Belleek Pottery Ltd is a porcelain company that began trading in 1884 as the Belleek Pottery Works Company Ltd in Belleek, County Fermanagh, in what was to become Northern Ireland. The factory produces porcelain that is characterised by its thinness, slightly iridescent surface and that the body is formulated with a significant proportion of frit. A frit is a ceramic composition that has been fused in a special fusing oven, quenched to form a glass, and granulated. Frits form an important part of the batches used in compounding enamels and ceramic glazes; the purpose of this pre-fusion is to render any soluble and/or toxic components insoluble by causing them to combine with silica and other added oxides.. However, not all glass that is fused and quenched in water is frit, as this method of cooling down very hot glass is also widely used in glass manufacture.
Pottery in the region began around 1849, after John Caldwell Bloomfield inherited his father's estate. Seeking to provide employment for his tenants, who had been affected by the Irish potato famine and, being an amateur mineralogist, he ordered a geological survey of his land. In 1853 John Caldwell Bloomfield, owner of the Castlecaldwell estate, commissioned a mineral survey of his lands. It discovered that in an area approximately eight miles from Belleek at Larkhill, there were sufficient deposits of Feldspar and Kaolin (china clay) to make mining commercially viable. A crushing mill was built at Belleek on the site of an old corn mill and where there was waterpower from the River Erne to drive the machinery necessary to process the raw materials. These materials were exported to England and a large contract was established with the firm of Kerr & Binns of Worcester, later to become Royal Worcester. It was through this link that John Caldwell Bloomfield, Robert Williams Armstrong and later David Mc Birney met. Each of them was to contribute vital elements to the foundation and success of the Pottery- land, expertise and finance. The resulting company was known as David Mc Birney & Co. In 1858 construction of the main pottery building started. It is difficult to say exactly when production began but by 1863 making of utilitarian and probably some sanitary ware had commenced.
In the Dublin Exhibition of 1864 the products shown by Belleek consisted of earthen and stoneware in “dinner, toilet and other table services” made by moulding, press and die, or pressure from powdered clay. (Royal Dublin Society, Official Catalogue of the Exhibition of Manufacturers, Machinery and Fine Arts 1864). From the beginning Belleek produced a wide range of domestic and toiletry wares. These ranged from expensive decorated ewers such as the Etruscan Ewer to the simply decorated Ribbon basin, both on display. As well, Belleek offered a range of needs for everyday use; hospitals and asylums were supplied with items such as bedpans, feeding cups and slop pans. Creameries and milking parlours could obtain milk pans and bowls. Kitchens with pudding bowls, baking dishes and jelly cans.
Earthenware was the mainstay of the Pottery’s early years. On a roll of employees in 1897, of one hundred and twenty five, forty-four were potters (earthenware), eight Parian makers and ten basket and flower makers. Production of heavy sanitary ware began in the early 1870’s. The wealthy were fitting “water closets” into their homes and for a number of years this proved to be a very lucrative market. R. W. Armstrong patented many of the Belleek sanitary ware designs and the design patent of the washbasin shown here was registered on the 28th July 1878. By the 1890’s the manufacture of heavy sanitary ware ceased due to technical difficulties and the cost of manufacturing.
As expertise developed many new lines were added. In early experiments Robert Armstrong developed a white earthenware clay body, which he called his “harp body”, thus many very early pieces have an impressed harp. He later said that he had perfected his “Harp” body and to demonstrate its excellence he placed a crown above the impressed harp. Contracts were undertaken for many institutions and organisations in both Ireland and Britain and often they had their crests or emblems printed on their purchases. Decoration took many forms, the more decoration and colour, the more expensive. Monograms were printed in one colour and could be hand decorated with many colours, gilded and finished to a very high standard.
For example, there is a dinner set which is one of the most recognisable Belleek earthenware shapes called the “Ribbon handle” In this instance it is decorated with blue bands and gilded. This along with other shape designs was decorated on a price scale from; plain white, to colour banded, to transfer printed in mono-colours i.e. brown, blue, black, green and red. Gilding was an added extra. At this time transfer prints could only be printed in one colour. If additional colour decoration was requested, these were hand decorated over the base colour print. This involved several additional firings and as a result was expensive to produce.
The Exhibition of Arts, Industries and Manufactures organised by Sir Edward Lee were held in Dublin in 1872. The firm of David McBirney & Co. featured Porcelain for the first time. The list included nine Parian statuettes and busts, twenty-nine different Dessert pieces, sixteen types of table ornaments the latter category including hand woven baskets. Also displayed were thirty-six pattern plates and twenty-four hollow pieces in the dinnerware section. Examples of the Echinus Eggshell Dejuener sets similar to the one purchased by Queen Victoria as well as the Chinese double spouted kettles and tea urns were also on display. Also exhibited were Earthenware Dinnerware, Tea & breakfast ware, Toilet ware and heavy utilitarian pieces. The presence of so many expensive heavily decorated, ornamented and gilded pieces, was the beginnings of Robert Armstrong’s goal of making products that would interest the wealthier classes and so raising the aspirational appeal of Belleek to the wider market. Although Belleek did not win any awards at the exhibition their stand did form the largest section within the Irish and English industrial area of the Exhibition.
The Exposition Universelle of 1900 was a World fair held in Paris, France to celebrate the achievements of the past century and to accelerate development into the next. More than 50 million people attended the exhibition (a world record at the time), yet it still failed to turn a profit, costing the French government 2,000,000 Francs. The fair included more than 76,000 exhibitors and covered 1.12 square kilometres of Paris. The exhibition lasted from the 14th April until 10th November 1900. Belleek won their fourth gold medal at this Exhibition for the International Centre-piece and it is displayed in the foyer. On display at the museum are some of the other exhibits brought to the Paris Exhibition. Some of these such as the Dolphin Candlestick were in production for many years but others including the Henshall basket were probably first introduced in Paris. This mirror is, they believe, the actual mirror displayed in Paris, a similar styled mirror was presented to Queen Victoria on the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee in 1897.
Also on tdisplay are a succession of catalogues which allow you to see the changing production over the years. Catalogues include those from 1904, 1928, 1949, 1962 and 1978. One of the most fascinationg items is the Visitors Book. The first entry is dated October 1st 1868 and is signed by the Earl & Countess of Lanesborough of Lanesborough Lodge, Belturbet, Co Cavan. Captain John Vansittart Danvers Butler, 6th Earl of Lanesborough was born on 18 April 1839. He was the son of Captain Charles Augustus Butler Danvers and Letitia Rudyard Ross Freese. He married Anne Elisabeth Clark daughter of the Reverend John Dixon Clark, on 21 June 1864. The Earls of Lanesborough were extensive landowners in both Ireland and England and held estates in Co Cavan and Fermanagh. The villages of Newtownbutler in Co Fermanagh and Butlersbridge in Co Cavan are named after the family. They arrived accompanied by Viscount and Lady Templetown from Castle Upton, Templepatrick Co Antrim. George Frederick Upton sat as a Conservative MP for Antrim from 1858 to 1863. In 1866 he became an Irish Representative Peer and sat in the House of Lords as Lord Templetown. It is not certain if the Visitors Book was purchased specially for the visit of these important visitors but the arrival of such well-connected persons would have certainly been considered well worth recording to impress other visitors who in turn would also record their names.
In the weeks and months that followed many other important visitors are noted. Lord and Lady Enniskillen, Miss Brooke of Ashbrooke Co Fermanagh along with Miss Bloomfield daughter of John Caldwell Bloomfield of Castlecaldwell. Late in December 1868 Mr Richardson the High Sheriff of Co Fermanagh also visited the Pottery. The first visitor from England is Archibald Anson from Longfield Rectory in Derbyshire signed his name in January 1869. This entry is followed by a long list of persons from the titled aristocracy of the day to the landed gentry to visitors to the locality. This latter category would increase in volume over the next decade with the popularity of travelling by train on holiday excursions. The railway connection from Belleek opened in 1866. Another category visiting were returned emigrants who had made good in the New World and were able to travel back across the Atlantic, to visit the land of their birth. These included Rev William McNulty of Passaic, New Jersey visiting Ballyshannon, also Thomas McElderry Sinclair and his wife Caroline of Cedar Falls, Idaho visiting their families in Belfast.
After the Second World War, Belleek Pottery stopped production of earthenware. The Pottery began the change from coal fired kilns to electric powered kilns from 1952. In 1983 the Industrial Development Board gave financial assistance to the company and installed Roger Troughton as the Managing Director. The following year Troughton made a successful bid for the sale of the company. In 1988, Dungannon-based Powerscreen International bought the company, and opened a visitor centre the following year.
The company changed ownership again in 1990. Dundalk-born US-based George G. Moore remains the owner, though the company is run locally by four directors. Since then Belleek Pottery has expanded its size in terms of factory space, acquisitions of other companies, staff and turnover. Subsidiary companies now include Galway Crystal, Aynsley China and Donegal Parian China. It employs more than six hundred people and has an annual turnover of around £30 million.
When you step into the world of Belleek Pottery you enter one of Northern Ireland’s oldest and most fascinating attractions. Original and unique pieces are made using traditional methods passed down from generation to generation. One of the most collectable and prized sets is the Black Mark range. Belleek Pottery holds a very special place in the cultural and commercial heritage of County Fermanagh. Nestling on the banks of the River Erne this imposing building is home to the world famous Belleek Fine Parian china and also to one of Irelands top five visitor attractions.
Tours have been coming to Belleek Pottery for decades. Discover the secrets that have made Belleek Pottery one of the most enduring success stories of Irish Craftmanship with a visit to its award winning visitor centre. The building which, up until 1988, was used to produce Belleek has since been refurbished internally and features a museum, tearoom, video theatre and showroom. Upon entering the Centre the visitor will first see one of the oldest and most prestigious pieces of Belleek ever made. It is called the Belleek International Centre Piece and was displayed at the Paris Exhibition in the year 1900 where it was awarded its fourth gold medal.
The International Centre Piece is believed to have been designed by Frederick Slater who came to Belleek in 1893. It is reported to have taken him seven weeks to create the masterpiece. The creation stands 28 inches high and over 16 inches wide at its widest point. The urn shaped vase is exquisitely decorated with flowers (believed to have been made by William Henshall) and Irish Harps and it rests on a scrolled base which also supports three Irish Wolfhounds. Behind the harps, and forming an integral part of the vase, is a beautiful example of pierced work which would have been popular on a number of early Belleek designs. Each leaf, flower, harp and Irish Wolfhound was created by hand - even every bead and chain link which is connected to the wolfhound was created and joined by hand. The International Centre Piece takes centre stage in the Foyer and, displayed with it, are replicas of the medals. It is indeed a truly amazing piece in every way.
A Family Discount is offered. There are Baby Changing facilities. WiFi is available. Parking Available. Credit/Debit Cards are accepted, as is the Euro. There is a Picnic Area. Guided Tours are available. There are toilet facilities on site, including for the disabled. There is a Gift Shop and Tea-room/Cafe onsite. The visitor centre is fully wheelchair accessible. Assistance dogs are welcome.
Location : Belleek Pottery Visitor Centre, 3 Main Street, Belleek, County Fermanagh BT93 3FY
Transport: Londonderry (NI Rail) then bus (2 hours). Bus Routes : 64 and 194b stop close by.
Opening Times : January - February, Monday to Friday 09:00 to 17:30; Saturday/ Sunday Closed
Opening Times : March - June, Monday to Friday 09:00 to 17:30; Saturday 10:00 to 17:30; Sunday 14:00 to 17:30
Opening Times : July - September, Monday to Friday 09:00 to 18:00; Saturday 10:00 to 18:00; Sunday 12:00 to 17:30
Opening Times : October - December, Monday to Friday 09:00 to 17:30; Saturday 10:00 to 17:30; Sunday 14:00 to 17:00
Tickets Visitor Centre: Free
Tickets Guided Tour: Adults £5.00; Students/Seniors £3.00; Children Under 12 Free
Tel: 028 6865 8501