William Cookworthy 1705-80

Cookworthy was born at Kingsbridge, in South Devon, on 12th April 1705.  His father was a weaver and a member of the Society of Friends (Quakers).  He attended the local school and was always a keen student.  Later he would study science and languages, and could translate from Latin and French into English.  His father died in 1718 and in 1720 the "South Sea Bubble" reduced the family wealth.

At 15 he walked to London to take an apprenticeship with Timothy and Sylvanus Bevan (chemists).  At 20 he went to Plymouth to create the business of Bevan and Cookworthy, the pharmacy being in Notte Street.  The business prospered and in 1745 he bought out the Bevans' interest.  In 1735 he married Sarah Berry.  Her early death, in 1745, left him with five daughters to bring up.

William was also a strict Quaker minister.  In 1767 he translated the mystic Swedenborg's "Doctrine of Life".  He became an important person in Plymouth society.  His large house in Notte Street being visited by people such as Dr Johnson, Captain Cook and the engineer Smeaton.

It is not known when his interest in porcelain began.  Pere Entrecolles' account of Chinese methods was published, by Du Halde, in 1736.  By 1748 he had discovered china clay and china stone, at Tregonnin Hill, in Cornwall.  Later he would find other deposits in the parish of St Stephens, on land owned by Thomas Pitt.  Pitt was born in 1737, became the first Lord Camelford in 1784, died in 1793, and would be an investor in the porcelain venture.  Any involvement, by Cookworthy, with porcelain experiments outside of Plymouth can be discounted.  Trials of porcelain manufacture, on a very small scale, had begun by 21st December 1766.   He had to find out how to process the raw materials, make a suitable glaze and fire the porcelain.  He also made a blue pigment using Cornish cobalt.

A patent was granted on March 17th 1768.  Brancas-Lauragais already held an English patent, from June 1766, but it neither mentioned the materials nor method of manufacture, and it does not seem to have affected Cookworthy.  Cookworthy's patent gave him exclusive use of china clay and china stone, which would later cause a problem for Richard Champion.

William retired from business in 1773 and died on 17th October 1780.  After his death his brother, Benjamin, managed the pharmacy.  On his death in 1785 it passed to Francis Fox, the son of William's daughter Sarah.  Another of Sarah's sons, William, changed his name by dead poll to William Fox Cookworthy.  On July 1796 William Cookworthy and Francis Fox of Plymouth took out an insurance policy, they were described as "chemist and druggist and apothecaries".

An assumption was made in the 1770 Bristol Bicentenary catalogue that Cookworthy was a poor business man and that Richard Champion was superior to him in that area.  In fact the reverse appears to be true.  Cookworthy had built a successful pharmacy, becomimg very wealthy in the process, and appeared to have lost little of his own money in the porcelain venture.  Champion had started from a superior social position, but succeeded in nothing.  His handling of the Bristol factory seems to have been questionable, for example paying too much for the raw materials.

Tradition has it that Cookworthy imported the cobalt smalt into Bristol, that gave "Bristol blue glass" its color.  This is unlikely, since Cookworthy seems to have had no business connections with Bristol before 1770.