Life before Parliament: the formative years of Josiah C. Wedgwood, 1872-1904

hlfhi_blkLast night at the new Newcastle-under-Lyme Library the History of Parliament’s Sammy Sturgess and Emma Peplow, along with British Academy / Wolfson Foundation Research Professor Paul Seaward, gave a talk about the life of Josiah C. Wedgwood to local history enthusiasts. They were graciously introduced by Zagham Farhan, the Member of Youth Parliament for Newcastle-under-Lyme and Moorlands. This event launched our exhibition tour in North Staffordshire as part of our Heritage Lottery Funded project, Commemorating Josiah C. Wedgwood. The exhibition is currently being displayed at Newcastle Library, but will move onto the next leg of its journey on Monday (25 Sep) at Stoke City Central Library. To celebrate this event and accompany her last blog about Wedgwood’s campaigns in 1930s – including fundraising to begin his History of Parliament project – our Public Engagement Officer Sammy Sturgess sheds a little light on Wedgwood’s formative years…

exhibition at Newcastle Library
‘Josiah Wedgwood and the defence of democracy’ exhibition at Newcastle-under-Lyme Library

Josiah Clement Wedgwood was born in Barlaston, Staffordshire on 16 March 1872, the second son of Clement Wedgwood and Emily Rendel. He was the great-great grandson of his namesake and founder of the Wedgwood pottery dynasty, Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795). He did not align himself to a career in the pottery business – unlike his grandfather, father and brothers. Josiah the younger took an interest in history, the military and politics from an early age, winning a school prize for the former and engaging with both the latter outside of the classroom whilst at Clifton College, Bristol.

SH-17-08839 Image 1 Josiah Wedgwood (C) The Brampton Museum & Art Gallery
Josiah C. Wedgwood (c) Brampton Museum and Art Gallery

In 1890 after sixth form and following a failed army medical (due to a hernia), Josiah opted out of university and started work at Armstrong’s Elswick military ship building works, Tyneside; following in the footsteps of his maternal uncle Hamilton Rendel with whom he stayed during his time in the North-East. Through his uncles there he began to rub shoulders with the local Liberal elite, and under his own volition attended political meetings. In Tyneside he led an active social life and nurtured his military propensity by volunteering with the 1st Northumberland Voluntary Artillery, less formally known as the Elswick Battery, where he held the rank of second lieutenant. He won a scholarship to the Royal Naval College Greenwich and commenced his studies in London in 1892.


Shortly before his studies began during a visit home to Barlaston, young Josiah met his would be first wife, and cousin, Ethel Bowen daughter of Lord Justice Bowen. Despite their scandalous divorce trial in 1918, during which Josiah falsely claimed he had an adulterous affair in order to ensure the divorce would be granted, he still wrote fondly of Ethel in his Memoirs (Memoirs of a Fighting life, 1941)

It would be quite impossible to write any memoirs of my life which left out my first wife, and I see no reason for the taboo. I owe to her seven children and twenty halcyon years. If one could repeat, I would do it again with eyes open, knowing the end; and what, is more, I believe she would, too.

After a short, intense courtship the pair married in July 1893, against the wishes of Josiah’s mother who wanted her son to wait until after his graduation from Greenwich. Nevertheless the newlyweds set up home in Greenwich and soon thereafter began to welcome their children – their first daughter, Helen was born only a year and a day after the wedding. The next three children came in quick succession, and Josiah still managed to graduate from the Royal Naval College with a second-class pass in the autumn of 1895.

He worked for a year as Assistant Constructor in the drawing office in the naval dockyard in Portsmouth before returning to the Tyneside to resume work at the Elswick shipyard (this time as a qualified architect). Ethel and Jos slotted into society well in the North-East reconnecting with old acquaintances from Josiah’s previous time there. Ethel’s friends, ‘chosen with great care’ included the Trevelyans and ‘Miss Ella Pease of Pendower…close friend of Sir Edward Grey’ (Memoirs, p. 41). With Josiah’s increasing political radicalism and his growing inclination towards the Liberal party, he began to disassociate himself from the Fabians, with whom he had been affiliated since his time in London. He formally resigned his membership in 1897 due to a disagreement over which side to support in an engineering industry dispute (according to Wedgwood’s biographer, Paul Mulvey).

When the Boer War broke out in 1899 Wedgwood finally got his chance to fulfill his ambition of active military service. The Elswick Battery was deployed to South Africa in April 1900 – along with Ethel! She worked in the local Red Cross for a time to help the war effort whilst Josiah’s mother took care of the children. The couple made the acquaintance of the Cape Governor, Sir Alfred Milner, who kept Wedgwood in mind for a position in the civil service after the war. When nothing was available immediately Josiah reluctantly went home in 1901 having enjoyed army life in South Africa – despite his distaste for some of the British military policy and practices during the campaign.

Paul Seaward talking about Josiah C. Wedgwood and the History of Parliament Trust

An opportunity to take part in Milner’s vision for governance in post-war South Africa arose in 1902, so Wedgwood moved the family to South Africa. After two months he was offered the position as the resident magistrate of the Ermelo-Carolina district. He threw himself into his career and enjoyed life in South Africa immensely, but by 1904 Ethel was in ill health and homesick. After a visit back to the England for her health, on the journey back to South Africa the family got as far as Gran Canaria and Ethel refused to go any further. The Wedgwoods returned to Staffordshire where Jos lived the ‘life of an idle country gentleman’ (Memoirs, p. 58) and pined for his beloved South Africa. To busy himself he began work researching Staffordshire medieval history and found a renewed interest in politics, which was quickly nurtured by local ex-Liberal MP Alfred Baillson.

Josiah achieved and experienced a lot before he was elected as the Liberal Member of Parliament for Newcastle-under-Lyme in the 1906 Liberal landslide election. He would continue to be known as an exceptionally active person both in his political campaigning and in his extra-parliamentary activities, including his fervent enthusiasm for history.


For further information on our HLF funded project, including the exhibition tour in North Staffordshire, our events at Keele University and our free KS3 study pack, please contact Sammy Sturgess at

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