Sunday, February 03, 2013

Quaker Alphabet Week 5 C for William Cookworthy

Silhouette of William Cookworthy
William Cookworthy was born into a Quaker family in Kingsbridge, Devon in 1705. His father was a prosperous weaver but died when William was fourteen and his mother then had to depend on charity to support him and his six younger siblings.

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
Eventually William and Philip bought a substantial house in the centre of Plymouth where they both lived, in separate establishments, and carried on their business. William's family was very important to him and he was an indulgent parent. He also entertained a great variety of visitors, including it is said Captain James Cook and Joseph Banks before they sailed in Endeavour to the South Seas in 1769, and was interested in a wide variety of subjects.William gave helpful advice to John Smeaton in planning and overseeing the building of the Eddystone lighthouse, took out a patent on a process to distill drinking water from sea-water and was also interested in astronomy and in the possibilities of finding water through dowsing.

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.

He found that the clay from Tregonning Hill contained dark specs of mica, which detracted from a top quality finished product. Better quality clay was found on land owned by Thomas Pitt near St Austell and William went into partnership with him to set up the Plymouth China Works. William took out a patent on the process in 1768 and the factory began to produce decorated tea services, jugs, vases and figurines. The earliest known extant piece of Cookworthy's hard-paste porcelain is now in the British Museum, a blue decorated mug bearing the arms of Plymouth and the inscription 14 March 1768 C.F. The initials probably stand for 'Cookworthy fecit (made 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


Fred A said...

Dear Gil, another fascinating pocket biography. Thanks very much indeed. I hope you will keep them coming. What a versatile Friends he seems to have been. But perhaps it's just facets of a personality full of insattible curtiosity.
Fred Ashmore

Vernon White said...

Cookworthy's contract with the Royal Navy, to supply pharmaceuticals must have posed some ethical problems for Overseers . . but extremely lucrative for Cookworthy.

Rach Loosemore said...

A fascinating article about William, thank you for posting it. His wife Sarah was the sister of my 7 x great-grandmother Elizabeth Berry.