Belleek Pottery , County Fermanagh……A history

Belleek Pottery has operated for more than 150 years as Northern Ireland’s leading manufacturer of porcelain giftware. It is worth visiting on any Ireland tours to bring a quality memento from your trip.

The company has achieved an international reputation for the high quality of its porcelain and the intricacy of its designs.

Belleek’s gift range includes lamps , picture and mirror frames , platters , vases , bowls , candlesticks , clocks , and other items , mostly in a flowery , Victorian-era style.

Belleek’s target consumer market traditionally has been an older and more conservative age group.

In 2003 the company launched a new line of contemporary designs called Belleek Living in an effort to extend its customer base to a younger market.

In addition to its production facilities in the town of Belleek ( which is in Fermanagh , Northern Ireland ) Belleek manages its own network of retail shops in the United Kingdom and Ireland.

In the 1990s and early 2000s Belleek expanded through acquisitions , adding Aynsley China Ltd , based in Staffordshire (  England ) ; Galway Irish Crystal Ltd , in Ireland ; and Donegal Parian China Ltd.

Belleek is owned by U.S.-based Chairman George Moore, and run by a local management team.

The company has Victorian Era origins.

The town of Belleek was founded in 1610 by two brothers , Edward and Thomas Blennerhassett , from Norfolk , England , who had been granted farming estates in County Fermanagh along the River Erne.

The town took its name from a large flagstone , known as Beal Leice in Gaelic , at the foot of a waterfall. The flagstone had been a prominent river crossing point for some centuries. The location next to the river also provided a powerful source of energy for operating water-powered mills. The Blennerhassett family built a castle in Belleek , originally called Hassett’s Fort.

Then Sir James Caldwell purchased the Blennerhassett estate , which encompassed the town of Belleek and its castle. Changing its name to Castle Caldwell.

Over time , however, the castle and the estate fell into disrepair.

It was only with the arrival of John Caldwell, returning from military service in the Americas to take over the family estate that Castle Caldwell was restored. Caldwell passed the estate on to his daughter who married John Bloomfield and produced a son –  John Caldwell Bloomfield.

Born in 1823 the younger Caldwell inherited the family estate in 1849 , at a time when the surrounding population was still reeling from the devastation of the Potato Famine. As owner of Belleek and its surrounding areas , Caldwell sought ways to provide employment for his tenants and alleviate their poverty.

Caldwell commissioned a geological survey of the region and discovered large clay deposits , as well as kaolin , flint , feldspar , and shale.

Caldwell quickly organized a business around the deposits , establishing a mill on a small island in the River Erne from which to grind the clay and raw materials for making slip , a liquid potter’s clay.

By 1853 , the quality of the Belleek slip provided the basis for an award-winning dinner service produced by Worcester Porcelain Company for the Dublin International Exhibition.

With all the ingredients needed to fashion crockery , Caldwell decided to build a pottery workshop at Belleek as well.

For this , Caldwell enlisted the aid of architect Robert Williams Armstrong , who had built up a specialty designing potteries in the British Midlands and who had been working for Worcester in the early 1850s.

Armstrong agreed to design the pottery and lead development of the works.

The pair then found a financial backer in David McBirney, a prominent businessman from Dalkey , near Dublin. In exchange for McBirney’s investment the company became known as D. McBirney & Co.

Construction began on the pottery in 1857 and although the factory was not completed until 1860 the company was able to launch production of its first earthenware pieces before the end of 1857.

Built at a cost of £40,000, the factory was designed to accommodate as many as 500 workers !!!

The company’s initial production remained limited to earthenware which was relatively cheap to produce. With few skilled workers in the region earthenware provided another advantage in that it could be made with relatively little training. The company’s production at first fell into a predominantly utilitarian category with items such as floor tiles , hospital sanitation goods , and even insulators for telephones.

Yet Bloomfield , Armstrong , and McBirney had their sights set on a higher goal.  That of creating decorative porcelain pieces.

The company began experimenting with adapting the Belleek clay in order to produce Parian porcelain. This type of porcelain had been developed in Stoke-on-Trent , a major pottery centre in England, in 1844. Using a mixture of glass and rock the resulting slip produced porcelain said to resemble the marble found on the Greek island of Paros.

The Belleek pottery’s early attempts to develop its own Parian china proved fruitless.

In the early 1860s, however Bloomfield went to England offering higher wages and better living conditions to skilled pottery craftsmen if they would move to Belleek. Fourteen men agreed and among them were William Bromley who became the company’s foreman , and William Gallimore who became its chief modeller.

Belleek finally succeeded in producing a small amount of Parian china in 1863.

Production grew strongly after that, and by 1865 the company had begun to ship its porcelain to the rest of the United Kingdom before turning to a still more international market.

Led by Armstrong, the company established high-quality standards for its porcelain–and each piece became subject to Armstrong’s approval. Rejected pieces were then destroyed–a policy the company continued over the next 150 years. Indeed even in the early 21st century Belleek continued to throw away some 20 percent of its production.

Earthenware therefore, remained the company’s primary revenue source.

Over the next decade, the company continued to plow its profits back into the development of its Parian china.

By 1872 the company at last reached a level of perfection. In that year, Belleek displayed its goods at the Dublin Exposition featuring both its tableware and its decorative Parian pieces. These included statues and a double-spouted Chinese tea urn. The company captured gold medals in both of these categories.

The company’s success was crowned when Queen Victoria herself ordered a tea set from the company. Belleek china now became highly fashionable and sought after throughout the world. The company began receiving orders from other members of the British nobility as well as elsewhere in Europe……. and even from as far away as India and the United States as well.

In 1880 the company’s fortunes were further aided by a new gold medal at the Melbourne International Exhibition.

The death of McBirney in 1882 caught the company off guard.  When his son and heir Robert McBirney announced his intention to sell off the company–which in the meantime had eaten up much of McBirney’s fortune it was a shock !!

Armstrong , who also had put his entire life savings into the company , attempted to resist the sale , claiming to have made a gentleman’s agreement with McBirney. Armstrong launched a legal battle to retain control of the company. But he died just two years after McBirney.

Bloomfield , McBirney , and Armstrong had one last success although none of the founding partners lived to see it. For many years the company had fought to bring the railroad to Belleek in order to make it easier to haul much-needed coal to fire the company’s kilns and to provide a more secure means of transporting its finished goods. In 1886, a connection was finally made to Belleek when the line from Enniskillen was extended to Ballyshannon passing through Belleek.

After Armstrong’s death the Belleek pottery was sold off to a group of investors for just £4,500 accompanied by a 999-year lease fixed at a rent of £50 per year.

The company was renamed as Belleek Pottery Works Company Ltd. The pottery’s new directors were more interested in profits than Belleek’s less than profitable Parian china creations and the company shifted its focus to its earthenware production. As a result of this shift in focus the company which by then boasted one of the United Kingdom’s strongest pools of porcelain artisans and craftsmen lost a number of it’s most highly trained and talented staff.

Nonetheless Belleek works at last made its first profit by the end of 1884 !!!

The business did not entirely stop production of Parian china and managed to win a new gold medal at the Adelaide Exhibition in 1887.  Then again in Paris in 1900. However by then Parian china had lost its fashionable status in favour of other porcelain designs. Worse for the company the Erne Drainage Board had begun an effort to control the water levels on the River Erne–including blasting away the waterfall that had provided a primary source of power for the company.

The outbreak of World War I dealt a new blow to the company as new orders slowed to a stop and wartime restrictions essentially put a halt to production. By the end of the war the company’s staff had dwindled from nearly 200 to less than 50.

Then in 1919 the company was sold to Bernard O’Rourke for £10,000 on the condition that the site remains in operation as a pottery.

The company’s new owners now refocused the pottery on the production of Parian china. Belleek entered a new period of growth.

Stability came to the company in the 1930s with the arrival of the Arnold family , first through Harry Arnold , who joined as manager in 1934. Arnold turned over the manager’s position to brother Eric Arnold in 1941 who retained that position into the late 1950s.

World War II brought a new challenge to the company as wartime restrictions once again forced the company to cut back on its production. Belleek again turned to the production of earthenware for its survival although the company managed to produce a small number of Parian china objects during this period.

An impediment to the group’s production of Parian china had long been the need for kilns capable of firing at extremely high temperatures for a long period of time: The initial biscuit firing period alone required a 24-hour firing cycle at temperatures above 1,400 degrees Celsius. Belleek at last solved its production problem with the installation of two new high-temperature coal-fired kilns in 1946. The new kilns enabled the company to focus its entire production on Parian china and the company ceased production of earthenware that year.

Orders once again filled the company’s books as new generations of porcelain enthusiasts embraced Belleek’s highly intricate designs.

The coal-fired kilns were soon replaced by the company’s first electric-powered kilns. These provided for still more consistent high-temperature operation and enabled the company to solidify its worldwide reputation for high-quality porcelain.

By the end of the decade the company employed some 250 people.

Belleek’s highly identifiable designs nonetheless left the company vulnerable to changing fashions. By the early 1980s, the company had once again run into financial difficulty. In 1983, the Northern Ireland Industrial Development Board launched a rescue effort installing Roger Troughton in place as the company’s managing director. Troughton led a restructuring which included cutting the company’s payroll in half to just 120 workers.

Troughton’s efforts paid off however and the company returned to profitability.

When the Industrial Development Board decided to put the company up for sale in 1984 Troughton himself led a consortium of investors to buy the company.

Under Troughton Belleek launched its own collector’s society which grew to an international membership of more than 6,000 and helped boost the company’s profile among global porcelain collectors.

Then Troughton sold out to Powerscreen International , a maker of quarry handling machinery then in the midst of a diversification effort.

The price of the sale stood at £2.2 million.

Under Powerscreen , the Belleek works was refurbished , and a new visitor’s centre was established. The visitor’s centre quickly became a major tourist attraction in the region. Belleek also launched a new, higher-end “designer” lineboosting its range of production to more than 250 items with prices ranging from $25 to more than $4,000.

By 1990 Powerscreen had abandoned its diversification strategy. In that year Belleek was acquired by George Moore , a native of Drogheda , in Ireland , who had moved to California , for £3.7 million.

Moore remained in the United States but brought in a new management team headed by Managing Director John Macguire.

The new owner and management team now led the Belleek works into a new era of expansion. Over the next decade the company rebuilt its production facilities. By 1998, the company’s factory had quadrupled in size, to more than 120,000 square feet. The company’s sales also were booming. From just £2 million in sales ($3.5 million) in 1993 , the company sales climbed to more than $55 million in 2004.

Part of the company’s growth came through an acquisition program instituted in the mid-1990s. The company first purchased Galway , Ireland-based Galway Irish Crystal.

This purchase was followed by the 1996 acquisition of Donegal Parian China , a company founded in 1986.

Then in 1997 Belleek added operations in England’s Stoke-on-Trent , still a major hub of the U.K. pottery industry , with the purchase of Aynsley China , founded in 1775 by John Aynsley. That company had played an important role in developing the method for producing bone china.

Into the 2000s, Belleek remained one of the world’s leading names for high-quality decorative porcelain products. In 2003 Belleek launched an effort to appeal to a new generation of porcelain buyers (noting in particular the rising popularity of bridal registries) with the launch of a new and more modern design-oriented line…… Belleek Living. Belleek appeared to have found the recipe for continued success in the new century.

If on any tours of Ireland it is an excellent place to take the guided tour and the factory shop has some gems as mementos of the trip which are seriously collectable.

Ireland Luxury Tours can arrange a visit as part of your itinerary or as one of our extended Belfast tours.

Belleek Pottery 130