The Founder Years
In 1849 John Caldwell Bloomfield inherited the Castlecaldwell estate, which encompassed the village of Belleek, from his father. Mindful of the plight of his tenants in the aftermath of the potato famine he sought to provide some form of worthwhile employment. An amateur mineralogist, he ordered a geological survey of his land. To his delight it revealed the necessary raw materials to make Pottery - feldspar, kaolin, flint, clay and shale.
The village of Belleek, whose name in Gaelic, beal leice, translates to 'Flagstone Ford' was a natural choice to locate the business especially the part of the village known as Rose Isle. This small isle provided the best opportunity to leash the yet untamed power of the River Erne - power to drive a mill wheel strong enough to grind components into Slip, the term applied to liquid potters clay.
Bloomfield acquired partners in the venture, Robert Williams Armstrong an architect from London with an abiding interest in ceramics, and David Mc Birney, a wealthy Dublin merchant.
Next he pulled strings, lobbied and practically paved the way single handedly for the Railway Service to come to Belleek. By rail, coal could be brought in to fire the Kilns and the finished Belleek product could be sent to market with ease.
Raw materials, power, capital and transportation all in place, plans for the construction of a Pottery building were drawn up. On Thursday 18th November 1858 Mrs Bloomfield laid the foundation stone.
Young apprentices and capable workmen were to be found locally but Armstrong knowing that the Pottery's success hinged on talented craftsmen and experienced Potters went to England. Offering high wages and a better lifestyle he brought back 14 craftsmen from Stoke-on-Trent.
The Pottery's early production centered on high quality domestic ware - pestles, mortars, washstands, hospital pans, floor tiles, telegraph insulators and tableware. However from the beginning Armstrong and Mc Birney wanted to make porcelain not only to utilise the available mineral wealth but also to give full scope to the craftsmanship quickly developing in the Pottery. Their early attempts failed and it was not until 1863 that a small amount of Parian was produced. Even though the knowledge and skill to create Parian had been gained earthenware remained the principal product at Belleek until 1920.
By as early as 1865 the company had established a growing market throughout Ireland and England and was exporting pieces to the United States, Canada and Australia. Prestigious orders were being received from Queen Victoria, the Prince of Wales and the nobility.
Porcelain was featured by Belleek for the first time at the Dublin Exposition of 1872. Their display was the largest in the Irish and English industrial areas. Among the pieces listed in the catalogue for the event are Parian china statues and busts, ice buckets, compotes and centerpieces.
Mc Birney died in 1882 and Armstrong in January 1884. A group of local investors acquired the property and a new venture, the Belleek Pottery Works Company Ltd began trading in August 1884. The new Company officially acquired all the property.
In 1893 Belleek acquired one of its first master craftsmen Frederick Slater who had moved from England to Belleek. It is believed that he modelled the much honoured International Centre Piece which stands 28" tall, it was awarded a Gold Medal at the Paris Exhibition of 1900. This piece is on display in the foyer area at the Belleek Visitors Centre.
The Effects of World War I and II
The years marched on and so did the affairs of the nations, leading to World War I. The Pottery, again the victim of troubled times, struggles through the war years with restrictions on exports taking their toll.
World War II brought traumatic times to Belleek just as the earlier war had. Not only were her Fermanagh sons in military service, but coal for firing the kilns was rationed and difficult to obtain. Through skillful management the Belleek Pottery did remain open during the war years. The few craftsmen who were employed the devoted their skills to the making of earthenware which required far less china clay than Parian and could be fired at much lower temperatures. Basic utility ware, which demanded the least commitment of craftsmanship, china clay and fuel sustained the pottery through the long war years.
Belleek ceased earthenware production entirely in 1946 with the introduction of two new coal fired kilns, manufactured by Allport of Stoke. In 1952 the first electric fired kiln was installed and marked the change to the use of electricity as the means of firing all of the Belleek ware. No longer would the Pottery be dependant upon imported fossil fuel for its production. No longer do the tall brick kilns with their smoking chimneys look down on railway cars supplying coal they required. The famous water wheel yielded to a water turbine in 1930. Electric lights pierced the Irish night from the windows of houses in Belleek long before electricity became a public service. There was no further need for the Pottery to make candle holders and oil lamps to chase the hours of darkness from the village.
A myriad of economic factors conspired to cause a change in Pottery ownership in 1983. The Industrial Development Board (N.I) offered financial assistance to help the Pottery and Roger Troughton was made Managing Director. In 1984 it was offered for sale and Roger was the successful bidder. During 1988 the company was sold again, this time to Powerscreen International based in Dungannon. During this time capital was invested into the company and the following year saw the opening of the Visitor Centre.
In 1990 the company sold again, this time to Dr. George Moore, originally from Dundalk and now living in the USA. To this day it is still under the ownership of George Moore and is run locally by a group of four Directors - John Maguire (Managing), Hugh Quinn (Sales and Marketing), Martin Sharkey (Finance) and Arthur Goan (Operations). Since the purchase in 1990 a real success story can be documented. The Pottery itself grew from 30,000 sq.ft to over 120,000 sq.ft between 1990 and 1998. Within this programme all the old buildings were demolished behind the principle listed building and a new factory was built.
Not only did the Belleek management team rejuvenate the Belleek enterprise, the also embarked upon an aggressive acquisition strategy which has seen the purchase of Galway Crystal (Galway City), Aynsley China (Stoke-on-Trent) and most recently Donegal Parian China (Ballyshannon, Co. Donegal). The Belleek Group today employs over 600 people with a yearly turnover of $40 million.