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Rich seams of education and history at this unique museum

By Cornish Guardian  |  Posted: June 27, 2013

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WHEAL MARTYN is a unique asset for Guardian Country; the only china clay mining museum in the UK.

Just 16 furlongs north of St Austell, it is set in 26 acres of woodland alongside St Austell River in a valley which contained several china clay works.

One hopes hundreds of mid-Cornwall children are brought here. The interactive gallery alone would make them aware – and proud – of their heritage.

An actor playing the role of William Cookworthy, 1705-1780, makes a personal introduction to the kingdom of china clay – and a remarkably stirring introduction it is.

Wheal Martyn makes an immediate impact with exhibits professionally displayed, a good café and a well-stocked shop.

It's well-run, and has a caring atmosphere – so congratulations to gifted curator Jo Moore and her team. Jo was formerly the National Trust curator for Cornwall, based at Lanhydrock.

The museum is, in fact, based in two old china clay works: Wheal Martyn and Gomm. We came on a brilliant sunlit morning, the sudden feeling that summer had truly arrived.

The Gomm, leased by the Martyns from the Mount Edgcumbe Estate in the late 1870s, was worked until the 1920s.

The Wheal Martyn china clay works began operations back in the 1820s, launched by Elias Martyn on the Carthew Estate, which had been bought by his father, Richard, in 1790.

There is a portrait of Elias: an interesting, interested man, holding his spectacles. He became a major producer west of the Tamar, operating as many as five pits – and by 1869 Wheal Martyn was producing 2,000 tons of clay annually.

In the 1840s, Elias had expanded Carthew House, moving the family from St Austell to live there.

Sadly, the property was demolished in the late 1960s but the leaded glass window was saved – and is on display here.

Following Elias's demise in 1872, the family maintained the land at Carthew but his son, Uriah Martyn, closed down or leased the works to others.

It was in the 1880s that John Lovering took on the lease at Wheal Martyn. An inventive clay producer, he made numerous changes at the works.

The Wheal Martyn pit continued operating until poor trade forced closure in the early 1930s.

The dry continued in business until 1969, working lower grade clay from pits further up the valley.

Wheal Martyn reopened in 1971 and is still worked today by Imerys.

As for the museum, it would require the chapter of a book to do it justice; it presents a huge quantity of industrial objects and machinery, and old photographs showing every man wearing a hat or cap or bowler.

In the old days, women were employed to scrape clean the bottom and sides of each block: two to three tons of clay could be cleared in a day.

They were paid about a shilling a day.

It was a St Austell woman who encouraged my first essays. Miss Mabel Williams, if she were at my shoulder today, might advise: "Bring your industry to life by bringing in something about the people in that early era."

My most recent visit to Wheal Martyn coincided with the Jack Clemo exhibition there. That may now be over but a section relating to the great china clay poet remains on permanent display.

Especially impressive was a painting by Lionel Miskin of Jack concentrating and thoughtful: pyramids in the background with a horse grazing. A painter in tune with his subject, poet and mystic.

Also eye-catching was a plaster bust by Pat Jenkins, 1957. Jack used the experience of being sculpted in his poem Modelled In Passion Week.

Especially evocative was a photograph of Jack and Ruth following their chapel wedding, with a young Charles Causley as the best man.

And there was an interesting handwritten letter from Dr AL Rowse to Jack.

One looked intently, too, at his Olympia typewriter.

Jack's literary achievements are such an inspiration to all aspiring scribes: he was a man who achieved so much against enormous odds.

I was able to make the first morning session and excellent lunch of the Clemo Conference Programme, staged here on the last day of May and the first of June.

It was an event superbly organised by Dr Gemma Goodman, of Treviscoe and the University of Warwick (generous sponsors), and Mr Luke Thompson of Lanhydrock, son of the eminent Cornish novelist the late EV Thompson. Their vision reflected great enterprise.

The sessions were held in the conference room which was graced by fine paintings of leaders of the china clay industry.

They included an especially powerful, lifelike portrait of Lord Aberconway – you half expected him to speak: a man oozing confidence and command – and another of the influential Sir John Keay.

Gemma demonstrated her talent by reading the paper of one scheduled speaker who was unable to attend; a difficult task.

In addition, she chaired the morning phase with quiet authority.

Coming to the conference and the museum reminded you how the china clay territory has triggered so much strong writing.

The Hockings, Dr AL Rowse, Charles Causley, Daphne du Maurier, Anne Treneer, EV Thompson, Alan Kent, Gemma Goodman and others have all been inspired by it.

Derek Parker, a Cornishman who moved to London and now lives in Sydney, Australia, once described Jack Clemo as "one of our finest landscape poets".

The exhibits, the films, the grounds outside combine, giving it a powerful sense of place, just like a poem by Charles Causley or Jack Clemo.

What is it that invests a certain location with particular significance?

What magic does a building or piece of landscape hold that sets them apart?

We may find a kind of answer here alongside St Austell River.

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