Driving through Staffordshire you see many signs for Wedgewood Pottery. You don’t see so many for other big Staffordshire companies though – JCB, the Stone Group, Alsthom, General Electric. Perhaps Wedgewood has special dispensation as its woven in Staffordshire’s history. Wedgewood is of course a man - Josiah Wedgwood, the undisputed king of pottery and here I am at his grave. He’s been lying in it (minus one leg) for over 120 years and I wonder what he’d make the global business now.
He lies behind a churchyard in Stoke-On-Trent which was probably surrounded by open fields when he was lowered into the soil in 1795. Now it’s a part of a triangular portion of land hemmed in by busy roads, shops and pubs. I soon found his grave with railings around it next to a wall probably from a long-demolished church.
He did well bearing in mind he was the last of eleven children. By age nine he was already working as a potter at his dad’s company but the pots were clumsy, of a blackish tinge and lacked finesse. Perhaps Josiah’s brace of good luck came from a dose of smallpox. This left him with a weak knee - bad news for a potter who works a pedal all day – so he was moved into designing pottery. By age 22 he was working for Thomas Whieldon who was the best potter of the day. He learnt about the science of fire, clay and minerals. By 32 he was experimenting with new techniques that would lead to his fortune.
Aged 38 he married Sarah who was a third cousin (they’d go onto have eight children, two dying in childhood.) At this age he also leased a factory in Burslem with a potter partner called Thomas Bentley who was known for his sophistication and astute taste. Just after the factory opened Josiah’s right leg was amputated, the smallpox he suffered as a child deeming it useless. He and Thomas would run the company for fifty years. Within a decade their naïve works turned into beautiful unique pots. Being a businessman Josiah industrialised the manufacture of pottery and pioneered commercial procedures used today: travelling salesmen, mass mailshots, money back guarantees, free delivery and glossy catalogues with BOGOF (buy one get one free) offers. In the 1700s this was unknown. Soon they were taking orders from the British nobility and abroad. They started transporting raw materials in on the canal network and opened fashionable showrooms in Mayfair.
Josiah’s success brought a large family home called Etruria Hall (now part of a hotel) and he retired having passed the business onto his sons. He died at home aged 64 probably from jaw cancer. Three days later he was buried here where I’m stood.
I had a walk around the graveyard and was a little disappointed at his grave. I was expecting a towering thing as long as a Rolls Royce and as tall as a giraffe. It’s bland though – a horizontal stone with railings around it. When you think Staffordshire you think of Wedgwood don’t you? I just thought it would be much bigger - and definitely not looked on by a shop called Planet Bollywood for God’s sake.
In the same graveyard lies one of Josiah’s main rivals - Josiah Spode. They were born within three years of one another and both died aged 64 leaving big businesses behind in Stoke. They both share the same cemetery. Did they meet? Did they admire/resent one another? They sound such busy people I doubt they ever shared the same room. They share the same soil though.
Oddly the Wedgewood home place where Josiah died is now part of a hotel complex where singer/actor Adam Faith died. Being a geek I’ve visited it and the link to his death is here…
To see Josiah Spode’s grave the link is here...
The hotel is on the other side (taken in the 1960s…)
Not many people have a stature made in their honour…