Buckfast. Report from the Industrial Archaeology Section

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Author(s): Hurley. Brendan; Year published: 2017; Origin: Section Conference Reports; Pages: 
Topic(s): IA; Location(s): Buckfast

As in many other parts of Devon, the availability of water power and local materials (wool and hides in this case) shaped the form of industry in Buckfastleigh. The Hamlyn family were the dominating force in the development of these two industries in the town, In the Victorian period there were three mills in Buckfastleigh and a further two in Buckfast. Of these five, three: Town Mill, West Mill and Higher Mill, were controlled by the Hamlyns. Over the period of their operation the mills of Buckfastleigh produced a wide range of materials, especially blankets (in 1964 the Buckfast Spinning Company produced 4000 blankets per week). Before the first World War a red material known as company cloth was exported to China. During the second World War the mills produced sea boot wool and camouflage nets, and more recently, yarn for Axminster carpets. Following the long term decline in the woollen industry, in 1920 Hamlyn’s mill was sold to the Cooperative wholesale company.

The Hamlyn’s tannery, established in 1806, was located in Chapel Street and took its water from the river Mardle. Tanning continues as an industry in Buckfastleigh with Devonia Products, which claims to be Britain’s oldest established sheepskin tannery. In its original form the business used large quantities of bark in the tanning process and this material was stored in an area adjacent to the factory. The scale of this operation can be judged from the report of a major fire of this stored material that took place in 1882. ‘Outside the tannery, … lay four huge stacks of bark, each 40ft in height and weighing altogether upwards of a thousand tons’.

Lime, which was an essential component of the tanning process, was probably obtained from the limestone extracted from Bulley Cleaves quarry which was on the Buckfast Road just south of the main village. As well as being the raw material for producing lime from the numerous lime kilns in the area, the stone from the quarry was used in the restoration of the Abbey and in the construction of part of the sea front at Torquay. From around 1929, under the aegis of R.W.Coles Quarries Ltd, it was also used in building and resurfacing roads within a radius of about 15 miles.

As they both need supplies of clean water, paper mills and woollen mills are often found together. In Buckfastleigh the paper mill, which was situated on the banks of the Dart, existed from 1785 to 1942. There was some connection with the woollen mills as pasteboard products were used for packaging in the woollen mills and wool felt was supplied for the paper making process.

A nine mile stretch of broad gauge railway line, opened in 1872, was built to link Ashburton and Buckfastleigh to the main line at Totnes and became part of the Great Western Railway in 1876. Goods traffic in the form of coal, wool, cider and agricultural products was its main business but like many other rural branch lines it was not commercially successful. The line closed in 1962 but reopened later and, since 1991, has been operated as a heritage railway by a charity, the South Devon Railway Trust.

Brendan Hurley

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