A History of St Austell

By Tim Lambert

Early Austell

St Austell takes its name from the Cornish Saint Austol. It is not mentioned in the Domesday Book (1086). It first appeared in writing in the mid-12th century.

In the Middle Ages, St Austell was a very small market town. It probably had a population of only a few hundred. Nevertheless, it was the market center for a large part of South East Cornwall. As well as the weekly market St Austell had fairs. (In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets but were held only once a year for a few days).

The Church of Holy Trinity dates from the 13th century (although it was originally dedicated to St Austell). Its tower dates from the late 15th century. However, in about 1540 John Leland described St Austell as ‘a poor village’.

During the civil war, 1642-1646 St Austell was in the hands of the king. However, in 1646 his forces faced defeat everywhere. The parliamentary army captured St Austell on 3 March 1646.

Like all towns in those days, St Austell was very dirty and unsanitary and it suffered from outbreaks of the plague. It struck in 1648.

In the 18th century, St Austell was a small market town although n described it as ‘a neat little town’. In 1817 St Austell was described as ‘a poor town’. Between 1791 and 1795 a man named Charles Rashleigh created a port called Charlestown, near St Austell. He built a pier and dug a basin.

Modern St Austell

At the beginning of the 19th century, St Austell had a population of less than 4,000. It would seem tiny to us but by the standards of the time, it was a fair-sized market town. By 1851 it had grown to over 10,000. The growth of St Austell then slowed down. In 1901 it had a population of just under 12,000.

For thousands of years, tin mining has been carried on in Cornwall. In recent centuries there were many mines in the villages around St Austell. However, from the late 18th century, St Austell was famous for its white clay. In the 1770s a man named William Cookworthy (1705-1780) began mining white clay at St Austell.

Then in 1782 the famous pottery manufacturer Josiah Wedgwood and a man named John Carthew formed the Cornish clay company. White clay mining in St Austell boomed. By 1860 65,000 tons were being mined each year and the industry continued to grow.

Unfortunately for each tonne of useful clay 9 tonnes of waste are produced. The waste was left in heaps, which were jokingly called the ‘Cornish Alps’. In 1829 a railway was opened from St Austell to Pentewan to transport clay. At first, it was operated by horses but after 1874 steam was used.

Rows of clay tiles
Clay tiles

In the 19th century, St Austell continued to develop. The Quaker Meeting House was built in 1829. A workhouse was built in St Austell in 1839. In 1842 an Act of Parliament created a body of men to regulate markets. The Town and Market Hall was built in 1844. Assembly Rooms for dances and card games were built in 1846. A local Board of Health was formed in 1865. In 1895 St Austell was made an Urban Council.

The first cinema in St Austell opened in 1910. The Capitol Theatre was built in 1929. A new Magistrates Court was built in 1970. Polkyth Recreation Centre was built in 1974. Caerhays Gardens opened to the public in 1991.

Today St Austell also has Wheal Martyn Heritage Centre. One of St Austell’s latest attractions is the Eden Project, which opened in 2001. In 2023 St Austell had a population of 27,000.