Labour History Review

Back to the Future? The Potters' Emigration Society and the Historians

Labour History Review (2011), 76, (2), 81–103.

Abstract

The failure of the Potters' Joint-Stock Emigration Society (1844–51) and its founder, William Evans, to transform the lives of North Staffordshire pottery workers by relieving the industry of surplus labour has long been acknowledged. This article investigates the Society's reputation through its treatment by historians from different traditions. Labour historians, beginning with the Webbs, have been particularly hostile to Evans's scheme, seeing it as subversive of trade unionism and working-class interests in general. Historians of emigration, on the other hand, while accepting the serious mistakes made in the Society's planning and execution, have been more sympathetic to its intent and more attentive to settlement outcomes. Other historians have investigated Evans's intellectual roots and, in recent scholarship, linked the Society he founded to broader strands of mid-nineteenth-century land reform. The article discusses the Society's positive reputation among contemporary observers, suggests contexts which may have shaped its emergence and character, and examines previously unused testimony from emigrant potters themselves immediately prior to their departure for the United States. The final section locates the Potters' Emigration Society in the context of nineteenth-century emigration history, noting among other aspects the attraction of American land to craft and industrial workers before the 1850s.

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Author details

Crawford, Martin