St Austell’s clay merchants

In Victorian St Austell, one of Cornwall’s largest parishes in terms of area, a new industry was emerging, even as mining collapsed and farming faltered. The extraction of clay employed just five per cent of the men of the parish in 1851 but within a generation that proportion had ballooned to 22 per cent. While clay production provided employment for the many, it also meant money for those few who controlled it – the clay merchants.

Our database provides a small window onto this group. In 1861 11 year old John Lovering was one of the 22 pupils boarding at Ledra House, a small private school in St Austell. John was the son of John Lovering, china clay merchant. That John was one of the richest men in mid-Cornwall. John’s grandfather, yet another John, had run a malting business at St Columb before arriving in St Austell, where he had set up shop as a grocer, draper and maltster by 1823. A few years after that he was canny enough to invest in one of the early clay works that were being started in the district although when he died in 1834 his obituary still described him as a maltster rather than a clay merchant.

Carclaze clay pit in the early 1900s

His infant business was then continued by his widow Philippa who lived on until 1872, helped by her four sons. The most prominent of these was our John Lovering’s father, who we shall call John Lovering senior. John senior, born in 1814, acquired new clay pits and converted Carclaze, a large open tin work, into a clay works in the 1850s. By the end of that decade the Loverings, together with another clay family, the Martyns, controlled as much as a third of clay production. By the time John senior died in 1900 he had an estate worth £42,000, or £5.4 million in modern money.

A.L.Rowse was characteristically acerbic about St Austell’s clay families. ‘For all their money’, he wrote, ‘they only built enlarged suburban houses … vulgar mansions … in usual middle class bad taste’. Rowse also claimed that, like their workers, they were ignorant philistines, interested only in ‘whippets, spaniels, ferrets and women’ although not necessarily in that order. Although Rowse was greatly exaggerating, the clay merchant families did not make it into the landed gentry, as did some mining magnates of the 1700s and early 1800s. Moreover, some, like John Lovering senior, did not go over to the Anglican church but remained Wesleyan Methodists like most of their workmen. Yet they also built substantial villas, employed retinues of servants and generally dispensed charity just as the gentry did.

Workers (and dogs) at the Carclaze clay dry in the early 1900s. Several bitter strikes, notably in the 1870s and 1910s, pitted these men against their employers

John Lovering junior, given the business interests he was about to inherit from his father, lived modestly enough in the 1880s and early 90s in a house at Sedgemoor Terrace, employing just a couple of domestic servants. He had married Harriet Stephens, who was from a farming family, in 1878. In the new century they moved to the 18-room Cosgarne on the western edge of the town, very close to Ledra House, his old school. There, he and Harriet were living in 1911 with three servants, a parlourmaid, housemaid and cook. Moreover, by the time he died in 1934 he was worth £138,000 or over £10 million in today’s terms, having doubled the wealth of his father.

John Lovering junior’s house at Cosgarne, now the centre of operations for a homelessness charity

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