This morning I am mainly doing industrial nostalgia:
For Etruria too, in those days, was a place of consequence, created by one entrepreneur and later developed by others as a powerhouse of art and industry. The great pottery king Josiah Wedgwood picked out the site on the banks of a canal whose route he had helped to plot, establishing in 1769 an elegant factory combining an Ornamental Works with a Useful Works (which came a year later); to which he added a fine house for himself, Etruria Hall, and homes for his workforce in an industrial village long predating Saltaire, if rather less grand…
Before long, though, further crowds of workmen, healthy and otherwise, were flocking in to Etruria to join enterprises less conspicuously devoted to culture and taste. The British Gas Light company arrived early in the new century. In the 1840s the railway came, taking over the traffic that had formerly used the canal, steaming smokily through the parkland and interrupting the view from Etruria Hall. By then a plant had been established that developed by 1860 into the Shelton Bar iron and steel works.
Shelton Bar was still going when I was a kid. We lived at the top of Penkhull Bank, overlooking Etruria and the steelworks, which cast the whole night sky in an impressively sinister orange glow. We were Stokies from way back, on my mother’s side of the family, where traditionally the men would work on the railway and the women would go into the pot banks. My Great Aunt hand painted Doulton figurines, for sixpence a piece. My grandmother was a bander. That is she worked all day painting the circular bands of gold and sliver leaf that were used to decorate plates. She could draw a perfect freehand circle even after senility took over. Anyway:
He named the place Etruria out of his long admiration for the Etruscan culture, and commemorated his creation by firing a set of celebratory vases in the Etruscan style, which he decorated with the legend: Artes Etruriae Renascuntur (the Arts of Etruria Reborn).
I believe this is known as “marketing.” Eighteenth century progressives were big on classical antiquity. And Wedgwood, whose politics were radical, gave all these well heeled enlightenment types the chance to have a little bit of classical enlightenment in their own kitchens. And so his fortune was made and my distant ancestors presumably left the land, found work and helped to found a city. Meanwhile, old Josiah got busy spawning a dynasty, as David Cannadine recounts:
The greatest Josiah had been a friend of Priestley and Franklin and Clarkson; had welcomed freedom for the American colonies and been a determined opponent of slavery. One of his descendents had supported the 1832 Reform Act because ‘he thought it was right’ and had invited Kossuth and Garibaldi to Barlaston…But the Wedgwoods were not only a distinguished dynasty. They formed party of that broader, interlocking intellectual aristocracy which was so marked (and so influential) a feature of British life from the 1830’s onwards….several Wedgwoods had married into the Darwin family, which also connected them to the Keyneses, the Sidgwicks and the Gosses.
Old Josiah was in fact Darwin’s maternal grandfather. Part of the money that gave Charles Darwin the time and leisure to go gallivanting round the Galapagos Islands and come up with evolutionary theory came from the products of the labour of my ancestors and the people around them. That was how Britain worked, when it worked.
These days we have a prime minister who is apparently quite happy to have evangelical Christian groups teach creationism in schools, and Wedgwood crockery is made – I think – in Indonesia. Which all goes to show that change and progress are not the same things. Anyway, here endeth the sermon for this morning…