China Clay Country;duMaurier


Life in the Parish

The Clay...

From the book "Vanishing Cornwall" by Daphne du Maurier, 1966 (Villages with + shown following are in St. Austell parish (actually, Treverbyn)) J. Mosman, OPC

.It was on this high plateau, encompassing White Moor and Hensbarrow Downs, eastward to Luxulyan and St. Austell, west to Goss Moor and Indian Queens, that one William Cookworthy, a Plymouth Quaker, founded the china-clay industry, absorbing into it many tin-workers in the district who through lack of work found themselves in distress.  Today the industry is the greatest in all Cornwall, and on July 26, 1966, received the Queen's Award.

"China clay," so Mr. Black's nineteenth century Guide informed its readers, "is a species of moist granite - that is, the rock once so firm and tenacious has been reducted by decomposition into a soft adhesive substance, not unlike mortar, and this, when purified from mica, schorl, or quartz, is admirably adapted for the manufacture of the best kinds of pottery.  It is identical with Chinese kaolin, or porcelain clay.  This is piled in stopes or layers, upon an inclined plane, and a stream of water is then directed over it, which carries with it the finer and purer portions, and deposits them in a large reservoir, while the coarser residuum is caught in pits placed at suitable intervals.  From the pans, where it is passed under the influence of a novel drying-machine, thoroughly relieved of moisture, properly packed up in barrels, and removed to the seaside for shipment."

The process is more elaborate now.  Mechanical excavators, hydraulic pumps, separators, refiners, all are employed in the various stages of turning kaolinized granite into solid clay, used for many purposes besides pottery, while the industrial area, roughly some twenty-five miles in circumference, is a world of its own, as sharply individual as the tin and copper districts in former centuries.  Bugle+, Stenalees+, Foxhole, Nanpean+, Treviscoe, St. Stephens in Brannel,St. Dennis, these were villages or scattered hamlets once, and have developed solely on account of china-clay, housing the majority of its workers.

The men are specialists, brought up to clay from birth, second and third generation, and, like the tinners before them, have the same sense of solidarity.  Clay derives from rock, from granite, just as tin does, and no matter what methods are used today, what mechanical or electric power, these men have in their blood and bones the spirit of the old tinners who struck and pounded granite long before them.  It is their clay, their industry; disputes between management and men are few, almost negligible, the associated companies known as English China Clays giving a splendid example to other industrial teams.

The interest to the layman, though, and to the casual wanderer who finds himself by chance or intention in the china-clay country, is the strange, almost fantastic beauty of the landscape, where spoil-heaps of waste matter shaped like pyramids point to the sky, great quarries formed about their base descending into pits filled with water, icy green like artic pools.  The pyramids are generally highest, and the pools deepest, on land which is no longer used; the spoil-heaps sprout grass-seed, even gorse, upon the pumice-stone quality of their surface, and the water in the pits, deeper far than Dozmare*, is there because the clay has been sucked off and work begun again on virgin ground.

These clay-heaps, with their attendant lakes and disused quarries, have the same grandeur as tin mines in decay but in a wilder and more magical sense, for they are not sentinels of stone or brick constructed to house engines, but mountains formed out of the rocky soil itself, and the pools, man-made, are augmented by water seeping from underground sources and by the winter rains.  Sites in full production may work close at hand, cranes swing wide, trolley-buckets climb to the summit of a waste-heap, looking at a distance as small as a child's toy, before unloading and returning to base, lorries pass in and out of entrances to the road, the precincts barred by wire and DANGER notices;  but the discarded pyramids and pools seem as remote from the industry near by as any lonely tor upon the moors.

Wild flowers straggle across the waste, seeds flourish into nameless plants, wandering birds from the moorland skim the lakes or dabble at the water's edge.  Seagulls, flying inland, hover above the surface.   There is nothing ugly here.  Cornishmen are wresting a living from the granite as they have done through countless generations, leaving nature to deal in her own fashion with forgotten ground, which, being prodigal of hand, she has done with a lavish and careless grace. 


* Dozmare Pool is a lake a mile in circumference, only five feet deep, but which the people in old days believed bottomless,  in which Bedivere was to have thrown the sword Excalibur, seized in mid-lake by a thrice-waving hand which fastened upon the hilt and then withdrew to unplumbed depths.   It is between Temple and Twelve Men's Moor.


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