Wednesday, January 7, 2009

So farewell then, Josiah Wedgwood and Sons...

The china and ceramics firm Waterford Wedgwood, with its constituent companies, Wedgwood Limited and Josiah Wedgwood & Sons Limited, has gone into administration. Founded by Josiah Wedgwood, Charles Darwin's grandfather, the Wedgwood china business stands tall in the history of ideas and the struggle for intellectual and political freedom, for two reasons.

Firstly, Wegdwood himself used his pottery business as means of supporting the struggle against slavery, manufacturing countless copies of a slave medallion, which adorned brooches, hat pins, necklaces etc across Britain. (link)

Charles Darwin's other grandfather, physician-poet Erasmus Darwin even encapsulated the emblem twice in his epic poetry:

"To call the pearly drops from Pity's eye,
Or stay Despair's disanimating sigh,
Whether, O Friend of art! the gem you mould
Rich with new taste, with antient virtue bold;
Form the poor fetter'd SLAVE on bended knee
From Britain's sons imploring to be free"


and

"Hear, oh, BRITANNIA! potent Queen of isles,
On whom fair Art, and meek Religion smiles,
Now AFRIC'S coasts thy craftier sons invade
With murder, rapine, theft,--and call it Trade!
The SLAVE, in chains, on supplicating knee,
Spreads his wide arms, and lifts his eyes to Thee;
With hunger pale, with wounds and toil oppress'd,
"ARE WE NOT BRETHREN?" sorrow choaks the rest;--
--AIR! bear to heaven upon thy azure flood
Their innocent cries!--EARTH! cover not their blood!"
(experience this as a roots reggae track here)
Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood were firm friends and members of the Lunar Society of Birmingham (a discussion group of ground-breaking industrialists and scientists). Josiah’s daughter Susannah married Erasmus' son, physician Robert. The British slave trade was abolished in 1807 and slavery itself was abolished in British territories in 1838.

There is a second good reason for us to remember Josiah Wedgwood here—as I think Janet Browne has shown, it was the inheritance from Josiah Wedgwood, along with Robert Darwin's income and investments, that allowed Charles Darwin to go off around the world and then settle into a life of study where he did not have to earn his living. Without the wealth from Wedgwood’s pottery, there would have been no Darwin’s theory of evolution!

The first Josiah Wedgwood started a dynasty that included at least five more Josiah Wedgwoods. His great-great-grandson Josiah Wedgwood IV, later 1st Baron Wedgwood (1872-1943) was a war hero and radical Labour politician. Josiah Wedgwood V was managing director of the family firm from 1930-1968, turning the company’s fortunes around.

It is particularly sad that the Wedgwood business collapse comes so close to the celebrations of Charles Darwin's life and legacy. I will leave the last word to Erasmus Darwin:

"GNOMES! as you now dissect with hammers fine
The granite-rock, the nodul'd flint calcine;
Grind with strong arm, the circling chertz betwixt,
Your pure Ka-o-lins and Pe-tun-tses mixt;
O'er each red saggars burning cave preside,
The keen-eyed Fire-Nymphs blazing by your side;
And pleased on WEDGWOOD ray your partial smile,
A new Etruria decks Britannia's isle.--
Charm'd by your touch, the flint liquescent pours
Through finer sieves, and falls in whiter showers;
Charm'd by your touch, the kneaded clay refines,
The biscuit hardens, the enamel shines;
Each nicer mould a softer feature drinks,
The bold Cameo speaks, the soft Intaglio thinks."

2 comments:

Sandra said...

I worked at Wedgwoods for years, untill I had my children...Have not lived in Stoke for 14 yrs now, but worked there before the Waterford era and was a wonderful place to work....Have many memories and feel so sad that this has happened....I worked in the lithographing department from the age of 16,

Janet said...

It was certainly a sad irony that on the same day the BBC broadcast the first of the In Our Time programmes celebrating the Darwin anniversary we got the news that Wedgewood had fallen into administration.

It must be even sadder for those like Sandra who were personally connected.fldsproc