1. Lignite and Coal , Domestic Fuel in Victorian Bovey Tracey: How and When Coal became available to Bovey Tracey Residents

2. Lignite and Sewerage

3. Lignite and Smelting

Malcolm Billinge 2018

1. Lignite and Coal , Domestic Fuel in Victorian Bovey Tracey: How and When Coal became available to Bovey Tracey Residents

What forms of heating and lighting were available to local residents during the nineteenth century and how did the provision of domestic fuel develop over the years?

Lignite, a low-grade coal had been excavated at the Bovey Coal Pit, more recently known as Bluewaters, since the middle of the eighteenth century if not before. Lignite would have been used as a domestic fuel but by the mid-nineteenth century there were several references to the continuing domestic use of lignite by only the poor of Bovey Tracey. Lignite was also the fuel used in the early Bovey Potteries (the Indio, Heathfield and Folly potteries) and its use continued for some time after 1843 when the more industrial-scale Bovey Tracey Pottery Company was established.

Attempting to improve upon our as yet inadequate understanding as to exactly ‘when’ and ‘how’ coal came to replace lignite use in Bovey Tracey is the aim of this article.

The early availability of coal in Newton Abbot

Coal was readily available to Newton Abbot householders by the time Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837 and many years before the atmospheric railway reached town in 1847. For instance, in 1834 the partnership between two local coal merchants was dissolved and in 1841 the sale details of a Newton Abbot house included, ‘capacious coal cellars.’ (Gloucestershire Chronicle 22 March 1834, p. 4; The Western Times 11 December 1841, p. 2.

The Newton Abbot Gas Works

Newton Abbot was lit by gas for the first time in 1838, managed by the Newton Abbot and Newton Bushel Gas Light and Coke Company (The Western Times 17 February 1838, p. 3). This new provision required the continuous importation of significant quantities of coal, again before the railway link was established. To add a human dimension we learn that Elizabeth Gardner died at the Gas Station, Newton Bushel in 1844 (The Western Times 6 April 1844, p. 2).

The Domestic Use of Lignite in Bovey Tracey

As noted above, Bovey Coal or lignite was used domestically in the eighteenth century but only by ‘the poor’ come the middle of the nineteenth century.

A newspaper article describing the Bovey Pottery in 1850 referring to lignite concluded that, ‘the unpleasant smell it emits in burning, preventing its general use as fuel for domestic purposes’ and a second article in 1857, again referring to lignite stated, ‘For domestic use it is unsuited, seeing that it emits an unpleasant smell when burning.’ (The Western Times 19 January 1850, p. 8; Western Morning News 26 May 1875, p. 3).

Similarly  Billings’ Directory of 1857 described Bovey Coal, ‘distinguished as stone coal and wood coal, but the unpleasant smell which it emits being found to be very injurious to health, it is seldom used, except by the poorer inhabitants.’ (Billings’ Directory 1857, p. 7).

The Switch to Coal as the Fuel of Choice for Bovey Tracey Residents

Exactly when coal replaced lignite as the chief domestic fuel in Bovey Tracey remains unclear but the advent of the railway connecting Bovey Tracey to Moretonhampstead and to Newton Abbott in 1866 obviously allowed for the bulk importation of coal from that date.

The 1871 census recorded two coal-dealers living in Bovey Tracey and in 1873 John Parkhouse of Exeter was advertising truck-loads of coal for sale which he could deliver ‘within the turnpikes’ to Bovey Tracey and other towns. He kept stores at Starcross, Exminster and Bovey Tracey and he probably made good use of the railways as well as the roads (The Western Times 11 July 1873, p. 5).

The question as to ‘How’ coal was brought into Bovey Tracey before 1866 as well as ‘When’ this was first arranged will be considered below following consideration of the commercial use of lignite.

Bovey Tracey Gas Works  –  1881

Neighbouring Chudleigh acquired a town gas supply as early as 1868 but the Bovey Tracey Gas Works was not opened until 1881. The Gas Works was situated near the Bovey Pottery where a siding allowed for the unloading of the necessary coal supplies.

At the 1881 dinner celebrating the opening of the Gas Works one speaker hoped that, ‘The moral and social welfare of the town would be considerably helped by the fact of gas being burned not only in the shops and houses, but eventually, as they sincerely hoped, in the streets also.’ (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 26 August 1881, p. 5).

At a meeting called soon afterwards to discuss the introduction of street lighting by the Bovey Gas Company it was recalled that in 1879 some land-owners had objected to having to shoulder some of the cost and consequently a vote was now taken. There were a mere 304 valid votes, indicating a restricted franchise from a population of just over 2000, and 217 were in favour of gas street lighting paid for by the ratepayers of Bovey Tracey (Western Morning News 7 October 1881, p. 2).

Bovey Tracey’s Electricity Supply  –  1910

In 1907 there was a public meeting at the Bovey Tracey Town Hall at which schemes for lighting the town with electricity were discussed. One proposal was to build a power plant at the Bovey Coal Pit and to use lignite as the fuel by which to generate the required electricity (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette  9 August 1907, p. 11).

This was not to be the chosen approach but within four years, at the time of the 1911 census Bovey Tracey had a Mr James living at the ‘Electric Light Station’ on Station Road (1911 Census).

Fuel use at the Bovey Pottery  –  the switch from Lignite to Coal

In 1775 Josiah Wedgewood from the Staffordshire Potteries visited an early Bovey Pottery and remarked upon the use of locally-sourced lignite, ‘The coals are only 2/6 per ton at the pit [Bluewaters], and so near to the works, that only wheelbarrows are used for their conveyance to the works.’ (Brian Adams, 2005.  Bovey Tracey Potteries, Guide and Marks (Bovey Tracey, House of Marbles) p.8).

In 1800 Dunsford, who wrote a diary during his travels in the West Country mentioned Bovey Heathfield, ‘whence is dug a sort of fuel, of disagreeable smell.’ ‘A large earthenware manufacture is conducted at Indio … and the clay dug from the same pits as that exported to Staffordshire, and burnt with the fuel above described’ [ie local lignite] (Martin Dunsford, 1800. Miscellaneous observations in the course of two tours through several parts of the west of England. (Tiverton, E.Boyce) p.108)

When John and Thomas Honychurch were selling the Folly Pottery at Bovey Tracey in 1835 the advertisement stated that there existed on site, ‘an inexhaustible coal mine with a rail road from the pit to the kiln’s mouth.’ (Exeter Flying Post 6 August 1835, p. 3).

A detailed newspaper account of the Bovey Tracey Pottery Company in 1850 described the Coal Pit as, ‘the large excavation … probably a hundred feet deep, and it [lignite] is brought to the surface by small wagons, which travel up and down a railroad, at an angle of about thirty or thirty-five, and are put in motion by a whim, which is driven by an overshot water-wheel. There are two of these rails parallel to each other, so that whilst the full wagon is ascending, the empty one is descending … On arrival at the surface, the wagons are wheeled away to a large shed near the kilns, where the coal is deposited ready for use’ Fig.1. (The Western Times 19 January 1850, p. 8).

Figure 1. Trams in use at Bluewaters in 1946. David Lewis Collection

Mid-century, lignite reserves were still considered to be a valuable investment and an 1851 sale of two small estates, Langaller and Belle Vue, both near the Bovey Coal Pit included reserves of clay and lignite, ‘offering an unbounded source of emolument to a persevering man of moderate capital’ (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 7 June 1851, p. 1).

A newspaper article about Bovey Tracey in 1851 described, ‘The coal-pits, which provide fuel for the massive kilns, are very extensive … several miniature Etnas sending forth smoke from the smouldering masses.’ (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 1 November 1851, p. 4).

These and other references confirm the continuing industrial use of lignite at the Bovey Pottery into the early 1850s following which there is a change of emphasis.

William Pengelly, Devon’s foremost polymath spent several months in 1860/61, with other academic associates, studying the clay and lignite formations at the Bovey Coal Pit. In his several academic articles describing this study Pengelly states that coal rather than lignite was by then the main fuel used at the Bovey Pottery. There had been a fire in the lignite seams which the owner, John Divett could only extinguish by flooding the Coal Pit and this event may possibly have hastened the switch from lignite to coal usage. (William Pengelly, 1862. The Lignites and Clays of Bovey Tracey in Rep. Trans Devon. Assoc. 1 pt 1 pp. 29-39)

However, the switch in fuel use from lignite to coal could not have been abrupt or perhaps pervasive because at the 1867 Horticultural and Industrial Show at Bovey Tracey one reporter noted that, ‘Pottery has been made there for the last hundred years, with the aid of Bovey Coal’ and there were ‘fine specimens of Bovey Coal’ on display (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 6 September 1867, p. 9). And, an 1871 advertisement for a railway excursion in South Devon included, ‘the ligneous coal fields of Bovey Tracey’ as one of the highlights of the trip (Bristol Mercury 29 July 1871, p. 4).

Furthermore, in 1861 the South Devon Iron and General Mining Company was erecting a smelting furnace and coking ovens at Slades Mead near the Coal Pit and in 1862 the Atlas Mining and Smelting Company Ltd was seeking £35,000 capital in order to purchase the Smallacombe estate [Liverton] upon which there was a tin mine. The (unsuccessful) plan was to smelt tin ore using lignite from the Coal Pit and no mention of the use of coal was made in the announcements. The lignite would have been a cheap, readily available fuel and its choice does not preclude the availability of coal at the time, but it does suggest that a phased introduction of coal took place before the railway opened in 1866.

An 1875 detailed newspaper article about the Bovey Pottery probably provides the answer when it stated that, ‘The lignite is not adapted for burning the finer qualities of earthenware’ … ‘The Bovey clay [from the Coal Pit / Bluewaters] is used merely for such coarse work as the making of bricks and drain pipes; and the Bovey lignite for heating the kilns in which they are burnt’ … ‘For the general purposes of the pottery … the Dorsetshire clay is used and the ordinary coal.’ (Western Morning News 26 May 1875, p. 3).

Lignite continued to be extracted at the Coal Pit until the mid-1990s when Mr George Ross Divett the then owner died and both the Bovey Pottery and the Coal Pit faced temporary closure. Lignite extraction re-started in 1907 but for purposes other than providing fuel for the new Bovey Pottery Company Ltd.

The Importation of Coal into Bovey Tracey before the Opening of the Railway in 1866

The domestic use of lignite was restricted to the poor by the mid century by which time the burning of lignite at the Bovey Pottery was also becoming confined to the utilitarian products such as brick, drainage tiles and pipes. As an aside, another article available on this website makes the claim that Capt. Thomas Wentworth Buller, in choosing to invest in the establishment of the Bovey Tracey Pottery Company in 1843, was motivated by the prospect of benefiting financially from the manufacturing of bricks and land-drainage ‘tiles’.

However, if coal was being burnt on a substantial scale both domestically and commercially prior to the advent of the railway, how did it get to Bovey Tracey?

Coal Back-freighted on the Stover Canal

Before the coming of the railway the Stover Canal, built in the 1790s by James Templer was a valuable means of importing coal and other goods into the Bovey Tracey area.

Dunsford in 1800 recorded the back-freighting of coal on the canal (Martin Dunsford, 1800. Miscellaneous observations in the course of two tours through several parts of the west of England. (Tiverton, E.Boyce) p.108) and an 1820 newspaper extract quoting Mr Fraser’s ‘Survey of the County of Devon’ demonstrated that the canal’s potential for mixed, two-way traffic was clearly recognized. Mr Fraser extolled the value of canals: ‘Proceeding in this manner, we should obtain by a series of canals, forming an easy navigable communication to all parts of these wastes, and with the sea at Teignmouth, by a junction with Mr Templer’s canal, by which lime, coal, sea sand etc would be conveyed at a moderate expense, to those wastes, and the granite, tin, copper etc with which it abounds, would form a trade in return.’ Fig.2 (Morning Chronicle 21 January 1820, p. 4).

Figure 2. Barges on Stover Canal.

Coal was readily available in Newton Abbot and in 1835 coal was being shipped into Teignmouth from both Newport, Wales and Newcastle (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 17 January 1835, p. 3). In 1844 four barges, the property of the late George Templer were for sale and they had been, ‘employed on and from the Stover Canal to Teignmouth in the clay and coal trade up to the present time’ (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette  20 April 1844, p. 1).

Prior to the 1886 railway extension to Bovey Tracey, Lustleigh and Moretonhampstead the proposed route was surveyed in 1861 by John Fowler and P. J. Margary who recorded at least five coal stores along the Stover Canal. Coal brought thus far would then have been collected by carts for onward distribution into the rural hinterland.

In 1866 with the railway about to open there was reference to the Stover canal with, ‘lighters which are continuously plying up and down with potter’s clay, coals, iron ore etc’ (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 8 June 1866, p. 6).

That coal was back-freighted up to the Ventiford canal basin has been verified by archaeological excavations conducted by Dr Phil Newman during the 2014-18 excavations but the volume or destination of the imported coal is not known.(Phil Newman, 2014.  Archaeological Excavations at Ventiford Basin on the Stover Canal

Transportation into Bovey Tracey by Carting

There is a strong argument for assuming that coal was available both domestically and commercially in Bovey Tracey from at least the mid-1850s with supplies being brought by barge up the Stover canal from Teignmouth docks to the Ventiford canal basin. Onward distribution would presumably have been by cart but a specific reference has not yet been located.

However, we know that before the railway came carting was used to send Bovey Pottery products to Newton Abbot as in 1864 two carters who were employed in the conveyance of earthenware between Bovey Pottery and the Newton Station were fined for leaving their horses and trolleys in Flamank Street while they drank in a beer shop. These carters could quite easily have brought coal back to Bovey Tracey, possibly from the canal basin at Ventiford (Western Daily Mercury 16 March 1864, p. 4).

Other local industries used coal which would have been carted into more rural areas. For example, in 1858 the Owlacombe Tin Mines at nearby Sigford were operating a powerful steam engine that would have required a reliable supply of coal, probably traceable back to the Teignmouth docks.

Carting of coal imported from South Wales and used in lime-burning is well documented and there are numerous colourful newspaper accounts of carting incidents such as the one in 1830 when, ‘On Monday last, the driver of a coal cart dropped his measure from off the cart, when to the delight of the passengers and the dismay of the black diamond merchant, the measure, notwithstanding it was tenderly handled, lost its false bottom by the shock (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 11 December 1830, p. 2).

More locally regarding the Smallacombe mine at Ilsington in 1859 we learn that, ‘it is satisfactory to know that you have not been paying more than 3s 6d per ton for cartage of your ore [iron] to the wharf on the [Stover] canal, 1s 6d per ton for lighterage and putting on board vessels at Teignmouth, and 3s freight to the iron smelting works’ (London Evening Standard 12 April 1859, p. 1).

These articles confirm the widespread carting of goods and materials prior to 1866 and the recent archaeological excavations at Ventiford canal basin confirmed the transportation not only of coal but also the ‘export’ of iron ore (micaceous haematite) and the ‘import’ of flint pebbles for use in the Bovey Pottery.

Transportation using the Granite Tramway?

George Templer’s granite tramway opened in 1820 to transport granite from Haytor Rock quarries to the Ventiford canal basin but by the 1850s this commerce had largely stopped. The granite tramway could have been used to export/import other goods and materials and it passed, conveniently through the Bovey Pottery premises. Was the granite tramway utilized in this way?

In 1834 John Bigg the granite company secretary in London wrote a letter to George Templer in which he suggested that iron ore from the Haytor Vale mine could be transported down to Ventiford on the granite tramway (Ewans, M.C. The Haytor Granite Tramway and Stover Canal [Newton Abbot, David and Charles] p. 28). There is no evidence of this suggestion having being actioned and the micaceous haematite (a distinctive form of iron ore) referred to above would have come from the Hennock area and not the Haytor/Ilsington area.

However, the 1835 Folly Pottery sale notice included the statement, ‘the materials to and from the premises [the Pottery] are conveyed by the Haytor Company’s Rail Road, which passes through the property to the Teignbridge canal (Exeter Flying Post  6 August 1835, p. 3). The exact nature of the ‘materials’ is not specified and the transport of coal or indeed iron ore would have required proper trucks rather than flat-beds but the opportunity of bringing coal into Bovey Tracey was clearly there.


One teasing enigma remains, the answer to which would help clarify, at least, the ‘when’ issue. In 1857 one department within the Bovey Pottery, the Spur Works , was lit for the first time by gas lighting. The entrepreneurial Jabez Mugford [see a biographical article on this website] was the manager of the Spur Works who introduced the gas lighting and the following year, when he was the mayor of Bovey Tracey  Mr Buckland praised him for being, ‘indefatigable in his endeavours to get the town lighted with gas,’ and he hoped that by ‘a long pull, a strong pull, and a pull together they would yet succeed.’ (Exeter Flying Post 13 May 1858, p. 7; The Western Times 15 May 1858, p. 7).

It is not known whether the gas for lighting the Spur Works was produced by heating lignite or coal but the reference to Jabez pushing for a town gas supply (it took more than twenty years to achieve) could suggest that he had already imported coal by Stover canal and onward carting / granite tramway into Bovey Tracey by 1857. This would accord with the tentative conclusion of this enquiry.

However, the contrary argument that Jabez used readily available lignite to produce the gas also receives some support from the 1907 proposition for the commercial production of electricity for the town by way of gas produced by heating lignite from the recently re-opened Bovey Coal Pit (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 9 August 1907, p. 11).

We would be very pleased to hear from anyone who has information on the early use of coal in Bovey Tracey in order to help us clarify these points.

2. Lignite and Sewerage: The Treatment of Sewage Using Lignite or ‘Bovey Coal’

Lignite or Bovey Coal is a poor quality, brown coal. It is found in association with the Bovey Basin clays having been formed by the partial lithification of vegetation swept into the extensive lake that covered the area approximately thirty million years ago.

Lignite has been excavated from a site on the edge of Bovey Tracey from at least the 18th century and used initially as a domestic fuel and also a fuel to fire the kilns at the Bovey Potteries before coal became readily available. The local lignite has been used in other ventures and the Coal Pit, more recently known as Bluewaters only closed for good in the 1950s. A second, smaller source of lignite was near the Candy & Co. works at Heathfield and it is at Heathfield that two ventures involving the proposed treatment of sewage by lignite filtration were sited.

The Patent Porous Carbon Co. Ltd.

Messrs Candy and Co., were a medal-winning firm manufacturing bricks and tiles at their Chudleigh Road Station site [Heathfield] by at least 1878. The company extracted clay from its nearby Heathfield pit. (WT 21 October 1878, p.2)

The 1881 census gives us an indication of where this was as it recorded Mr William Aggett, general labourer, with his wife and two daughters living at Carbon Works,  Heathfield.

However, it was not until 1885 that it was announced that a patent had been applied for by George H. Ellis of the Heathfield Patent Carbon Works, for sanitary apparatus. (Western Times 27 April 1885, p.2). This followed an earlier newspaper article that detailed recent sewage purification trials that had taken place at the Belle Isle outflow, Exeter, carried out by Mr George Ellis who was described as sanitary engineer of the Patent Carbon Works, Heathfield. This was a time when the threat of a cholera epidemic was prompting innovative attempts to tackle the sewage treatment and disposal challenge. ‘The city surveyor Mr Cameron has expressed himself highly satisfied with their practicability.’ (Western Times 28 January 1885, p. 3).

One month later a second newspaper article expanded on this development. Mr George H. Ellis, sanitary engineer, had secured from the Duke of Somerset several acres of land ‘teeming with lignite.’ ‘The late approach of cholera to within a day’s journey of our shores has convinced the most thoughtless of the urgency of taking every means to avert that terrible scourge. Foul gases and impure water are the most fruitful causes of fever and cholera.’ Elsewhere there had been experimental treatment of sewage using chloride of lime and manganite of soda but if the chemical treatment was proving unsatisfactory then perhaps a method of filtering the sewage might prove more effective. In November 1884 the Prevention of the Pollution of Rivers Bill had called for stringent standards and penalties and hence Exeter Town Council was seeking a better system.

Mr J. W. Gatehouse, a public analyst for Bath said that the ‘patent carbon’ was equal to animal charcoal at one third of the cost. The process involved in the manufacturing of ‘patent carbon’ from lignite was described in some detail:

‘After being carbonized it [the lignite] is reduced into a condition of fine and coarse particles, and a part finely powdered. The particles or granules are used for filtering purposes; the powder for precipitation.’ The lignite, ‘is treated with other materials and compounded into a mass of extreme porosity and hardness’ and then ground to particles for use in filtration systems.

The lignite works were situated near the Heathfield railway station [then known as Chudleigh Road station] and consisted of, ‘an extensive series of buildings arranged in factory form … the retort house, in which are arranged a series of furnaces and retorts for carbonizing the raw material. Adjoining this is the dye product and granulating department …  The works are under the superintendence of Mr F. A. Cowell who acts as consulting engineer … During the “carbonization” process volatile by-products such as paraffin, carbolic acid, ammonia and dye products were removed.’ (Western Times 5 February 1885, p. 2).

In 1886 although Mr Ellis had managed to interest Mr Bennett, the Town Surveyor in Southampton in his Patent Porous Carbon Company when he approached the Exeter Corporation, ‘He did not, however, find the mental soil congenial. The seed of his doctrine fell on stony ground.’ (The Western Times 30 October 1886, p. 2).

Two years later at the London Bankruptcy Court in 1888 Mr G. H. Ellis was declared bankrupt. He described himself as the managing director of the Patent Porous Carbon Company Ltd. George Ellis had spent between £3-4,000 erecting his buildings and factory but his company losses together with other speculations and inventions had left him with gross liabilities in excess of £8,000. In his defense George said this was the first time he had failed, and he had also been ill with rheumatic fever. (Western Times 1 December 1888, p.3).

Kelly’s 1889 Directory still listed the Patent Porous Carbon Co. with F. A. Cowell as its consulting engineer and manager but there are no grounds for supposing that the business had continued. It may be interesting to note, however that our modern sewage works is coincidentally situated in the same vicinity, at Heathfield.

Finally, in 1890 and by order of the liquidators of the Porous Carbon Company (Ltd), Bovey Tracey  and Heathfield, there was a sale on the premises of plant, machinery and stock comprising office furniture, retorts, 1,100 tons of carbon, 6-ton weigh bridge disintegrators, a 10 hp horizontal engine with Cornish boiler, a brick machine, a 12hp double cylinder winding engine and boiler by Davy, Paxman and Co., steam and other pumps, corrugated iron roofing, separators, crushing boilers, carbonizing ovens and a quantity of sundries. (The Western Times 8 March 1890, p. 1).

The Ligno-Carbon Co. Ltd.

Despite the failure of the Patent Porous Carbon Co. Ltd., a new company, the Ligno-Carbon Company Ltd. was established in 1906. (Board of Trade: Companies Registration Office: Files of Dissolved Companies. Held by The National Archives – Board of Trade and successors. Re BT 31/11664/90204).

In 1907 the re-opening of the lignite coal mine at Bovey Tracey was announced and, ‘The lignite is now to be used, I understand, for purposes of filtration of sewage works. For this purpose it has proved most effective.’ (EPG 16 January 1907, p. 2; EPG 25 January 1907, p. 7). It should be noted that the lignite was to come from the Bovey Tracey Bluewaters Coal Pit rather than the Heathfield clay pit that was being used by Candy & Co. Ltd, by now a major glazed brick and tile manufacturing concern. The source of the lignite used by the earlier Patent Porous Carbon company is not known but the building of the Carbon Works in Heathfield would indicate a Heathfield rather than a Bovey Tracey source of raw material.

Despite this optimism 1907 turned out to be a disappointing year for this new venture. In February local newspapers reported on an acrimonious discussion within the Sanitary Committee of the Newton Abbott Board of Guardians. A letter had been received from Mr Bennett, the civil engineer at Southampton who had supported George Ellis’ earlier Patent Porous Caron Co. Ltd. venture. In it Mr Bennett complained that although it had been agreed between the Ligno-Carbon Company and the Sanitary Committee that he would visit Newton Abbott, his request to inspect the sewage works was denied. It would appear that Mr Bennett was campaigning on behalf of the Ligno-Carbon company and he was intending to place a proposal before the committee. His wish to visit the Newton Abbott sewage works was in order to check that his proposal was sound. Mr Bennett’s progress had been courteously blocked by the Sanitary Committee chairman, Mr W. Vicary who told him that the committee had no intention of hearing any such new proposal. Mr Vicary had told Mr Bennett that, ‘The town had a very good system of drainage, a very low death rate, and were quite content to let sleeping dogs lie.’ Mr Bennett had shown Mr Vicary, ‘a system in force in a town of 5,000 inhabitants, the water being returned to a fishpond and therefore very clean.’ There was a discussion of potential financial costings. Mr Vicary was adamant and so Mr Bennett decided not to meet the committee but on his departure he, ‘promised to send a sample of Ligno Carbon which was a great oderiser and very useful for filtration.’

A row in the committee meeting ensued with one member complaining that Mr Vicary always opposed new sewage treatment proposals. ‘It cannot be denied that there is a very great nuisance in the way in which the sewage is turned into the river. It was not treated scientifically.’  And ‘I know this, that Mr Vicary always frustrates any inquiry into the sewage conditions of the town’. The current scheme was inadequate as, ‘They had simply a catchpit’ and sewage was, ‘turned into the river.’ Mr Vicary sought to defend his position by countering that, ‘He had never been against allowing anyone to propound a scheme, but they were as numerous as blackberries in the autumn.’

Finally it was agreed that Mr Bennett would be told that he was indeed at liberty to come before the committee (EPG 19 February 1907, p. 5; E&SDA 23 February 1907, p. 5).

Following this contretempts Mr B. K. Slade of 28 Devon Square, Newton Abbot, the managing director of the Ligno-Carbon Co. Ltd. wrote to the press and he confirmed that he had asked Mr Bennett (M. Inst, C.E.) to inspect the Newton Abbot system to see if his Ligno-Carbon scheme was economically practicable. He confirmed that Mr Bennett was using the patent carbon system at Lyndhurst and elsewhere (E&SDA 2 March 1907, p. 8).

A second controversy involving the Ligno Carbon company occurred in March 1907. The company, ‘which had recently recommenced mining for lignite between Bovey Tracey and Heathfield’ applied for an injunction to restrain clay-cutters and labourers from using a footpath, ‘leading from the main road from Bovey Tracey to Newton Abbot to the road from Bovey Tracey to Teigngrace, through the Stover Plantation, and up to Coldeast.’ The land in question had been common land until it was enclosed in 1866, the year when the new railway line was opened. Mr G. H. Ellis, sanitary engineer and chairman of the company was a witness for the company but ‘notorious and uninterrupted public use’ was proved and the company consequently lost the argument. (Western Times 12 March 1907, p. 3). George Ellis was clearly involved in both sewage treatment ventures.

In 1908 a field trip was organized by the Devonshire Association included the inspection of the Bovey Potteries and lignite beds (Bluewaters) The day was to end with tea at Stonelands, Bovey Tracey being the country residence of the above MrVicary.

The Ligno-Carbon Co. Ltd. was, like the Patent Porous Carbon company soon to founder. In 1910 there was an auction sale announced following the death of John Sampson:

Lot 1      About 12 acres of land fronting on the main road from Newton to Bovey Tracey late in the occupation of the Ligno Carbon Co. Ltd. together with the extensive sheds, stores, smithery, engine house, carpenter’s shop, offices and premises.

Lot 2 a pair of substantially built cottages and premises adjoining Lot 1 both let to Mr Walters at £18 per annum the two, tenant paying the rates. With this lot will be included the valuable building site extending on the Bovey side of the cottages. (WT 2 September 1910, p. 1). See the recent photograph of ‘Carbon Cottages’ on the Old Newton Road, Heathfield (Fig.1).

Figure 1. Carbon Cottages, Old Newton Road, Heathfield. Malcolm Billinge 2018.

Immediately under this notice was a second one advertising the auction of a brickyard, extensive land and many houses in Exeter. This second auction , also followed the death of John Sampson of Melrose House, a brick and tile manufacturer and general merchant who in 1895 had bought the Atlas tin mine, ‘near Newton Abbot’ [Ilsington] with the intention of forming a new company  –  but that is another story!

3. Lignite and Smelting ; Did ‘Bovey Coal’ Prove Effective in the Processing of Mineral Ores?


The Coal Pit at Bovey Tracey, now known as Bluewaters, had been in operation at least since the eighteenth century and various workings are rather crudely featured on both the Philp’s map of 1837 and the Tithe map of around 1841. A later photograph shows  workings some time in the early twentieth century (Fig 1.)

Figure 1. Bluewaters. David Lewis collection

An article ‘The Manufacturing Industry of Devon – The Bovey Pottery’ told how John Divett and Capt. Thomas Wentworth Buller obtained the lease of the Folly Pottery and the Coal Pit in 1843 and transformed them into the successful Bovey Tracey Pottery Company. The Coal Pit is described as ‘the large excavation … probably a hundred feet deep, and it [lignite] is brought to the surface by small wagons, which travel up and down a railroad, at an angle of about thirty or thirty-five, and are put in motion by a whim, which is driven by an overshot water-wheel. There are two of these rails parallel to each other, so that whilst the full wagon is ascending, the empty one is descending … On arrival at the surface, the wagons are wheeled away to a large shed near the kilns, where the coal is deposited ready for use’ (The Western Times 19 January 1850, p. 8).

With an abundance of lignite at the Bovey Coal Pit it was understandable that attempts were made to smelt various mineral ores that were being mined in the Bovey Tracey locality. Micaceous haematite was being mined at Great Rock, Kelly and other nearby mines; haematite, magnetite, tin, lead, zinc and silver were being mined at Ilsington and Haytor Vale, and copper at the Yarner or Yarrow Mine. Consequently between 1848 and 1862 attempts were made to smelt different mineral ores from the Hennock area and then the Ilsington/Haytor area, using Bovey coal or lignite.

The Hennock Scheme

In 1848 an entry in the Mining Journal referred to the Hennock Iron, Steel and Tin Mining Co (later the Great Rock Mine) and stated that, ‘the Bovey lignite is in the immediate vicinity and may hereafter prove highly valuable for smelting purposes’ (The Mining Journal 4 August 1848, p. 365).

This was soon followed by an optimistic local press report that claimed, ‘no neighbourhood in the county of Devon presents a more busy scene than that of South Bovey and Hennock at the present time. The iron mines, belonging to … Weston Esq. at Hennock, are going briskly. The extensive earthenware potteries at Bovey are also in full employ, and we hear another shaft is about to be driven at the Bovey coal works, as at present the supply is not sufficient for the use of the kilns at the pottery. It is also in contemplation to erect extensive smelting works on the estate of D. G. Goatly Esq. The mines etc. already afford daily employment to nearly 300 persons’ (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 1 September 1849, p. 5).

In 1849 a newspaper article reported that, ‘considerable discussion has taken place in the scientific world as to whether the Bovey coal or lignite could be used for the purposes of smelting. Experiments have, however, been recently tried, and found that by using the wood coal from the superior strata, with a proper admixture of lime, the Hennock iron can be readily smelted, and is, we learn, well calculated to make excellent steel. A specimen of the smelted iron is now in our possession. In the present dearth of manufactories in our locality, we shall be glad to hear of the success of the projected Hennock Company’ (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 1 September 1849, p. 5).

However, Mr Prince tried smelting micaceous iron ore with Bovey lignite at the Hennock Iron and Tin mine in 1849, but despite experimenting by adding lime to the smelt the venture failed due to the high sulphur and ash proportion of the lignite (Mining Journal 4 August and 1 September 1849 in Jenkin, A. K. Hamilton 2005 ‘Mines of Devon’, Trowbridge, Cromwell Press p. 134).

The South Devon Iron and General Mining Company

A second attempt at smelting using lignite was made ten years later, this time with mineral ores from the Ilsington area. By 1858/59 work had resumed at the Atlas iron and Tin Mine, Ilsington, which was now a subsidiary of the South Devon Iron and General Mining Company that owned furnaces and coking ovens on Bovey Heath. Three newspaper articles in 1861 described the anticipated developments:

In April the Atlas Iron and Tin Mine Company was offering shares and praising the tin lodes at the Atlas Tin Mines. Eight heads of stamps of eight hundredweight each had been stamping for a month and the burning-house (still in good condition today) would be ready soon. Furthermore, ‘final arrangements have been made respecting the Bovey lignite; the fire-bricks have arrived, and the furnaces for the purpose of converting the large deposits of iron ore into charcoal iron will be immediately proceeded with’ (London Daily News 11 April 1861, p. 1).

In June, ‘having closed with the Lord of the Manor for the ground, which is situate close to the Pottery, a company called the South Devon Iron Company will at once proceed to the erection of the works. From the vast quantity of iron ore of good quality, in the neighbourhood, and coal available, the speculation is regarded as one most likely to prove profitable to adventurers, and must necessarily be an advantage to the town and neighourhood’ (The Western Morning News 13 June 1861, p. 2).

In October an article informed that the South Devon Iron and General Mining Company was erecting smelting and coking ovens at Slade’s Mead near its freehold estate of Smallacombe to manufacture charcoal iron from Bovey lignite with Mr S. B. Rogers superintending the erection. At the Atlas Iron Mine the deep cutting was being cleared and they hoped for 600 tons per month. Simultaneously the lignite was being raised. At the Atlas Tin Mine Capt. Warren reported, ‘a splendid lode of tin down the 20 fathom level’ (London Daily News 1 October 1861, p. 7).

Smallacombe is in Ilsington parish but Slade’s Mead is a small estate immediately adjoining the western edge of the Bovey Coal Pit. The 1887 Ordnance Survey map shows a Smithy, House and Lignite Shaft grouped together in a small demarked area and although there are no remaining structures, the Historic Environment Record records their presence.

By 1862 the Atlas Mining and Smelting Company Ltd was seeking capital in order, ‘to purchase the Smallacombe freehold estate, comprising nearly 190 acres, including tin lodes and extensive deposits of iron ore; also the lease of lands, in which exist several beds of the Bovey lignite, together with all the plant and machinery on the properties belonging to the South Devon Mining Company  …  the reports are favourable … but of course it will be desirable for parties to accept these statements with reserve, and to investigate and judge for themselves’ (London Evening Standard 7 August 1862, p. 2).

The Mining Journal of 1862 also carried an optimistic report, ‘With the new Bovey Tracey Pottery Company, local mines requiring “smelting” of tin, copper and iron, and the lime burning industry expanding, lignite extraction was increased to a depth of 100ft across a seven-acre site.’ There was ‘an inexhaustible supply of cheap and excellent fuel for all manufacturing purposes’ (The Mining Journal 1862).

Despite the optimism surrounding this project to smelt mineral ores using lignite from the Bovey Coal Pit, the venture was abandoned and The South Devon Iron and General Mining Company went into liquidation in 1862 (London Daily News 17 December 1862, p. 1).

At a sale of materials both at Smallcombe and at Slade’s Mead there were on offer, ‘several tons of wrought and cast iron, six railway wagons, about 150 fathoms proof chain, three pairs of smith’s bellows, anvil, full complement of smith’s tools, weigh bridge, blocks and a great quantity of other mining materials and stores, together with office furniture’ (The Western Times 27 November 1863, p.1).

However, attempts were still made by the liquidators of the Atlas Mining and Smelting Company Ltd in 1863, to promote the idea of smelting using lignite as two contemporary newspaper articles demonstrated:

‘By order of the liquidators of the Atlas Mining and Smelting Company (Ltd): Immense deposit of lignite on Bovey Heath Field. For sale, a very valuable lease for a long term of years of about 40 acres of lignite deposit, situate as above, now working by an open cutting and level. The quantity is apparently inexhaustible, and experiments have proved that an excellent Charcoal Coke may be made from this lignite, which gives out in course of cooking a large quantity of napthalic or paraffin oil of very saleable character. The Moretonhampstead railway comes on the heath’ (Western Daily Mercury 24 December 1863, p. 4).

‘By order of the liquidators of the Atlas Mining and Smelting Company (Ltd): To be sold, a blast furnace, nearly completed, with eight cooking ovens, office, and the lease of about eight acres of land, to which a large addition will shortly be made by the apportionment of a waste, the whole presumed to contain a large amount of lignite, said by competent authority to be eminently adapted for cooking and smelting purposes. Large deposits of iron ore and limestone are in the immediate neighbourhood of this property, on which a considerable sum of money has been expended by the late proprietors, who have laid the foundation of what promises to be a most successful business in the manufacture of a class of iron pronounced by the late Mr S. Rogers (under whose superintendence the works were so far erected) to be equal in quality to the best Swedish Charcoal Iron’ (Western Daily Mercury 26 December 1863, p. 4).

Notwithstanding this undue optimism a further sale took place at Slade’s Mead in 1865 of, ‘eight large cast iron cooking pans with covers complete; twenty-five tons (more or less) cast iron bars, frames etc 100,000 (more or less); fire bricks from the Welsh potteries; 50,000 good building bricks.’  (The Western Times 23 June 1865, p. 1).

The production of bricks at the Bovey Pottery is well documented – see a companion article at this website


This would appear to have brought the attempted smelting of locally mined mineral ores to a close in which case a final newspaper article from 1866 was probably misinformed. The reporter wrote a detailed article describing the newly opened Newton Abbot to Moretonhampstead railway in which he stated that, ‘the extensive pottery works at Bovey, and the smelting works in the course of construction in that locality, in connection with the Bovey coal field, may be expected to contribute largely to the traffic of the line’ (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette 8 June 1866, p. 6). Later support for this assertion would appear to be missing.

This reporter also referred to the Stover canal which James Templer constructed in the 1790s and the lighters on which were still, ‘continually plying up and down with potter’s clay, coals, iron ore.’ Before the railway opened in 1866 mineral ores were being exported via the canal to Teignmouth docks for smelting elsewhere. Coal was back-freighted up the canal and if smelting was to have been a successful local industry then this would have been the fuel of choice, and not lignite despite its easy availability. Having said this, in the years following the First World War there was a proposal by the Wilson Syndicate to electrolytically smelt copper ore imported from Spain at Newton Abbot, and the electricity was to have been generated by the burning of ‘producer gas’ obtained from local lignite (The Western Times 3 January 1920, p. 4). This imaginative scheme did not materialize and consequently the answer to the question posed by the title of this article is -No, Bovey Coal did not prove effective in the smelting of local mineral ores.