If you leave the A30 and drive towards St Austell you will not fail to see “The Cornish Alps”, once pure white spoil heaps created by the China Clay Industry now beginning to blend in. China Clay or Kaolin is the decomposition of natural granite and was discovered in the area by William Cookworthy in 1746 and who was looking for something that would help produce white porcelain. Cookworthy, who was a potter with an interest in apothecary, discovered the deposit and patented a special way to use the clay in pottery which he produced in his own Plymouth Porcelain Factory in 1768. His business only grew when he sold the new recipe China Clay to other potteries.
By mid-19th century something like 65,000 tonnes of China Clay were being mined in the area. A local landowner and entrepreneur, Charles Rashleigh saw an opportunity and invested large sums of money in building a safe harbour for ships importing coal and exporting the local tin, copper and China Clay. He built factories and houses for the workers but it was the port of Charlestown, named after him, that he is remembered. The port is something of a time capsule and the last commercial cargo left the harbour in 2000. Charlestown retains its atmosphere and is often used as a backdrop for period dramas.
Paper manufacturers also discovered that the China Clay helped produce a finer and whiter paper. In 1919 the three largest producers of China Clay in the area amalgamated to form English China Clays (ECC) and it remained the leading clay producing Company until 1999 when English China Clays was acquired by IMERYS of France. IMERYS moved their operation overseas but there is still enough material for years of production. The world famous Eden Project nestles between its snowy peaks and there is a China Clay Museum at Wheal Martyn.
The Slate quarry at Delabole was working and exporting slates during the reign of Elizabeth the First. In the area there were 5 quarries and Carew mentions slate in his “Survey of Cornwall” page 23. Before the 19th century the quarry was worked by different owners under individual leases and there were often disputes. The slate was cut and put into wagons for the 6 mile journey to Port Gaverne where it was loaded onto waiting ships ready to take the cargo to other parts of Britain, Brittany and the Netherlands. A good size ship could take 60 tonnes of slate and that took thirty wagons, pulled by a hundred horses to fill it. When the North Cornwall Railway came to Wadebridge in the 1890’s the slate was switched to rail and the Port lost most of its trade. There are communities of East Bangor and Pen Argyl in Pennsylvania, USA that have drawn their slate workers from those who left Delabole during the Cornish Diaspora.
The Old Slate Company was liquidated in 1977 and purchased by Tehidy Minerals, who transferred the quarry to Rio Tinto in 1984. In June 1999, the General Manager, George Hamilton, led a management buy-out returning the quarry to local ownership. During 2005 the minority shareholder was bought out by the Hamilton family who are now sole owners of The Delabole Slate Company Ltd. Today the quarry is worked by a handful of skilled quarryman.
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