Josiah Wedgwood

Josiah Wedgwood (1872) Biography

Josiah Wedgwood was born in Barlaston on 16th March, 1872. His father, Clement Wedgwood, was the grandson of Josiah Wedgwood, the famous potter from Staffordshire. The Wedgwood family had a long tradition of supporting liberal causes such as the anti-slavery campaign and the 1832 Reform Act.

After attending Clifton College, Wedgwood entered the Royal Naval Academy. When he finished his training he was sent to South Africa where he took part in the Boer War.

Like many radicals at the time, Josiah Wedgwood was deeply influenced by the writings of Henry George. After reading Progress and Poverty Wedgwood wrote: "Ever since 1905 I have known that there was a man from God, and his name was Henry George! I had no need thenceforth for any other faith." In the book George argued that the gap between the rich and the poor could only be closed by replacing the various taxes levied on labour and capital with a single tax on the value of property.

When Wedgwood returned to England from South Africa he became the Liberal Party candidate for Newcastle-under-Lyme. He won the seat at the 1906 General Election and supported the Liberal Governments headed by Henry Campbell-Bannerman (1906-1908) and Herbert Asquith (1908-1916).

Wedgwood served during the First World War as a Lieutenant Commander with the Royal Naval Armoured Cars. He was seriously wounded in Gallipoli but recovered and was promoted to Colonel and sent on a special mission to Siberia.

In 1918 Josiah Wedgwood caused a scandal by divorcing his wife of twenty-four years, with whom he had seven children. He was denounced by local clergy for the adultery that served as the grounds for the divorce. Wedgwood defended himself by claiming that no adultery had taken place and the evidence had been concocted to satisfy England's divorce laws. Wedgwood was then criticised for deliberately misleading the courts.

Wedgwood had grown disillusioned with the Liberal Party and in the 1918 General Election he stood as an Independent. A year after his election victory he joined the Independent Labour Party where he found considerable support for his single tax proposals.

When Ramsay MacDonald formed the first Labour Government in January, 1924, he appointed Wedgwood as his Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Following the Labour Party's success in the 1929 General Election, Wedgwood was disappointed when MacDonald did not offer him a seat in his Cabinet.

MacDonald's decision gave Wedgwood the freedom to campaign for his favourite causes. As well as his continuing belief in the single tax, Wedgwood was a strong supporter of Indian self-government and felt that the Germans had been too harshly treated by the Versailles Treaty. Wedgwood was an early critic of Hitler and argued for changes in the law that would enable Germans fleeing from Fascism to settle in Britain. He was also Chairman of the German Refugee Hospitality Committee.

In 1929 Wedgwood began writing a history of Parliament that would include the biographies of every person who sat in the House of Commons. He managed to write two volumes but was unable to find the time needed to finish the project. Wedgwood was disappointed with what he achieved in politics. Near the end of his career he wrote: "I have been everywhere, seen everything, known everybody, done everything - but achieved nothing."

In 1943 he was granted the title Baron Wedgwood of Barlaston and spent the last few months of his political life in the House of Lords rather than his much loved House of Commons.

Josiah Wedgwood died on 26th July, 1943.

Primary Sources

(1) Josiah Wedgwood, Memoirs of a Fighting Life (1942)

Ever since 1905 I have known that there was a man from God, and his name was Henry George! I had no need thenceforth for any other faith.

(2) Josiah Wedgwood, Daily News (1910)

Three men have been imprisoned and two are awaiting trial for taking part in disseminating an opinion with which numbers of men of all politics and religions sympathize. One is under remand for handing to soldiers a leaflet urging them to fire on their fellow-countrymen; one is sentenced to nine months hard labour and two small printers to six months hard labour for printing the same appeal; the fourth for publicly declaring that he agrees with the, is awaiting trial.

These men are prosecuted technically for inciting soldiers to disobey orders (orders not yet given). Technically that is their offence. In reality their offence is that they have ventured to question one of the accepted ideas of comfortable society. The Crown lawyers imagine that they are suppressing agitation by these 'Treason Trials'. In reality, they are creating revolutionaries. For every man who is sentenced under the obsolete act of 1797 ten men spring up fired with indignation and with fanatical hatred of Government methods.

(3) Josiah Wedgwood, Staffordshire Evening Sentinel (1914)

In a few days I shall be leaving for active service in France. This is only what many thousand volunteers from North Staffordshire have done already, or soon will be doing, but, as I have not had an opportunity of speaking here since the war started, I want to use your columns to tell my friends and constituents what is it that compels me to go. Liberals, like myself, love liberty. It is a passion: I cannot explain it. My political work has all been directed to the securing of economic liberty for the worker. I must now leaving the struggle to others and to my children. There is other more elementary and more painful work to be done for liberty. It has to be done. All who think like me ought to take part.

(4) Josiah Wedgwood comments when Clement Attlee became leader of the Labour Party.

He is far and away the best leader the Labour Party has had or could have. In the first place he is better read man than any other in Parliament in my time. He has the highest standards which free him from both ambition and selfishness. I have never heard him depreciate a colleague. In every respect he is the exact antithesis of MacDonald. Nobody is afraid of him or for him: all like him.

(5) Josiah Wedgwood, letter to Camila, his daughter (1942)

I hate fighting but I have to go on doing it. It is the curse with which I was born. Here I am after thirty-three years in Parliament, having been everywhere, seen everything, known everybody, done everything - but achieved nothing. The whole world is infinitely worse than it was thirty-three years ago. But if I started again it would all be the same.