Transport innovation

The innovations in industry and the revolution, which occurred in the 18th century, would have soon ceased had there not been a coincident revolution in transport. As Josiah says in, 'An Address to the Young Inhabitants of the Potteries', a printed pamphlet designed to answer workers’ complaints he states that, the roads were well nigh impossible to travel along, even to the strings of pack horses which provided the main means of moving raw materials and finished products, whilst such routes were infested with highwayman and robbers. It was soon obvious that facilities must be improved if the growing productivity of the district was to find an outlet to the rest of England and the expanding foreign market. Josiah was an active supporter and promoter of the turnpike roads, particularly those connecting the Potteries to the ports including Liverpool and Chester, through which clay from Cornwall was imported and finished goods exported. Josiah addressed the local North Staffordshire inhabitants at the Town Hall of Newcastle-under-Lyme in 1763. His forceful speech outlining the advantages of such a road system is recorded in full in his 'Common Place Book'. Wedgwood went on to enlist the help of Lord Gower, a local landowner and Staffordshire Member of Parliament, in seeing the new Turnpike Bill through Parliament. Nine Turnpike Acts were passed by Parliament in 1766. Later Acts of 1777 and 1783 were specifically aimed at linking the local road system to the main London routes. It is interesting that included in the 130 Trustees named in the 1791 Turnpike Act were Josiah Wedgwood I and his three sons.

In view of the uncertain and poor road communications it is not surprising therefore, to find Wedgwood, an ardent supporter of James Brindley and his latest plans for the development of a system of canals. Brindley known as 'The Schemer'was well known in the Potteries as a millwright and a builder of windmills. The earlier navigation schemes of the 17th and early 18th centuries had consisted merely of improvements to natural rivers, which were always subject to the risk of droughts and floods, but Brindley’'s new scheme in which he succeeded so admirably, was to make canals independent of the rivers by building them so that they could be carried across the countryside at one level, where necessary on aqueducts or through cuttings and tunnels. His first successful venture was the building the Bridgewater Canal in 1761 to carry coal from the Duke of Bridgewater's colliery at Worsley to Manchester. Arthur Young, the traveller and writer, regarded Brindley's plan to carry this canal over the river Mersey as, 'The greatest plan (if executed) that ever yet was thought of, and will exceed the noblest works of the Romans, when masters of the world'.

A greater scheme by far was a canal linking the rivers Trent and Mersey or 'Grand Trunk' canal, as Brindley called it, which was warmly supported by Wedgwood, who acted as its Treasurer as he states: 'at £000 Per ann. out of which he bears his own Expences'. When finally completed in 1777, this canal rose 395 feet to its summit at Harecastle in Staffordshire where it passed through a tunnel 2880 yards long, one of the greatest 18th entury engineering feats completed in 1775. The Trent and Mersey canal was 93 miles long with 76 locks, 5 tunnels and 269 smaller aqueducts and bridges and when completed it linked a chain of waterways across the heart of industrial England. The proposed line of the canal passed the front of the Etruria Works and afforded an easy means of transport connecting with both the ports of Liverpool on the west coast and Hull on the east coast.

The first meeting of those men interested and involved with the proposed development was called on 10 June 1766 at The Crown, a coaching inn in Stone, Staffordshire. Over a year before the inaugural meeting Josiah had written to his brother John, on 3 April 1765, stating, 'This scheme of a Navigation is undoubtedly the best thing that could possibly be plan’d for this country & I hope there is a great degree of probability of its being carried into execution'. The Bill for the Trent and Mersey Canal was presented to Parliament on 18 February 1766 and authorised on 14 May. On 16 July 1766 Wedgwood cut the first sod of earth to commence the canal construction.

With the completion of the canal, freight rates were immediately reduced by nine tenths and many of the handicaps facing the earlier potters were overcome. The canal systems held sway until the coming of the 'Iron Horse', and as the railway age advanced so there were bitter fights and controversies between the canal, turnpike and coaching companies’ interests and the railway promoters. But progress could not be prevented and ultimately the rail system was to supersede water transportation.


Josiah ensured the canal ran alongside the new factory at Etruria, © Wedgwood Museum

Josiah ensured the canal ran alongside the new factory at Etruria
© Wedgwood Museum