The Ceramic History Society archives are not quite where you would expect them, in a building shared by Imerys (the company that currently operates the working mines) staff gym on the site of a disused pit. There are rooms upon rooms of document, images, maps and memories. All of the volunteers archivists I met today are former / current employees or have some affiliation with Imerys and are very generous with their knowledge and time.
I spend hours in the archive talking to various people, looking at photographs and trying to get an idea of what specifically I’m looking for – there is so much here. My main interest is in the social history and culture that developed around this industry. How did the people of these white dusty mountains live their lives? There were bands and choirs for almost every village who competed with each other for generations after generations. I can’t stop thinking about breathing, I’ve read about silicosis and the damage done to lungs by tiny particles of rock, porcelain coated alveoli. They must of had strong lungs working in that dust to bellow out in brass and tune.
There are a few of the pits that dealt purely with producing kaolin for the ceramics / potting industry. I want to know if there were many potteries that sprang up around Cornwall, around the source, if any of the employees made anything with this ‘white rock’. I ask but nobody seems to know much, this is an area outside the mines. There must be some way of finding out more. Truro museum and Falmouth are suggested, there’s also a PhD student at Exeter I’m told I should meet. The archive are keen for me to come back for a longer period and tour me round the area, there are more local historians they’d like me to meet, their enthusiasm is overwhelming. Where do I stop and when does the research take over the work, I need to keep a clear head and not get too distracted, but I think another trip would offer so much more.
One of the volunteers at the archive also volunteers at the Wheal Martyn Museum and kindly offers me a lift back there. I want to take another look at the mine here and see if I can get round some of the back routes to get a closer look. On the way back to the museum we stop at Blackpool, another pit that has been decommissioned. This one I’m told extends a further 120ft under the water that was pumped in to flood the mine. It looks like idyllic, like a lagoon. I’m told there’s plans to turn it into a water park.
I’ve arranged to meet with another archivist Malcolm Gould later this afternoon, he works mostly with film and also leads some history tours. We talk for quite a while about the relationship between Cornwall and South-Wales, of clay, coal and dust. He tries to teach me a few Cornish words but I keep forgetting them, da I know is the same as in the Welsh – good. Another volunteer, Richard, is with us and we keep talking about the villages that used to be here but were swallowed up by the expansion of the pit. All the houses were owned by the company and the people were staff so were moved on when more of this precious ‘white rock’ was needed. Malcolm offers me some clay and rushes off, returning a few minutes later, his hands covered in white dust, with two bags. One has samples of kaolinised granite and the other pure kaolin after processing, the latter lumps are silky white and smooth to the touch, they melt away in your fingers. I feel like I’ve just been given a goody bag at the end a birthday party, these lumps of rock make me ridiculously happy.