Clay and Copper – Discovering mining methods at Wheal Martyn China Clay Museum

By Jamie Maddison | 11 July 2012
a photo of a water chute
© Photo Jamie Maddison / Culture24
Feature: Jamie Maddison explores the mining heritage amidst the fascinating industrial landscape, nature trails and working clay pits of Wheal Martyn in Cornwall...

The blasted moonscapes of Cornwall’s China Clay pits might not, on first appearance, look like they have anything in common with the old underground tin and copper mines of the Cornish West. 

The methods of kaolin extraction appear extreme: vast holes in the ground; controlled blasting using explosives; diverted streams; high pressure hoses and towering sky tips that have changed the once rolling moors hereabouts into a landscape light-heartedly referred to as the Cornish Alps.

Yet at the Wheal Martyn China Clay Museum, one of the best industrial museums in the UK,they have made a surprisingly scenic landscape around a working version of a modern china clay pit - complete with all the paraphernalia of modern blasting jets and huge machinery surrounded by woodland trails, play area and adventure playground.

A fully preserved Victorian china clay works, highly interactive visitor centre and countless examples of Victorian machinery explain vividly how the china clay industry, along with metal mining and fisheries, became one of the biggest industries in the county. 

You can also see that china clay works have a lot more in common with the dark underground world of Cornwall’s metalliferous mining than one might have first thought.

Indeed, take a stroll around the park’s beautiful trails set amidst a stunning 26-acre parkland, and you’ll discover some quite unexpected sights and facts. Here are just some of them:

  • Sat proudly on display in the grounds you’ll find a traditional Cornish engine house – which formerly contained a Cornish beam engine used to such great effect in lifting water out of mines, as well as men and materials. These iconic pieces of steam engineering innovation were also used to dewater clay pits and pump clay slurry to surface.
  • You’ll also see a huge 35 foot waterwheel - the largest in Cornwall, it was powered by falling water and using connecting flat-rods for power transmission, all to pump the clay slurry for processing. Water-wheels were also a common means of generating power used in metalliferous mining.
  • Mine timbering techniques - seemingly unneeded for what are essentially big pits - were also used in these open-air china clay workings. Mainly to drive and secure levels, tunnels at the bottom of the pits linked to a pump, all to help drain the depression as it got progressively deeper. 
  • Then there was the similar far-reaching employment of men, women, boys and girls in the industry, the latter working outside the pits particularly in processing, such as "washers".
Even the terminology pit-workers used was a transferral of metalliferous mining lingo for use in the china clay industry. There were "landers" (handling the movement and storage of clay in wet slurry form in advance of drying); "captains" (work’s managers); "stopes" (clay producing areas or faces within a pit); and "strakes" (a stream of water being directed to wash out a clay face or stope – used in descriptions of tin streaming and tin recovery operations).

There are many more similarities between the two types of mining, and if you’d like to find out more about the use of technology in china clay pits. Or if you want to see a working pit in action, visit to Wheal Martyn.

If you’d like to learn about the process of metalliferous mining, visit the Cornish Mining World Heritage Site website at www.cornish-mining.org.uk

More pictures:

a photo of a large water wheel
© Photo Jamie Maddison / Culture 24
a photo of a water chute above water
© Photo Jamie Maddison / Culture24
a photo of a small goods carriage on rail tracks
© Photo Jamie Maddison / Culture24
a photo of chap with a beard wearing a flat cap
© Photo Jamie Maddison / Culture24
a photo of a large open-cast mine
© Photo Jamie Maddison / Culture24
Cornish Mining World Heritage Logo
Jamie Maddison is the Culture24/Cornish Mining World Heritage 2012 bursary journalist, filing stories about Cornwall's UNSECO World Heritage Site mining landscape. Contact him at jamie@culture24.org.uk. Read his blog at www.jamiemaddison.com

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