The Ball Clay Heritage Society -  header banner
  contact us
The Society News Introduction to
Ball Clays
What is ball clay? The Deposits Uses of Ball Clay History Transport Clay Companies Environment Further Reading Picture Gallery Aspects of the Ball Clay Industry Publications Collections Links to
Related Sites

The History of Ball Clay Production (2)

Small Open Pits
As trenches widened they developed into open pits, which, although of some size considering the manual labour involved, were small by the standards of today. These remained the most economical way of extracting seams of clay that were close to the surface and not overlain by too much overburden. Neatly terraced slopes were a feature of the best of these pits. However percolating groundwater and rainwater tended to cause open pits to flood, and their depth and area were therefore limited by the capacity of pumps to dispose of the water. Hand operated elm-barrelled pumps with a maximum lift of 15 feet (4.6 metres) were used originally, and although it was possible to have a series of pumps each with such a 'lift', it was not until the introduction of Cornish plunger pumps towards the end of the 19th century that open pits were developed to any great depth.

An open pit showing cubes of ball clay being cut vertically using a thirting iron
An open pit showing cubes of ball clay being cut vertically using a thirting iron (central figure), undercut using a lumper (right figure, partly concealed) and loaded into a wagon using a poge (left figure), c. 1930



The Square Pit System
cutaway diagram showing timber supports for a square pit.The ground water and rain that tended to cause open pits to flood also caused their soft sides to subside. To control subsidence timber began to be used. This developed in South Devon into a system of excavating a sequence of 'square pits' that were timber lined and braced. (See cutaway diagram, right, showing timber supports for a square pit.) After trial and error the optimum size was found to be 18 to 24 feet (5.5 to 7.3 metres) square. These square pits could then be dug to a depth of 50 feet (15.2 metres) with a series of pumping 'lifts' and ladders, but for a long time only the clay within the pit area was worked. About 12 feet (3.7 metres) of solid ground was left unworked between them and the waste from one pit was used to backfill another.

To relieve the strenuous labour of manually lifting the clay and waste to the surface, a wooden crane of a type unique to the ball clay industry called a 'crab' would be erected beside the square pit to hoist the clay and waste to the surface in an elm bucket. The crab was a pivoting 'gallows' type crane held in place by two legs called 'tie backs'. Hand winches or horse drawn winches (known as 'whims') were used to raise and lower the buckets.

Each square pit produced a few hundred tonnes of the several types of clay through which the pit was sunk. Most were worked for just a few months until incoming water became too much for the hand pumps. Whilst shallow open pits remained the principal means of extracting stoneware clays, the square pit system was used to win the more valuable potters' clays that were typically found at a greater depth.


An open pit- click here for a larger version of this picture

Clay cutters in a neatly terraced open pit at Meeth with thirting irons, lumpers and cans of water to lubricate the cutting in the 1920s.

A "crab" crane  - click here for a larger version of this picture A Devon & Courtenay square pit (c. 1932) showing timber bracing, crab crane and stockpile of ball clay.