Mines and Mining in the Tavistock District (1914)

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Author(s): Bawden. Moses; Year published: 1914; Origin: DA Transactions; Pages: 256-264
Topic(s): mining; Location(s): Morwellham and Tavistock

By Moses Bawden. (Read at Tavistock, 22nd July, 1914.)

One of the earliest, if not the earliest, mine at work was Wheal Crebor, a very productive copper ore lode being discovered in the cutting of the tunnel for the Tavistock Canal. This tunnel was made about the year 1810, commencing at Crebor, and passing through the hill under Morwell down, coming out at some height above the River Tamar at Morwellham.

The canal was cut for the purpose of bringing merchandise to Tavistock at a cheaper rate than by road, and for conveying copper ore(*) from the wharf at Tavistock to Morwellham for shipment.

(*) From Wheal Friendship.

Wheal Crebor production of copper ore became so important that the mining company had their own canal boats, and loaded the ore in them at the mine. I find records of about 70,000 tons of copper ore being sold from this mine, at a value of about £500,000, but I have no doubt that a great deal more than the above has been really sold. The deepest shaft is 110 fathoms, but the chief production of copper ore and arsenical pyrites was from above the 80 fathom level. It may be interesting to note that the incline from the canal to Morwellham quay had inverted rails, and the sharp-edged wheels of the trolley on which the barge was placed worked in the groove of the inverted rail.

At Bedford United mining was commenced about the year 1842, and large profits were made almost from the commencement, and was continued for many years. The main working shaft was sunk 115 fathoms, and an incline shaft near the main shaft was sunk 148 fathoms, but the bulk of the ore was raised above the 115 fathom level. Some years after the Limited Liability Act was passed this company was changed to Limited Liability in 12,000 shares at £1 each, which was not a sufficient capital to again bring it to a dividend state, and the company was liquidated. In addition to the copper ore sold from this mine, between 60,000 and 70,000 tons, large quantities of arsenical mundic were also sold. For about the last ten years, work on a small scale has been carried on, and the prospects again look encouraging for success. This mine being in an almost direct line east of, and near, the Hingston range of granite, the probabilities are that it may become highly productive of tin and wolfram.

  • South Bedford sold some copper ore, but was not worked to a great extent.
  • South Bedford Consols and East Gunnislake sold about 5,000 tons of copper ore.
  • Wheal Russell and Russell United sold 11,400 tons of copper ore and 11 tons of black tin.
  • George and Charlotte Mine, although in the Memoirs of the Geological Survey (1911) they only give as sold 110 tons of iron pyrites in 1869, must from the known extent of the old workings have sold a much larger quantity of mineral than this at earlier periods.
  • Gawton Mine, situated near the River Tamar and Gawton Quay, ceased working in 1902; it sold about 22,000 tons of copper ore, realizing about £55,000; 7,200 tons of crude, unrefined arsenic, realizing about £46,000; 10,826 tons of refined arsenic of commerce, for about £131,700, the mine at the deepest point being 130 fathoms from surface.
  • Little Duke in 1824 sold 40 tons of copper ore, and during the last thirty or forty years considerable quantities of arsenical mundic have been sold therefrom.
  • East Wheal Russell, 1853 to 1869, sold 9,149 tons of copper ore for £54,387.
  • New East Russell, 1865–1868, sold 112 tons of copper ore for £562.
  • Wheal Russell, 1852–1878, sold 10,924 tons of copper ore for £38,084.
  • Tavistock United, in 1853, sold 2 tons of black tin for £136.(*)

(*) I am indebted to the work of Mr. J. H. Collins, 1912, and the Geological Survey, 1911, for some of the foregoing particulars.

In 1844 Mr. Josiah Hitchens, who was at that time of some importance in the district as a mining man, took a lease from His Grace the Duke of Bedford of a piece of mining ground afterwards known as Devon Great Consols, and commenced operations at some old workings, where the back of the lode produced large quantities of gozzan, chiefly oxide of iron. In 1845 he, Mr. Hitchens, engaged three miners, brothers, from the district of Ivybridge; one of them, William Clemo, was employed in sinking the shaft at the first part of what became the famous group of copper mines. On taking on work in the afternoon (he has many times told me) there was no ore to be seen in the shaft, but before ten o’clock at night, when the shift ended, they had made the great discovery, and estimated that they had brought to surface by that time £60 worth of copper ore. Mr. Josiah Hitchens, on taking the lease of the mining property, proceeded to form a company on the old cost-book system of eights, and opened the cost-book with 1,024 shares, afterwards increased to 10,240. These shares were first offered to the people of Tavistock, tradesmen, and others. Fortunately for them, some took them, and many others (to their afterwards great regret) did not. Some gentlemen from London took a number of the shares. These shares, on which not £1 per share had been fully called, were afterwards sold in open market at £800 for one 1024th part.

The part where the first discovery was made was named Wheal Maria, the most western part of the setts. In the first ten months of working a profit of £70,000 was made, and work was rapidly carried on in an easterly direction, through an almost continuous rich course of copper ore and arsenical pyrites; the latter being then of little value was, wherever possible, left underground, and when brought to surface was set aside as unsaleable, but afterwards became a great asset to the company. The next part of the mine east was named Wheal Fanny, then came Wheal Anna Maria, then Wheal Josiah, and last Wheal Emma, and it may be safely said that from the first discovery at Wheal Maria, to the last at Wheal Emma, there were highly productive and very profitable returns. As the mines were opened up some of the workings were of great width, the lode varying from a few feet to sometimes forty feet, and it became necessary to use large quantities of timber of the biggest size imported, to keep the workings open; and the demand for timber became so great that the company found it necessary to import their own, and many cargoes a year were required. At Wheal Anna Maria, where the new south lode branched off from the main lode, the examples of timbering (between the 90 and 50 fathom levels) were such as are not often seen in mining, and although the ground was sometimes of the softest description, such a thing as a serious run of ground was never known in the whole course of the mines working from 1844 to 1901. The new south lode formed a semicircle, from Anna Maria to beyond Agnes’ shaft at Wheal Emma, a distance of about 500 fathoms.

To keep the mines drained, and provide water for dressing purposes and the many other requirements, the water from the River Tamar was brought into use, first, by the construction of a large leat for two miles in length. The water from this leat worked the following wheels: two 15 feet breast, 45 feet diameter, for draining the water from Anna Maria and Wheal Josiah shafts (and in after years also from Watson’s shaft); one 15 feet breast, 30 feet diameter, pumping water from Agnes’ shaft (situated between Wheal Josiah and Wheal Emma); one 18 feet breast, 30 feet diameter, pumping water from the River Tamar to the highest point at Wheal Josiah, about 500 feet; from a reservoir at this point water was taken to work a wheel at the sawmills, thence a wheel at the smiths’ shop to work eight forges, and a large hammer by compressed air, also various lathes and punching and cutting machines in the boiler-making house, these machines being wholly constructed and made at the foundry and fitting shops on the mines; the water after leaving the smithy wheel, worked numerous other wheels, and eventually reached by constructed leats the foundry and fitting shops at Wheal Maria, thence again returning to the River Tamar.

The production of copper ore became so great that it was soon necessary to utilize all the wharves at Newquay, Morwellham and Gawton on the Tamar, the ore being carried in wagons to those places, and still the cry was for more quay room. A railway was then constructed from the mines to Morwellham (a distance of five miles), where several acres of land were taken, and wharves, and quays, and docks built, so that a number of vessels could be loaded at the same time; the various overhead lines and sidings across the wharves enabled the parcels of copper ore to be kept separately and dealt with rapidly.

At Wheal Maria the first ore was discovered at about 20 fathoms from surface, and continued productive to about 60 fathoms deep. At Wheal Fanny paying ore was discovered quite near the surface, and continued to about 60 fathoms deep. At Wheal Anna Maria paying ore was discovered at the 30 and continued to about the 110, and from this point to the 137, the bottom of this part of the mines, the production was chiefly arsenical pyrites of good quality, and yielded a considerable quantity of this ore up to the abandonment of the mines; at Wheal Josiah no great body of ore was found above the 40 fathom level, but from that point to the 120 a large quantity of copper ore was marketed. At Wheal Emma a small quantity of copper ore was met with at the 32 fathom level, and no great discovery was afterwards made until 60 fathoms from surface was reached, and it continued to about the 132. One is led to think that had operations been started here in 1844, instead of at Wheal Maria, the possibility is that Devon Great Consols would have remained undiscovered for many years.

Soon after the great discovery of copper ore at Wheal Maria there was a rush for mine setts in the district, and any piece of land in which there was a known lode, or where there was a remote chance of finding one, was applied for and taken up, but no large amount of capital was ever applied to the exploration and development of them, with the result that many of them became a name only. Still no doubt there are some of them that, by judicious outlay of capital, will eventually become productive and paying properties.

I believe that large sums of money were offered to the Duke of Bedford for the ground to the east of Wheal Emma, for mining purposes, but His Grace refused the offers, considering that if this ground was granted that it should be to the Devon Great Consols Company, and this ultimately was done, on certain conditions of working being imposed, and one was, that within a given time the engine shaft at Wheal Josiah should be sunk to a 300 fathom level, and the lode driven on both east and west at that point. This work was completed in 1879; but from the 144 to the 300 the lode in the shaft was without ore of any value, and the character of the lode completely changed, the strata being uncongenial for the production of minerals; and as for tin ore, not a trace was found. And I do not know of any lode in Devon or Cornwall being productive for tin at the distance at which this shaft is from the granite or elvan. It is a remarkable fact that the new tract of land granted to the company (a mile in length from the old boundary) never produced a ton of ore, although a level was driven through the whole extent of it.

Soon after the great discovery of ore in 1845 the London proprietors of shares sent down a resident superintendent, and built a residence for him, “Abbotsfield”, near Tavistock. He continued to act for thirty-five years. As in the case of nearly all the productive lodes of Devon and Cornwall, a great falling off took place soon after 100 fathoms from surface were reached, but there is a possibility of tin being found in depth in the south lodes near the granite.

During the more than twenty years I was associated with the mines as chief local officer, I, at the request of the managing director and for my own information, had compiled the following particulars of the workings and extent of the mines.

  • There were twelve main shafts, by which means the underground operations were carried on.
  • Pitwork in course of working 2,097 fathoms 2 feet 6 inches, a man-engine at Wheal Josiah from surface to the 144 fathom level, and one at Wheal Emma to the 190.
  • Length of drivages, winzes, and shafts 39,698 fathoms 5 feet 3 inches, equal to over 45 miles in length.
  • Eleven steam engines, eight of them in daily work, and three auxiliaries to the waterwheels in case of drought.
  • Eleven large wheels for pumping and hauling, and several smaller ones for other purposes throughout the mines.
  • Length of iron rods connected with the different wheels at surface 2,566 fathoms.
  • Length of railway from the arsenic works to Morwellham quays five miles, with one mile of sidings from various shafts to the dressing-floors.
  • Three locomotive engines, thirty-five ore and timber wagons. Inclined planes leading from the main line of railway to different parts of the mines 549 fathoms. Other inclined planes at surface 443 fathoms. Length of tramways on the dressing-floors 1,700 fathoms. Length of various dressing-floors 250 fathoms.
  • Arsenic works area 8 acres, including seven calciners, three refineries, 5,429 feet length of flues, the working capacity of them being 242,461 feet.
  • Arsenic mill driven by a steam-engine, spacious stores for arsenic and staves, coopers’ shops, and two changing houses for workmen.
  • Laboratory for analysis of all ores from different parts of the mines.
  • Length of mines from the western part of Wheal Maria to the extreme limits of the sett eastward, through which explorations have extended, and through which from one end to the other there is an uninterrupted communication.
  • Various precipitate works for the extraction of copper held in solution in mineral water pumped from the underground workings; a number of large reservoirs and catch-pits and slime settlers for purification of the water (as required by the Rivers Pollution Act) before reaching the River Tamar.
  • Foundry, smiths’, and carpenters’ shops, sawmills, crushers, hauling machines, dressing machinery, including stonebreakers, and other requirements throughout the mines.
  • Docks and quays at Morwellham for shipping copper ores and arsenic, and receiving coals, timber, iron, etc. etc.
  • Length of the main leat two miles, width 18 feet; other smaller leats 6½ miles; together 8½ miles.
  • Extent of sett three miles east and west on course of lodes and two miles north and south.


At the time the mines ceased working in 1901 the twenty points in active operation yielded 214 tons of arsenical pyrites and copper ore, or on an average each nearly 11 tons per fathom.

To produce the 72,279 tons of refined arsenic before mentioned it required the calcination of over 600,000 tons of arsenical pyrites which contained as well as the arsenic a small quantity of copper, ranging from ¾ to 1¼ per cent; it also contained a little tin, some silver and gold, and about 40 per cent of iron.

These burnt ores at present form an enormous heap, and being situated on the side of a hill and the copper to some extent being soluble by cold water, a considerable quantity of copper precipitate is being made under the superintendence of the agents of the Duke of Bedford, and this process may continue for a number of years with more or less profit.

When the mines were at their best there were over 1,300 persons employed, and for a number of years from 700 to 1,000, and at the time of stopping work on 31st May, 1901, there were 351, of whom 14 were girls.

The William Clemo mentioned in the first part of this paper, in early days became mine captain, and in 1891 was appointed manager, and kept that position up to the time of his death on the 3rd September, 1900, after being on service at the mines for over 55 years. Of the two brothers who came with him in 1845 one served fifty years and the other fifty-five years, both of them in responsible positions, as pitmen. Of the services of the other agents at the mines when they were closed, one fifty-four, one forty-nine, and one forty years.

The superintending mechanical engineer from the first starting of the mines to the time of their closing was the late Mr. Wm. Mathews, of Tavistock, and it is a remarkable fact that although there were nearly thirty steam boilers at work, there never was a boiler explosion.

When the mines ceased working, of the 351 persons on the books of the company, a number of them had for more than forty years worked at the mines, and although the Duke of Bedford had no legal obligation, His Grace instituted a system of old age pension to many of them, and I have reason to believe that the system is still in force.

The great elvan course passing throughout Cornwall enters Devon near the Weirhead at Gunnislake, crossing Morwell Down, where it has been extensively worked for road metalling, and in the raising of which, good stones of rich tin ore are occasionally found. East of this it passes to the south of Wheal Crebor, on through Rix Hill and Anderton Mine, near Tavistock, which from time to time has been worked in this elvan for tin.

Memoirs of the Geological Survey in the Geology of Tavistock and Launceston give the following list of mines in the parish of Tavistock: (*)Wheal Anna Maria, Bedford Consols, Bedford Mine, Bedford United Mine, Colcharton Mine, Wheal Crebor, Crelake Mine, Crowndale Mine, Devon Gawton Mine, Devon Great Consols (Wheal Maria, Fanny, Anna Maria, Josiah, Emma, Watson’s Mine, and South Wheal Fanny), East Wheal Russell, (*)Wheal Emma, (*)Wheal Fanny, (*)Frementor, Gawton, George and Charlotte, Hocklake, (*)Jack Thomas Mine, (*)Wheal Josiah, Little Duke, Luscombe, (*)Wheal Maria, North Tavy, Russell United, South Bedford Mine, South Wheal Crebor, (*)South Wheal Fanny, Tavy Consols, (*)Watson’s Mine, West Crebor, West Wheal Friendship, and William and Mary.

(*) Forming a part of Devon Great Consols