China Clay Extraction


The development of the china clay industry in the 18th century was due chiefly to one or two land owning families on whose estates the clay was found and worked, and to entrepreneurs of the English pottery industry whose factories were established in the midland counties. The discovery of china clay in Cornwall is attributed to William Cookworthy, a Plymouth chemist, who in 1768 took out a patent for the manufacture of a new kind of porcelain. He had in fact been experimenting with its production for a number of years, and had discovered natural sources of kaolin in the parishes of Germoe, St Stephen in Brannel and St Dennis, on the lands of the Hon Thomas Pitt of Boconnoc. By end of the 18th century Staffordshire potters were becoming interested in obtaining a regular supply of fine clay, and entered into negotiations with local landowners.

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By the mid-19th century the industry had expanded considerably in the area around St Austell and an efficient system of communication by rail and tramway had been developed. Most of the small independent pits were gradually acquired by companies of china clay merchants, including John Lovering, Henry Pochin and Elias Martyn, all of St Austell.

Documents include: setts (grants for a short term, usually 21 years, of licences to extract china clay or china stone, subject to agreed dues payable to the landlord), plans, prospectuses (showing proposed, rather than actual, activity), annual company reports and accounts, and correspondence.

Most of the relevant documents can be found among the archives of those families on whose land the first explorations were carried out, and the solicitors who were involved in the establishment of partnerships and the amalgamation of companies. Major sources include:

  • Fortescue of Boconnoc (catalogue reference F): letters and papers relating to William Cookworthy's discovery and development of china clay in the 1760s, also letters, plans and accounts relating to works in St Stephen in Brannel, c1840-1910.
  • Treffry of Place (catalogue reference TF): setts, agreements, letters and papers relating to the development of clay works in St Austell and St Dennis, c1799-1930. The collection also includes many records of the Par and Newquay harbours and mineral railways enterprises which include references to clay carried and exported.
  • Hawkins of Trewithen (catalogue reference J): clay accounts and dues, applications for licences, setts, plans, St Stephen in Brannel and St Mewan, c1835-1915. The collection also includes records of St Austell - Pentewan railway and harbour, containing information on clay carried and exported.
  • Carlyon of Tregrehan (catalogue reference CN): letter, plans and papers relating to china clay works in St Austell and St Blazey, c1825-1918.
  • Clifden of Lanhydrock (catalogue reference CL): setts, licences, plans and correspondence, 19th and 20th centuries.
  • Whitfords, solicitors, St Columb (catalogue reference WH): setts, St Dennis, including Wedgewood-Minton interest, 1824-1909; legal papers, west of England China Stone and Clay Company v Stocker, 1910-1922, including many relating to individual clay works and associations.
  • Coodes, solicitors, St Austell (catalogue reference CF): setts, St Austell area, 19th century, Swale estate; also administrative and legal papers, articles of association of companies, 1825-1898; records of China Clay and Stone Association, 1850-1915.
  • Manor of Treverbyn (catalogue reference MT): the manor covered the northern part of the parish of St Austell. Following its purchase in the 1850s by the families of Ivimey and GIll the manorial waste was extensively developed for china clay working: setts, agreements, plans, partnership deeds, 19th and 20th centuries.