Wonder of Wedgwood

Who cares if Woolworths goes under? Much more
important is the loss of a manufacturer with its roots
in the Industrial Revolution, argues Hugh Pearman

How people do fuss, as our rockier retail chains finally yield to their underlying weaknesses. The picture is the same all over the world. It’s sad for their employees, but this is cyclical/ other shops will arise.

Something in the manufacturing landscape is rather more significant than the fuss about Woolworths – the fate of that other W-brand, Wedgwood.

It was very sad to learn that Waterford Wedgwood (or parts of it) had gone into administration. Even if it had lined up a rescue package, it would still have been a blow to large-scale manufacturing in the Potteries, and have led to the sourcing of all but a fraction of its output overseas.

Crisis news apart, you probably haven’t thought much about Wedgwood recently. Or if you have, it’s been to notice how this fine old ceramics brand has tried at various times to recreate its glory days through the use of contemporary designers.

So what does its plight, and that of the Potteries in general, mean to the rest of us?

It’s not only luxury items that are hard to shift right now, and making plates is not sexy. Cars, steel, shipbuilding, electrical goods, computers, financial services – these have been the headline-grabbers.

Who cares about crockery? Does it matter if your plates come from Indonesia rather than Burslem?

I find myself caring about it a lot. When the rest of British industry was busy committing suicide in the 1970s, the ceramics business seemed remarkably stable, if over-conservative. The Potteries continued to make and export everything from lavatory bowls to twee hand-painted figurines.

Me, I’m still a big fan of Wedgwood’s ultra-plain white bone-china, as used in the hotel trade. Beautiful, practical, robust, made in Britain – what more could you ask?

People first made pottery in the Potteries in the 15th century, though its age of glory came in the 18th century with the two great Josiahs – Spode and Wedgwood.

Especially Wedgwood, in the way he not only devised new processes, products and marketing techniques, but also helped create a new transport infrastructure to move raw materials and finished goods.

The Georgian canal system was as much his doing as it was the engineers’, politicians’ and speculators’. As an industrialist he could see the benefit, and helped make it happen.

So don’t tell me that crockery isn’t important. It’s a key part of what is still sometimes called the Industrial Revolution, part of the history of all of us.

Apropos of which, it’s cruelly apt that the latest travails of the Potteries come so shortly after the opening – last October – of the £10.5m Wedgwood Museum.

There we go again – manufacturing departs or is scaled down, and all we’re left with is the museums of how we once made things.

Those old brands, of course, will endure. Wedgwood, Spode, Royal Doulton and the rest are names that resonate.

They represent some of the oldest continuously produced products anywhere, and that is worth a great deal.

So does it matter who owns them, and where they are made? Usually, I tend to think not – a brand’s a brand, irrespective of its provenance. But in the case of the Potteries, there’s something else that’s starting to go missing. It’s more than manufacturing, more than design or branding.

You could call it soul. And that’s something that no chain store ever had.

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  • Simon Wade November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Great article, but I would disagree that it was “especially Wedgwood” of the two Josiahs who had the most influence in the development of ceramics at the turn of the nineteenth century. It was Josiah Spode who perfected the formula for fine bone china and mastered the difficult technique of underglaze transfer printing – and in so doing revolutionized the tableware industry. Over the next 200 years it was actually the firm of Spode which would set the standard for English ceramics.

    But both men were geniuses. Wedgwood was a brilliant engineer, inventor, and businessman. The name of Wedgwood is better known across the globe because it has always been a much bigger international concern. But Spode, still operating from its original site in Stoke-on-Trent (at least for now), has played a pivotal role in English china manufacturing, and has created some of the finest ceramics ever known.

  • Tony Boulton November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Wedgwood used contemporary designers but, in my view, just for the name. They would have been better advised to use young up and coming designers that are trained down the road at Staffordshire University. But the biggest failure, apart from the decision to outsource to Indonesia, has been the fact that they have continued to chase quantity rather than quality, despite changes in the markets. Wedgwood belongs in Harrods, Tiffany and Neiman Marcus – not in some of the discount markets that it has been pursuing.

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