CHRISTMAS OFFER Subscribe to Devon Life today CLICK HERE

The china chemist

PUBLISHED: 09:00 15 April 2014

A portrait of William Cookworthy

A portrait of William Cookworthy


In the latest of his series of features for Devon Life on Great Devonians, Ian L. Handford reveals it was an apothecary from Kingsbridge who discovered how the Chinese make its porcelain - and soon Britain would supply the world

"At the time there was little distinction between medicine and magic and chemists used odd substances including human fat, the dung of animals and even moss grown on the human skull "

William Cookworthy was born at Kingsbridge in 1705, the oldest son of textile weaver William and mother Edith. When aged just 14 his father died and now his mother would bring up her six children alone.

Even as a child William was fascinated by apothecary, an interest he never lost. Like many families of that era the Cookworthys lost all their wealth in the South Sea debacle and it was hoped William might “catch the eye” of the rich Quaker Silvanus Bevan – owner of a chemist’s in London.

It is a Quaker tradition to help less fortunate “friends” and when Bevan heard of the plight of the Cookworthys and William’s interest in “druggery” he immediately offered him an apprenticeship in his pharmacy Allen and Hanbury’s in London.

Apothecary had been associated with grocery until the Royal Charter of 1617 and now in the early 18th century the term “druggist or chemist” was generally used, although apothecaries or chemists were recognised as highly influential people who dealt with exclusively medical preparations.

With little money and few possessions William had walked the 200 miles to the capital city, typical for a Quaker - sheer dedication to any cause they chose to follow, convinced of a better future beyond. Having arrived safely he spent six years learning the art of pharmacy and, being a voracious reader, would also learn languages and read English literature.

The now highly intelligent Cookworthy, having learned the rudiments of Greek, Latin and French and having translated theological works brought to him, was both personable and had excellent conversation skills. He was able to mix with contemporaries and indeed became a well respected Quaker.

It was in 1726 that Bevan heard Cookworthy wished to return to his native Westcountry and offered him a partnership in his new Plymouth business, a pharmacy to be named “Bevans and Cookworthy - Wholesale Chemists”. Cookworthy now decided to permanently live in Plymouth.

Cookworthy became the only Quaker businessman in a city of 16,000 and yet, although an apothecary, he continued his research into the world of “mysticism” and its effect on his profession. At the time there was little distinction between medicine and magic and chemists used odd substances including human fat, the dung of animals and even moss grown on the human skull.

Having married Sarah Berry from Wellington in 1735 theirs was a happy but short union, as she would die ten years into the marriage on 11 July, 1745. Was history repeating itself, father rather than mother, left to bring up five girls, alone?

This Quaker elder had a business to run and in wanting to continue his research, it was fortunate indeed when his brother Philip, serving on an East Indian ship, came back to run the family business. This may be why his important research into distilling sea water to create drinking water for use at sea all started? Experimenting with high temperature furnaces he discovered how to distil seawater into drinking water. This was a major discovery - although few scientists acknowledged it.

Cookworthy turned to learning how the Chinese made their “petuntse-china stone” (white clay) used in making their fine porcelain ware. He took 20 years before a first batch of “hard paste” emerged and his experience with heated furnaces while being a chemist - never a potter – must have helped him to discover the material that in all respects was equal to that used in Meissen and Sevres porcelain ware.

Today over 75% of his “paste” is used in paper production for “filling and coating”, and just 15% of china-clay goes to the porcelain industry.

William Cookworthy died at his Notte Street home Plymouth on 17 October, 1780, and today this most famous citizen of Kingsbridge has its town museum, named after him.

Next month: Three generations of entrepreneurs who changed transport methods twice in order to become rich!


More from Out & About

Tue, 11:06

Wild camping can be one of the best ways to escape the crowds for a night or two and lose yourself in the landscape - SOPHIE PAVELLE chooses her five favourite places to ‘wild-life’ camp in Devon

Read more
Tuesday, October 9, 2018

From sandy beaches and lighthouse-topped cliffs to views of the Jurassic Coast, the Devon coastline offers many perfect locations for a seaside walk. We pick 10 of the prettiest routes to take

Read more
Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Take our quiz to find out how well you really know Devon

Read more
Tuesday, October 2, 2018

As the weather starts to warm up and the Devon countryside beckons, LIZZIE JANE of the National Trust in the South West offers plenty of walk ideas for you to try. Whether you want a relaxed Sunday stroll or a more strenuous hike, here are 10 walks across Devon (and beyond) to help you escape the crowds and head off the beaten track

Read more
Tuesday, September 25, 2018

The South West Coast Path is celebrating 40 years by calling on people to help raise £40,000. To show their support, teams from Devon’s top tourist attractions are preparing to take to the trail. CHRISSY HARRIS finds out more

Read more
Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Away from the hustle of places like Woolacombe and Ilfracombe, North Devon is peppered with tiny coves, empty beaches and wooded walks leading to secluded bays that feel a million miles away from the tourist trail. BECKY DICKINSON reveals her pick of the best kept secrets on the North Devon coast

Read more
Friday, September 14, 2018

As part of her regular series where she visits Devon’s best places for 24 hours, Lydia Tewkesbury has this time been to Sidmouth

Read more
Thursday, September 13, 2018

Ranging from rocky and windy walkways along the South West Coast Path to the sandy beaches on the picturesque coastline, the district of North Devon is one of the prettiest coastal areas in the South West of England. In no particular order, here are 10 of the prettiest villages in the district of North Devon

Read more
Tuesday, September 11, 2018

In Devon’s towns and cities there’s an awful lot you can do in just 24 hours. For her regular feature, Lydia Tewkesbury travels to see what you can do in a day in Kingsbridge

Read more
Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Villages in Devon are some of the prettiest in the South West. From beautiful little hamlets on the outskirts of the moors to seaside communities, we pick 10 villages in Devon you need to visit

Read more
Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Dust off your walking shoes and head to South Devon – here are 6 reasons why the area is so good for a stroll writes Victoria Rogers

Read more
Tuesday, August 28, 2018

There is something quite life-enriching about being by the water and in Devon there are plenty of ways to enjoy it, writes Fran McElhone. Including surfing, wild swimming, water skiing and more, here are 10 great ways to enjoy Devon’s water

Read more
Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Encompassing large swathes of Dartmoor and plenty of the county’s most distinctive sections of coastline, it’s no wonder that the South Hams district is home to some of Devon’s prettiest places. We pick out 10 of the best towns and villages the area has to offer

Read more
Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Devon is as beautiful underwater as it is above. Chrissy Harris highlights the best places to discover our county’s hidden depths… Here are 6 great places for crabbing, rockpooling and diving

Read more

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up to the following newsletters:

Sign up to receive our regular email newsletter

Our Privacy Policy

Topics of Interest

Food and Drink Directory

Subscribe or buy a mag today

subscription ad

Local Business Directory

Property Search