Since the mid eighteenth century the Ball Clay industry has, and continues to be, a major source of employment for Newton Abbot and the surrounding area.
It is said that today’s industry has its origins in the sixteenth century when Sir Walter Raleigh introduced tobacco to Britain. Certainly clay from Dorset, and probably also from Devon, was deemed suitable in the manufacture of smoking pipes.
Ball clay is quite rare and the deposits found in Devon are of worldwide importance. It is white, or close to it, and very pliable so that when fired at high temperature the end result is ceramic clay of the highest quality. The famous potteries of Spode, Wedgwood and Astbury all use ball clay from Devon.
Whilst today most of the land at Chudleigh Knighton, Kingsteignton, and Stover used for the extraction of ball clay is owned by the Belgian company, SCR Sibelco SA, this was not always the case. Two to three hundred years ago the seems of clay would have been owned by the country’s gentry.
In Newton Abbot the Courtney family from Powderham Castle, the Earls of Devon, had large estates rich with ball clay. The Dukes of Somerset and the Templer family had similar tracts of land at Stover whilst the Clifford family of Ugbrook and the Bishop of Salisbury owned much of the mineral laden land at Kingsteignton. These rich landowners granted leases to the clay merchants to work and win the valuable mineral reserves. In return the landowners received a rent. In many cases the rent received would have been based upon the amount and quality of the clay mined from their land.
In the Newton Abbot Area, companies such as; Devon and Courtenay Clay Company, Hexter and Budge Limited, the Newton Abbot Clays Limited, the Mainbow Clay Company Limited, and the Pochin Ball Clay Company Limited became household names.
However, it was the Watts family which ultimately ended up with the largest land bank. They were granted a lease by the Bishop of Salisbury for the valuable deposits at Kingsteignton. Initially, this was worked in partnership with the Whiteway family. That partnership ended after five years in 1861 when Watts joined forces with Blake and Bearne to form Watts Blake and Bearne.
Shortly after the end of the Second World War there were some fifteen or so clay companies in the Newton Abbot area but by 1969 consolidation had take place leaving just two.
Watts acquired the Devon and Courtney Clays Company, and Newton Abbot Clays plus other smaller companies. English China Clays (ECC) took over the operations of Hexters, plus smaller companies along the way. ECC had bought both Mainbow and Pochin prior to the start of the Second World War.
ECC is now owned by Imerys SA of France and in 1999 Watts Blake Bearne became wholly owned by Sibelco.
The original clay cutters would have been the tenant farmers who found clay under their fields. It was extracted by using whatever implements they had at the time. As with all things, techniques and tools evolved to work the land more efficiently.
First, there was a shallow trench, then the trenches became wider and small open pits were formed. The formation of pits brought problems with flooding and pumps had to be employed. The size of the pit was determined by the number and capacity of pumps available. There were also problems with the sides of the pit subsiding.
In Devon the Square Pit System evolved and timber was used to reduce the risk of subsidence. This method also led to the introduction of cranes, called crabs, which lifted the clay and waste from the pit. The system was particularly important for working the higher quality clays which were generally found deeper in the ground.
From the Square Pit System it was a short step to full underground mining and by the 1870’s larger quantities of deeper clays was available. The need for timber to secure the workings became greater and greater and well into the seventies WBB still had their own sawmills at Preston Farm, Kingsteignton.
During the 1930’s a system of mining by inclined tunnels had been developed in South Devon – this was known as “adit mining” and by the 1960’s it had largely replaced vertical shafts. It led to mining becoming more and more reliant on mechanisation. The mines were supported by steel arches and hydraulic machines replaced pneumatic drills. It was an expensive way to mine because it was labour intensive and mine owners had more stringent safety regulations to observe. Ultimately it was abandoned for the cheaper open cast mining. Production today is from larger and deeper pits using massive excavators and dumper trucks.
In the early days, like all mining operations, the workers toiled in appalling and dangerous conditions, but it is said, although a miner may dispute the fact, his pay was good. His earnings were generally calculated by “piecework” – the more he and his gang produced the greater their reward. Akin with coal mining in the north and tin mining in Cornwall generations of families worked in the clay mines of Devon.
Watts Blake Bearne were the world’s leading exporter of clay with almost all they extracted from in and around Newton Abbot being shipped by boat from Teignmouth. Records date the first shipment back to within three years of the proclamation at Forde House, Newton Abbot of William of Orange as King of England in 1688. In those early days the clay would have been taken by barge down the River Teign. Today, articulated lorries transport ball clay to Teignmouth for export by ship.
No one can pretend that clay mining or, indeed, any other form of mining is pleasing on the eye. Clay companies have over the years, partly as a result of public pressure, become more environmentally friendly. Land has been restored after the reserves have been spent or are uneconomic to work. The Eden Project in Cornwall is the most obvious example of restoration. A less extravagant example is Decoy Country Park which was once a pit operated by the Devon and Courtney Clay Company.
More information on this subject is available from the website of The Ball Clay Heritage Society: – clayheritage.org