Monday 22 April 2013

For Richer For Poorer

The Sunday Times has published its latest “rich list”, namely the people said to have the largest loot in their money bags among UK residents, who may not be entirely resident for tax purposes, and nationals, whose tax affairs may not be entirely national.  Sadly, we failed to make the cut yet again.  As the hay fever season is here, if only I had a million for every time I have sneezed.

A couple of days ago a BBC documentary dealt with one man who made it to the 18th Century Rich List by virtue of his own skills and related abilities.  He was Josiah Wedgewood of Burslem, now part of Stoke on Trent.  In the 18th Century he began as an ordinary potter and became an industrial magnate in the pottery business dealing with the elites of Europe.

The documentary was fronted by A.N. Wilson, different from the usual yelping or instructive presenter types and not perhaps an obvious choice as more of a philosopher than a commercial type.  But he had been there and done that because his father was Production Director for the Wedgewood Company when he was a boy and an active and expert in the pottery trade beyond figures and paperwork.  So Wilson was familiar in his time with both the works and their operations.

What he did bring out was the religious aspect to Josiah Wedgewood and his friends and contemporaries.  Josiah was a strong Unitarian, along with his family and closely associated with members of other Dissenting Congregations.  The documentary made clear the extent and nature of their influence in promoting both social reform and scientific progress as well as industrial and structural change. 

The Dissenters were not simply those of the owning and managing classes.  In that period they were excluded from politics or office and were becoming strong among the skilled and commercial ordinary classes, especially in the urban areas which had little or no parliamentary representation.

Keir Hardie, born 1856, a founder of the Labour Movement was also an active member of the Dissenting congregations.  By one of those twists of history his work took him to Cumnock in Ayrshire for a time, spiritual home to those who followed the faith of Richard Cameron and The Cameronians of the late 17th Century.

His father, David Hardie, was a ship’s carpenter but who needed to work at other things from time to time.  Having already researched a ship’s carpenter who worked out of The Clyde who was parallel to him the background is clear.  It was a hard and uncertain life in a dangerous trade.

Additionally, Keir Hardie was Temperance and a member of the Good Templars Lodge, an organisation set up to rival the Freemasons but on a non alcoholic and more democratic basis.  Again, this is a subject already researched in the person of Peter Turner Winskill, prominent nationally and one of the first to be recruited to these Templars on their introduction from America.

With the takeover of socialist and related thinking by the followers of Marx, Lenin, Stalin and Mao etc. it is usual in many histories to force those from a pre-Marxist socialism into that mould.  So we now hear very little about these older traditions in social reform and its intellectual origins.  The Labour grandees of the present with family origins in these classes take care not to mention them.

There are also inconvenient truths.  Dissenting congregations in the 18th Century were among those who wished to abolish slavery and also gave moral support to the Americans seeking representative government for the colonies.  As the Dissenters were excluded from politics or office in Britain this was their cause as well as the Americans.  In the histories the emphasis is usually on the individuals rather than on the larger congregations that they represented.

Later when Keir Hardie’s own predictions of 1895 about the way the British monarchy might go in the next generation this may have struck a chord with many reformers at the time but brought down on his head a good deal of antagonism and perhaps cost him his seat in West Ham. 

Hardie had come into prominence just at the time when the then Gladstone Liberal government of the early 1880’s had extended the ballot to large numbers of men of the middling and skilled classes.  It was also a time when many of these in the Dissenting congregations began to question both the adverse effects of unregulated free trade in the urban areas for the working class and the hectic imperialism of the time.

The consequence was the growth of the Labour movement and the formation of a distinct political party to that effect.  At first sight Hardie may seem to be of a very different stamp from the Wedgewood’s of the 18th, but they started off in much the same strata of life that he did and with the same theological motivations.

If we look at all the proposals for what history is to be studied in schools and for that matter elsewhere these are largely determined by modern secular and other notions about what is convenient and popular in terms of modern fixations and fantasies. 

It seems that there is a determination to obliterate large swathes of the reality and complexity of our history across the recent centuries.  It is this that causes modern governments to be blind to our full history as well.  And it is not just other people in another age it is a part of the communal DNA of many, if not most of us.

Let us now praise famous men?


  1. Well said. Stop teaching history in any depth and you can deceive anyone. The programme you mention was very very informative. I also hope A.N.Wilson makes more programmes of this standard. I had to check it was BBC. Also, as someone with only state education, from experience with my children and grandchildren, history, if at all, has not been taught in any way that I could see as a reasonable standard to ANY of them - very very far from my long ago excellent State grammar school.

  2. We visited the Wedgewood factory some years ago. A guy was painting figurines and I recall someone asking him if he enjoyed the work.

    "I did until BS 5750 came in," was the reply.