There is no reason why a great entrepreneur or industrial innovator should be an interesting human being – the reverse might be true if, indeed, the hard graft of creating a business and developing new technical processes asks for a remorseless, dedicated, even desiccated mind.
The meaning and life’s work of Josiah Wedgwood, however, isn’t dull at all. Almost everything you need to know about the heroic age of Britain’s Industrial Revolution – its energy, hypocrisies, almost unstoppable curiosity and inventiveness – is neatly parcelled in the life of the one-legged Nonconformist potter who built an international industry from the clay and coal of Staffordshire.
Wedgwood stands alongside Matthew Boulton, James Watt, Richard Arkwright and George Stephenson as a titan of the period. As readers of Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men know, he was also at the centre of a remarkable collection of scientists, natural philosophers and Nonconformist lovers of liberty, who lit up Midlands life in the 18th century. Tristram Hunt – who when the Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central battled to save the Wedgwood Museum, and who now runs the Victoria and Albert Museum – is pretty much his hand-built biographer.
And yet, despite Wedgwood’s whirl of activity, he does not quite come alive in these pages. He was admirable, not lovable. He kept a commonplace book, but it appears to be filled with technical observations. A firm believer that science revealed God’s work, he was far more interested in looking outwards – at minerals, shells, archaeology – than inwards. He may have been a genial enough companion – his closest relationships were with male friends – but he was also a bit of a dry old stick.
Hunt does his best with the human interest. A smallpox infection when Wedgwood was 12 meant that he could never use the foot pedal needed to become a thrower of clay, so was driven to look at the chemical and commercial opportunities of the pottery business into which he was born. Because of incredibly painful bone infections, his right leg was later amputated below the knee. He rarely complained. He had a large family. He seems to have liked them. Later, after many achievements, he died and… there we are.
Hunt deftly weaves together the complex forces in Wedgwood’s world, beginning with the importance of his great campaign to link the Trent and the Mersey by canal. Without that, the Potteries would not have become an industrial centre and Liverpool would have missed much of its growth and wealth.
Wedgwood lived among people who worked ferociously hard and believed the application of scientific principles would bring a better world. But here the contradictions start to multiply. Like many Nonconformist entrepreneurs, he loathed the class system suffocating Britain. Yet, in order to market his wares, he was prepared to grease up to landowners and flatter the royal family. He was an acute reader of trends, from patriotic crazes to “Etruscan” neoclassicism, and his biggest single commission was the vast “frog service” created for the Empress Catherine of Russia. So, perhaps not that radical.
As a dissenter, he was an outspoken advocate for free trade. To modern eyes, Adam Smith is a hero of the right, Tom Paine of the left. But in their day they stood shoulder to shoulder in believing that free trade was an anti-aristocratic and anti-monopolistic cause which (in Hunt’s words) provided “an emancipatory philosophy concerned with much more than profiteering”.
[See also: The summer that remade Britain]
Wedgwood thought the same way, only up to the point when free trade threatened his profits. It was noble when applied to America, which was hungry for Wedgwood products, and a force for peace when applied to France, where he was able to destroy less sophisticated pottery manufacturers. But he was thoroughly against free trade for dangerously high-quality Chinese porcelain, or for Ireland, where he feared lower-waged manufacturing. He was a businessman first and a philosopher second.
In other great causes of the day, though, Wedgwood used his marketing and pottery skills to spread anti establishment messages. He produced a popular “Wilkes and liberty” teapot featuring the quill brandishing radical John Wilkes. The American revolutionaries received a more circumspect salute – a private plate with Benjamin Franklin’s rattlesnake emblem – and the French Revolution was greeted with a bold jasperware button celebrating the fall of the Bastille. Popular jasper medallions of celebrated silhouettes included, alongside Queen Charlotte, radical heroes such as Admiral Keppel, Voltaire, Carl Linnaeus and Joseph Priestley.
Politically, Wedgwood was an early opponent of the Atlantic slave trade, as were most of his friends. But commercially, he was deeply entangled. Thanks to the Trinidadian historian Eric Williams, we are familiar with the argument that the slave trade underpinned much of the capital needed for the Industrial Revolution. Early in his career, Wedgwood worked for slave traders and made rich profits by selling tableware and other objects to slave plantations.
Hunt writes that his business depended on the middle-class luxury market for cocoa, tea and sugar, and “the network of aristocratic families whose fortunes were made, or bolstered by, plantation profits”. By 1778, it was said there were scarcely ten miles throughout England where the house and estate of a rich West Indian could not be seen. All of this would be enough, in the current mood, to have Wedgwood statues pulled down and images of him locked away.
[See also: How the slave trade funded Britain]
Yet Wedgwood’s most famous political act was creating the medallion of the kneeling, chained slave, pleading, “Am I not a man and a brother?” In our time this seems a submissive and problematic image. But back then, tens of thousands of them, produced free by Wedgwood, spread the anti-slave trade message across Britain. They were handed out after meetings, set into snuff boxes, worn by women as bracelets, and they remained the most potent anti-slavery image – the CND badge of their day – for more than half a century.
Hunt’s book reminds us that our predecessors could be infuriating, complex folk, resistant to neat analysis. How should we make sense of an economic system that was based on so much pious Christian hypocrisy, everyday cruelty and oppression, but which also roiled with energy that Britain now so conspicuously lacks?
The book comes most to life in its epilogue, when Hunt contemplates the collapse of the modern Wedgwood company under Tony O’Reilly’s stewardship, and then the behaviour of the US private equity company KPS Capital Partners as it picked over the remains – offshoring production, sacking skilled workers and leaving Stoke-on-Trent with an industrial ruin. His anger smokes off the page. The story of Josiah Wedgwood, it turns out, isn’t only about the Industrial Revolution – it is also about Britain today. It isn’t flattering.
The Radical Potter: Josiah Wedgwood and the Transformation of Britain
Tristram Hunt Allen Lane
This article appears in the 15 Sep 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Fateful Chancellor