After I escaped from full-time employment I started to explore Cornwall – a county new to me (apart from childhood summer holidays) and something of a mysterious place if the rumours were to be believed.  (They were).  And so eventually I paid a visit to Wheal Martyn.  I wasn’t sure what to expect – I had heard of china clay and knew that it came from Cornwall and was used in making white pots but apart from that I was somewhat unclear as to what it was. I imagined a museum dedicated to the history of digging mud out of the ground, for sale to the good potters of the Potteries.  Perhaps something akin to the clay industry of Bedfordshire but white.

waterwheelI was somewhat surprised by what I found.  Actually, amazed would be more accurate.  Here was an industry that had been operating for generations and quietly providing kaolin for a whole myriad of industrial products and processes.   Not only that but here was a pretty well complete clay works, gradually becoming overgrown but through which the whole process of clay extraction, purification and drying could be followed.  And what a process.  No dark mills, no huge industrial structures, no noisy processes.  Just a supply of water, a waterwheel or two, a furnace, a dose of gravity, some ingenuity and a number of people with hand tools.  And these people had not only dug great big holes all over their county but had built some rather large pointy new hills.  I was captivated by it.

I can imagine that those who have worked in the industry would consider this last statement to be absolute proof of my having lost the plot.  But it was just so unexpected.  I knew of the mining, metal manufacturing and processing industries, of railways and engineering and shipbuilding, of cotton and woollen spinning and weaving.  But no-one had told me about these people in the South West who squirted water at the rocks and so obtained the raw material to allow craftsmen to make fine white almost translucent pottery, or shiny paper, or medicine, or toothpaste, or practically everything else.  For outside Cornwall the china clay industry is not well known. 

Maps of the St. Austell area from 50-150 years ago show that the whole place was knee deep in clay pits and dries.  The industry was the driving force behind the development of the area and the local ports, as well as some railways and the now-forgotten canals.   Huge amounts of clay were shipped out, mostly coming from quite small pits and dries.  Kaolin will continue to be extracted in large quantities from pits all over the world and the industrial processes will continue to be developed and improved.  But here at Wheal Martyn we have the last remaining example of how things used to be done.

It is important that the story of the industry in Cornwall should be remembered.  It is too easy for communities to forget their history.  For example up in Cheshire, there is very little recognition of the once locally ubiquitous salt industry.  In Sandbach, you will find it difficult to find any reference to Foden or ERF apart from the odd street name.  In Crewe – a town which was built and largely owned by the railway – the railway connection is slowly being erased.  At my last visit to Crewe Heritage Centre the trains were the focus and the building of a complete self-contained railway works and dormitory town on a green field site in the middle of no-where was largely ignored.

Wheal Martyn is fortunate in not only having the Clay Works project and the superb new facilities for education and exhibition but also it is in the unique position that after visitors have been educated, or have seen an exhibition, they can then go and see – and touch – the real thing.  I like to think that in some small way we volunteers – whatever task we do - are making a contribution to the preservation of the industry history in general and Wheal Martyn (something once commonplace but now virtually unique) in particular.  Not just for the benefit of future generations but also so that it will not be lost.  So future Cornwall explorers can be as astounded as I was.

It seems to be an uphill struggle sometimes – but My Goodness, it’s worth it.