Factory reform

Josiah Wedgwood was one of the pioneers of English factory reform, involving the discipline of workers, the division of labour and the systematisation of production. Like its contemporaries in other industries at Soho, Cromford and Coalbrookdale, Etruria served as a model to the ceramic industry, and ushered in the factory system to the Potteries (although the process was already in motion with many firms increasingly specialised and the family craftsman stage had already given way to the master potter with his journeymen and apprentices recruited from outside the family).

Josiah was convinced from the outset that the only efficient means were the division of labour and the separation of different processes. He designed Etruria so that the various shops were so arranged that the clay travelled naturally in a circle from the ship house by the canal to the packing house by the canal with a minimum of carrying in-between. By the 1790s, each workshop had its specialists: in coloured ware, there were painters, grinders, printers, liners, borderers, burnishers and scourers; in jasper, there were ornamenters, turners, slip-makers, grinders, scourers, and mould-makers; in black ware, there were turners, throwers, handlers, seal-makers, mouldmakers and slip-makers; and in all there were modellers, firemen, overlookers, porters and packers. Other distinct professions included sagar-makers, lathe-turners, spout-makers, wedgers, engravers, polishers, dressers, sorters, dippers, brushers, stirrers, placers and coopers. There were also the separate administrative posts in the counting house. Out of the 278 men, women and children that Wedgwood employed in June 1790, only five had no specified post. These five were listed simply as 'Odd men', the lowest in the hierarchy and the first to go in bad times. All the rest were specialists.

The increasing trend towards specialisation caused Josiah various problems with recruitment. He tried to retraining staff, but many were too ingrained in their ways to become first-rate painters and modellers. To achieve the perfection he demanded he had to train his workmen from youth, and he needed artists as well as craftsmen. Wedgwood was one of the first industrialists to attempt to employ serious artists in large-scale industrial production, but they were difficult to manage. He later restricted his use of artists to simply buying and commissioning their designs.

His training of his own workmen never lapsed and in 1790 nearly 25 per cent of his workmen were apprentices (and many of these were female – he had to pay the men more to accept the females as apprentices….). Eventually, all Josiah's apprentices were trained to his own high standards: he taken semi-skilled potters and made them specialist craftsmen, or as he put it 'made Artists' of 'mere men'.

Wedgwood had not only to train a new generation of skilled potters, he had also to mould these workers to the needs of his factory system. It was not an easy task, for he had centuries of local tradition to oppose him. The potters had enjoyed their independence too long to take kindly to the rules which Wedgwood attempted to enforce—the punctuality, the constant attendance, the fixed hours, the scrupulous standards of care and cleanliness, the avoidance of waste, the ban on drinking. They did not surrender easily. The stoppages for a wake or a fair or a three-day drinking spree were an accepted part of the potter's life—and they proved the most difficult to uproot. When they did work, they worked by rule of thumb; their methods of production were careless and uneconomical; and their working arrangements arbitrary, slipshod and unscientific.

One of the major problems was to ensure prompt and regular attendance at the works. As was usual Wedgwood set himself off from the rest of the potters by introducing the bell instead of blowing a horn as was the custom in the district. In his Commonplace Book, he also outlined a scheme which can be compared only with a primitive clocking-in system, imposing a fine on workers who were late. His attention to cleanliness and the avoidance of waste was equally scrupulous.

Every aspect of the potter's trade was covered in his instructions: there were separate directions for the throwers, the handlers, the pressers, the finishers and the dishmakers. All had to be checked by the overseer or Clerk of the Manufactory. Wedgwood's reaction to carelessness was more violent. The famous story of Wedgwood stumping through his works, smashing sub-standard pots and chalking on the bench 'this won't do for Josiah Wedgwood', is supported by the facts at least as far as the smashing. It was attention to such details which marked the difference between the passable and the perfect, and to Wedgwood perfection was no mere trifle.

To supplement his particular rules concerning punctuality, cleanliness and avoidance of waste and error, he had a list of forfeits of a more general nature covering alcohol, graffiti, promiscuity and immorality. The reason was not so much morality as a desire for efficiency. His rules, however, were not for his benefit alone. There were, for example, strict precautions 'taken to avoid the pernicious effects of lead' poisoning. In only one thing did he fail almost completely—the control of wakes and fairs. He had little defence against their attraction, and production was interrupted with ironic regularity every summer.

One by one Josiah purged his workers of most of their other industrial faults. By his own persistence, by an unfailing attention to detail, by founding, if not creating, the traditions of a foreman class and equipping it with rules and regulations, he transformed a collection of what in 1765 he called, 'dilatory drunken, idle, worthless workmen', into what ten years later he allowed to be, 'a very good sett of hands'. He never fully achieved the reformation he had hoped for. He never made 'such Machines of the Men as cannot Err', but he certainly produced a team of workmen who were cleaner, soberer, healthier, more careful, more punctual, more skilled and less wasteful than any other potter had produced before.

Having achieved this level of skill, order and sobriety, he did not propose to lose them, and no discussion of his factory discipline would be complete without some mention of his attempts to prevent the emigration of his workmen. His efforts were characteristically thorough. It was vital that they should be for the loss of industrial secrets—although almost inevitable in the Potteries themselves—could mean the loss of several years' lead over their foreign rivals. Spies were a constant menace and the potters were always on their guard against them. But what they feared even more than the spies was the emigration of their workmen who were enticed away by the agents of rivals abroad.

Although the discipline Josiah imposed in his factory was a severe one, it was born of a desire to improve his workmen's lot. He moved in a society of liberal reformers, and he saw the world as it was—crude, filthy, incompetent and wasteful—and he wished to reform it. He saw men as improvable—even perfectable. Liberal but unsophisticated in his ideals he felt that his workmen should be disciplined for their own good, and offered security in return for obedience. He doubted his charges' ability to take their own decisions and as a substitute imposed his own massive authority.

The life he designed for his workmen was not an indulgent one. They were not to have the luxury of downing tools for a wake or a fair; nor of working for three days in order to drink for four. The cherished St Monday was to be unfrocked, and all the gods of idleness and mindless enjoyment similarly banished. Time was the new idol—together with care, regularity and obedience. There can be no doubt that the workmen lost much of their old liberty, and their lives much of its old variety. For in the brave new world envisaged by Wedgwood and his friends there was little place for brothels, alehouses, cock-fighting and bull-baiting for the ease and amusement of his workmen. In their place there would be schools for their children, hospitals for their sick, homes for their orphans, and societies, libraries and institutions for themselves. For all there would be better food, better clothes, better houses, better roads and better transport. Their streets would be lit, their roads paved, their towns drained. To achieve these ends, he demanded complete obedience, and complete submission. He also expected hard work. Accustomed to long hours and unremitting labour himself, he expected an effort of a similar nature from his workmen.

It was determination of this order which brought Wedgwood his great success, and it deeply influenced his attitude to his men. For he expected similar control and self-discipline from them. Therefore, although well disposed towards them, his attitude was always patriarchal and autocratic. He could correct, improve and direct for the common good; but he was not averse to punishment. He may have believed in liberty, but it was not the liberty to riot, and when in 1783 a riot broke out at Etruria he summoned the military and dispersed the mob by force. Two men were arrested, both of them convicted, and one of them subsequently hanged.

After this outbreak Wedgwood published a pamphlet called, 'An Address to the Young Inhabitants of the Pottery' pointing out the folly of using violence to redress social evils, and pleading with them to use 'peaceable' means to cope with the present or any future discontent. He went on to stress the temporary nature of the depression and the great advance made by the Potters in the last generation. The argument followed familiar lines, but the facts were accurate. The canals, the turnpike roads, the improved agriculture were there for all to see. Wages had undoubtedly increased: in some cases more than doubled. The houses that Wedgwood built for his workmen at Etruria represented a triumph in working-class conditions, and a great advance on the mud and wattle huts of the rural slums they replaced. They were, it is true, small, cramped and inconvenient by present-day standards. In 1774, however, Edward Radcliffe spoke of Etruria as 'that paradise'; and visitors, both English and foreign, constantly envied Wedgwood his 'elegant manufactory'.

However stringent Wedgwood's discipline became, he offered ample compensation. He never forgot that a contented workman is a more efficient workman, and he knew that progress could be made only by 'one who... has not only full command over the workmen, but is likewise possessed of their goodwill and cordial assistance; for otherwise, they have the means now in their power, unperceived by him, of frustrating all his attempts, as I have myself had sufficient experience'. Secure in this knowledge he handled his labour relations better than most of his rivals and was rarely troubled by discontent. For in the living conditions at Etruria, in the wages he offered and the precautions he took for their health, he provided very adequate compensation for their loss of freedom.

This section draws heavily upon, and is a précis of, ‘Josiah Wedgwood and Factory Discipline’ by Neil McKendrick in The Historical Journal, iv, I (1961), pp. 39-5. This article is itself based upon research of the 60,000 documents in the Wedgwood Museum archive.


The factory bell at Etruria, © Wedgwood Museum

The factory bell at Etruria
© Wedgwood Museum