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Cornwall Museums Partnership

Clay Country past is preserved at Wheal Martyn

On the edge of St Austell, amongst the scenic landscape of the clay pits, sits the fascinating heritage of one of Cornwall’s major mining industries – Wheal Martyn.

The UK’s only China Clay heritage centre, Wheal Martyn is a fully preserved Victorian china clay works. Established by English China Clays as a charity in 1974, the site became an Accredited Museum in 1990, before joining forces with regional environmental and recreational Charity, South West Lakes Trust in 2010.

The site itself houses the story of Cornwall’s thriving, billion-pound China Clay industry – which still exists today. It is made up of two former Victorian Clay Works, one of which is preserved in its working state, showing where china clay was refined, dried and packed before being transported away by horse and cart and later by lorry, to nearby ports including Charlestown.

The only example of this kind, Wheal Martyn shows an insight into a period of history spanning from the 1820’s through to the 1960’s when the industry was labour intensive and physically hard. This is in stark contrast to the modern day manufacturing, which is largely mechanised and becoming more and more automated.

Wheal Martyn is not only home to a key chapter in Cornwall’s mining past, but also houses hundreds of stories from the communities, culture and traditions of clay mining, which grew around the shadows of Cornwall’s famous ‘white pyramids’.  It’s become a place for people – young and old to discover their own personal family history, as well as providing that crucial opportunity to learn about relatives who worked in the industry. It’s helping to build a picture of the past as well as a sense of pride in where we live.

Wheal Martyn has also continued to encourage its sense of community in the present with the launch of its Memory Café in 2015. The Café provides a safe and friendly environment for people suffering from dementia and memory loss. Individuals and their carers are welcomed to socialise and engage with others through talking, singing, hand-on activities or watching live performances. This provides an important role for many who are often isolated and have few other opportunities for social interaction. The special Wheal Martyn and its unique collection of artefacts, photos and stories really help to evoke memories and positive thoughts.

It’s not just about retracing footsteps and discovering the past; the site offers something for everyone of all ages. Little minds are encouraged to explore nature trails and follow maps, as well as discover vast collections of industry tools and artefacts, vintage commercial vehicles and Cornwall’s largest working water wheel.

Colin Vallance, Managing Director of Wheal Martyn explains:

“It is clear to see the strength of passion people hold for Wheal Martyn across all generations. For many the site provides opportunities, whether it’s learning new skills, making new friends, building confidence or simply enjoying themselves. This is never more apparent than through the hard work and dedication of our wonderful team of volunteers.  They are so generous at sharing their knowledge and enthusiasm to really enhance the experience of our visitors.”

2018 is another milestone year for the museum, as the team are in the process of developing an important project ‘Clay Works!’, which is enabling the preservation of some of the site’s historic buildings, ensuring their accessibility for future generations.

Subject to funding being awarded by the Heritage Lottery Fund*, the Clay Works! Project will commence in 2018 with the new facilities open by mid-2019. The project** will help provide opportunities for people of Cornwall and beyond to be inspired by our stories at Wheal Martyn.

A temporary exhibition gallery and learning space will be created as part of the project. Local people will also have the chance to work with the team to research and curate exhibitions as well as take part in a range of practical built heritage conservation skills training.

Wheal Martyn Museum is open to the public daily from 10am – 4pm and is currently offering reduced entry to anyone resident in Cornwall so that they have the opportunity to discover more about their heritage.  The Cornwall Residents Pass is available to purchase during November to February for just £6.00 per person and entitles the holder to 12 months admission. Dogs are welcome on leads and children can have fun on the adventure challenge trail through the woods or play in the play area. For more information on admissions and opening times visit their website –

*Thanks to National Lottery players, HLF invest money to help people across the UK explore, enjoy and protect the heritage they care about – from the archaeology under our feet to the historic parks and buildings we love, from precious memories and collections to rare wildlife.

**Supported by Cornwall Museums Partnership through the Major Partner Museums programme funded by the Arts Council England.

This article was featured in the West Briton on Thursday, November 23 2017.

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