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Thumbnail of William Cookworthy (source)
William Cookworthy
(12 Apr 1705 - 17 Oct 1780)

English chemist who pioneered the manufacture of porcelain in Britain after discovering deposits of kaolin and China stone in Cornwall.

The Plymouth China.

Sketch of William Cookworthy - head and shoulders, side view- colorization © todayinsci.com
William Cookworthy
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[p.38] A STRANGER visiting Cornwall, on approaching St. Austell, can hardly fail to notice the trains of railway wagons laden with lumps of a white substance, resembling chalk or whitening. It is the Cornish Porcelain clay, on its way to the Staffordshire and other Potteries, where it is made into the familiar vessels, known from their original manufacture, as China-ware.

The Potter's art and trade are of great antiquity in England as well as elsewhere; but until the discovery of the China-clay in Cornwall, the manufacture, even with Wedgwood's beautiful ware, did not include the true semi-transparent Porcelain of China.

In a letter, already quoted, dated 30th 5 mo., 1745, William Cookworthy, says:—“I had lately with me the person who hath discovered the [p.39] China-earth. He had several samples of the China-ware of their making with him; which were, I think, equal to the Asiatic. ’Twas found at the back of Virginia, where he was in quest of mines, and, having read Du Halde, discovered both the Petunse and Kaulin. ’Tis this latter earth, he says, is the essential thing towards the success of the manufacture. He is gone for a cargo of it, having bought the whole country of the Indians, where it rises. The man is a Quaker by profession, but seems to be as thorough a Deist as I ever met with. He knows a good deal of mineral affairs, but not funditus.” From this it would appear that Cookworthy was already interested in the nature of the true porcelain clay, when visited by the Deistical Quaker in 1745. As a chemist, and a man of science and observation, he could not have made his repeated journeys through Cornwall without taking note of its minerals, and he had, in all probability, observed indications of materials apparently suitable for the manufacture of fine pottery; but no precise date can be given to the proved “discovery” of [p.40] the Cornish porcelain clay. A paper by Cookworthy says, “It is now twenty years since I discovered that the ingredients used by the Chinese in the composition of their Porcelain, were to be got in immense quantities in the county of Cornwall.” But this paper is, unfortunately, without date. The date, however, may be inferred from the contents; for the writer goes on to say:—“As I have since that time by abundance of experiments clearly proved this, to the entire satisfaction of many ingenious men, I was willing this discovery might be preserved to posterity, if I should not live to carry it into manufacture.” Now, as the patent was obtained in 1768, and there is a specimen in existence inscribed “Plymouth China Factory, March 14, 1768,” twenty years from this date, would make that of the discovery 1748. Cookworthy says, “I first discovered it in the parish of Germo, in a hill called Tregonnin Hill.” After a long description of the properties of this stone, and his experiments upon it, he says, “I have lately discovered that in the neighbourhood of the parish of [p.41] St. Stephen's, in Cornwall, there are immense quantities both of the Petunse stone and the Kaulin, and which I believe may be more conveniently and advantageously wrought than those of Tregonnin Hill, as by the experiments I have made on them, they produce a much whiter body, and do not shrink so much in baking, nor take stains so readily from the fire. Tregonnin hill is about a mile from Godolphin house, between Helston and Penzance. St. Stephen's lies between Truro, St. Austell, and St. Columb; and the parish of Dennis, the next to St. Stephen's, I believe, hath both the ingredients in plenty in it. I know of two quarries of the stone; one is just above St. Stephen's; the other is called Caluggus, somewhat more than a mile from it, and appears to be the finer stone.” The same materials were afterwards found “in the domain of Boconnoc, the family seat of the Hon. Thomas Pitt, the accomplished nephew to whom the great Chatham wrote his celebrated letters, edited by Lord Grenville, and who was afterwards [p.42] created Lord Camelford, in 1784. This discovery naturally led to an acquaintance with Thomas Pitt, which soon ripened into cordial and intimate friendship.”1 Together they obtained a patent in 1768, and started the Plymouth China Factory; which brought the manufacture of Porcelain to great perfection, but yielded no profit to the patentees. Specimens of Plymouth china are now very rare, and are said to fetch three times their weight in gold!

After six years' trial and outlay, the Plymouth china works were removed to Bristol, and the patent was assigned to Richard Champion, a connection by marriage of the Cookworthy family. He, doubtless, continued to improve the manufacture; but it had already attained to such perfection that in the same year of the transfer, 1774, a service was made to the order of Edmund Burke, of which history relates: “This example is highly important as showing the perfection to which the manufacture of porcelain had been brought at the [p.43] time of the transfer of the works from Cookworthy to Champion.”2

Illustration of a Plymouth China teapot, from a drawing in watercolours
Plymouth China
From a Drawing in Watercolours (source)

Cookworthy had engaged a skilful decorator from Sevres, whose embellishments were greatly admired. He also employed an ingenious lad, who afterwards became the celebrated enameller, Henry Bone. Some elegant designs for the Plymouth China-ware, by William Stephens, are preserved by his descendants, the Thompsons, of Bridgwater.”

Admirable as are the decorations of the Plymouth and Bristol china-ware, it is even more esteemed for the excellence of the ware itself. A gentleman in the trade who had visited all the great porcelain works in Europe, declared that none of them produced such a quality as the old Plymouth china. “Cookworthy,” said he, “is my patron saint.” In an account of the calamitous fire at the Alexandra Palace, where thousands of choice specimens of old English porcelain and pottery were gathered together, the effect is thus stated: “No evidence [p.44] more decisive of the excellence of the Bristol porcelain could be adduced; for while the fire reduced the soft and fusible specimens of Chelsea, Bow, Worcester, and others, to shapeless and crumpled masses, the true porcelain of Bristol, though broken, retains its whiteness and form, and even the most delicate details show no signs of fusion.”3

The endeavours to make the porcelain manufacture a paying concern succeeded but little better at Bristol than they had at Plymouth. Champion, therefore, removed it to the Staffordshire Potteries, where the trade had long nourished, and where the fuel required was close at hand. The Bristol patent-right was transferred to a company of six partners, at Tunstall, and thence taken to Shelton. Hither, we are told, “Cookworthy's patent was brought, and here, with the experienced potters, who had become its purchasers, and under the management of Champion, who had produced such exquisite specimens of Art at Bristol, the first pieces of China made in Staffordshire were produced.”

[p.45] About the time the works were removed from Tunstall to Shelton, Champion received, through Burke, then in office, whose election for Bristol he had materially assisted, the appointment of Deputy Paymaster of the Forces. On receiving this appointment, in 1782, Champion left Staffordshire, but losing it on the dissolution of the ministry, he went to America, and settled at Camden in South Carolina, where he died in 1787.

Neither his family, nor Cookworthy's, ever received any benefit from the important art and industry they had been the means of establishing.4

1 Harrison's Memoir.
2 Life of Josiah Wedgewood, by Llewellyn Jewitt, F.S.A.; also Art Journal, Sept., 1863.
3 Newspaper report of the fire.
4 For a more detailed account of William Cookworthy and the Plymouth China Factory, see a paper by R. N. Worth, in the “Transactions of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science, Literature and Art,” 1876.

Text from Theodore Compton, William Cookworthy (1895), 38-44. Sketch of William Cookworthy adapted and from Frontispiece, and Plymouth China illustration from opposite page 40. (source)

See also:
  • 12 Apr - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Cookworthy's birth.

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