Josiah Wedgwood and his friends were the most brilliant group in England in the eighteenth-century- brilliant if highly eccentric. Most are forgotten today, but collectively they changed the world…
Devotion to science and a respect for the arts were not the only factors common to Josiah Wedgwood and his circle, for if it was this that cemented their friendship, there were other powerful ties of opinion. They shared a common attitude to society, to government, and to the nature of liberty.
They had decided and optimistic views on society. They saw men as improvable- even perfectible. They saw society as it was- crude,filthy, incompetent, and wasteful- and they wished to reform it. They read Bentham, Wilberforce, Howard, Cartwright, Malthus, and of course Priestley, and the believed what they read. They were not, however, idle theorists conjuring up utopias in a golden haze of false optimism. They had built their successes on humble beginnings and their lives were pockmarked with stories of endurance and application: Stubbs working unassisted on the anatomy of the horse at his lonely Lincolnshire farmhouse and stuffing the veins with wax to slow down the putrefaction of his models; Brindley struggling against diabetes for the last eight years of his life giving advice even on his deathbed; and Wedgwood having his injured leg amputated to ease his movements through his works and the narrow streets of the potteries. Though practical men, they had suffered for their beliefs and they expected devotion of the same order from the rest of society.
The manufacturers wished to discipline their workmen for their own good. They were not to have the luxury of downing tools at the time of a wake or a fair, nor of working for three days in order to drink for four. In return, they were offered security.
The instincts of Wedgwood’s friends were undoubtedly humanitarian. Much of what the manufacturers amongst them did was for their own benefit, but there were other things clearly designed solely for the improvement of man’s lot. Wedgwood built new homes for his workmen; Watt supported the Pneumatic Institute for the treatment of consumption. Erasmus Darwin gave his services free of charge to the poor; Boulton built a home for orphans, parish apprentices, and hospital boys; and Sir Joseph Banks, another friend of Wedgwood’s, preferred at considerable sacrifice to himself to wait until his tenants died rather than terminate their leases.
Thomas Day,characteristically, carried his humanitarian principles even further. He let the birds feed from his crops undisturbed, left insects unmolested with almost Buddhist consistency, and defined life’s enjoyment as “feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and…alleviating the distress of the most wretched and most miserable of mankind.”