Josiah Wedgwood, the thirteenth and youngest son of the potter, Thomas Wedgwood, was born in Burslem, Stoke, on 12th July 1730. His mother was the daughter of the Unitarian minister at Newcastle under Lyme. At the age of nine Josiah left school and joined the family business at Churchyard Works. His father had died in 1737 so Josiah was apprenticed to his elder brother.
After an attack of smallpox at the age of eleven, his health deteriorated and work as a potter became difficult. The disease which left his right knee permanently weakened. Unable for a while to work as a potter, Josiah spent his time reading and researching about the craft of pottery. According to his biographer, Robin Reilly: "Josiah nevertheless acquired considerable skill as a thrower and completed his apprenticeship. He continued to work for his brother until 1752, when he formed a partnership with John Harrison and Thomas Alders of Cliff Bank, Stoke-on-Trent. Two years later he was taken into partnership by Thomas Whieldon, one of the most respected potters in England, at his factory at Fenton Vivian, near Stoke. According to his experiment book, Wedgwood's work with Whieldon was largely concerned with the improvement of ceramic bodies, glazes, colours, and shapes, and it is clear that his efforts were directed principally towards the development of lead-glazed, cream-coloured earthenware (creamware) and the creation and improvement of coloured glazes."
Wedgwood ended the partnership with Thomas Whieldon in 1759 and started his own business at Burslem. Wedgwood loved experimenting and invented what became known as green glaze. In 1763 he patented a beautiful cream-coloured pottery. As this was very popular with Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, the wife of George III, and it became known as Queen's Ware. Wedgwood now turned his attention to developing what was known as Egyptian Black objects. This included inkstands, salt-cellars, candlesticks, life-sized busts and vases. These black basaltes were sometimes decorated with encaustic colours, silvering, gilding or bronzing.
Josiah Wedgwood married his third cousin, Sarah Wedgwood, on 25th January 1764. According to his biographer, Robin Reilly: "Sarah was a substantial heiress and brought with her a considerable dowry, said to have been £4,000, which came under Wedgwood's control. It was a love match, successfully negotiated in spite of initial opposition from her father, and there is ample evidence that the marriage was a happy one. Sarah was intelligent, shrewd, and well educated - better, in fact, than her husband - and they shared a broad sense of humour and a strong sense of family duty. In the first years of their marriage, she helped Josiah with his work, learning the codes and formulae in which he recorded his experiments, keeping accounts, and giving practical advice on shapes and decoration." Sarah had seven children: Susannah Wedgwood (1765–1817), John Wedgwood (1766–1844), Josiah Wedgwood II (1769–1843), Thomas Wedgwood (1771–1805), Catherine Wedgwood (1774–1823), Sarah Wedgwood (1776–1856) and Mary Anne Wedgwood (1778–86).
Wedgwood was quick to realise the importance of canal transport. In 1766 he joined with the Duke of Bridgewater and James Brindley in becoming involved in the building of the Trent & Mersey Canal. The canal begins within a few miles of the River Mersey, near Runcorn and finishes in a junction with the River Trent in Derbyshire. It is just over ninety miles long with more than 70 locks and five tunnels, with the company headquarters in Stone in Staffordshire.
In April 1768 Wedgwood's leg was amputated, without anaesthetic, in his own house, by a local surgeon. By June, he was sufficiently recovered to visit his Burslem factory. In November, 1768, Wedgwood and Thomas Bentley of Liverpool became partners in a company producing ornamental vases. These products were very popular and in 1771 Wedgwood built a new factory called Etruria where he employed famous artists such as John Flaxman to design his vases. At the new works Wedgwood greatly increased the output of his workers by introducing what later became known as "division of labour". This involved subdividing all the skills of the potter (mixing, shaping, firing and glazing) and allocating each job to a specialist worker. When the canal was finally completed Wedgwood was able to bring Cornish clay to his Etruria factory. Wedgwood also used the canal to transport the finished goods by barge to Liverpool or Hull.
Robin Reilly has pointed out: "It was not only the products of the Etruria factory that were innovative: the layout of the factory and the management techniques employed there were exceptionally advanced, and the finished estate included an elegant house, Etruria Hall, for the Wedgwood family, and housing for many of the workers. Wedgwood insisted on strict factory discipline but he subsidized an early form of sick-benefit scheme, and conditions for work at Etruria compared favourably with those to be found anywhere in Europe....From 1772 it was Wedgwood's policy to mark everything made at Etruria. He was the first earthenware potter consistently to mark his goods and the first ever to use his own name, which was impressed in the clay."
Wedgwood was an active member of the Unitarian Church. Like most Unitarians, Wedgwood was a political reformer. He supported universal male suffrage and annual parliaments. In 1780 he joined the Society for Constitutional Information and became friendly with other reformers such as Joseph Priestley, John Cartwright, John Horne Tooke, John Thelwall, Granville Sharp, Thomas Walker, Joseph Gales and William Smith and the Duke of Richmond. It was an organisation of social reformers, many of whom were drawn from the rational dissenting community, dedicated to publishing political tracts aimed at educating fellow citizens on their lost ancient liberties. It promoted the work of Tom Paine and other campaigners for parliamentary reform. Wedgwood told his friend, Thomas Bentley "that every member of the state must either have a vote or be a slave".
The following year his close friend, Joseph Priestley, had his house burnt down in Birmingham. He wrote to Priestley on 2nd September: "I persuade myself that you will rise still more splendid and more respected from what was intended to sink you. Your calmness and magnanimity on this trying occasion have put your enemies to shame. We esteem you in every point of view; and we are employed at this moment in drawing up a letter which is to be addressed to you by all the savants of the capital."
In 1787 Granville Sharp, Thomas Clarkson and William Dillwyn established the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade. Other supporters were William Allen, John Wesley, Samuel Romilly, Thomas Walker, John Cartwright, James Ramsay, Charles Middleton, Henry Thornton and William Smith. Sharp was appointed as chairman. He accepted the title but never took the chair. Clarkson commented that Sharp "always seated himself at the lowest end of the room, choosing rather to serve the glorious cause in humility... than in the character of a distinguished individual." Clarkson was appointed secretary and Hoare as treasurer. At their second meeting Samuel Hoare reported subscriptions of £136.
Wedgwood joined the organising committee. As Adam Hochschild, the author of Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery (2005) has pointed out: "Wedgwood asked one of his craftsmen to design a seal for stamping the wax used to close envelopes. It showed a kneeling African in chains, lifting his hands beseechingly." It included the words: "Am I Not a Man and a Brother?" Hochschild goes onto argue that "reproduced everywhere from books and leaflets to snuffboxes and cufflinks, the image was an instant hit... Wedgwood's kneeling African, the equivalent of the label buttons we wear for electoral campaigns, was probably the first widespread use of a logo designed for a political cause."
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Thomas Clarkson explained: "Some had them inlaid in gold on the lid of their snuff boxes. Of the ladies, several wore them in bracelets, and others had them fitted up in an ornamental manner as pins for their hair. At length the taste for wearing them became general, and this fashion, which usually confines itself to worthless things, was seen for once in the honourable office of promoting the cause of justice, humanity and freedom." In this way, women could show their anti-slavery opinions at a time when they were denied the vote. Benjamin Franklin suggested that the image was "equal to that of the best written pamphlet".
In November 1794 Wedgwood's health began to fail. His face swelled and he suffered acute pain in the jaw, attributed to a decayed tooth. His condition deteriorated rapidly and he became unconscious. Josiah Wedgwood died, probably from cancer of the jaw, on 3rd January 1795, at Etruria Hall.