Izaak Walton – The Compleat Angler

Order of the Garter

During his lifetime, Izaak Walton was best known as the biographer of leading Anglican clergymen and writers.  His main profession was as a linen draper and his favorite pastime was angling.

But there was another, secretive and adventurous side to his character, about which he seems never to have written a word – at least none that has survived.

As a devout member of the Church of England, baptised at St Mary’s, Stafford, he sided during the Civil War with King Charles I.  Royalists were not all fanatical supporters of everything the King had done.  Many thought he had made serious mistakes – although they remained loyal, fearing that the alternative to royal authority was far worse.

After the king had been beheaded in January 1649 by sentence of a court which had no legal authority, Royalists regarded his eldest son as King Charles II by hereditary right.  In practice, Charles II would not rule as king for more than eleven years.

Charles landed in Scotland in 1651 and, having been crowned King of Scots at Scone,  led a Scottish army into England to reclaim his throne.  He was defeated at the Battle of Worcester on September 3rd of that year and fled to the Continent.

The fugitive monarch found refuge in several parts of southern Staffordshire.  Most famously, he hid from the Parliamentarian troops searching for him in an oak tree in the ground of Boscobel House on the border with Shropshire.

Disguised as a manservant to a Miss Jane Lane, of Bentley, near Wolverhampton, he made his way to Bristol.  But first je had to rid himself of a magnificent jewel of the Order of the Garter, the premier English order of chivalry to this day.

The Lesser George, as this medallion is still known, is now worn from the kingfisher blue ribbon of the Garter which passes over the left shoulder of Knights or Ladies of the Garter, with the medallion hanging at the right hip.  

King Charles II himself introduced this style of wearing the insignia after his Restoration in 1660.  But at the time of his escape from the Parliamentarians, it more usually hung from a smaller ribbon on the breast.

Today, the Lesser George is usually a plain medallion of gold embossed with the figure of St George, the patron of the Order, on horseback and slaying the legendary dragon.  But previously, Knights of the Garter had been allowed to wear much more elaborate versions of the jewel.

The antiquarian Elias Ashmole, Windsor Herald and founder of the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University, was a friend of Walton.  This is how he describes what happened to King Charles II’s Lesser George in his History of the Order of the Garter, first published in 1672:

“The George King Charles I had at his martyrdom was curiously engraved on an onyx and set about with 21 large table diamonds in the fashion of a Garter/  On the reverse of the said George was the picture of the Queen set in a case of gold.

“…that of King Charles II (was) also set with fair diamonds and after the defeat of the Scotch forces at Worcester was strangely preserved by Colonel Blague, one of the king’s dispersed attendants, who resigned it for safety to the wife of Mr George Barlow of Blore Pipe House in Staffordshire.  Robert Milward Esquire received it and gave it into the hands of Mr Isaac Walton (all loyalists).  It came again into the possession of Colonel Blague, then a prisoner in the Tower, who making his escape, then restored it to King Charles II.”

Dr Robert Plot in his Natural History of Staffordshire, published in 1686 after Walton’s death, gives a slightly different version of the tale:

“The Duke of Buckingham, Lord Leviston, Colonel Blague, Mr Marmaduke Darcy and Mr Hugh May likewise found great fidelity in Blore Park whither they betook themselves by a by-way after they had quitted their horses and received refreshment at an obscure house of Mr George Barlow’s…only Colonel Blague remained at Mr Barlow’s house at Blore Pipe where with Mr Barlow’s privity and advice he hid His Majesty’s George under a heap of dust and chips, whence it was conveyed through the trust hands of Mr Robert Milward of Stafford who conveyed it to Mr Isaac Walton who conveyed it to London to Colonel Blague then in the Tower;  whence escaping not long after, he carried it with him overseas and restored it to His Majesty’s own hands.”

Elias Ashmole was a friend of Walton and is mentioned in The Compleat Angler.  Robert Milward was a lawyer who witnessed several of Walton’s property transactions and was rewarded with judicial office after the Restoration.

What we learn from these versions of the story, which do not conflict in any material point, is how far Royalists were prepared to risk their own lives to help the fugitive King Charles II.  The so-called Parliament had put a bounty of £1,000 ( a huge sum at the time) on the King’s head.  Anyone caught supporting him in even an indirect way could expect to be punished with imprisonment if not death.

One can only speculate what modern readers would make of a tale of part of the Crown Jewels being hidden in a remote Staffordshire farmyard under a pile of sawdust.  https://assets.tumblr.com/assets/html/like_iframe.html?_v=66c22ab5319d742bca5762b8d18f9d06#name=isaakwalton&post_id=138985910962&color=black&rk=UekM8c4n

The Life of Izaak Walton

Izaak Walton (1593-1683) is best known today as the author of The Compleat Angler, a book which defies accurate description but is usually regarded as a fishing manual.  In truth, Walton had a much more profound message to convey.

This message, hidden because of the turbulent times in which he lived, is all the more moving if one knows something of his life story.  Annoyingly, the founding father of English biography left us scant details of his own life.  They have to be gleaned from other sources.

Walton’s date of birth is not recorded.  Traditionally, it is celebrated with a dignified little wreath-laying ceremony at the Collegiate Church of St Mary on the Sunday nearest to August 9th, the day on which he began writing his will in 1683 (“in the ninetieth year of my age”).

Read correctly, this phrase from the opening clause of his will means that he had not yet reached his 90th birthday.  But the parish register of the Collegiate Church of St Mary, Stafford, records that he was baptised on September 21st, 1683.

So he must have been born during the six weeks between these two dates.

His place of birth is a complete mystery.  Tradition says he was born in a house in Eastgate Street where the police station now stands, bearing a bronze black to commemorate him.  However, no documentary evidence exists to support this tradition and other birthplaces (even more spurious) were being advanced by the late 19th century.

His father, Jervis, was a “tippler” – an upmarket alehouse keeper.  The parish register of St Mary’s records that Jervis died in February 1597, when Izaak was three years old, and that his mother, Anne, married Henry Bourne, another innkeeper who took over the Swan Inn in 1610.

Nor do we know anything about young Izaak’s education, except that he must have had one.  Possibly he attended the grammar school which was then held in St Bertelin’s Chapel, west of St Mary’s Church.  Again, no written record survives.

By 1511, Walton was apprenticed to his brother-in-law Thomas Grinsell as a linen-draper in London.  This he was learning a luxury trade and the independent business he opened in 1624 on the corner of Fleet Street and Chancery Lane made him a modestly prosperous man.

In 1518, Walton was admitted as a member of the Ironmongers’ Company, one of the twelve major livery companies of London, and he later became a senior member and office-holder.  This explains why he has sometimes been erroneously described as an ironmonger by trade.

Fleet Street lay in the parish of St Dunstan’s-in-the-West, where the vicar was John Donne, poet and Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral.  Walton served as verger and churchwarden of St Dunstan’s and the two men became close friends.  Done was to be the subject of Walton’s first biography, published in 1640.

In 1626, Walton married Rachel Floud, great-great-niece of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury and author of the Book of Common Prayer, who was burned at the stake under Queen Mary I.  They had seven children, all of whom died in infancy, and Rachel herself died in 1640

By 1644, Walton had retired from business and moved to Clerkenwell, just north of the City, until about 1655.  In 1647, he married Anne Ken, whose half-brother later became Bishop Thomas Ken of Bath and Wells, the author of several still popular hymns.

Anne bore him three more children, of whom a son, Isaac, became a canon of Salisbury Cathedral.  His daughter, Anne, married Dr William Hawkins, a prebendary canon of Winchester Cathedral and their son, John, married Anne Wettenhall.

She was the granddaughter of Captain Richard Sneyd, the owner of the High House in Stafford who entertained King Charles I when he visited Stafford in September 1642, early in the Civil War.  This may be the origin of the otherwise groundless 19th century tradition that Izaak “resided many years” in the High House.  Another son died in childhood.

As a devout Anglican, the Civil War and Commonwealth were uncongenial years for Walton.  King Charles I was beheaded in January 1649 and Parliament banned the Prayer Book Walton loved.

King Charles II failed to defeat the Parliamentarian army at the Battle of Worcester in 1643 and fled the country.  His supporters had hidden the King’s Lesser George, a golden and diamond jewel of the Order of the Garter, at a farm in Blore Pipe on the banks of the River Sow beyond Eccleshall, in order to prevent its fugitive owner being identified.

Walton secretly received the jewel from its hiding place and delivered it to a Royalist prisoner in the Tower of London.  The prisoner duly escaped and returned it to the King in exile on the Continent.

Had Walton been discovered taking part in this adventure, he could easily have been imprisoned or put to death.

Walton spent much of the Commonwealth period staying with friends at country houses in Staffordshire, including Hilcote Hall, outside Eccleshall.  This was the home of Walter Noel, from whom he bought Halfhead Farm, near Shallowford, in 1655.

A fishing companion Walton mentioned in The Compleat Angler, Robert Roe, lived at nearby Worston and lent him the money to buy this property.  The mortgage deeds are now in the Staffordshire Record Office.

Shallowford, Halfhead and Worston all lie on the Meece Brook, a tributary of the River Sow, which was then known as Shawford Brook, Shawford being an alternative spelling of Shallowford.  

In a poem called The Angler’s Wish, first published in the third edition of The Compleat Angler in 1661, Walton refers to spending “long days by Shawford Brook” with his fishing rod.  It seems likely that he actually did this.

No evidence exists that Walton actually lived at Halfhead Farm.  He seems to have regarded the farm, one of several tenanted properties he owned, as an investment.  The theory that he was born there can be dismissed as nonsense, as can the equally far-fetched idea that he was born at the High House.

It was during the early years of the Commonwealth that Walton wrote The Compleat Angler, first published in 1653.  Revised five times during his lifetime, it was subtitled “a discourse on rivers, fishponds, fish and fishing.”

It was really a plea for tolerance and moderation in matters of conscience – virtues which were in short supply at the time.  Such a book could never have been published openly under the Puritan regime of Oliver Cromwell – hence the fishing manual disguise.

The Restoration of the monarchy in May 1660 greatly improved Walton’s fortunes.  His friend Dr George Morley was appointed Bishop of Worcester and he appointed Walton as his steward or business agent.  Walton moved to Worcester with his second wife who died there and was buried in the cathedral in 1662.

Also in that year, Morley was translated to Winchester, the fifth most senior bishopric in the Church of England, and the Book of Common Prayer was reinstated with minor amendments.

It was now that Walton wrote his Lives of distinguished clergymen, the works for which he was best known during his lifetime.  The biography of Richard Hooker, the earliest exponent of a distinctive Anglican theology, appeared in 1665.  That of the poet George Herbert appeared in 1670 and that of Bishop Robert Sanderson of Lincoln in 1678.

The Lives of John Donne and Sir Henry Wootton, provost of Eton College, had already been published in 1640 and 1651 respectively.  A collected book of Lives, without that of Bishop Sanderson, appeared in 1675.

Walton was one of the earliest, if not the very earliest, biographers in the English language.  Previously, biographies had been reserved for kings and saints.

Izaak Walton died aged 90 on December 15th, 1683, at his daughter’s home in Winchester, during the Great Frost, probably the harshest winter in English recorded history.  He was buried in Prior Silkstead’s crypt chapel beneath Winchester Cathedral.

He had lived through the reigns of  four monarchs and a republic, the Gunpowder Plot, the beheadings of Archbishop William Laud and King Charles I, the dictatorship of Oliver Cromwell and the restored King Charles II’s failed attempt to allow religious tolerance for Roman Catholics and Protestant dissenters.

In his will, he left Halfhead Farm as a charitable bequest to the Corporation of Stafford, the town of his birth.  A cottage there is now an angling museum.

He also left us one of the world’s most popular works of literature.  He would be humbled to know that The Compleat Angler has been published in over 450 editions and many languages, second only to The Holy Bible.

Neil Thomas

The Stafford Knott

Below is an illustration of the heraldic standard of Henry Stafford, second Duke of Buckingham, at the College of Arms.  Its date is around 1475.

The standard shows the cross of St George in the hoist, as was normal in the Middle Ages, the Stafford family livery colours of red and black, the Knot badge and the de Bohun swan badge, differenced with a red crescent, plus the motto humble and loyal.

It was normal for families who used a badge to have a standard too, as a flag to which their supporters would rally when called.


A Knotty Puzzle

A Visitor’s Guide to the Stafford Knot

Any visitor to Stafford or Staffordshire will soon become familiar with the Stafford Knot.

The knot appears on public buildings, traffic bollards, stationery and almost everywhere.

Often erroneously called the Staffordshire Knot, this simplest of all knots has become the widely recognised badge of Staffordshire.

In fact, it was and remains the heraldic badge of the barons Stafford from at least the fifteenth century and probably earlier.  

Badges were adopted by prominent families in the Middle Ages to be worn by their servants and retainers who would not be permitted to use the family coat of arms.

The sixth earl of Stafford, created duke of Buckingham in 1444, is known to have used the knot as his badge but there is good reason to believe it was adopted by his grandfather, the second earl, who died in 1386.

The duke of Buckingham’s mother, Lady Anne Plantaganet, Countess of Buckingham, was the daughter of Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester and youngest son of King Edward III, and of Lady Eleanor de Bohun, daughter and co-heiress of the seventh earl of Hereford.

Lady Anne married the fifth earl in 1398.  A clerical vestment now in the Victoria and Albert Museum bearing the coat of arms of the Stafford family (a red chevron on a gold shield) and the royal arms of England and France within a silver border, borne by Thomas of Woodstock, is believed to have been worn by the priest who solemnised this marriage.

The vestment, a chasuble worn by a priest to celebrate the Eucharist (Mass or Holy Communion), also depicts the swan badge of the de Bohun family and the Stafford knot.  If the chasuble was indeed worn by the priest who performed the marriage rites of the fifth earl and Lady Anne, the knot muct have been the badge of the Stafford family half a century or more before they were promoted to their dukedom.

The second duke of Buckingham, Henry Stafford, helped King Richard III to usurp the throne of his nephew, King Edward V.  When they arrived in London escorted by thousands of Buckingham’s retainers in 1483, it was said the capital had never seen so many men all wearing the same badge – the Stafford knot.

The first proven use of the Stafford Knot by anyone other than the Stafford family as an heraldic device was by the Borough of Stafford in the late sixteenth century.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that the borough or burh of Stafford was founded by Aetheflaed, Lady of the Mercians, in AD 913 as part of a campaign to reconquer England from the Danes.  Stafford was one of three Staffordshire boroughs listed in the Domesday Book of 1086 and received its earliest surviving royal charter in 1206 from King John.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, heralds from the College of Arms toured the counties of England recording the coats of arms actually in use and checking on the right of those bearing them to do so.  These heralds’ visitations remain some of the most important sources of heraldic history.

No arms for the borough of Stafford were recorded in the first visitation of Staffordshire in 1583, although a seal was then in use depicting a four-towered castle between five lions.  King William the Conqueror had built a royal castle in the town near Broad Eye but this was described as “now destroyed” in Domesday, 20 years later, and was superseded by the Stafford family’s castle outside the town, to the south-west.

By the second heraldic visitation of 1614, a coat of arms was recorded depicting a silver four-towered castle with two gold Stafford Knots above and a gold lion below, all on a red shield.  The heraldic blazon for this is: “Gules, a quadrangular castle in perspective the towers domed argent, each surmounted by a pennon or, between two Stafford Knots in chief and a lion passant guardant in base all or”.

These arms remained in use for 360 years until local government reorganisation in 1974.  However, a sizable body of evidence exists to show that another armorial shield, never authenticated by the heralds, also existed from at least late the 16th century until the middle of the 17th century.

In 1588 William Smith published A Particular Description of England which includes the coats of arms of noblemen and bishops in each county.  The entry for Staffordshire also attributes to the borough of Stafford a coat the same as that borne by the Stafford family with the addition of a silver Stafford Knot at the apex of the chevron.

The same arms are depicted in John Speed’s map of Staffordshire in his Theatre of the Empire of Great Britain, published in 1612.  They also appear on the fly-sheet of an order book of the borough council beginning in 1648 and can still be seen on the bowl of the mayor’s silver-gilt great mace, which was altered in 1655.

One can only speculate why these arms remained in use for at least 67 years but were not recorded in the heralds’ visitations of 1583 or 1614.  

Perhaps the heralds were reluctant to recognise the borough’s right to use a coat of arms identical to that of the Stafford family, except for the addition of that family’s own badge as a difference.

In contrast, the council could demonstrate long use of its seal depicting the castle and lions.  Ancient usage was then recognised as establishing a right to a coat of arms.

Some people, however, seem to have regarded the earlier coat of arms as being the proper arms of the borough of Stafford for many years after the College of Arms approved those which remained the only authentic coat until 1974.

Whatever the explanation, it is clear that the borough of Stafford had adopted the Stafford Knot as one of its armorial bearings at least by 1614 and probably by 1588.  This was to have profound consequences for the knot as an emblem of Staffordshire as a whole.

In 1794 a regiment of volunteer soldiers was raised at the Swan Hotel in Stafford which was later named the Staffordshire Yeomanry.  The Stafford knot was soon adopted as its badge.

At some time during the Napoleonic Wars, the South Staffordshire Regiment also adopted the knot surmounted by a crown as its badge.  Later in the 19th century, the North Staffordshire Regiment also adopted the knot, with the addition of the three ostrich feathers of the heir apparent, as its badge.

By the middle of the 19th century, the knot was being used widely by commercial enterprises based in Staffordshire.  The North Staffordshire Railway Company (commonly known as the Knotty Line) used the arms of the Borough of Stafford (quite improperly) from soon after its foundation in 1845.

Many pottery firms based in North Staffordshire also used the knot as their trade marks, often with the addition of a set of initials in the three loops of the knot.

By the early 20th century, several local authorities in Staffordshire had the knot incorporated into their coats of arms granted by the College of Arms.

When Staffordshire County Council was created under the Local Government Act of 1888, the need for its own common seal immediately arose.  At its first meeting on April 1st, 1889, the task of designing a seal and ordering it to be made was entrusted to three members – the chairman, the Earl of Harrowby, the vice chairman and Lord Wrottesely.

The design they chose incorporated the arms assumed by the Borough of Stafford in the late 16th century, but never approved by the College of Arms, within an octofoil.  Four of the eight lobes of this figure contained Stafford Knots linking roundels bearing emblems representing the four principal industries of Staffordshire – a wheatsheaf for agriculture, the alchemical symbol of iron for iron-founding, a lozenge for coalmining and a jug for pottery manufacturing.

The Latin legend around the rim read: “SIG: COM: CONCILII COMITATUS STAFFORDIENSIS” meaning “common seal of the council of the county of Stafford”.

A coloured representation of this seal appeared at the top of certificates issued to special constables during the First World War.  At the bottom appeared a Stafford Knot with the initials SCC within its loops – rather like the makers’ marks used by minor pottery manufacturers in North Staffordshire at the time.

The county council did not apply for its own coat of arm until 1930 when a member offered to pay the fee for a grant by the College of Arms and a committee was set up to consider various designs.  Some complicated proposals involving devices used by long established county families were quickly discarded and the arms used on the common seal advanced with the addition of a red chief (a broad stripe across the top of the shield) bearing a golden lion passant guardant, taken from the arms of the Borough of Stafford approved in 1614.  The heralds later insisted that the chief should be blue rather than red, probably to avoid too close a resemblance to the royal arms of England.  The blue chief also gives a more pleasing overall effect.

The crest above the shield was quickly agreed on as a Stafford Knot arising out of a mural crown, indicating a civic authority.  Supporting the shield were a red lion and a golden gryphons, two of the Stafford family’s many other badges.

The motto selected was: “The Knot Unites”, demonstrating how deeply ingrained in the consciousness of Staffordshire folk the emblem had become.  This achievement was approved by the College of Arms in January 1931 and is still used on the county council’s common seal, in place of the earlier unapproved shield.

Josiah Wedgwood – from humble potter to household name, by Neil Thomast

Wedgwood is synonymous with the pottery industry of Staffordshire to such an extent it is hard to grasp how far and fast it changed two and a half centuries ago.

Most of that change was the achievement of one man, Josiah Wedgwood, albeit aided by many others in different ways.

Pottery has been manufactured in Staffordshire for many hundreds of years. A type of red-clay earthenware archaeologists call Stafford ware has been found at many excavated sites across the Midlands, suggesting the town was an important pottery-making centre in Saxon times, well before the Norman Conquest.

Mediaeval potters learned how to glaze their pottery with simple chemical coatings using salt or lead compounds added during the firing of the raw material which occurs abundantly here. The earliest record of a potter in Stafford occurs in 1275.

Usually only fragments of these forms of pottery survive. Entire pieces of pottery survive from the 17th and early 18th centuries, but these are still crude and rustic compared to works of art being produced in North Staffordshire by the late 18th century.

From 1720, earthenware was whitened by adding ground flint to the wet clay before firing. The later transformation of the potter’s craft into works of art owed much to Josiah Wedgwood.

Josiah was born into a family of potters and farmers in Burslem in 1730. His father, grandfather and great grandfather had all supplemented their income from farming the clay soil of the area by making pots. But the Wedgwoods had more substantial relatives who had inherited land at Herracles Hall, near Leek, in the late 15th century.

At the age of 12, Josiah was struck by smallpox, a viral infection which was declared eradicated from the human race in 1979 but was then a killer. Four out a five children infected died of the disease and survivors were often left scarred by the rash of pustules it produced on the skin.

One third of all cases of blindness were attributed to smallpox and a small proportion of sufferers developed deformities in their limbs.

Josiah survived, did not go blind and his complexion does not appear to have been severely disfigured. But the disease left him with a weakened right knee, which eventually led to his lower leg being amputated.

Even this turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

The long illness gave him time to improve upon his rudimentary education, which had been cut short by the death of his father in 1739. He read avidly and his curiosity grew.

His weak knee left him unable to work the pedal which turned the wheel on which potters threw their wares. But he was able to explore every other aspect of the potter’s craft and this had far-reaching consequences.

Josiah’s elder brother, Thomas, was unwilling to grant him a partnership in the family business and so he went to work in Stoke-upon-Trent for John Harrison. There he specialised in turning out pots and figurines in clays of variegated colours known as “tortoiseshell” or “agate”, as well as the traditional salt and lead glazes and slipware, in which the body of a piece was coated in liquid clay before firing.

(One of the reasons North Staffordshire was so suitable for the production of pottery was the ready availability of raw materials – local clay, Derbyshire lead and Cheshire salt for glazing and Staffordshire coal for firing.)

In 1754, Josiah went into partnership with a major manufacturer for the time, Thomas Whieldon, of Fenton Hall. Whieldon encouraged Josiah’s taste for experimentation, which was just as well because tastes were changing and customers were looking for something more than the traditional pottery being made.

His innate curiosity and renewed illness led Josiah to conduct more experiments until on May 1st, 1759, he took a lease on Ivy House in Burslem. He now had his own factory.

Demand for the traditional variegated colours was flagging, so Josiah set out to solve a long-standing problem: how to ensure that plain creamware pottery was of a consistent quality.

All potters were familiar with problems such as cracking or crazing of glazes when the chemical mixture or firing temperature of the kiln were not right. Creamware posed the added problem that the hue could vary from butter yellow to almost pure white, when the customer wanted uniformity.

Part of the solution was to make his workmen specialise in individual tasks rather than complete each pot or batch of pots themselves. A very early form of production line was born.

Early in 1762, Josiah suffered another bout of pain and inflammation in his knee and was forced to recuperate in Liverpool. There he met a man who knew hot to make full use of Wedgwood’s ingenuity – Thomas Bentley.

Born in Derbyshire in 1730, the same year as Wedgwood, Bentley had a much longer formal education and had set himself up as a merchant in Manchester, then a growing industrial town. Later he moved to Liverpool, a flourishing port through which the Staffordshire potteries imported much of their clay.

Bentley was much better connected than Wedgwood and was able to introduce his new friend to many acquaintances from the worlds of art and science. The two hit it off immediately, something which again had far-reaching consequences.

Among Wedgwood’s Staffordshire acquaintances were the Chetwynds of Ingestre. The Hon. Deborah Chetwynd was the daughter of the third Viscount Chetwynd and a maid of honour (equivalent to a lady in waiting today) to Queen Caroline, consort of King George III.

Miss Chetwynd told the Queen abut Wedgwood’s creamware which resulted in an order for twelve tea cups, coffee, cups, sauces and associated tableware for the Court of St James’s in 1765.

Although Wedgwood was by no means the only Staffordshire manufacturer of creamware, he was the only one authorised to style himself “Potter to Her Majesty”. The public relations value of landing this one relatively modest order was colossal.

Before long, some very distinguished visitors came to Wedgwood’s Burslem works to view his wares for themselves. They included the fourth Duke of Marlborough, the second Earl Gower and the first Earl Spencer. Wedgwood was the leading pottery firm in Staffordshire.

Wedgwood had already met Lord Gower in connection with improving road links to the Potteries. The turnpike trusts were a major innovation of England’s roadwork networks, enabling private investors to charge tolls for the use of the roads they improved, many of which had hardly altered since the Romans built them more than a thousand years earlier.

For manufacturers of a fragile commodity like pottery, finding a safe and reliable means of transport was a priority.

Gower was head of the Leveson-Gower (pronounced Looson-Gore) dynasty descended from a Yorkshire family of baronets and the mercantile Levesons of Staffordshire. The second earl was Lord Lieutenant of Staffordshire, Lord President of the Council (a senior Cabinet post) and brother-in-law of the third Duke of Bridgewater.

Gower had already helped draw up a petition to Parliament for a bill to link Burslem to an existing toll road in North Staffordshire. Such bills were commonly sought to facilitate the construction of roads and later canals and railways. (The HS2 high-speed railway line through Staffordshire is also the subject of one now.)

The Duke of Bridgewater had started the canal craze by building a waterway to transport coal from his mines at Worsley to Manchester. Not only were people amazed to see narrow boats travelling on an aqueduct way above their heads, they were even more surprised when the cost of the coal they carried was halved.

Wedgwood had long wanted to speed up and cheapen the carriage of fine clays from the West Country which were needed for creamware. He became an enthusiastic supporter of the proposed Grand Trunk Canal linking the River Trent in Staffordshire to the River Mersey in Lancashire. The Trent itself is navigable as far as Derbyshire and a 94-mile artificial waterway was needed to make the link.

Gower chaired a public meeting to drum up support for the project, at which he spoke enthusiastically in its favour, in January 1766. Wedgwood helped steer the bill through both Houses of Parliament until it received Royal Assent on May 14th of the same year.

Wedgwood was then appointed treasurer and unofficial banker to the shareholders of the £130,000 scheme. A bill to promote the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal, linking the Trent and Mersey to the River Severn, was passed the same year so the funds were soon found.

One of the main obstacles the 11-year project had to overcome was Harecastle Hill, near Kidsgrove, between the Potteries and the Cheshire border. The engineer, James Brindley, drove a literally ground-breaking tunnel through the landscape in a process which unearthed fossils he sent to Wedgwood to satisfy his scientific curiosity.

(Another leading figure in the enterprise was Thomas Sparrow, of Bishton Hall, near Stafford, who was clerk to the company shareholders. Wedgwood would sometimes stay at Bishton as Sparrow’s guest.)

By 1767, Wedgwood was consulting Bentley about anything and everything, including the fossil bones unearthed at Harecastle. The following year they entered a formal business partnership in which Wedgwood concentrated on manufacturing and Bentley on marketing the creamware which was by now a runaway success.

But Bentley was more than a marketing man. His keen sense of what would sell led him to put ideas into Wedgwood’s head, leaving his scientific brain to overcome any production difficulties.

By this time, foreign markets were opening up to Wedgwood and Bentley, as the firm became known and it was from overseas that new inspiration came.

The British envoy to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (southern Italy) was Sir William Hamilton, a Scottish aristocrat who spent much of his abundant spare time collecting classical pottery and reporting minor volcanic eruptions of Mount Vesuvius in his diplomatic despatches from the court of Naples to London.

In 1738 the astonishingly well-preserved remains were discovered of the ancient Roman town of Herculaneum, which had buried by a pyroclastic flow of superheated gases from Vesuvius in AD79, during the same volcanic eruption which buried Pompeii in ash. The discovery caused a sensation in cultivated society throughout Europe – classical studies still being the bedrock of most education.

Hamilton published a book of his studies entitled Etruscan Antiquities in 1767. The title was a misnomer because the Etruscans were a pre-Roman civilisation north of Rome itself, in the region now known as Tuscany.

However, the name stuck and Wedgwood set about producing vases based on ancient Roman and Greek designs. For this he would need a new factory designed on a wholly now concept and it was to be called Etruria, after the kingdom of the Etruscans.

Wedgwood bought a 350-acre estate called the Ridge House in Burslem and had the planned route of the Trent and Mersey Canal altered to run immediately past the new factory. It was opened on July 13, 1769.

He also sought new showrooms for his wares in London and opened an enamelling workshop in Chelsea.

Hamilton’s brother, Lord Cathcart, was British ambassador to the court of Empress Catherine the Great of Russia, at St Petersburg. In 1773, through Cathcart’s good offices, the Empress sent Wedgwood a commission for a gigantic creamware dinner service of 932 pieces.

Each piece was to be adorned with the frog motif of her Chesman Palace, the name meaning “frog marsh” in Finnish – that being the language of the region Czar Peter the Great had conquered for his new capital. Each major piece was also to bear a landscape painting of a different English country house.

It was a demanding commission and Wedgwood had to find 1,244 drawings or paintings of a large number of country houses. From Staffordshire, these included Etruria Hall – Wedgwood’s new home – Ingestre, Keele, Shugborough, Swynnerton and Trentham.

Wedgwood had some trial pieces made and fired in the kiln before firing the main service for the Empress. A dessert plate is still on display at the Wedgwood Museum in Barlaston, Stoke-on-Trent.

A bowl with lid is on display at Shugborough. Variously described as either a dessert bowl or small soup tureen, it measures 21cm (over eight inches) across, from handle to handle, and 15.5cm (over six inches) from the top of the lid to the foot of the bowl.

The view of the Shugborough estate appears to show Essex Bridge across the River Trent on one side and Richmond Castle, Yorkshire, on the other. A church tower on the lid looks suspiciously like that of St Michael’s and All Angels’ Church, Colwich, where many Ansons are buried.

Somehow the imperial dinner service remained undiscovered at the Hermitage museum in St Petersburg until the late 20th century. Now the surviving pieces, nearly 800, are on public display there.

Finished in 1774, the service cost the Empress approximately £3,000 (nearly £400,000 at today’s prices) – a colossal sum in the 18th century and rather more than Wedgwood had estimated. None the less, the Empress paid promptly and without demur.

Before being exported to Russia, the service was displayed at Wedgwood and Bentley’s London showrooms, taking up four rooms altogether. Queen Charlotte was only one of hundreds of people who came to view it – another triumph of public relations.

By 1775, Wedgwood had perfected the fine and durable pottery he needed to reproduce the artefacts of ancient Greece and Rome. It had a mat finish, usually of pale blue or green but also black, with white figures applied to the surface. He called it “jasper”.

Today this is the quintessential Wedgwood product, although he continued to produce many other forms of pottery.

By now Wedgwood was producing such a variety of pottery, both ornamental and utilitarian, that he and Bentley found it necessary to publish their first catalogue. Customers no longer needed to go to London or Etruria to see what the partnership had to offer.

The artist George Stubbs spent months at Etruria experimenting in pottery and produced a set of horse studies in jasper. He also painted a family portrait of the Wedgwoods. Further proof of Wedgwood’s eminence was provided by the society portrait artist Sr Joshua Reynolds who painted his portrait.

Political controversy enveloped Wedgwood when a rival manufacturer, Richard Champion, attempted to obtain an Act of Parliament giving him a monopoly of West Country clay for porcelain.

Largely through the influence of Lord Gower in the House of Lords, a compromise was reached. Champion was allowed a monopoly for his porcelain mixture but other manufacturers were able to use the raw materials for their own products.

Wedgwood had an ambivalent attitude to politics. He was an astute judge of public affairs, opposed the war against the rebellious American colonies, favoured union of Great Britain and Ireland and supported parliamentary reform. But he never dabbled in party politics.

Not until 1832, after his death, were the Potteries given their separate representation in the House of Commons. His son, John, was then elected as one of Stoke-on-Trent’s two Members of Parliament.

The one issue on which Wedgwood was outspoken was the abolition of slavery. The courts had ruled slavery illegal in England but the ruling did not apply to British colonies. British ships did a flourishing trade in transporting slaves from Africa to the Americas, to the horror and dismay of many, including Wedgwood.

A jasperware cameo showing a manacled Negro slave with the superscription “Am I not a man and a brother?” was a popular product of the factory at Etruria. He sent a copy to the American statesman Benjamin Franklin. Slavery was abolished in the British Empire in 1807 and the trade ended in 1833.

Tragedy struck Wedgwood in November 1780 when Thomas Bentley died suddenly after a short illness. Bereft of his mentor, Wedgwood had to market his wares on his own. His name was well enough established for this to be possible.

Further recognition came in 1783 when Wedgwood was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. His paper on the pyrometer – a thermometer capable of measuring the very high temperatures needed in a pottery kiln which he had invented– had been read to other fellows the previous year.

Wedgwood never entirely retired from business but he began to take a back seat after 1790, the year he turned sixty. By then he estimated the annual value of his factory’s output at £250,000 – twenty-five times what it had been when Etruria was established twenty years earlier.

Josiah Wedgwood died on January 3rd, 1795 but the Wedgwood name lived on. Josiah Wedgwood and Sons remained a family firm until 1950 – spanning nine generations, of which Josiah was the fourth. No other family business has achieved such longevity.

The pottery industry has had its ups and downs in North Staffordshire. Many famous names have disappeared.

But the most famous of them all remains Wedgwood.

Over 250 years of history make Wedgwood a truly iconic English brand. From it’s beginnings in Stoke-on-Trent, and with a heritage of providing Royal Families, Heads of State as well as celebrities and families all over the world, Wedgwood has the expertise, the design and the craftsmanship to create beautiful works of art whilst adorning dining tables with the most stunning of tableware anywhere in the world.

Aaron’s Film Prop Blog

The acclaimed Ingestre Lodges in a Ingrestre, Staffordshire, not only features beautiful accommodation (for up to 22 people!) in the heart of the British countryside, but each room is a treasure trove for the discerning film buff. Each eclectically styled by Aaron’s production designer mother, the dwellings feature furniture that has been salvaged from famous film sets. Spacious Chetwynd features the brass bedstead from ‘Women in Love’, while retired props from ‘Sense and Sensibility’ and ‘Howards End’ have also found a new home at Ingestre.


Luciana Arrighi was born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in 1940. Raised and educated in Australia, studying at East Sydney Technical College (now the National Art School), she went to the United Kingdom, where she worked for the BBC; she was spotted by Ken Russell, who used her talents in some of his early films such as Isadora Duncan, the Biggest Dancer in the World (1966) and Women in Love (1969).