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International Trade and Local Potteries

Letterheads of early ball clay customersBy the second half of the 19th century the ban on exports had been lifted and an increasing proportion of ball clay production was exported to potteries in Europe - from Kuznetzov in St Petersburg to Villeroy & Boch in the Saar, Porceleyn de Fleys in Delft and Pickman in Seville. (Samples of letterheads of early ball clay customers are shown on the left).

With the development of potteries in the USA and Canada, mainly by potters from Stoke-on-Trent who had been brought up on English ball clays, North America also became a very important market. The English ball clay industry became an extremely cosmopolitan business with a string of long-standing trading relationships that in many cases have continued to the present day.

Thanks to its coalfields and its concentration of potting expertise, the Stoke-on-Trent area has for centuries been the main centre in the UK for ceramic production - and therefore of ball clay usage. However, several important ceramic factories were established close to ball clay production. Some, notably the Bovey Pottery in Bovey Tracey in Devon and Poole Pottery in Dorset, produced tableware on a large scale. Others used the less valuable stoneware clays to produce the pale cream bricks that are a feature of many West Country buildings, as well as drain pipes, chimney pots and wall tiles - notably Candy & Co. (latterly British Ceramic Tile) in Heathfield, Bovey Tracey, Hexter Humpherson in Newton Abbot and the Marland brick works in North Devon.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries clusters of smaller art potteries were established near the ball clay areas - such as the Watcombe, Torquay Art, Aller Vale and Devon Tor Potteries in South Devon and the Bideford and Barnstaple potteries in North Devon. However, with a few notable exceptions, such as Devonmoor Art Pottery in Liverton, they used mainly red or brown firing clays from, for example, Watcombe and Fremington, rather than ball clays.

The following illustrations show larger scale uses of ball clay in tableware, sanitaryware and tiles.

Pieces of sanitaryware - wash basins and toilets - stacked on a kiln car Pieces of sanitaryware - wash basins and toilets - stacked on a kiln car ready for firing in a tunnel kiln. The casting and other properties of ball clay play an important role in the manufacture of such large pieces. Consequently, this is one of the most valuable applications of ball clay.

 

 

Removing fired tableware of traditional design from a modern tunnel kilnRemoving fired tableware of traditional design from a modern tunnel kiln at the Spode factory, customers for ball clay since the 18th century.
Image by courtesy of Spode, Stoke-on-Trent

 

 

 

 

 

A bathroom like this, with white bodied ceramic wall tiles and sanitaryware will contain a lot of English ball clay. A bathroom like this, with white bodied ceramic wall tiles and sanitaryware will contain a lot of English ball clay. Ball clay is also used in ceramic floor tiles.

 

 



 

The 20th Century: from Depression to Remarkable Growth
The two World Wars and intervening Great Depression affected the ball clay industry badly. By 1945 production was just 90,000 tons. In America the ball clay deposits of Tennessee and Kentucky were opened up. However, after the Second World War the industry in Devon and Dorset enjoyed sustained growth. Post war reconstruction in the 1950's created strong demand in Britain and Northern Europe for clays for sanitaryware and tiles. This was followed in the 1960's and 1970's by strong growth in Italian and Spanish ceramic production. The 1970's and 1980's saw the emergence of valuable new markets in the Middle and Far East, and in the 1990's further growth in ceramic tile production.

Since the 1950's ball clay has also been used in a wide range of non-ceramic applications, for example in coating fertiliser 'prills' (pellets), as a filler in rubber and linoleum and as an extender in animal feed stuffs. By 1970 annual sales had grown to 700,000 tonnes, and by 2000 to just over 1 million tonnes, more than 75% of which was exported - an achievement recognised in the several Queen's Awards for exports that were awarded to the clay companies.

Uses of ball clay in the home - click heer for a larger version.Ball clays are used in making many everyday articles, including - for the home: wall and floor tiles, wash basins, toilet bowls, plates, cups and saucers, linoleum, acoustic ceiling tiles, insulated electrical cables, pale coloured bricks and clay drainage pipes; for the car: windscreen wipers, spark plugs and engine mountings; for the garden: hoses and fertilisers.


 



A 'Lady's Amusement' pattern earthenware plate made at the Indio Pottery
A 'Lady's Amusement' pattern earthenware plate made at the Indio Pottery, Bovey Tracey
(the forerunner of the Bovey Pottery) c. 1790-1800

 

 


Toby Jugs produced at the Devonmoor Art Pottery, Liverton, near Bovey Tracey - which used the local ball clays. Although ball clays are valued because they fire white or off white, other clays - such as Fremington clays from North Devon and Watcombe clays from Torquay - are easier to use and therefore often preferred by art potters.
[Image by courtesy of
John Hobbs]