were built by its founders, William Leigh and Frederick Rathbone Burgess, on the banks of the Trent and Mersey Canal in 1889.
The trust, whose president is the Prince of Wales, made its bid last week to reassure the plant's 40 workers in Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent, after fears were raised about its future.
Under the rescue plan the building will be restored and turned into a visitor attraction showcasing the region's heritage, and the pottery will continue to operate as a business on the site. Creditors are due to meet on 22 February to discuss the offer.
The people behind Burgess Dorling and Leigh Ltd, which owns Burleigh, are husband and wife William and Rosemary Dorling. With only £400 in their current account they gambled everything they had to rescue the business when it was just days from closure in 1999. They remortgaged their Hampshire cottage, sold their holiday flat and farm and borrowed money from relatives to save Middleport.
The Dorlings gradually rebuilt the workforce, generating a £1m turnover, while keeping alive the tradition of the "clay to cup" manufacturing which made the pottery a key example of Britain's lost industrial heritage. However, the couple fell victim to a fraud, which led to their company accountant being jailed for 12 months in 2008. Ros Kerslake, chief executive of the Prince's Regeneration Trust, paid tribute to the stewardship of the firm by the Dorlings but said that like many small companies they had struggled with years of under-capitalisation.
She said the rescue plan would ensure that creditors got back 90 per cent of their money, as well as keeping vital craft skills alive and guaranteeing that 10,000 pottery moulds, some of which date back 150 years, remain in Britain rather than being sold off and shipped abroad. "We are absolutely delighted to have been able to put forward an offer which not only preserves this hugely significant building, but also the time-honoured techniques and crafts that have been used by generations of potters and might have been lost forever," Ms Kerslake said.
Just as it was at the height of the British Empire, clay is still processed on the premises and pounded by the original steam-driven machinery, while much of the work is completed by hand.
At the height of its success in 1939, Burgess & Leigh, as it was then, employed 500 workers. The company had been a pioneer in improving the conditions of ceramic workers. It was one of the first potteries to install baths and basins for its employees, earning Middleport the title the "Model Pottery".