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Wheal Martyn Turns Again!

Wheal Martyn’s unique waterwheel is turning again, helped by a grant from Historic England.

The historic waterwheel at Wheal Martyn turning again after conservation 
The historic 18ft waterwheel at Wheal Martyn china clay works turning again after repairs © Historic England

Wheal Martyn in Cornwall is a former Victorian china clay works.  Now part of a museum, Wheal Martyn demonstrates and preserves the early innovations of the china clay industry before it became highly mechanised.  Parts of the complex are protected as a Scheduled Ancient Monument.

As a working museum exhibit, the historic machinery, along with a vast collection of objects, photographs and archives, brings to life the story of the Cornish china clay industry.

Why is Wheal Martyn important?

The Wheal Martyn works were established in the 1820s by Elias Martyn, who was one of the major producers of china clay until his death in 1872. After a period of partial closure, the works were re-opened by John Lovering, who developed the works and introduced new techniques to maximise production. Lovering built the 18ft water wheel in 1902 as part of a system to pump china clay slurry from the clay pits to settling tanks. It is the last of an estimated 200 such waterwheels to survive today and the wheel with its associated flat rod and cable system form a unique demonstration in Cornwall of a once common way of transferring power. 

Why was it at risk?

After over 100 years of constant attack by water and the elements, and because only emergency repairs have ever been carried out, the wheel was rapidly decaying. The wooden buckets had deteriorated and the cast iron of the wheel was badly cracked. By 2015, the only working example of its kind in Cornwall often ceased to operate at all.  This was not only bad news for visitors, but when the water was not flowing, other parts of the monument were at risk of drying out and deteriorating.

Four years ago, a Conservation Plan was drawn up for the complex remains at Wheal Martyn. This identified the fact that much of the monument, especially the huge drying sheds, were in poor condition. As a result, the site was placed on the Heritage at Risk register. 

An application has recently been made to the Heritage Lottery Fund to repair, restore and re-use one of the sheds as a gallery and activity space, but meanwhile, the condition of the waterwheel demanded even more immediate attention. 

Historic England’s architect and structural surveyor gave advice on the best method of repair and in 2017 a £32k phase of works was successfully completed.  All the wooden elements including the buckets, inner wheel, launder and launder supports have been replaced with prime European oak, and the steel components which brace the wheel and anchor it to the granite beneath have also been replaced. Finally, the cast iron waterwheel has been stripped and repainted.  Historic England gave a grant of £8k towards the repairs.

The wheel is now turning again and visitors can once again enjoy the spectacle of a working piece of industrial heritage. Although the waterwheel has been rescued, the scheduled monument as a whole remains at high risk and will do so until the repairs to the drying shed have been completed. To find out more about visiting Wheal Martyn, click on the link below.

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