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The Widespread Use of Ball Clay

Earliest Uses
It is generally accepted that Dorset ball clays - and probably Devon ball clays too - have been used since Roman times to make crude pottery. However it was the introduction of tobacco to England in the 16th century by Sir Walter Raleigh and the need for a suitable clay with which to make tobacco pipes that led to the start of the modern ball clay trade.
Although the highly plastic ball clays were ideal for tobacco pipe manufacture, their expansion and contraction during firing made them difficult to control in tableware manufacture. Most pottery was made with easy-to-use local coloured clays. By the 17th century it was common for jugs, bowls and other tableware made with these clays to be covered with either a thick white glaze (as in Delft ware) or a white clay slip coating. From at least the 1650's potters in Bideford were using a white slip of North Devon ball clay and scratching designs through the white slip, exposing the coloured body beneath.

Shipments of Dorset tobacco pipe clays from Poole were significant by the 1630's and were the port's most important cargo for most of the 17th and 18th centuries, especially to London and many south coast ports. By 1662 the trade had become sufficiently important for an Act to be passed forbidding the export of pipe clays to foreign countries. Shipments of North Devon clay through Bideford were also important in this period, especially to pipe manufacturers in Bristol, but shipments of South Devon clays seem to have been relatively small until the middle of the 18th century.

Important 18th Century Developments
Whilst the Chinese learnt how to make fine white porcelain many centuries ago, it was only in the 18th century that European potters learnt how to make good quality white-bodied pottery. They had to overcame the difficulties of using white firing plastic 'tobacco pipe' clays, and had to both discover and learn how to use china clays with little plasticity.
It was the achievements in this area by the famous early potters in Stoke-on-Trent such as Wedgwood, Astbury and Spode that caused the demand for ball clays to take off - along with the demand for china clays. They all needed ball clays from Devon and Dorset - as well as china clays from Cornwall and Devon - to make their fine 'cream wares', 'Queen's Ware' and so on.

Josiah Wedgwood's most famous achievement in 'Queens Ware'

Josiah Wedgwood's most famous achievement in 'Queens Ware' was the 952 piece dinner and dessert service with 'Frog' crests made for the
Empress Catherine the Great of Russia in 1774.
[Image by courtesy of the Trustees of the Wedgwood Museum, Barlaston, Staffordshire (England).]

A typical recipe for such pottery could have included equal quantities of ball clay, china clay, flint (a form of silica) and Cornish Stone (a source of feldspar). Between 1765 and 1785 - at the same time as the industrial revolution in the manufacture of pottery and the associated 'canal mania' - the annual shipments from South Devon quadrupled to almost 10,000 tons.

Coade Stone
One of the lesser-known early applications of ball clay was in the production of a high-grade ceramic known as Coade Stone. This was first produced in London in 1770 by a Mrs Coade from Lyme Regis. It was an architectural ceramic of high artistic and technical quality that has been found to be an exceptionally durable, artificial 'stone' for building decoration and statuary. Examples include friezes on Buckingham Palace, fan vaulting in St George's Chapel, Windsor and the Lion Statue on Waterloo Bridge. A recent detailed scientific analysis of the 'stone' has confirmed that ball clays from Devon or Dorset were the major component, together with pre-fired clay. Mrs Coade died in 1825 and production had ceased by about 1840.


Woodcut of an Elizabethan smoking a clay tobacco pipe
According to a tradition, Sir Walter Raleigh, one of the pioneers of tobacco smoking in the 1550's, smoked his first pipe tobacco at Cornwood in South Devon. The subsequent enormous demand for clay tobacco pipes created the early ball clay industry.

Clay tobacco pipes
Clay tobacco pipes made in Exeter in the mid 18th century. Tobacco pipe clays from Kingsteignton were carried by packhorse to Exeter, which was a significant centre for the manufacture and export of clay tobacco pipes from about 1675 to 1720 - when it was the third or fourth provincial in England and the largest port on the south coast.
Image courtesy Exeter Museums

Coads Stone lion on Westminster bridge
A fine example of Coade Stone: the lion
statue on Westminster
Bridge - close to
the site of Mrs Coade's factory - dated 1837