Smoking, drinking and the British sweet tooth

Breakfast service

Made by Josiah Wedgwood, 1785
Jasper stoneware, with applied relief decoration

Object number 12.60/4
Given by Marjorie Lees, 1960

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Breakfast service

This breakfast service can be linked to the history of slavery in several ways, demonstrating the extent of the slave trade's impact on British culture and society.

The service was made by Josiah Wedgwood, who established his ceramics business in 1759, in Stoke-on-Trent. Through shrewd marketing and global export, Wedgwood helped to make this industrial Staffordshire town internationally famous. Wedgwood ceramics were in great demand all over the world by, among others, British plantation owners in the USA and the Caribbean, who wanted to spend their new found wealth on the very best luxury goods.

However, Josiah Wedgwood was also a prominent figure in the abolition movement, and produced the anti-slavery medallion ‘Am I not a Man and a Brother?' which depicts a chained and kneeling man. This famous image galvanised opposition to slavery in Britain and the USA, and became the symbol of the British Slave Emancipation Society. However, it also had a negative legacy in its portrayal of a passive black man, failing to acknowledge the fact that black men and women were agents in their own liberation, through active rebellion and resistance.

The set includes a sugar bowl, reflecting the huge growth in consumption of sugar in Britain during the 1700s, in drinks such as tea, coffee and chocolate. The increased availability of sugar during this time depended on the expansion of slave labour on plantations in the West Indies, and hundreds of thousands of Africans suffered to provide this luxury product.

This breakfast service was owned by British prime minister, William Gladstone (1809-1898). His father John Gladstone had large sugar estates in Jamaica and British Guiana (modern Guyana) and received £93,526 in compensation when slavery was abolished in 1834. The enslaved people who had worked on his estates received nothing. William Gladstone worked in the Colonial Office during the period of abolition and initially supported the slave-owning southern states in the American Civil War, though he later gave his support to the abolitionist north.

The service was given to Gallery Oldham by Marjory Lees, daughter of Charles Edward Lees, a key figure in the founding of Oldham's art gallery. The Lees family made their fortune in the cotton industry, which depended on raw cotton grown on slave plantations in the USA, until the abolition of slavery in the USA in 1865.

This information was provided by curators from Gallery Oldham.