Devon Great Consols

Digging through the past with the U3A

There was a real treat for the Bude and District U3A at their November monthly meeting, when they were reacquainted with Rick Stewart, a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and mining historian whose magnificent head (and face) of hair many of them remembered from a trip to Morwellham Quay with the Rocks and Ruins group last year.  When not lecturing, writing books or acting as mining consultant on historical TV series Rick spends much of his time there, guiding tours through the old copper mine and sharing with visitors his abundant knowledge of what lies beneath the surface of the West Country, and how it shaped our economy.

The Devon Great Consols was a copper mine, in its heyday the largest producer in the world, and nowadays it is a mining world heritage site of global importance. The land is situated near Tavistock and as early as the fifteenth century had been mined for tin.  Before the nineteenth century the work was manual, using no more than iron picks, wedges and shovels, but there was a growing belief that there might be large deposits of copper beneath the level of the tin.  Rick explained that minerals occur in vertical ‘lodes’ and around this time, the 1840s, the use of gunpowder in mining made deeper exploration possible.  As it turned out the men would only have to dig just four fathoms beneath the tin workings before they would indeed strike a huge vein of copper.

The 6th Duke of Bedford, who owned the land, had previously forbidden access to the woods on it in order, Rick said, to protect his pheasants.  However, the 7th Duke was more amenable to mining on his estate and in 1844 he granted a lease to six investors who between them bought 1024 shares at one pound each. One of these was William Morris, father of the wallpaper manufacturer. Thus was formed the mining company which became known as the Devonshire Great Consolidated Copper Mining Company, or Devon Great Consols, and by 1846 those £1 shares were trading at £800!

The richness of the ore caused a sensation.  In some places the vein was forty feet across and special large timbers had to be imported to support the workings which extended two and a half miles to the side. In the beginning steam power, generated by coal in massive beam engines, was used to pump water out of the tunnels.  But coal had to be shipped from Wales and was expensive, so in 1849 a system was devised for extracting water from the Tamar and diverting it along a great leat to drive huge water wheels, the marvels of the age, which would pump water from the mine shafts.

By investing in this way in technology Devon Great Consols was seen as being a company at the forefront of economical ore extraction, and the owners were able to negotiate a new lease in 1857 to extend east and build its own railway.  There was more copper to transport than could be handled by horse and cart alone, and besides the cost by cart worked out at 5 shillings a ton, whereas by rail it was only 1 shilling.  To take the ore to Wales for smelting a Great Dock was constructed at Morwellham Quay, which by now was considered the greatest copper port in Queen Victoria’s empire.

In the 1860s the price of copper dropped quite suddenly due to competition from abroad, especially Chile. However, by happy coincidence, on the outside of the vein of copper was found naturally occurring arsenic which was in big demand for use in insecticides and weed killer, as well as in the making of dyes for the rich colours beloved of the Victorians – and used no doubt by the son of William Morris, one of the original investors, in the manufacture of his wallpaper.  It was said at one time that there was enough arsenic stacked on the Great Dock to kill every living being on the planet.

In the course of the nineteenth century then, Devon Great Consols was first the largest producer of copper, and then the greatest producer of arsenic too. But the demand for arsenic, a key ingredient in sheep dip, was seriously hurt when a terrible blight wiped out thousands of sheep, and the company was put in the hands of a liquidator. In 1902 Devon Great Consols surrendered the lease, and the mine was finally scrapped in 1905 by the splendidly named Jabez Petherick, although some few miners were still kept on by the Bedford Estate to rework the scrapped mine dumps for tin and tungsten.  This was quite one of the most interesting and informative talks we have had, and it was very much enjoyed by a rapt U3A audience.

Anyone wishing to find out more about talks at the monthly meetings, which are open to all, or the special interest groups, should visit the website www.budeu3a.co.uk.  For any further information, please contact Ann Tizzard, Membership Secretary, on 01409 253749.

Lindsey Sandilands