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Yarner, its woods and the Yarrow Copper Mine (History Section)

Wed. 18 May 2022

£2 – £9

A morning talk and an afternoon guided walk, either or both of which can be booked separately.

At 11 am historian Dr Frances Billinge will give a talk entitled “The History of Yarner, Bovey Tracey: Once a medieval hunting lodge owned by Kings – now its woods are a National Nature Reserve”.

The talk will be held in the Council Chamber of the newly built Riverside Community Centre in Bovey Tracey, TQ 13 9AW. The Centre is adjacent to the main car park and is on the route of the 39 Bus (Exeter-Newton Abbot-Exeter).

Booking for the talk is essential – tickets £3 (DA members) £5 (non-members).

At 2 pm there will be a visit to the Yarrow Copper Mine located in the Yarner Wood Nature Reserve, guided by Albert Knott (Natural England). Two shafts operated here between 1857 and 1865 producing some 2,300 tons of copper ore. The remains of the engine house can be seen.

Mr Knott will welcome the party and talk about the site and the work of Natural England at the East Dartmoor Nature Reserve. Please note that the walk is on uneven tracks and the area is hilly, so well-treaded footwear is recommended. The mine is not accessible to wheelchair users.

Driving directions will be provided to those who have booked and car sharing might be possible for those visiting Bovey Tracey on public transport (please enquire when booking).

Booking for the field trip is essential – tickets £2 (DA members) £4 (non-members).

Reports on the events

In the morning, Dr Frances Billinge enthralled us with her illustrated talk on the history of Yarner, the house and the wood. All her work and references are available on her website at boveytraceyhistory.org.uk.

Bovey Tracey originally had a very poor area that was subject to flooding, and a wealthy side: it was the wealthy side that was the essence of Dr Billinge’s talk.

Yarner house is a very beautiful building surrounded by stunning views of Dartmoor. In medieval times it was owned by the Crown and used by the lords of the manor as a hunting lodge. The first evidence of its existence is in 1334 when there was a murder and theft there with a Moretonhampstead parson being implicated in that event.

Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII, owned the house but never visited and it was Elizabeth I who changed its ownership. Needing money for her wars against European enemies, Elizabeth sold off some of her assets, including Yarner. In 1578 Gregory Sprint, a member of her court, bought the house and the land attached to it. The survey that was completed then referred to “Yarner Castle”, implying that the house had always been castellated. The house was rebuilt in 1678 by its then owner, Moses Stoneham, permission for the alteration having been given by the King.

During the eighteenth century Yarner had 28 owners which was a very large number compared to nearby Parke and Colehayes which only had two and three owners, respectively, in the same period. The potential mineral wealth was the attraction of Yarner. In 1750 Charles Cock owned the estate, but after his ownership ended the land was broken up between many individuals and it became difficult to determine who owned what piece of land.

At that time, you had to pay a toll to sell your goods in Bovey Tracey’s market unless you lived in the town. One John Bund, who in 1752 was on the Manor Court Roll, got round this toll by buying a small cottage there.

The Templars, who built Stover in 1770, also owned Yarner. They owned Haytor Quarry and in 1820 built the granite tramway to link their quarry to the Stover canal at the Ventiford basin, part of which went through Yarner Wood. Evidence of the tramway can still be seen in part of the wood.

In 1828 the mineral rights at Yarner were up for sale. Mining was popular amongst investors at the time but it did not guarantee success. In 1845 the owner of Yarner, John Brock, was imprisoned for debt because he could not make enough money from mining there.

The next year the estate was bought by William Watts who was John Brock’s banker and a very clever man. He opened the Yarrow mine in 1857 and employed local people to work there. The mine’s “Adventurers” were responsible for attracting investors and they overstated its financial viability. It made a small profit in 1858 but was in debt the following year and by 1864 made a huge loss of £1,414. The quality and quantity of the ore from the mine was just not good enough and the mine closed in 1864.

At the time William Watts was not living at Yarner but at Forde House, owned by the Duke of Devon, in Newton Abbot and was making money from letting out Yarner. The Watts family are still involved in mineral working, having interests in WBB Minerals.

In 1878 the estate changed hands again. Until 1902 it was owned by Henry Chadwick who renamed the house “Chadwick House”. Whilst there was plenty of water in Bovey Tracey it was not fit for drinking and in 1891 Chadwick made an agreement with Bovey Tracey Council to allow water from a stream in Yarner to be used for drinking water in the town.

From 1902 to 1919 Yarner was owned by Henry Trelawney Eve. He was a lawyer, Liberal MP and supporter of rights for women. His father had been a landowner in Jamaica and whilst there is no evidence of his being a slave owner there, he had certainly made money in that area of the Caribbean. Henry Eve was also concerned about the need to increase the supply of drinking water to Bovey Tracey and so gave a lake in Yarner Wood to the town, ensuring pure water for the townspeople. This lake is still part of Yarner Wood.

Henry’s only son was killed in the First World War and losing the will to live as a result, Henry sold Yarner and it was bought by the Leach family. Captain John Catterall Leach, the heir to the property, was killed in 1941 and in 1952 the property was bought by the Nature Conservancy, latterly Natural England. The house is now a private dwelling and the wood is available for the general public to enjoy.

Chris Reader
May 2022

Afternoon visit to Yarrow Copper Mine in Yarner Wood.

Twenty members and guests, most of whom had attended the morning talk, assembled at the Woodland Centre, Yarner Wood for an afternoon visit to the Yarrow Copper Mine site. Our host was Albert Knott who has been the Reserve Manager at Natural England’s East Dartmoor Nature Reserve for many years.

Albert started by pointing out a spoil heap close to the Centre’s car park and from there we walked to the site of the leat, for many years dry, that had fed one of the water-wheels when the site was in operation. The copper mine was opened in 1857 and was productive for only seven years. Using sketches prepared by Chris Eames, Albert explained how the site is thought to have operated. We climbed up from the car park to view an air shaft, the main extraction shaft and the dressing platform where the metal-bearing ore was prepared before being crushed prior to transport to the smelting site in Cornwall. Albert explained that the air shaft had been used to dump domestic rubbish for many years and some items have been extracted and recorded.

The miners filled bags containing either non-productive spoil which was dumped on one heap by surface workers, or ore-bearing rocks that were sent to the dressing shed. The bags were brought to the surface using a whim – a horse-driven capstan – and the position of this structure, and its working, was demonstrated by Albert and a couple of willing volunteers. It is likely that the dressing work was carried out largely by women and children, but there are very few surviving records to corroborate this. The positions of chutes and a second spoil heap were pointed out by Albert.

Around 1861 a large engine house was built at the site to extract water from the mine. The remains of this building are still visible. It would have been very expensive to bring coal to the site and there are reports that the water-driven pump was still being used in 1864 – perhaps because of the cost of coal. Whether the engine was installed to convince potential investors that the site had a long and profitable future is not clear, but after only seven years the mine closed. Around 2,300 tons of ore had been produced and the owners had not paid a dividend because the venture was not profitable.

Albert and his team answered many questions and were thanked for hosting an interesting visit.

Ian Varndell
May 2022

Photos: Ian Varndell.


Wed. 18 May 2022
£2 – £9
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History Section