|Silhouette of William Cookworthy|
At this point Quaker networks came to William's rescue. Silvanus Bevan, a Quaker apothecary who was visiting Devon, heard of his predicament and took him back to London as his apprentice. William made the best use of his opportunity and in the next six years became a skilled pharmaceutical and mineralogical chemist. By voracious reading and self-education he also gained considerable knowledge of classical and English literature and enough Greek, Latin and French to allow him to converse in and later translate from these languages.
In 1726 Silvanus Bevan decided to start a wholesale pharmacy business in Notte Street, Plymouth and William came back to Devon to work there. By 1735 William had become a partner in the firm of Bevan & Cookworthy and in the same year he married Sarah Berry. They were very happy together and had a family of five daughters including twins when Sarah died of a stroke in 1745. William was overwhelmed with grief and suffered a breakdown, going off alone for several months and neglecting his family and business. His mother held things together and his brother Philip returned from sea and offered to work with him. Sylvanus Bevan signed over the business and the firm of Messrs William Cookworthy and Company was formed.
|Smeaton's Eddystone lighthouse 1759|
Perhaps William's most influential visitors however were the businessmen from Virginia who brought him samples of Virginian clay and porcelain in 1745. They wanted him to import Virginian clay and make porcelain in England but William decided that it would make better business sense if he could find comparable minerals nearer home. At this time English potters were only able to produce what was known as earthenware. The finer quality porcelain had to be imported from China, where the clay used was known as kaolin or china clay. In 1746 William discovered kaolin at Tregonning Hill in Germo Parish, Cornwall where it was known as moorstone or growan. He leased some clay pits and shipped the clay from Porthleven to Plymouth where he began experimenting on it.
|Early mug with arms of Plymouth and mark|
In spite of all William's innovations the Plymouth factory failed to make a profit and amalgamated with a pottery in Bristol. William made his cousin, Richard Champion, the manager of William Cookworthy and Company and in 1774 sold the business and his patent to him. Champion continued to buy ingredients for the porcelain from Pitt and paid a royalty to William. When Richard Champion tried to renew Cookworthy’s patent in 1777, Josiah Wedgwood and other potters in Staffordshire raised objections. The patent formula was upheld, but the actual use of the china clay was released so that ceramic products could be made from it provided that the formula was not infringed. The cost of the legal battle crippled the Company and Richard sold the formula in 1782 to the New Hall Porcelain Company, which had been formed by the Staffordshire potters. They continued to produce porcelain until around 1810, when bone china became available.
|Figures of the four continents produced at Cookworthy's Plymouth factory|
William Cookworthy's Quakerism was part of his life and important to him, but not a matter for solemnity. As one young contemporary put it "His manner of conveying the most important truths was so lively and interesting that young people, fond of hearing him talk, were often captivated by it; they were taught that religion was no gloomy uncomfortable thing, but that...every enjoyment of the present moment was heightened by it," He was also more open to other influences than many contemporary Friends, notably the thinking of the Swedish philosopher Swedenborg, some of whose books William translated from the Latin and had published.
Although famed for his absentmindedness, William was also capable of great concentration and indeed one may have been the product of the other. It was said of him that "He could carry on a lively conversation on his way to Meeting up to the very door and resume it on his way home, yet not allow a thought of it to pass through his mind while in Meeting."
William Cookworthy died in his family home in Plymouth in 1780 at the age of 75. At the last he was comforted by a dream in which he saw his long-lost and much lamented wife, his Sally, beckoning him to join her.
|Portrait of William Cookworthy, c1780, by John Opie|
Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery