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!

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