Josiah Wedgwood was born just as the pottery industry was set to change dramatically. In the early decades of the 18th century groups of peasant potters worked in villages, such as Burslem, often in thatched cottages, catering for an entirely local demand manufacturing utilitarian objects such as butter pots to carry the local products to market. However, during Josiah's lifetime the ceramic industry and the country went through one of the most significant changes becoming the first industrial nation and the workshop of the world. Fashion, world-wide trade and the public's desire for consumer goods were about to transform the business from one of supplying utilitarian vessels to all into one providing discerning customers with goods of extravagant ornament and luxury. Josiah was to be instrumental in that transformation.
When Josiah's father Thomas died, the family business was inherited by the eldest son, also Thomas, and five years later Josiah was formally apprenticed to him, to learn the 'Art of Throwing and Handleing' clay. During these years Josiah contracted smallpox, which left his right knee permanently weakened. However, he worked at the family pottery until 1752, then entered into partnership with John Harrison and Thomas Alders at the Cliff Bank works near Stoke. In 1754 Josiah joined the business of Thomas Whieldon, at Fenton Vivian, to become partner to one of the leading potters of the region. He learned factory management and was able to start the experiments that dominated his life. His aim was to improve the local pottery, described as 'Universally complained of as being bad, & in a declining condition'. Josiah himself became a master potter in 1758.
This was one of the most exciting eras in English history: an age of enquiry, discovery and experiment. None of the superb advancements in ceramic production would have been feasible in the 18th century without Josiah's pioneering activities to produce a thermometer (or pyrometer) which could measure high temperatures inside the kiln. Josiah not only 'Converted a rude and inconsiderable manufactory into an elegant art and an important part of National commerce' but was a true pioneer in an age of innovation and change. In 1769 in the early years of their partnership, Wedgwood suggested to his new partner Thomas Bentley that they should spend some time 'In pursuit of Fortune, Fame & the Public Good', something which Josiah achieved by uniquely marrying art with industry, and utility with beauty.
Josiah is justly remembered as the 'Father of English Potters' and as William Burton's memorial to Wedgwood states it was 'His influence that was so powerful and his personality so dominant that all other English potters work on the principles he laid down'. Indeed, his ceramic tradition has endured through three centuries.