Lignite and Sewerage


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

Malcolm Billinge 2018


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!