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The Wedgwood Circle, 1730-1897 
by Barbara Wedgwood and Hensleigh Wedgwood.
Studio Vista, 386 pp., £9.95, May 1980, 0 289 70892 3
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Among the modest consolations available to the unbeliever is the thought that one’s genes, at least, can outlive one, and that through them one can achieve a certain Lilliput immortality as they persist or recur in one’s children and one’s children’s children. Among the manifold pleasures of parenthood is that of observing this process made visible – watching for, and observing with delight, the features of those one loves emerging in a new generation of one’s family. The besotted grandparent staring into the mirror image of his own eyes, made miniature in those of his grandchild, glows with the warming thought that as long as they exist, and can recur, he will never be entirely dead. In family histories such simple pleasures can easily turn to self-congratulation – the kind, for instance, that led to the male Stracheys’ smug sense that ‘the Stracheys are most strongly the children of their fathers, not their mothers … it does not matter whom they marry, the type continues and has been much the same for three hundred years.’

The Wedgwood Circle might be expected to provide equal cause for genetic self-satisfaction on the Wedgwoods’ part. For the Wedgwood story is inevitably the story of the Darwin family, so often did they marry and intermarry, while, as one Darwin wistfully conceded, ‘You’ve none of you ever seen a Darwin who wasn’t mostly Wedgwood.’ Josiah Wedgwood’s chin may have gone underground, as it were, in the 19th century – hidden beneath those ubiquitous Victorian beards – but it has survived, as unmistakable as the Hapsburg jaw, to surface on many a 20th-century Wedgwood face.

Unfortunately, parents usually expect more from their offspring than mere physical resemblance. And when Josiah Wedgwood wrote to a friend congratulating him on his son’s achievements, saying how ‘highly pleasing it is to see so large a portion of the father’s taste and genius descending to the son’, he already suspected that it was not likely to be a pleasure he would be able to enjoy himself. Indeed, judged by the hopes and plans and expectations he had so long entertained on his sons’ behalf, he was doomed to bitter disappointment. In that sense, this history is a tale of failure – the failure of Josiah Wedgwood’s descendants.

This is all the more surprising since his descendants are usually presented as part of an unbroken success story, with the factory firm surviving as the incarnation of ‘the living tradition’: one of Britain’s few surviving successful family firms, whose names – Pilkington, Whitbread or Lloyds – reach back to the days of Britain’s supremacy in the world economy. More specifically, Wedgwood’s immediate descendants are customarily seen in terms of a continuing record of high individual success: Tom, the pioneer in the discovery of photography; John the founder of the Royal Horticultural Society; and Josiah II, the head of a great family firm secure in the knowledge of its acknowledged fame and industrial leadership. All of these claimed achievements have something of a hollow ring when examined more critically.

Collectively, too, the later Wedgwoods have been portrayed, along with the Darwins, as members of the ‘Intellectual Aristocracy’: one of those families who gained positions of great power and influence in English academic and literary life through persistent endogamy. Like other such families (the Trevelyans, the Macaulays, the Vaughans, the Stracheys, the Bells, the Woolfs, the Stephens, the Butlers, the Elliots, the Hodgkins et al.), the Wedgwoods and the Darwins are offered as prime historical evidence of the successful results of persistent selective in-breeding.

What is less often recorded – and almost never stressed – is the high failure rate. It is one of the merits of The Wedgwood Circle that so many of the minor characters are uncovered to put the major ones in a truer perspective. When one probes behind the leading figures one is forcibly reminded of what a rich array of mediocrity there is. Many of these minor characters are the plodders and eccentrics that all families almost inevitably accumulate, and one of the characteristic pleasures of family histories is the brief disturbing of their rightful obscurity. It is as if the inquisitive historian had lifted a quietly mouldering subsidiary branch of the family tree, so that we could watch the mindless scurrying and listless groping of so many deservedly forgotten individuals looking, like insects under a rarely-lifted log, all the more luminously strange for so rarely seeing the light of day.

In such little explored shadowy corners we find Sarah Wedgwood, the last surviving daughter of Josiah and Sally, living alone. Sarah was tall, thin, solemn and sad, but above all remarkably fastidious. She was so fastidious that she kept special pairs of gloves for particular tasks: a pair of black cotton gloves was designated for shaking hands with children; gloves of a lighter colour were kept for cleaner occupations such as reading books. She was equally fastidious about people and few met her exacting requirements. There is a certain appealing pathos in her unforgiving self-knowledge: ‘It is my misfortune,’ she said in a letter, ‘to be not an affectionate disposition ... there are very few persons in the world who are agreeable and charming enough to give me a lively pleasure, and I seem as if I could not feel affection enough to satisfy me without that.’

More conventionally eccentric was Sophy Wedgwood – an unmarried, ill-dressed recluse – who, when she did entertain, waited until everyone was seated at table, then cancelled the dinner and told the cook to serve only a single orange to each person – a diet which provoked even the vegetarian Wedgwoods. In her efforts to avoid waste she searched her own dustbins and salvaged what she could – even to the point of swallowing a whole bottle of unidentified pills rather than let them be thrown away unused. The pills delivered their own come-uppance by proving to be a powerful emetic.

More characteristically, many in the Wedgwood circle raised the Victorian cult of illness to the level of a family art-form, becoming perpetual invalids and positively encouraging hypochondria in others. Godfrey and Hope Wedgwood were classed as ‘eternally ill’. Henrietta Darwin ‘made invalidism her vocation’: having been told by her doctor to take breakfast in bed when she had a fever at the age of 13, she never took it anywhere else for the next 71 years.

Other members of the family raised illness to an equally impressive level of achievement, spending most of their time resting, and giving colour and variety to their lives mainly by the different couches they rested on. In exasperation, Erasmus senior predicted that Erasmus junior would ‘sleep his life away’, and the Erasmus of the next generation was dismissed as being ‘too idle ever to amount to anything’. Hensleigh Wedgwood admitted that he had never met anyone as indolent as his younger son Alfred, and some gauge of Alfred’s indolence is provided by the family description of Hensleigh’s other sons as ‘listless layabouts’. Even Hensleigh Wedgwood and Charles Darwin, who at least had high intelligence to recommend them, suffered the ‘Wedgwood-Darwin cult of unhealth’ in a mild form, but they could not compete with the real experts in the family.

Henrietta Darwin was ‘always going away to rest, in case she might be tired later in the day, or even the next day. And when there were colds about she often wore a kind of gasmask of her own invention. It was an ordinary wire kitchen-strainer, stuffed with antiseptic wool, and tied like a snout with elastic over her ears. In this she would receive her visitors and discuss politics out of her eucalyptus-scented seclusion, oblivious of the fact that they might be struggling with fits of laughter.’ Her husband’s health was equally well protected. If ‘a window had to be opened ... Aunt Etty covered him up entirely with a dust sheet for fear of draughts; and he sat there as patient as a statue till he could be unveiled.’ Both indoors and outdoors, in summer as in winter, scarves, shawls and rugs were provided for maximum protection. For some Wedgwood-Darwins ‘a hot water bottle was as necessary as an arm or a leg.’

The prize for the most appealingly absurd failure among the obscure Wedgwoods must go to the little-known (and apparently little mourned) Captain Anthony. Not much apart from his epitaph has survived him: it strikes a note of irresistible black comedy:

 SACRED TO THE MEMORY OF
CAPTAIN ANTHONY WEDGWOOD
 ACCIDENTALLY SHOT BY HIS
        GAMEKEEPER
   WHILST OUT SHOOTING
 ‘WELL DONE THOU GOOD AND
    FAITHFUL SERVANT.’

To pick on the bizarre and the comic, however, disguises the fact that many in the Wedgwood circle were both obscure and dull – conventionally boring and unutterably plodding. And, as this book painstakingly reminds us, there were a great many of them. ‘All sorts and editions of children – real own – step – law – grand – and nieces and nephews’ met at great family gatherings in which it is often not easy to distinguish one individual from another. For both the Wedgwoods and the Darwins not only repetitively chose the same family Christian names, but by marrying each other took partners christened from the same limited selection: at one unnerving moment in the family history all the wives seemed to be called Fanny, and they had to have their husbands’ first names added to theirs for easier identification, producing such unfortunate sobriquets as ‘Fanny Frank’. As one Victorian Wedgwood complained, after hearing of yet another batch of boring little Darwins, ‘we have enough dullness in the family and plenty of virtue – a little vice would make a pleasant variety.’ It is difficult not to agree. Some, of course, found solace in their very ordinariness. ‘Our family are now all assembled,’ wrote Josiah II. ‘All well, and I often think that if they have taken the quiet path of life they have none of them made us ashamed or sorry.’

It was an indulgent verdict, and not one which would have satisfied Josiah I. The ‘quiet path of life’ they had chosen for themselves would have profoundly disappointed him. To a man for whom the eleventh commandment was ‘Thou shalt not be idle,’ the collapse into indolence of so many of his descendants would have been hard to bear. But what would have hurt most would have been the failure of the business: the failure in design, the failure in profits, the failure in management, the failure in innovation, the failure in debt-collecting, marketing, salesmanship, advertising, labour discipline – indeed, in all the hallmarks of his own spectacular commercial and industrial success.

For a man to whom debt-collecting was part of a thought-out economic rationale (an integral part of his high-price, high-profit policy), it would have been horrifying to learn that, a short time after his death, the accounts outstanding amounted to £41,477 – a sum greater than the total assets of the factory. Even more shocking, the attempt to collect them, even to estimate them, was inspired mainly by the discovery that his eldest son, John, was insolvent, having been drawing from the pottery nearly three times the amount due to him for the previous ten years.

To the man who produced the greatest cluster of ceramic inventions and improvements ever known in the long history of pottery, it would have been a profound shock to discover that when Spode first used calcined bones in porcelain around 1800, and the new china was quickly imitated by Minton, Davenport, Ridgway, Worcester and Mason, ‘Wedgwood alone seemed incapable of keeping pace.’

To the man who had made a pre-eminent contribution to marketing and salesmanship, it would have been a cruel joke that, on the centenary of his death, the newly-incorporated Wedgwood company should have taken out a large advertisement in the Staffordshire Advertiser, saying: ‘We have made an exception in our rule of not advertising on this occasion and intend to do so every centenary until further notice.’ The mixture of supercilious snobbery, commercial incompetence and lofty disregard for business realities in that announcement would have helped to explain to Wedgwood the rapid decline of his great firm. Little wonder that a few years later the pottery was losing £5,000 per annum.

The man who, with Bentley, introduced the greatest revolution in taste that ever occurred in his own industry would have been equally appalled to discover that half a century later ‘no one in particular was in charge of design.’ The man who, with his cunning exploitation of fashionable and emulative spending, symbolised the advent of the consumer society in Britain, would have been dismayed at his descendants’ failure to develop new products and introduce new styles. The man who wrote that ‘fashion is infinitely superior to merit’ and based his sales strategy on that view would have been horrified to discover that his successors showed ‘little interest in changing fashion’.

The man who insisted on the highest standards of workmanship and the elimination of waste and error would have been shocked to hear of the rapid fall in standards and the return of so many of the age-old faults which he had eliminated. The man who serves as a textbook example of factory discipline and the division of labour would have been amazed to discover how soon the workmen returned to ‘making pretty well what they liked’. One of the reasons given for the 19th-century Wedgwoods’ avoidance of labour troubles was that the management was so lax there was nothing to react against.

The man who pioneered a new transport system for the Potteries, championing in turn turnpike trusts and canal schemes, was succeeded by sons who fought to stop the railways because of their vested interests in canals – one son writing to another: ‘If carried into effect the loss to this canal will be £10,000 per annum ... It is very important to throw as many obstacles as possible in the way of the railroad.’

The man who hired a trained chemist, who bought a whole chemical library, who experimented endlessly in his own laboratory, and who proposed a co-operative scientific research scheme for the industry in 1775, was followed by descendants who could write: ‘the objection to a chemist is ... we should have to pay him while he was learning the trade.’ By then, many of the chemical formulae devised by Josiah Wedgwood a hundred years before had been completely lost.

The catalogue of incompetence and commercial ineptitude could be almost infinitely extended, as the industrial pre-eminence of Etruria remorselessly slipped away. The lack of progress was so marked that, had the great Exhibition of 1851 taken place 75 years earlier, the Wedgwood display could have been almost exactly the same. Little wonder that the Times noted in 1851 that ‘in pottery, the reputation of the country may safely be left in the hands of Minton and Doulton.’ In less than two generations the Wedgwoods had fallen back from world leaders to also-rans in their own country.

What makes the sense of failure so central an element in this family history was not only Josiah I’s descendants’ failure to build constructively on the profitable and prestigious base he had provided for them, but also their complete rejection of his values, their headlong flight from the entrepreneurial ideal he himself represented. There was never to be another Wedgwood of his calibre as a creative businessman. What was worse was that there were very few Wedgwoods who wished even to try to match his performance. Their priorities were very different from his. If they managed the factory, they did so mainly out of a reluctant sense of family duty, not out of a desire to create employment, to create wealth, to create products of outstanding quality and beauty. If the first Josiah was a near-perfect example of the entrepreneur in the Schumpeterian mould, the creative destroyer, then his descendants provide near-perfect exemplars of the psychological absenteeism, the declining standards, the entrepreneurial apathy of the late 19th-century businessmen of textbook fame. Their career preference, their social motives and their sheer lack of business competence provide an unpalatable parable of British industrial decline. They exemplify in a particularly well-documented fashion the Victorian haemorrhage of capital and ability from industry and trade into landownership and politics: a haemorrhage which was succeeded by an even more copious flow of talent away from the wealth-creating sector into the mandarin world of scholar-bureaucrats in the last hundred years.

Wedgwood’s sons made their rejection of his plans distressingly explicit. At first, they had all been ‘boys intended for trade’, and exposed to an educational regime of experimental science, French and accounts designed to prepare them for such a career. In their father’s words, they ‘took the infection very kindly’. But not for long. The more freedom their father gave them the more they rebelled against his plans. After tasting the delights of the Grand Tour, John patronisingly informed his father that work in the pottery would mean the loss of ‘a great deal of the liberal education I have received’. After toying weakly with the idea of becoming an MP, he went disastrously into banking – the fashionable escape route for ‘young gentlemen’ who wished to avoid becoming ‘tradesmen’. As soon as decently possible after his father’s death, he set himself up at Cote House, a country estate outside Bristol, and there, having no active duties in the pottery or at the bank, he devoted himself to gardening, and established a fashionable gathering-place for such promising young intellectuals as Southey, Coleridge, Beddoes and Mackintosh.

The young Josiah was even more aware of the distinction between ‘gentlemen’ and ‘men engaged in business’ and had the insensitivity to lecture his father on the subject. ‘I have been for too long in the habit of looking upon myself as the equal of everybody to bear the haughty manner’ of your customers, he told his father when explaining his reluctance to join the firm – a remark of breathtaking insolence for the son of Wedgwood. It dishonoured the memory of his revered partner Bentley, a man whose cultivation Josiah II never remotely matched, and it dishonoured his father’s achievements as a brilliantly imaginative salesman. Less than four months after his father’s death, Jos withdrew from the day-to-day management of the pottery and set himself up as a country gentleman in Surrey.

Both sons wanted to disassociate themselves from the image of the despised tradesman. By both marrying into the Allen family, which claimed descent from the Cecils, they felt they had elevated themselves into the landed gentry. As further proof of their social advancement, they both abandoned the Unitarian chapel of their childhood and joined the Established Church. In religion, in politics and in attitudes to society, they were as conformist as their father had been radical.

Since so much English history and so many English novels have been written by men engaged in the same process of escaping the family firm, the likes of the young Wedgwoods have enjoyed a remarkably sympathetic and indulgent press. But Barbara and Hensleigh Wedgwood write with a welcome trenchancy on the financial incompetence and the recurrent self-indulgence of so many of the younger Wedgwoods. They are impressively free from that note of self-flattery which mars so many family histories.

They mercilessly reveal the vanity of Tom, who so immodestly, and on the basis of such modest achievement, thought himself a genius. Indulged and flattered by his friends (‘Have you ever thought of trying large doses of opium in a hot climate, with a diet of grapes?’ wrote Coleridge), able to make free use of his inheritance on land speculation (‘in the last three or four years I have bought upwards of £100,000 of land’), and so spoilt that when he was advised to go to Jamaica for his health, he asked for larks, blackbirds, robins, nightingales and thrushes to be collected to accompany him, so that he would not miss the atmospheric birdsong of the English countryside, he died at the age of 34, his undoubted talents largely unfulfilled.

His eldest brother John was a much less impressive specimen and the Wedgwoods do not disguise his weakness. They reveal his panic at the thought of being publicly bankrupted, his pathetic attempt to conceal his folly, and his abject admission that ‘in every commercial speculation in which I have engaged ... I have utterly failed ... the pottery, partly through my own fault – partly this evil destiny.’

With so many of the family financially dependent on him and on the wealth of the pottery, Josiah II could not entirely escape his industrial inheritance. He had hoped that two or three months a year at the despised pottery would have sufficed ‘to keep matters at Etruria in a tolerable trim’, but when none of the partners had the slightest idea of what the total income of the pottery was, and with each member of the family drawing money as he required, he realised he would have to intervene. He much preferred commuting from his country estate to Etruria, dashing across the country ‘like Royalty’, as one contemporary put it. His splendid closed carriage with velvet curtains was drawn by four white horses. The coachman, postillions and footmen were all in handsome red livery. His idea of what he called ‘rigid economy’ was to cut down his household servants to 15 and keep only one large carriage and one chaise.

There was little improvement in the next generation. The verdict of the broken John on his eldest son was not encouraging: ‘He has less vigour than any young man I ever saw. I see nothing in him which leads one to think that he will ever make a man of business.’ There were many more in that mould, and the able ones were more interested in exercising their consciences, lionising the more attractive members of the literary world, or seeking sinecures in political administration, than in running a great industrial concern. Fortunately for the survival of the Wedgwood name, their efforts to sell it failed.

The conviction that ‘my father would leave me property enough to subsist on with some comfort ... was sufficient to check any strenuous effort’ was a common deterrent to excessive involvement in a career. Robert Mackintosh ‘could continue to solicit from his father’s old friends civil service appointments with titles more impressive than the responsibilities they carried. There was no need for him to concern himself with a salary.’ The same confident expectation that an undemanding political appointment would be found for him, led the gifted Henleigh to resign a fellowship at Christ’s College, Cambridge on grounds of conscience, and then resign a well-paid sinecure on the same grounds, writing to his father: ‘there is no use in letting £800 a year persuade one’s conscience.’ He had, of course, turned down a partnership at Etruria, which admittedly had been offered rather apologetically by his father: ‘I can do nothing for him but offer him a share in the Manufacturing,’ though ‘to be sure the manufactory does not offer any great advantages.’

The ‘noble manufactory’ of the late 18th century, the pride and admiration of Europe, a major attraction to English and foreign visitors alike, had within a couple of generations become known in the family as ‘that nasty old potshop’ which the more talented and fortunate members of the family did their best to avoid.

No man whose grandson turns out to be Charles Darwin could be wholly without posthumous pride in his family heritage. No family circle which produced a composer of Vaughan Williams’s rank, a historian of Veronica Wedgwood’s calibre, and a whole clutch of Darwin Fellows of the Royal Society, can be said to lack distinction. But there are no longer any of the family in the active management of the company. It has required new entrepreneurial blood to revive its fortunes. Its failure to attract the intelligence, enthusiasm and undoubted abilities of the Wedgwood-Darwin clan represents a tragedy of missed opportunities. Josiah Wedgwood, just before his death, reacted with hurt dignity and a natural sense of rejection when his sons showed so little interest in a business ‘which has done me no discredit and I had hoped would do none to any of my children’. The 19th-century descendants did not act in a way which, had he foreseen it, would have salved his hurt pride.

This book is a marvellously detailed explanation of why not. Barbara and Hensleigh Wedgwood wished to offer ‘a different perspective on the history of the firm than has usually been the case’. They have succeeded admirably. In basing their book on the family scrapbook collected by Snow Wedgwood, and in concentrating on the literary friendships, the religious preoccupations, and the social values of the family, they have provided a wonderfully rich casebook study of the English disease, and a devastating anatomy of the decline of a family’s interest in, and control of, a great English firm.

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