School for Scoundrels: The Nightmare Vision of Thomas Wedgwood

IN the north-west midlands of England, there is a famous china and porcelain industry that has been operating since 1759 and which has since given its name to the part of Staffordshire known as the ‘Potteries’.

The largest manufacturer, Wedgwood, went on to make a huge fortune in the ceramics business and leading potter Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795) left half a million pounds to his three sons. The youngest of these, Thomas Wedgwood (1771-1805), was an early pioneer of photography and was so full of himself that he wished to create a school for genius. Ironically, despite his capitalist proclivities the young Wedgwood was a keen supporter of French Jacobinism and absorbed much of the movement’s ruthlessness. As he explained:

I have been endeavouring some masterstroke which should anticipate a century or two upon the lazy-paced progress of human improvement.

As far as Wedgwood was concerned, the “unproductive occupation” of the child must come to an end and the school environment regulated down to the very last detail. “Romping, tickling and fooling” would be strictly forbidden, with no time for “solitary musing”. The walls of the nursery should have grey walls to safeguard against distraction and be filled with hard objects “so as to continually irritate their palms”. Children would be forbidden to leave the premises or venture outside and Wedgwood even proposed that they be taught by William Godwin and various other radicals and subversives of the day.

As a result, he travelled down to Alfoxden House in Somerset to recruit Romantic poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. As the pair’s biographer, Adam Sisman, explains:

Two years before, while he was still under the influence of Godwin, Wordsworth might have considered such a proposition; but now it was anathema to him. To coop up a child indoors, to attempt to limit his sensory experience, not to allow him time for reflection – this was the very antithesis of the method William and Dorothy had adopted with success […]

Coleridge was also opposed to the idea and when Wedgwood made a derogatory comment about Wordsworth in the latter’s absence, he replied: “He strides on so far before you, that he dwindles in the distance.”

Wedgwood, who was said to be disinterested in women and have a taste for sensitive young men, died without children at just 34. One can only imagine the educational horrors if his perverse dreams had been realised.

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