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Father of English pottery

Josiah Wedgwood

JOSIAH Wedgwood was born in 1730 in Staffordshire, England, with pottery making in his blood.

He was the youngest of 13 children born to potters Thomas and Mary Wedgwood; Josiah’s grandfather & great-grandfather had been potters, too.

He would have followed in their footsteps had he not contracted smallpox when he was 11 or 12, during an epidemic that swept through north Staffordshire.

The disease left the lad with a severely disabled right knee. He was no longer able to use the traditional “kick wheel” used for throwing pottery.

And that could have been that. But rather than give up, Josiah turned towards reading, researching and experimentation to seek new ways of improving the pottery industry, eventually setting up his own factory while still in his early 20s.

Those were exciting times to live in, as the Industrial Revolution began profoundly changing the way much of Britain’s manufacturing was done.

Josiah, in fact, was friends with the one man whose work would eventually become the foundation of the Industrial Revolution: James Watt (1736-1819), the Scottish inventor who improved the steam engine to the point it could be used reliably for manufacturing.

The Wedgwood factory is believed to be the first in Staffordshire to have a Watt rotative steam engine installed, an invention that proved to be a boon to the industry.

Josiah also applied economist Adam Smith’s (1723-1790) new principles of the division of labour in his factory. Pottery articles were traditionally made from start to finish by a single workman. In Josiah’s factory, pieces were produced at each stage by a specialist, which improved the craftsman’s dexterity and saved time.

In 1750, there were some 130 potteries in north Staffordshire. Most were manufacturing standard products, such as salt glazed stoneware, black and red-glazed ware as well as cream ware. Josiah was determined to transform this earthenware body into a highly refined ceramic material.

He created lovely cream coloured earthenware called Queen’s Ware after Queen Charlotte commissioned a set for herself in 1765.

Jasper ware insets in a mantelpiece. – Lady Lever Art Gallery / Liverpool Museums

At the end of his life, Josiah Wedgwood was remembered as the father of English potters.

He had helped transformed what was a humble cottage industry into an elegant art form fit for a queen, that eventually became identified firmly with British national commerce.

Of Josiah, fellow potter William Burton said, “His influence was so powerful and his personality so dominant that all other English potters work on the principles he laid down.”


This earned him the honour of being appointed Potter to Her Majesty, the first of many titles to come.

But it was Josiah’s invention of Jasper ware that was his most significant contribution to ceramic art. This was fine, unglazed vitreous stoneware that could be stained with different colours to provide a suitable background for classical white reliefs or portraits.

Josiah carried out over 5,000 recorded experiments to create this new ceramic ware. In June 1776, he wrote in frustration, “This Jasper is certainly the most delicately whimsical of any substance I have ever engaged with.”

He also supported the 18th century Anti-Slavery Committee led by William Wilberforce. He had medallions made depicting a slave kneeling in chains surrounded by the inscription, “Am I not a man and a brother?” Thousands were given away.

Acknowledgment of information source:
Father of English pottery
Article by Sunday September 30, 2007

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  While Josiah Wedgwood is regarded as the most influential figure in the history of ceramics in Western civilisation, he was also known for his humanitarian works centuries before that term became fashionable.

Josiah actively supported the American cause during the American Revolution and had ceramic portraits made of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. It was a bold move that pitted him against the British government.

His legacy of innovation and experimentation lives on to this day. In the 1930s, the fifth Josiah Wedgwood built a modern, electric-operated Wedgwood factory. The factory has since expanded to four times its original size and has become a showpiece of British industry.

Josiah also showed remarkable – and what was, for its day, unprecedented – care for his craftsmen by building them a complete village surrounded by farmland.

Information sourced from The Wedgwood Museum, BBC, and Image of Josiah Wedgwood is a photographic reproduction of an oil painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds from Wikimedia Commons.



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