Josiah Wedgwood overcame physical disability and exclusion from the family firm to create some of the world's most famous pottery - and a unique management style, says Rhymer Rigby.
To most people, Josiah Wedgwood was the man who invented those cute plates that grannies like for Christmas. But to describe him thus is to do him a disservice: posh crockery was merely the most visible sign of Josiah's genius. He was a pioneer of many modern manufacturing methods in the early industrial revolution. A brilliant innovator, he revolutionised pottery, marrying art and science on an industrial scale.
Josiah Wedgwood was born in 1730, the last of 12 children, to a family that had been making pottery for 200 years. When Josiah was nine, his father died and he left school to work for his brother Thomas, who had inherited the family pottery. In 1744, he was formally apprenticed to the family business but he soon caught smallpox, which left him crippled in the right leg. Unable to throw pots effectively, he began to investigate the theoretical side of pottery and to experiment with clays and glazes.
His brother, however, did not share his curiosity and at the end of Josiah's apprenticeship Thomas refused to take him into the partnership.
Building a reputation
In 1754, Josiah went into partnership with Thomas Whielden, at that time the UK's greatest potter. Josiah, however, soon began to build a reputation for himself and during the four years he worked with Whielden he continually experimented, recording his work in his Book of Experiments. At the end of 1758, the partnership was amicably dissolved, but not before Josiah had made his first real contribution to tableware - a new brilliant green glaze.
The following year, Wedgwood set up independently, renting the Ivy House Works from his uncle, with his cousin, another Thomas, working for him. As owner-manager, Josiah brought a scientific rigour to pottery manufacture - cutting waste, insisting on strict stock-keeping, striving towards uniform output and introducing a recognisably modern division of labour. His disability seems to made him a more thoughtful manager than most for the time.
In 1764, Josiah married his cousin Sarah (their daughter Susannah was Charles Darwin's mother). He moved to bigger premises and expanded his range including more sophisticated designs and glazes.
Most importantly, he introduced a new type of earthenware. His creation, initially called 'creamware' was superior to the delftware, then in general use, in almost every way imaginable. Creamware was easier to make, easier to use and had a greater resistance to chipping. Wedgwood had built a better plate, and consequently demand soared. Indeed, by the end of the century, the once ubiquitous delftware was little more than a memory. Josiah's success brought him wealth and fame - he acquired a 350-acre country estate and by 1765 he was regularly seen in society circles.
In 1766, he was appointed potter to the Queen and creamware was renamed 'Queensware'.
The following year, Wedgwood formed another - far more fruitful - partnership with Thomas Bentley, a business acquaintance he had met five years earlier.
Bentley combined entrepreneurial flair with a love of classical art and learning. Two years on, their factory, called 'Etruria' - a reference to the huge popularity at the time of supposedly Etruscan-style pottery - opened and the company's output rose markedly. The partners then bought an enamelling studio in Chelsea and innovation continued apace. In particular, the company started marking - or branding - all its pottery and other potters followed its lead. It even began to undertake a rudimentary form of market research.
To Russia with love
In 1773, Wedgwood received an order for a 952-piece dinner service (for 50 people) from the Empress Catherine of Russia. This style became known as 'frogware' because Catherine's palace in St Petersburg (La Grenouillere) was known as 'the Froggery'. Josiah exhibited his frogware service in London - to tremendous acclaim - before dispatching it off to Russia.
With established export markets and demand at home booming, Wedgwood had become a global force.
Throughout this period, Josiah never stopped experimenting. Many new-fangled pots, such as the 'black basalt' range, appeared under his name but his greatest innovation was perfected in 1774. This was 'jasperware' for which the company is still famous today. Jasperware was fine-grained, vitreous and suitable for polishing. Not only was the material innovative but so were the designs. Wedgwood employed a mixture of established and promising young artists to give his products a feel that was hip and yet also appealed to the great and the good - the Conran of his day, perhaps.
Bentley died in 1780, but the company's success was now assured. Josiah's direct involvement was diminishing as he became increasingly involved in other activities. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society where he contributed many papers, and he worked with friendly societies for workers, effectively promoting a form of pension and insurance. Five years before his death, in 1795, he took his three sons into partnership. Only his namesake, Josiah, stayed, and he and his descendants continue the tradition: the company is still based in Staffordshire; it still produces pottery its founder would recognise and it is still a world leader.
Wedgwood floated in 1966 and was taken over by Waterford, the Irish crystal makers in 1986. The resultant company, Waterford Wedgwood plc, still has a direct descendent of Josiah on its board.