Tavistock. Report from the Industrial Archaeology Section

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Author(s): Atkinson. Mick; Year published: 2015; Origin: Section Conference Reports; Pages: 
Topic(s): IA; Location(s): Tavistock

Although described by Hoskins as “perhaps the most attractive of all the inland towns of the county” and nowadays regarded as a tourist centre for West Devon, Tavistock in fact owes its prosperity in the past to industry. Over the years, it has like most towns in Devon been a centre for the woollen textile industry but also for medieval tin trading, more recent copper mining and associated foundries and for the quarrying both of slate and the green volcanic Hurdwick stone which gives to the town its unusual architectural appearance. Many of the houses in the town were built in an easily identifiable style by the Dukes of Bedford who benefited enormously from royalties from the copper mines of the surrounding area in the nineteenth century.

In 1305, Tavistock became one of the then three ‘Stannary towns’ of Devon where tin produced on Dartmoor had to be assayed and sold to give the Crown and by 1338 the Duchy of Cornwall powers to control and tax its production, a position which (although very variable and from the seventeenth century of declining importance) remained until 1838. The other main trade of the medieval and early modern periods was woollen textiles with the town producing coarse cloths known as ‘Tavistocks’. Although Devon developed the kersey trade and then the great eighteenth century serge trade, Tavistock kept to the older cloths and fell into relative decline.

The town’s industrial heyday came at the end of the eighteenth century and continued through the nineteenth century and was based largely on the exploitation of the copper deposits of the area, particularly in the Tamar valley. The first major mine to be opened was Wheal Friendship at Mary Tavy which began operations in 1796 and was worked in conjunction with the Wheal Betsy lead mine to the north by John Taylor, appointed manager of Friendship at the age of 19 and eventually becoming Britain’s most influential and successful mining entrepreneur. It was Taylor who constructed the Tavistock Canal which connected the town with the Tamar port of Morwellham. Opened in 1817, the canal included a two-mile tunnel which intersected copper lodes in Morwell Down and which were worked by Wheal Crebor. The canal also had a branch to the Mill Hill slate quarry. There are substantial remains to be seen of both the mines and the canal (including the canal basin in the town), although Wheal Friendship lies on private property. This mining activity was dwarfed in 1844 by the discovery of the huge copper deposits in Blanchdown Wood near Gunnislake and the formation of Devon Great Consols, once the biggest copper mine in Europe. Not only did Morwellham prosper with the building of a railway to connect mine and port but Tavistock prospered by the success of Consols and other copper mines in the Tamar valley. These mines eventually turned to arsenic production as the copper trade declined from the 1860s. Most paid royalties to the Dukes of Bedford who endowed the town with municipal buildings.

Mainly as a result of this mining activity, three foundries were established in Tavistock in the nineteenth century – Gill and Rundle’s Tavistock Iron Works (or Mount Foundry), Pearce’s Tavy Iron Works and the Bedford Foundry of Nicholls, Williams and Company. The latter company supplied many of the steam engines and waterwheels for the surrounding mines. There are visible remains of all three foundries to be seen. The influx of miners into the area also led to the construction by the Duke of Bedford of 268 ‘model’ workmen’s houses of a set design, not only in the town but in the surrounding mining settlements.

Mick Atkinson