Lignite and Smelting

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

Malcolm Billinge 2018



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, Fig 1. (J. Philp’s map 1837; The Tithe map c1841)

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”.