Alfred Lyon Local Mine Owner

Alfred Lyon: An Important Figure in the History of Ilsington Mines

Malcolm and Frances Billinge 2019


The Bovey Tracey area was lucky to have industrialists such as Alfred Lyon, and also John Divett whom we have already written about in connection with the Bovey Tracey Pottery Company, as they were important local employers.  Alfred Lyon was a Lancashire industrialist whose family had made money through tea trading ventures in Bombay.[1] After time spent in India with his first wife and children he returned to manage his  businesses in the North of England and his family warehouses in Manchester. In 1863, following a holiday in Dawlish, he decided to move to Devon for his wife’s health. In 1864 Alfred bought Smallacombe in Ilsington, and his mining interests commenced. As he kept a daily diary we have a good source of information about Ilsington and Bovey Tracey in general and the mines in particular.[2]  Many details concerning the mines of Ilsington were recorded by Tom Greeves in 2008, and in two later Dartmoor Tin working Research Group Newsletters.[3] More information can now be added following further investigation of Alfred’s diary and discussion with local landwoners.

Before Alfred bought Smallacombe there had been some interesting local mining developments. In 1859 the South Devon Iron and General Mining Company (Ltd) share offer referred to the Atlas Iron and Tin Mines, the Hercules Iron Mine three miles north of Atlas, the Smallacombe Tin Lodes and the Phoenix Mine in Cornwall. [4] By 1861 the SDIGM Company, ‘was erecting a smelting furnace and coking ovens at Slade’s Mead near its freehold estate of Smallcombe to manufacture charcoal iron from Bovey lignite’ [5]

Alfred Lyon’s Purchase of Smallacombe and Slade’s Mead 1863-5

The Slade’s Mead venture was unsuccessfuland in November 1863 an auction of equipment both at Smallacombe and at Slade’s Mead was announced in the local press.[6] Alfred heard about the sale through his Manchester and London agents and he dealt through Mr Dunn who was the local facilitator. Alfred soon became aware that Dunn was not a man to be trusted. Six months later Alfred purchased Smallacombe Estate ‘together with the Iron and Tin Mines, machinery etc.’ (17 May 1864). In 1865 he also purchased Slade’s Mead but there is no record that he intended to use it to smelt iron ore. The OS Map shows Smallacombe and Middlecott in Ilsington parish, and Slade’s Mead a short distance away in Bovey Tracey parish (Figs 1 and 2).

Figure 1. Smallacombe and Middlecott OS Map 1877

Figure 2. Slade’s Mead Engine House  OS Map 1877

Alfred was an entrepreneur in an age when industrialists were diversifying their interests. In the north of England he had rows of houses built, owned a mill, and constantly travelled around the country managing his affairs. His diary shows him as indefatigable and even in old age he thought nothing of walking nine miles home from Newton Abbot station. Owning a mine was a new venture for him. In June 1864 he brought his brothers down to view his Smallacombe purchase. ‘My brothers also were well pleased with the land…and told me my purchase was a valuable one independent of the minerals which is very satisfactory, especially as they considered me so very imprudent when I purchased the property without seeing it’ (14 June 1864).

On the day Alfred first viewed Smallacombe, ‘I found the estate quite equal to my expectations, but disappointed to find the house a heap of ruins having been burnt down six months ago’ (17 May 1864). He needed somewhere to live and soon called on, ‘Mr Rowell the owner of Middlecott property, a beautiful compact estate consisting of 67 acres and nice family house, and asked him if he would sell which he [Rowell]  said he felt inclined to do for £4000. I offered him £3500 and we parted with the understanding that he would decide tomorrow’ (14 June 1864). Alfred succeeded in purchasing the Middlecottestate with its very fine burning house which had been built in Middlecott wood in 1861 (Fig.3). Alfred owned a great deal of other land and property and he also developed housing over the years. ‘Mr Lambshead called this morning and showed me a plan for building a very nice farm at Smallacombe to cost about £350’ (13 February 1865).

Figure 3. Middlecott in Alfred Lyon’s day. By kind permission of Susan Rands.

Alfred was pleased with the quantity and quality of mineral ores being mined on his land. ‘Went to the Iron Ore Quarry at Smallacombe … The quarry looks remarkably well and the workmen get some very large pieces of ore out now and then, one this morning supposed to weigh about 30cwt’ (30 September 1864). ‘I tried several pieces of the iron raised from the Quarry in this part of the Smallacombe estate and found it highly magnetic’ (1 October 1864). In December Alfred travelled from Bristol to Cardiff in order to visit the Dow Lais Iron Works in Merthyr Tydvil. ‘I showed them samples of some fresh [iron ore] raised from the Quarry which quite satisfied them and they told me they would take any quantity of similar ore’ (1 December 1864).

As well as different iron ores (haematite, magnetite, limonite, specular iron ore) and tin (cassiterite) there was ochre and Alfred referred to this when he, ‘walked to the old Ochre Works atTrumpeter…and found the Drying Shed completely broken-down owing to the side posts giving way bringing the roof down. Went into the Mining Adit and found the water running out as fast as usual and the men at work in something like a shower Bath’ (12 January 1882).

Transport of Ore and the Traction Engine

There were many diary entries concerning the transportation of the mineral ores. One week after bidding for Smallacombe Alfred was discussing the possibility of, ‘forming a Tram way from the Granite Quarry near Hay Tor (sic) through Smallacombe estate’ but the exact purpose was not defined (22 June 1864). Ewan in The Haytor Granite Tramway and Stover Canal referred to the 1834 suggestion that iron ore from Ilsington should be transported on the granite tramway which ran from Haytor down to the Ventiford Basin at the head of the Stover canal, but this may not have happened.[7] Alfred did of course need to transport his iron and tin ore and in October 1864 he, ‘Called on Mr Beater the Agent who ships my Iron Ore from Teignmouth [to South Wales]. Left Teignmouth … for Newton Abbot. Called on Mr Bearne the agent of Stover Canal Co about sending the Iron Ore by Lighters to Teignmouth’ (15 October 1864). Canal transportation was agreed and in November 1864 Alfred, ‘Rode to Newton Abbot this morning on my Pony calling in at Teigngrace on the way to see the heaps of Iron Ore ready for shipment … Called on Mr H. Beare at his Foundry on my way to Teigngrace and Newton to see about the Trucks he is making for my Iron Ore Quarry Tramway’ (22 November 1864). At this stage transportation of the iron ore from Ilsington was by carting and in January 1865, ‘All work has been stopped at the Quarry since Tuesday morning owing to the snow with the exception of a few carts of Iron Ore sent away to the Canal’ (28 January 1865).

The movement of ores around the Ilsington landscape was a challenge and in 1865, ‘Mr Gulley [possibly Jonas Gilley who by 1871 was the farm bailiff of Langaller] called and stated that the Map of the proposed Tramway from Smallacombe to Bovey sent to me by J. N. Dunn for which he [Dunn] has charged nearly £45 is quite wrong. Fortunately I have not paid him and intend to return it’ (16 March 1865). Several years later Alfred, ‘walked … to Smallacombe and informed Mr Lambshead [tenant] that the Smallacombe Iron Mine was let to the Heytor Mining Co, who would fix a Tram Way from near bottom of our hill through the bottom of Smallacombe Meadow and up to near the Heytor Mine adit’ (16 August 1880). Furthermore, in 1882 Alfred went to the, ‘Heytor Iron Mine [and] saw Capt. W.  Grose [the manager] who told me the overhead wire rope to draw up the ore from the Smallacombe Mine will be fixed after Xmas’ (14 December 1882). By now traction engines were in available and Alfred, being the entrepreneur he was, quickly utilized this new form of transport, ‘went to the iron ore tipping place on the Moor to see the traction engine come along from Bovey (18 August 1880). The traction engine took the ore to Bovey railway station that had opened in 1866.

Unforseen Problems – road subsidence, flooded adits

Mining has always been a precarious business. One day Alfred, ‘Walked to the Iron Ore Tipping place on the Downs … met Mr Hatherly of Newton Abbot whose Uncle owns Heytor Mine and he went to see the large hole in the road caused by the earth falling into the Mine (12 November 1880). A few weeks later Alfred started at the Rock Inn and, ‘walked … to see the men filling the hole caused by the old Mining workings giving way. Captain Grose was there and said it would require 3000 tons of earth to fill it up and fortunately the earth etc is close at hand being debris of old workings’ (6 December 1880).

Although water was a vital commodity in the mining business it also caused much difficulty. In late 1881 Alfred, ‘Went in the mining adit bottom of our hill this afternoon and found poor progress being made owing to so much water coming in at the end and sides rendering it very difficult to fix the timber and the men, 6, who work night & day in twos or three shifts about eight hours each. About eight or nine feet per week only has been the progress lately, but they hope soon to get into much drier ground as it rises above a few feet in advance. It appears to be almost a bog they have been working in the last five or six weeks (25 November 1881). Three days later, ‘Mr Lambshead [tenant] of Smallacombe called…and agreed to charge Heytor Mine Co £10 if they would accept this offer to induce him to turn off the water in the meadow where the Miners are at work driving the Adit level, as at present they can hardly get on owing to so much water soaking in to the ground’ (28 November 1881). An accommodation was reached and a few weeks later Alfred, ‘Walked… to the Mining Adit level below our hill and went in as far as we could and found very slow progress being made, only 6 feet a week owing to so much water coming in, but now Mr Lambshead has turned off the water irrigating the Meadow they hope to get on faster’ (23 December 1881).

Was Lyon a Good Employer?

Alfred was a very hard-working gentleman but the labour of the miners was of a different order, as suggested by the previous diary entries describing long hours toiling in very wet conditions. So was Alfred a considerate employer?

As well as being concerned about wet conditions underground Alfred took steps to improve air quality. He, ‘Walked to Smallacombe Meadow to see the Miners sinking an Air shaft to give Ventilation to the Mining Adit level the air being very bad lately’ (11 March 1882).

Further evidence of Alfred demonstrating concern for his workforce was shown in the severe winter of 1864/5 when, ‘… 4 of the men engaged on the Quarry [called on me} this morning who have not been able to work since this day week on account of the snow. Gave them some bread and cheese and beer’ (30 January 1865).

Alfred provided accommodation for miners and he, ‘went … to the Heytor Mine [and] saw Mr Reynolds again and pointed out some rough land in Heytor Vale just above the Mining Adit where workmen’s Cottages might be built’ (23 August 1880).

Alfred was concerned that the miners should paid on time and one diary entry records him putting pressure on the paymaster (29 September 1880). He was a man of probity and soon after arriving at Ilsington he noted that, ‘It seems that mining in this neighbourhood has been in the hands of a set of sharpers the last four years who have defrauded everybody they became connected with’ (1 October 1864). That same month locals warned Alfred about the honesty of his local agent Mr Dunn. Shortly afterwards the Board of Directors of Devon Consuls Mine, in which Alfred had shares, agreed that Alfred could sack Dunn from that mine for misrepresentation of the amount raised. As a precaution Alfred took the local policeman with him, and by January 1865 Alfred expressed relief that he had got rid of these ‘swindlers’. Perhaps on the grand scale of industrial entrepreneurs Alfred was amongst the more philanthropic than many.

Post Script

Alfred was a very busy entrepreneur with several business interests as well as his mining ventures. He was also involved in local life through Ilsington and Blackpool schools, the parish church and local non-conformist churches. His eldest son Thomas Henry became famous as Principal Teacher of Design at Cambridge School of Architecture after World War I, and many local residences were designed by him including the extension of Middlecott [8].


Thanks to Anne Parkinson of Ilsington History Group for giving us access to Dick Wills’ commentary on Lyon’s diary, as the Wills family of Narracott knew Alfred Lyon and were frequently mentioned in his diary; Susan Rand for permission to use her photograph of Middlecott; and to Mrs Ware Owen, the current owner of Middlecott.


[1] James Douglas, 1900. Glimpses of old Bombay and Western India, with other papers (London, SLOW, Marston) p.124, Ewart Lyon and Co in 1845 listed as     part of the Bombay Chamber of Commerce.

[2] Devon Heritage Centre ZAEP Alfred Lyon of Middlecott Ilsington Diaries 1863-94; also available through Ilsington History Group.

[3] Tom Greeves, 2008. Tinners and Tinworks of the Bovey Tracey Area from Prehistory to the Twentieth Century in Transactions of the Devonshire Association, 140, pp. 15-43; DTRG Newsletter 2010, Tom Greeves; ibid. 2014, Tanya Welch, summary of the DTRG meeting at Ilsington; ibid. 2016, Pat Watson, A Rich Lancashire Mill Owner.

[4] London Evening Standard, 1859 April 12, p. 1.

[5] London Daily News 1861, October 1, p. 7.

[6] The Western Times, 1863, November 27, p.1.

[7] M. C. Ewans, 1977.The Haytor Granite Tramway and Stover Canal (3rd Impression Newton Abbot, David and Charles) p.28

[8] Andrew Saint, 2012. The Cambridge School of Architecture: a Brief History. accessed 5 August 2019.