Lignite and Coal- Domestic Fuel


Domestic Fuel in Victorian Bovey Tracey:

 How and When Coal became available to Bovey Tracey Residents

Malcolm Billinge 2018


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.