THE CLAY INDUSTRY
China clay or kaolin, the pure white clay used in the production of ceramics, is present in mid-Cornwall due to the weathering effects of water on Bodmin granite over millennia. Since it was first quarried in the mid 18th Century by William Cookworthy millions of tons have been extracted, leaving a vast industrial legacy transforming the landscape.
Clay mining became big business in the early nineteenth century and many potteries owned the rights to mine the material themselves. The industry expanded further in the early twentieth century when china clay was exported widely as a whitener to the paper industry.
In the past the industry has at times been dogged by low wages and poor working conditions, and it was blighted in 1913 by the Clay Strikes.
In a bold display of trade unionism around 2,000 strikers marched for improved conditions. Police were brought in from far and wide to control the strikers culminating in a series of confrontations and eventual defeat for the strikers. The events are dramatised in the 1972 television play Stocker’s Copper.
After World War I the three leading producers amalgamated forming English China Clays, and the new company dominated production for the rest of the century. In more recent times the industry has been in decline due to overseas competition, resulting in a sharp decrease in employment in the sector.
The impact of clay mining on the landscape and economy of the area has been enormous and there is a cultural legacy among the people and communities whose lives have been dominated by this fascinating industry.