Our MP of the Month has a special significance for the History of Parliament Trust, being the great-grandfather (and namesake) of our founder, Josiah Wedgwood MP.
This year the History of Parliament is marking the 75th anniversary of the death of its founder, Josiah Clement Wedgwood (1872-1943), with events including a touring exhibition in Staffordshire. Between 1906 and 1942 Wedgwood was a Liberal and then a Labour MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme, where the exhibition began its tour earlier this week.
He was not, however, the first member of his family to enter the Commons. His great-grandfather and namesake, Josiah Wedgwood, is among the 2,590 MPs we are researching as part of the 1832-68 House of Commons project. Like his great-grandson this MP sat for a Staffordshire constituency, representing Stoke-on-Trent from 1832, after failing to get elected for Newcastle-under-Lyme the previous year. However, his parliamentary career was shorter than his great-grandson’s: he only sat in one Parliament before standing down at the 1835 election.
Josiah Wedgwood (1769-1843) was the second son and namesake of the famous potter and inventor, Josiah Wedgwood (1730-95). He followed his father as head of the family’s pottery manufacturing firm, based at Etruria near Stoke-on-Trent. Although he was the second son and had lived as a country gentleman in Dorset before his father’s death, taking little interest in the business, its management fell to him because of his older brother’s ‘chronic incompetence’ and his younger brother’s death.
Wedgwood has been depicted as a ‘plodding’ and unimaginative man, who lacked his father’s genius, but he proved effective at cutting the company’s costs in the face of foreign competition and the loss of European markets during the wars with France. In 1828 he closed the firm’s famous London showroom and – in the words of his great-grandson, Josiah Clement – ‘committed the unpardonable vandalism of selling off the stock, patterns, and moulds there stored’.
Standing as a Reformer at Stoke-on-Trent in 1832, Wedgwood declared his strong support for the ‘immediate abolition of slavery’. He was keen to remove the monopolies held by the East India Company and the Bank of England, and wanted to alter the corn laws. Although he was an Anglican – not sharing the Unitarian faith of his father – Wedgwood advocated reform of the Church of England. He did not, however, support further electoral reform, voicing his opposition to the secret ballot and triennial parliaments. He topped the poll, almost 200 votes ahead of his fellow potter, John Davenport, also a Reformer, who won the second seat.
While Hansard records more than 12,000 contributions in Parliament from Josiah Clement Wedgwood, his great-grandfather was a silent member. He was, however, a regular presence in the division lobbies, where his votes included support for a low fixed duty on corn, the shortening of slave apprenticeships and the replacement of church rates with an alternative source of funding. His youngest daughter Emma was among the women who witnessed debates in the Commons from the ‘ventilator’ – the space in the attic from where women could peer through holes designed for drawing out foul air into the chamber below. In a letter to a friend in August 1833 she recorded a notable incident, when Daniel O’Connell accused the press of not reporting him fairly or accurately.
Harriet [Gifford] and I went to the Ventilator to hear O’Connell’s quarrel with the Reporters, whom he accuses of reporting his speeches falsely, whereupon they say now they will not report a word more of his; so now he declares they shall not report at all, and he had the gallery cleared of all the strangers and the reporters amongst them yesterday.
Despite his success at the poll in 1832, Wedgwood was told that he was unlikely to retain his seat at the 1835 general election, and retired from politics. In his later years he was affected by a form of ‘palsy’ or Parkinson’s disease. He retired from the family business in 1841, two years before his death. Seven of his children survived him, including Emma, who had married her cousin (and Wedgwood’s nephew), the natural scientist Charles Darwin in 1839. Wedgwood’s second son Francis (Frank), the grandfather of Josiah Clement Wedgwood, continued the management of the family’s pottery firm.
The biography on which this blogpost is based was written by Dr. Henry Miller, and is among those available on our preview site.