Wedgwood Institute as a symbol of “savage inequality”?

I was listening to the second of two BBC Radio 4 programmes on the history of philanthropy, when I was startled to hear something said by local Labour M.P. Tristram Hunt. He said of the Wedgwood Institute in Burslem…

“we’re standing in front of this beautiful elegant Wedgwood Institute, built from the gas industry and the ceramics industry and all the rest of it, and it’s meant to show their generousness, but you can also see — behind it — young men and women dying at 13 and savage inequality.”

Firstly I’ve always read that the Institute was funded by a wide public subscription, rather than being the result of the “generousness” of industry alone. The science classes and Library at the Institute in the 1870s were publicly funded, specifically by adding a penny on the local rates (i.e.: via a general local property tax) which meant they were being funded by a wide spread of local people. The books for the library were indeed donated — by John Ruskin, most famously, and he can hardly be called a slavering capitalist. I admit I haven’t ever seen the full listing of contributors to the Institute’s public subscription (has anyone?), and that the dilapidated old Brickhouse Works site was purchased by ceramics manufacturer James Macintyre for the building of the Institute. But it seems to me that — rather than the Institute being solely a monument to paternalistic largesse, as Hunt seems to imply — it was rather a generous gift from all of the town’s people. One meant as a living monument to the memory of Wedgwood, and open for the benefit of all.

Perhaps Hunt was thinking of William Woodall as a person who might justify his linkage. Woodall who was a key driving force behind the building of the Institute, being the Secretary of the Committee set up to fund and build it. But Woodall’s job as a young Burslem gasworks manager, and as a partner in the James Macintyre and Company china firm (later Moorcroft), hardly seems to be sufficient cause to damn the Wedgwood Institute as being somehow emblematic of child death and “savage inequality”.

Perhaps Hunt was thinking specifically of cobalt blue, used for the making of “Staffordshire Blue” ware at Macintyre & Co., in which Woodall was a partner. Hunt disparagingly mentions cobalt glazes earlier in the radio interview, so this seems a possibility. Cobalt could then contain up to ten percent arsenic, a known poison. At that time over 300,000 pounds of the ‘zaffre’ type of cobalt was imported annually to the UK, from Saxony and Prussia (now Germany). Although it was used in the glazes in a highly diluted form (1:150000), and the German industrial chemists were on the verge of developing ways to remove the arsenic.

Yet I can find no mention, in the historical record, of any deaths or health problems in the Potteries specifically attributed to the mixing or firing of cobalt glazes. Indeed, a modern article by Jeff Zamek, “A Problem With Cobalt?”, states that…

“A statistically accurate study of potters and their use of raw materials was sponsored at the 2000 NCECA [National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts] meeting [and] a search of the National Library of Medicine data banks and other medical libraries did not reveal any diagnosed cases of potters contracting cobalt, manganese or arsenic poisoning.” [my emphasis]

Nor can I find, in any old book or government report, an instance of Macintyre & Co.’s Washington Works at Burslem being singled out as having notably bad working practices or health problems.

There certainly were health problems arising from some specific types of jobs in the wider Potteries: painters ingesting lead during painting, got from licking their brushes to get a point on them (many manufacturers responded by introducing leadless or reduced-lead glazes); scourers could inhale flint silicate dust, when polishing up the pots after kiln firing (responded to by manufacturers with forced ventilation, often inadequate); child labour had indeed been a general problem. There were around 4,500 child workers in the potteries at the 1861 Census, with many of the worst cases a result of a combination of alcoholic parents and small backstreet workshops. Some children would be sent to work by their inebriated parents “in the place of” the adult. But three Parliamentary commissions of inquiry, a strident and effective Victorian welfare movement, and a host of new laws were all regulating hours and conditions by the time the Wedgwood Institute was being planned and built in the 1860s.

Finally, what of Hunt’s claim for gas? This again points to his thinking of William Woodall, then a manager of the Burslem gasworks and also the Secretary of the Institute Committee. I suppose it’s possible that the Burslem and Tunstall Gas Company gave an especially large amount to the Institute’s public subscription? Perhaps it even installed gas lighting in the Institute for free? Even so, it does seem a little far-fetched to imply that Victorian gas lighting was therefore to blame for child deaths and “savage inequality”. Gas lighting was generally seen as a public good, by the 1860s. By that time domestic gas had also meant a huge reduction in the very unhealthy coal-smoke pollution. Gas street lighting, which all of Burslem had by the 1860s, meant the streets were safer at night, and on dark and icy mornings. Admittedly, mid-Victorian gasworks did not have a reputation as pleasant or healthy places to work — but the Gasworks Clauses Act of 1847 had long since been passed by Woodall’s time, and this strictly regulated the pollution from gasworks. Ground and air contamination outside of a gasworks grounds was apparently severely policed, especially in residential districts. We might also hope that the Burslem gasworks, apparently under the control of the progressive and enlightened William Woodall (schooled as a Congregationalist, a Chief Bailiff of Burslem, and later a Liberal M.P. and a tireless champion of women’s rights), was well run and had an eye on worker safety.

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One comment on “Wedgwood Institute as a symbol of “savage inequality”?

  1. […] I’ve previously looked at the 1990s life expectancy figures here, and at Marx’s oft-repeated but very shaky 1860s claims here. I’ve also taken a close look at “Air pollution in the Potteries”, including a big study that appears to show that of a “cohort of 7,020 male pottery workers born in 1916-1945” only “47 deaths could be even tentatively tied only to silica dust exposure.” I’ve also looked at claims of cobalt poisoning. […]

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