The Great War’s Impact on the South Devon Ball Clay Industry.


The Great War threw up major challenges for the South Devon ball clay industry centred on Kingsteignton. The companies and their customers in the ceramics industries suffered huge reductions in production and supply due the demands of the war effort and the depredations of German submarines.

Ball clay has been extracted from the ‘Bovey Basin’ around Kingsteignton since the 1600s. At the outbreak of the war Kingsteignton was ‘a clay mining village’ with most households having members who were clay cutters, miners, carters or bargemen. The industry was very labour intensive and heavily dependent on the nearby port of Teignmouth for the transport of its production by steamer or sailing vessel to its customers – potteries in Britain, Europe and the USA. More than half of the workforce joined the forces and by 1918 shipping from Teignmouth had almost ceased, being partly replaced by the increased use of rail.

The most immediate impact was that within the first few months many men had volunteered, and the Army had commandeered many of the horses used for moving clay from the pits to the Hackney and Stover canals and Newton Town Quay. In Kingsteignton the rugby club (nicknamed ‘the Claycutters’) had to suspend fixtures as they had lost half the team to the recruiters.  By early October 1914 one clay haulier had auctioned off his business and local papers were reporting that hostilities on the continent were limiting exports. However, coastal vessels were still regularly entering the Manchester Ship Canal, bringing clay from Teignmouth to the potteries of Staffordshire.

In April 1915 came the first report of ship carrying clay from Teignmouth being posted at Lloyds as missing. In June and July 1915 Watts, Blake, Bearne & Co. [WBB], a major clay mining company operating near Kingsteignton, recorded that a great number of German submarines were operating in the Channel and North Sea. Masters and crews had refused to undertake charters and about half the sailing vessels have been laid up. There was a great shortage of workmen, horses and carts, railway trucks and everything else in this part of the country and although the Staffordshire and local potteries were very busy, it was difficult to get railway trucks to transport clay because so many of them were commandeered by Government for military purposes.

As early as June 1915 the increasing shortage of labour and increasing food prices led to the clay companies accepting a claim by the National Union of General Workers on behalf the workmen to the first of several war bonuses, increasing the wages of able bodied men by 2/6 to 24/-, and those working on piece work to 28/- or 34/- per week.

Whilst costs were increasing, output was reducing to the point that in November 1915 Kingsteignton Parish Council was concerned that ‘the clay industry was being throttled by the war and it was very probable to be further constrained, meaning a considerable reduction in the rateable value of the parish. This would restrict the council’s ability to repair roads etc. as the rateable value of the clay industry in the parish had been reduced by £600’.

The shortage of horses and carts led WBB to purchase three Mann and Foden steam carts during 1916 to assist in the transport of clay to the clay ’cellars’ beside the canals, but were unable to operate two for extended periods because ‘skilled’ drivers were called up, and soon the local councils were complaining that these heavy vehicles were damaging public roads in Kingsteignton. It was this change to powered wagons, and later ex-WD war surplus petrol lorries, that would lead to the decline and abandonment of barge traffic on the canals in the 1930s.

Introduction of conscription in March 1916 put greater pressures on the mining companies’ ability to extract clay. Military Tribunals heard appeals for exemption – which the clay companies immediately challenged on the grounds that they were supplying customers which had Government contracts. Under regulations made in June ball clay mining became a certified occupation for married men and single men over 41. There is evidence of at least one Kingsteignton miner working in tunnelling on the western front.  As the war dragged on, appeals to retain men required strong arguments to win the case. All exemptions for ball clay miners were withdrawn in April 1918.

It was not only direct employees that were affected by tribunal decisions to refuse, exception, for one of the first cases heard involved a single man of Horsemills Kingsteignton, Ernest Laskey, an occasional clay haulier, who rented a small holding. The local Tribunal refused Ernest’s application for exemption. Ernest took his case to the Devon Tribunal stating that as a farmer and clay haulier he was in a certified occupation. He also supported a widowed mother. His arguments again failed, and he had to serve. Within two weeks of this WBB asked for the exemption of 22 of their employees engaged in various capacities at their works. A director presenting the company’s case said he knew exemption could not be granted in all cases, but he urged that enough men be left to carry on the work. As six of the men had just voluntarily joined up, it was decided to adjourn the remaining cases in order that the company might consult with the military representative as to those men who were indispensable. Only an electrician and a carpenter were granted exemption. Within a month the firm was back at a Tribunal claiming exemption for a further fourteen employees, mainly clay miners. It was stated that prior to the war WBB employed about 240 men, but this had been reduced to 130 and the underground work could only be done by young strong men. The Tribunal decided to totally exempt three clay miners, grant six-month exemption in the cases of three others, with seven applications refused. Whilst this large company was working five shafts less than in 1914, a smaller firm, Whiteway & Co had contracted even more. At the appeal for seven employees, its managing director stated that the strength of the firm had been reduced to a minimum, only 37 men employed compared with 116 at the outbreak of war. Whilst the director was granted full exemption, the seven employees were granted only six months exemption.

In May 1916, due to the financial position caused by the huge reduction in trade, Teignmouth Harbour Commissioners ended the contract of the River Surveyor, S. Lang, whose duties included maintaining channels in the Teign to ensure the barges from the Stover and Hackney canals had free passage, day or night.  Lang would go on to serve in the Royal Artillery, being seriously wounded in 1917. He asked that his position be kept open if he came back, and due to his previous long–service he asked for 5/- per week to be paid to his wife and three children. The Commissioners refused and resolved that the Harbour Master be paid an extra 5/- per week to inspect the river as often as possible

Alongside the reports of former clay workers as battle casualties, weekly reports of Tribunal appeals for clay workers and those trades linked to clay – bargemen, steam wagon drivers, brickyard workers and pottery workers, would continue to feature in the local papers until the war’s end.

With the return to unrestricted submarine warfare by the Germans in January 1917, most ship owners were unwilling to undertake the transport of clay from Teignmouth, which affected continental customers badly.  In May 1917 it was reported that four ships coming to Teignmouth for clay had been torpedoed. This was followed by the sinking of the 271-ton Teignmouth-owned, ‘Cuba’, a British barquentine, en-route to France with clay and, a few days later, by a report that one or two German submarines were waiting for a vessel that had just finished loading with clay. Many shipments, especially to the USA, were switched to deep sea ports where convoy protection could be offered. By mid-July the Teignmouth Harbour Commissioners were reporting that in two weeks only one vessel had left loaded with clay and by September five of WBB cargos had been lost to submarines. The transport difficulties would continue into 1918 as it became increasingly difficult to obtain rail wagons – 2,000 were sent to France in January. By now sea freights to some continental customers had increased to 90/- from 14/- per ton pre-war. In 1918 the Teignmouth Harbour Commissioners reported that between the 18th July and 5th September there were no arrivals or sailings at the port. However, as the tide of the war turned, by October six cargos of clay had been loaded and sailed.

As the war progressed, increasing food prices led to regular union demands for payment of war bonuses. The clay companies mostly accepted these, fearing strikes and the loss of their remaining workforce to higher paid jobs in munitions. With many customers unable to secure the supplies of ball clay they needed, the clay companies were able to pass on cost increases to their customers who were themselves raising prices; by November 1917 the Staffordshire potteries had doubled their prices. Despite the loss of tonnage, WBB profits did not fall below 25% of pre-war levels, due to the commensurate reduction in the workforce and to the price of typical clay increasing from 16/- per ton in 1914 to 29/- by the end of the war.

In conclusion, ball clay production contracted from the beginning of the war as a result of the loss of manpower and the interruption of shipping, and contracted further for these reasons as the war progressed. However, because of the sustained demand for clay in the manufacture of ceramics the companies were generally able to sell all their production and pass on inflated labour and transport costs to their customers. Consequently, they pulled through the war, albeit with greatly reduced profits. For the workforce and their families, the impact was more personal – especially for those whose fate was reported in the local newspapers.

John Ellis, Richard Harris, John Pike

January 2018