Wednesday, 9 September 2020

The China Clay Industry in Cornwall

The china clay industry in Cornwall was known as White Gold at its peak. It created great wealth - for some. Sadly the industry isn't what it was. China clay can now be produced more cheaply in other parts of the world.

It's now hard to imagine that in 1988 the industry produced, 3,277,00 tones of china clay. This was exported all over the world.

Back in the early 1900's half of the worlds china clay was produced in Cornwall. T

The china clay industry took off when William
Cookworthy (1705 - 1780) discovered kaolin (china clay) in 1745. It was later realised that the clay bearing area stretched over 25 square miles.

China clay, as the name suggests, is used for fine china and ceramics but has other uses too. It is used as an ingredient in the likes of glossy paper, toothpaste, cosmetics, paint, rubber tyres, paracetamol and so on.

The photo above and below were taken at the Wheal Martyn Clay Museum. Lee Moor No. 1 was built for a 4 feet 6 inches gauge railway / tramway and was used to transport china clay across Dartmoor to Plymouth Quays.

There are signs of the clay industry all around the St. Austell area. Even the small river, known locally as the White River, is coloured by the china clay.

There are various deserted buildings from the industry dotted about.

There are lakes, once used for washing the clay, which are now considered as dangerous. Some have a beautiful blue-green hue.

Mountains or hills - some are known as pyramids - have been made from the waste material of the china clay industry

A china clay works still in operation.

The final three photos show factories and buildings used within the china clay industry.

I was interested to discover that there is enough supply of kaolin - china clay - to last well over another one hundred years.

See also:


  1. A fascinating look back into this industry and illustrated with some super pictures. I find subjects from the industrial past really interesting.

    1. Thank you David. It's interesting to see the remains of the clay industry. Nature has taken over many of the old pits and lakes and there are Clay Trails for people to follow.

  2. Excellent post, Mike, about Cornwall's china clay. China clay always makes me think of the poet, Jack Clemo, whose father worked in the industry.

    1. Thanks Caroline. yes, Jack Clemo the Cornish poet. This snippet relates to the china clay industry.

      Why should I find him here
      And not in a church, nor yet
      Where Nature heaves a breast like Olivet
      Against the stars? I peer
      Upon his footsteps in this quarried mud;
      I see His blood
      In rusty stains on pit-props, waggon-frames.



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