Mark's Musings

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British Values: Josiah Wedgwood and Philanthropic Activism

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If you ask someone about the abolition of slavery in the UK, most people will come up with the name of William Wilberforce. To be sure, Wilberforce had a central role in outlawing slavery in Britain and beyond, but, of course, he didn’t act alone. Thomas Clarkson and Granville Sharp were two others who played a seminal part. But there’s a reason why none of them are in the title of this article. And yes, it is still (mostly) about slavery.

The Wedgwood Institute, Burslem

The Wedgwood Institute, Burslem. Photo by Slidewinder44.

Josiah Wedgwood is widely renowned for his pioneering work as a potter. As an entrepreneur and a designer he was noted for his innovative approach as well as his commitment to excellence. From relatively humble beginnings in a sleepy backwater of North Staffordshire, he built a company which put tea sets on the tables of royalty and helped make six towns into England’s own “capital of China”. He is also credited as the inventor of modern marketing, including techniques such as direct mail, money back guarantees and “buy one, get one free”.

What’s maybe less well known is that Wedgwood was also a philanthropist. He helped fund the construction of new roads, canals, schools and chapels (not churches; Wedgwood was from Dissenting stock, which may partly explain his commitment to social justice), as well as building a model village for his workers which predated the Cadbury brothers’ Bourneville by nearly a century. But, given that, it’s unsurprising to discover that Wedgwood was also one of the leading campaigners against slavery.

Unlike the majority of other prominent abolitionists, Wedgwood was neither a politician, a clergyman nor an academic. But his business acuity was invaluable to the cause. So, to be frank, was his wealth. A popular campaign is always easier to run if it’s bankrolled by a rich industrialist.

Probably his biggest contribution, though, was his marketing skill. If you’ve ever worn a “Help for Heroes” wristband, a pink breast cancer ribbon, or even a CND badge, then you can thank Wedgwood for coming up with the idea. As part of the campaign, Wedgwood mass produced ceramic medallions bearing the logo of the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade and donated them to the society for distribution. According to his contemporary, and founding father of the USA, Benjamin Franklin, their effect was as good as any written pamphlet. As Thomas Clarkson later wrote,

Some had them inlaid in gold on the lid of their snuff boxes. Of the ladies, several wore them in bracelets, and others had them fitted up in an ornamental manner as pins for their hair. At length the taste for wearing them became general, and this fashion, which usually confines itself to worthless things, was seen for once in the honourable office of promoting the cause of justice, humanity and freedom.

Promoting the cause of justice, humanity and freedom is, of course, a British value in itself. But Josiah Wedgwood’s contribution wasn’t just that. It was to harness the power of industry and marketing to promote the cause of justice, humanity and freedom. Wedgwood may not have invented philanthropic activism. But, like pottery, he reinvented and refined it and turned it into something that we exported to the world. And that’s a true British value.