The historic market town of St Austell is located in south-west England. At one time, it was home to the busiest market in Cornwall but today, it’s better known for its Victorian architecture.
The whole coastal region is known as the “Cornish Riviera” after its French counterpart and it’s easy to see why. St Austell’s port is the scenic harbour of Charlestown, where old tall ships can often be seen – a filming location for tv drama, Poldark.
St Austell transformed over the years from a small market town in the Middle Ages, with a population of only a few hundred, into a bustling Victorian market. Its Grade I listed church, Holy Trinity, was built in the 13th century, although the tower wasn’t added until the 15th century.
Small market town
The poet John Leland, whose patron was Thomas, Duke of Norfolk and Cornwall, paid St Austell a visit in around 1540 and described it as a “poor village” at that time. It was a royalist stronghold during the English Civil War between 1642 and 1646. However, on 3rd March 1646, the forces of King Charles I faced defeat everywhere and the Parliamentarian Roundheads captured St Austell.
St Austell was a small market town in the 18th century, which English cleric John Wesley called a “neat little town”. The port of Charlestown was created between 1791 and 1795 by Charles Rashleigh, a member of the wealthy Rashleigh family, who had moved into Duporth Manor, just outside St Austell.
He built the pier and dug the basin of the harbour, based on plans drawn up by John Smeaton, a prominent civil engineer from Leeds. Rashleigh also planned some of the surrounding residential area, with a wide road running inland from the harbour.
In the 18th century, Devon chemist William Cookworthy discovered massive deposits of kaolin (a form of granite also known as china clay) in the St Austell area. The mineral is used to produce porcelain and is also used in many other industries, including the manufacture of paper, textiles and pharmaceuticals.
In 1782, the renowned pottery manufacturer Josiah Wedgwood and businessman John Carthew launched their Cornish clay company and white clay mining in St Austell flourished – with 65,000 tons being mined every year within around 50 years.
Mining china clay became the main local industry and contributed to the growth of the town.
Victorian listed building
By the beginning of the 19th century, St Austell’s population was just under 4,000. This was small by today’s standards, but in the early 1800s, it was a fair-sized town and home to the weekly market and regular fairs, which were like giant markets, but held on only a few days each year.
The regular market was also a trading place for livestock. Horses and stalls would have been a familiar sight in the town centre in the 18th and 19th centuries. Impressive Victorian buildings sprang up, including the most famous, described as the “jewel in St Austell’s crown” – a marvellous building known as Market House, dating from 1844.
It is a Grade II listed building, which means it’s one of the UK’s top 5% of architectural assets. Standing on Market Street (the site of the old marketplace), it is of great historic and architectural importance. The Market House and town hall were built after Queen Victoria gave her Royal Assent to an Act of Parliament that permitted the development of St Austell.
While the horses and stalls have long gone, the Market House remains a landmark building.
By the mid-19th century, the population had grown rapidly to around 10,000 – a sign of St Austell’s success as both a market town and a hive of industry with its china clay mining. The railway opened, running trains from St Austell to Pentewan to transport the clay. Initially, horse-drawn transport had been used to carry the clay, but in 1874, steam trains were introduced.
Other developments in the 19th century included the Quaker Meeting House and the Assembly Rooms for dances and card games. An official body was created to regulate the markets, as the result of an Act of Parliament and a Board of Health was also founded. By 1895, St Austell had its own Urban Council.
Leisure and tourism
By 1901, the population had grown to almost 12,000. St Austell’s first cinema opened in 1910 and the Capitol Theatre opened in 1929. Leisure developments continued during the 20th century, including the launch of Polkyth Recreation Centre in 1974, Caerhays Gardens in 1991 and the Eden Project on the outskirts of St Austell in 2001.
Today, the town’s population is 27,000 – making it one of Cornwall’s largest towns.
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