The British Empire and its effect on Plymouth

William Cookworthy

William Cookworthy's relevance to the empire was the way in which he discovered a way of creating good quality porcelain in Plymouth. As a chemist, he was intrigued on how the Chinese created such good quality pottery and set about looking for the necessary ingredients and perfecting a production model. Whilst on a trip to Cornwall, he recognised the existence of china clay in a waste heap and immediately took some back to Plymouth to experiment with. Gradually, he deduced that the Kaolin in the China Clay produced the whiteness of the pottery and used Moorstone from Dartmoor to help with the production process. His work would allow Britain to avoid having to import China from Asia and create its own porcelain itself. By the 19th Century, Britain would become a powerhouse in the creation of high quality China largely thanks to Cookworthy's experiments at what is now called the China House. This location was ideal to allow him to import the ingredients from Cornwall and down the River Tamar but also to load up the finished products and sell them elsewhere. His blue and white pattern style of porcelain became popular in Britain and throughout the Empire, copied and emulated by many other manufacturers. His goods were also displayed and sold from his home on Notte Street (now the Mexican Restaurant Arribas). Over time, production shifted back to the potteries where there were more skilled workers available. But the trail for how to make glazed pottery was thanks to William Cookworthy.

He had one more contribution to make to imperial endeavour as he was the person in Plymouth who had the rights to produce the stock cubes given to sailors in the Eighteenth Century to try to avoid scurvy. Although less efficient than fruit, it was still a moderately successful remedy. Captain Cook dined with William Cookworthy at his house the day before his first voyage to the Pacific on Endeavour and received the all important stock cubes that prevented all but one of his crew from being effected by scurvy.

Cookworthy fell ill in May 1780 and died at his home in Notte Street, Plymouth, on 17 October 1780, aged seventy-five. He was buried in the Quaker burial-ground near Sussex Street at Plymouth on 21 October.

He had been a keen linguist, classacist and theologian in addition to his scientific and industrial skills and had translated Swedenborg's Heaven and Hell (published 1778)

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by Stephen Luscombe