Jane Austen possessed some Wedgwood china : let’s read this extract from her letter to Cassandra Austen of the 6th June 1811,wherein she articulates many feelings common to modern mail-order purchasers :
On Monday I had the pleasure of receiving, unpacking and approving our Wedgwood ware. It all came very safely and upon the whole is a good match, tho’ I think they might have allowed us rather larger leaves, especially in such a year of fine foliage as this. One is apt to suppose that the Woods about Birmingham must be blighted.
There was no bill with the Goods-but that shall not screen them from being paid. I mean to ask Martha to settle the account. It will be quite in her way for she is just now sending my Mother a Breakfast set, from the same place. I hope it will come by the Waggon tomorrow; it is certainly what we want and I long to know what it is like: and as I am sure Martha has great pleasure in making the present,I will not have any regrets..
Such a sort passage for one letter: but such a lot of points to consider.
First to the showroom. This a print above is from my copy of Ackerman’s Repository of Arts for February 1809. I love this print. It gives us such a lot of detail about Wedgwood’s tempting wares and his method of selling them.
Let’s consider some of the detail;
Here is the manager showing his customer the ware….The manager of the Wedgwood showroom in Bath was of course Mrs Radcliffe’s father ,and her uncles was Wedgwood’s business partner, Thomas Bentley…..
In 1771-2 Ann Ward stayed with her uncle Thomas Bentley in Turnham Green while her parents prepared for their removal to Bath, where her father was to manage the Wedgwood showroom, a position obtained for him by Bentley, who was Wedgwood’s partner and a man of refined taste.
.(see Mistress of Udolpho:The Life of Ann Radcliffe by Rictor Norton)
In the showroom are some well-behaved children…
Tables laden with wares….
and a rather fagged lady wanting to go home and drink tea from the wares and not to have to look at any more cups and pots.
The showroom where Martha Lloyd placed her order, was just off St James’s Square in London, in York Street. This was a very fashionable and smart address being not far from St James’s Palace where the court of the King (and the Prince Regent) held all its official levees etc.Wedgwood clearly wanted to appeal to the highest classes of society.
This is a description of the showrooms from my copy of A Picture of London (1809), one of the early guidebooks to the Metropolis:
Upon the north side and near the middle of Pall Mall is St James Square, having a circular bason inclosed within an octagonal railing, in its centre; the houses surrounding this square are chiefly inhabited by nobility. The town residence of the bishops of London a large inelegant pile of brick building occupies along with its neighbour Norfolk House in which our present sovereign was born, all that portion of the eastern side of the square, intercepted between Charles Street and Pall Mall. At the corner of York Street an avenue leading from this street to Jermyn Street is the large house and manufactory of Mr Wedgwood in whose exertions much of the late reformations of public taste is to be ascribed. This house has been originally the habitation of the Spanish Ambassador to which was attached the adjoining chapel,which, upon his quitting this place was used as a place of worship by sundry sectarians and is at present in the possession of a Mr Proud one of the adherents to the singular tenets of an eccentric Swedish Baron Emanuel Swedenborough for an account of whose doctrine we must refer our readers to Evans’s useful comprehensive yet concise account of the various denominations of Christians.
Of course the wares would not be made in London: they were only retailed there. They were created in Staffordshire, which is where Jane Austen’s knowledge of geography is shown to be slightly lacking in the letter I quote from above. She is confusing Birmingham in Warwickshire with Burslem in Staffordshire where Josiah Wedgwood and his descendant had their factory.
She might be doing so because the Wedgwoods were famously a radical family and were part of the Lunar Society group based primarily in Birmingham-along with Richard Lovell Edgeworth( father of Maria) and Matthew Bouton, Joseph Priestly etc. But who knows for certain?
This is a picture of the Wedgwood works at Etruria as they appeared in the late 18th century. The pottery industry was of vital importance to the Staffordshire economy in the late 18th /early 19th centuries as this extract from England Described etc (1818) by John Aikin M.D. explains:
Staffordshire has long been noted, and is now particularly famous, for its potteries, the chief seat of which is near Newcastle, in a line of villages extending about ten miles. The neighbourhood affords abundance of the most bulky materials for this business, namely fire-clay and coals; but their finer clays are brought from Purbeck in Dorsetshire and other parts of that coast; and flints from the chalk pits near Gravesend, with some from Wales and Ireland. For the conveyance of these articles they have the benefit of water-carriage, either from Hull or Gainsborough, by means of the Trent which communicates with the southern extremity of the Staffordshire Grand Trunk Canal; or from Liverpool by means of the Mersey, and the duke of Bridgwater’s navigation, to the northern extremity of the same canal. The manufactured goods are sent away by the same conveyances. The perfection to which this manufacture has been brought, and the great elegance of the useful and ornamental articles of which it consists, have rendered it a very important object of commerce, both foreign and domestic.
Burslum was the site of Wedgewood’s Etruria Works,a name inspired by the classical vases, particularly those illustrated by Sir William Hamilton in his book “Etruscan Vases’, upon which Josiah Wedgwood based his neoclassical designs. Look at this extract, again from England Described, and note that the whole area became known as The Potteries,a name that is still applied today even though the manufacture of pottery is sadly in decline there:
The principal place in the Potteries is Bruslem, lately raised to the priviledge of a market town,and supplying the wants of a very populous neighbourhood, the inhabitants which have been drawn together by this demand are very numerous and are employed chiefly in various branches of manufacture.
Jane Austen tells us how these delicate and precious gods were transported to her in Hampshire: by Waggon. The waggon system of transporting goods and livestock was operated by private contractors all over the country. Nearly every small town possessed a company which supplied waggons travelling to and from London,and delivering parcels of goods to their area.
While Jane Austen was living at Chawton the waggon services available in Alton, her nearest market town were as follows:
Coaches,Waggons etc. Collier’s Alton Coach from the Bell Savage Ludgate Hill, 3 times a week. A Southampton coach passes daily Sundays excepted to and from the same inn; also a Gosport dilligence daily to the White Horse Fetter-lane. Knight’s waggons leaves the New Inn, Old Bailey every Tuesday and Friday morning and arrives at Alton every Thursday and Saturday evening. Falkner and Lamport’s Farnham and Alton waggon leaves the George, Snows-hill every Tuesday and Friday and other waggons pass through the town almost every day.
(See the entry for Alton, Hampshire in Crosby’s Complete Pocket Gazetteer of England and Wales (1807). NOTE : this was the same firm of publishers, owned by Benjamin Crosby, who bought the copyright of Northanger Abbey, then known by the title “Susan”, in 1803 for £10 but never published it. Jane Austen eventually purchased the manuscript back from them . The correspondence between them included her famous letter of April 5, 1809 which she wrote under the pseudonym of Mrs Ashton Dennis thus enabling her to end the letter with the following phrase, I AM GENTLEMEN, MAD.)
Jane Austen and her mother were not the only fans of Wedgwood’s wares in the Austen family. Still extant at The Jane Austen House Museum is the set of Wedgwood ware that Edward Knight, Jane’s brother ordered, exactly as Jane Austen described it : The pattern is a small Lozenge in purple,between lines of narrow Gold ; & it is to have the (Knight) crest
And so, there you have a little explanation of that small mention of Wedgwood ware in Jane Austen’s letter. We have seen the showroom in London, learnt about where the wares were made and just how Jane Austen would have received them form London via waggon.
I trust you have enjoyed this little excursion into the retail world of the early 19th century, and that your own excursions in the realms of 21st century Christmas shopping is as pleasant and satisfactory as were Jane Austen’s goods from The Potteries and St James’s.