The Many Industries of Old Combe Martin
Combe Martin was a hive of agribusiness, limestone-works, mining, and metal industries. Historically, farming and multifunctional agriculture were the lifeblood of the village.
Combe Martin also has a history of imports and exports, cottage industries, crafts and artisans.
Modified on February 19, 2024
Rope and Threadmaking in old Combmartin
Combe Martin had a thriving rope and cobblers thread industry from the 16th century. Records also indicate a small lace industry along with cottage based weaving, which may explain several loom weights found in local excavations.
Combe Martin's Cross Street, near the main harbour, was once used as a Ropery.
In the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603) and her encouragement of international trade: Combe Martin was a great place for hemp. A project was formed for establishing a port at North Devon's Hartland Peninsula, entirely on account of this trade.
As it was, the shoemakers' thread manufactured in Combe Martin was sufficient to supply the whole of the western counties (Snell, F. J., 1906). Historian and topographer Thomas Westcote (c. 1567 – c. 1637) wrote:
"The town is not rich...the greatest trade and profytt is the making of shoe-makers thread. By spinning thereof they mayntayn themselves, furnishing therewith the most part of the shyre [sic]".
British Farmer's Magazine (1866) reported that "about the middle of the 18th century a great deal of the land in the neighbourhood, particularly around Combmartin, was entirely devoted to the culture of hemp and flax".
The magazine opined that in North Devon by 1866, the principal difficulty was finding a market for the fibre.
A Myriad Combe Martin Trades and Businesses Over Centuries
For such a small village, Combe Martin boasts a long list of entrepreneurs, benefactors, manorial estates, squires and landowners. The village was once full of shops and cottage industries from one end to the other.
It had a myriad trades, and it had enterprise. White’s Gazette, specifically the Devonshire Directory of 1850, provides a detailed account of the trades and occupations in Combe Martin.
There were blacksmiths and corn millers here. Also coopers, shopkeepers, masons and house-painters. Maltsters, stone masons, lime-burners, miners, shoemakers. There were carpenters, ship-builders, publicans, carriage drivers, millers, wheelwrights, milliners, and more.
Old Combmartin's Market Gardening Industry
Around the end of Combe Martin silver-mining: the village grew into a major market gardening cash crop industry, from the mid-19th century until the late 1960s.
Mentioned in the History, Gazetteer and Directory of the County of Devon as early as 1878: market gardening and commercial horticulture were carried on extensively in this isolated parish on the edge of Exmoor, mostly in rented small lots.
Extraordinary for such a small parish: there were eventually around one hundred public allotments all around the Valley. From one end of Combe Martin to the other: several orchards, market gardens, and strawberry fields were worked commercially.
In the early twentieth-century, topographers such as Charles G. Harper reported that Combe Martin was the primary source of early-season fruits and a wide range of vegetables for nearby towns. Hotels relied heavily on Combe Martin for their premium supplies at Ilfracombe, Lynton and Lynmouth.
The fertile gardens surrounding the Valley, many of them watered by the River Umber, were especially renowned for their strawberries and gooseberries. Besides flowers, and diverse types of fruit and vegetables for the table, the village grew hundreds of tons of 'the world's most delicious strawberries’.
Combe Martin played a significant role in the food industry, supplying North Devon, South Wales, the Midlands, Ilfracombe, Lynton and Lynmouth, and even London. Moreover, the village was home to several other industries and crafts.
By the 1960s era of rapid industrialization and urbanisation: progress, competition, and costs all impacted isolated Combe Martin's market gardeners. Consequently, profitability and demand for Combe Martin produce steadily declined, and gardeners seem not to have embraced new opportunities.
Combe Martin Mining
Combe Martin silver was certainly being pulled out of its mines from the reign of King Edward I onwards, and the records include the medieval Hundred Years War. Yet archaeologists believe that silver was mined here before the 1200s.
From medieval times in Combe Martin there was mining for iron, umber, lead-ore and silver; and copper. Active mines were at Bowhay Lane, on the Hangman Hills, and at Blackstone Point sited near the South West Coast Path.
In the seventeenth-century: loyalist mining engineer Sir Thomas Bushell mined silver bullion from the Combe Martin silver mines for King Charles I, during the English Civil War.
Girt Down Mine produced 9000 tonnes of iron ore between 1796 and 1802, which was shipped to Llanelli in Wales. "The mining sites at Girt Down are unclear to us, as the maps of the mine works are not available" (Silver, Smoke and Strawberries, www.northdevon-aonb.org.uk [Combe Martin Museum]).
To those locals in the know: on Girt Down there is a surviving mine with tunnels. According to records it was not only silver that was mined in Combe Martin. In the late 18th century there was large scale iron-working around Wild Pear Beach, and at Little Hangman.
Long after Fayes Mine yielded tons of silver on Bowhay Lane, the Hangman Cliffs were worked for iron ore from 1798 to 1867. Girt Down at Combe Martin was worked for iron in 1867-8 (by the West of England Iron Ore Co). Mining in Combe Martin continued during the First World War.
There is more to tell, and this article looks at main points in the history, from today to the nineteenth-century, and right back to the twelfth-century.
The Combe Martin Silver 'Mines Royal'
Combe Martin has always attracted attention and notoriety, mainly due to its productive silver-lead mines dating back to the twelfth-century. The earliest known documents of silver mining in Combe Martin are from 1292.
North Devon Archaeological Society states that silver mining in Combe Martin is dated back to at least 1128. It could well have been functioning a century earlier.
Murray's Handbook for Travellers in Devon and Cornwall (1872, p. 280) reported that "Combe-Martin is well-known for its silver-lead mines which have been worked at intervals from the time of Edward I".
From Mining Silver to Market Gardening and Strawberry Fields
When the Old Combmartin Mines shut down, many local workers and entrepreneurs switched to growing crops, especially strawberries, in the valley's sunny plots and fields" (Allington, P., Agriculture magazine, Sept. 1962).
These plots, along with the small farms and horticultural gardens, formed Combe Martin's market gardening industry. Also according to Allington, the market gardens and plots stretched two miles inland, and about four hundred yards up the sides of Combe Martin Vale, facing south.
Combmartin in the Early Twentieth Century
Kelly's Directory of Devon (1902) gives us a picture of Combmartin in the early 20th century, and lists its personalities, occupations and private residents. This 'Victorian Yellow Pages' was also known as The Kelly’s, Post Office and Harrod & Co Directory.
Kelly's Directory served as a comprehensive listing of businesses and trades people within a specific English city or town. Read Kelly's listing for Combmartin.
The Mills in Combe Martin
The corn miller was once an essential character in everyday life, and Combe Martin folk were taking corn to its two water-powered grist mills as late as the mid-nineteenth-century. Water-power proved invaluable in several Combe Martin industries including its mining.
Combe Martin Museum and Information Point
Combe Martin Museum on Cross Street ensures the preservation and presentation of the heritage of Combe Martin and the surrounding area.
The museum displays items, models and information of historical interest, and Combe Martin's social, agricultural and geological heritage.
The museum curates a large collection of old photographs and records. There is a Gift Shop including local history books, maps and other publications for sale.
12th Century Hempworkings in Combe Martin?
Hemp has always been important in the history of civilization. It was grown in Combe Martin from at least 1535 and production continued into the 19th Century. Hemp fibre is strong and will hold its shape, stretching less than other natural fiber. Hemp products were therefore more durable than flax.
Tithe records show that the amounts of hemp harvests were equal to that of wool and only second to corn. There are accounts of growers, plots and lessees of local hemp land, during the eighteenth-century. Hemp was well-used especially for thread-making and by local ropers (CMLHG, 1989).
A 12th Century Monastic Grange in Combe Martin?
Local industry goes back much further. In 2008, 'evidence' of an extraordinary industrial complex -dating back to the 12th century- was discovered at Combe Martin, and reported by the BBC.
Archaeologists found what they believed was a Monastic Grange complete with a Hemp Processing Mill, a Retting Pool and a Fulling Mill (cleaning and shrinking fabric). The mill was converted to fulling in the 15th century (Devon & Dartmoor HER).
It was all buried under three metres of downhill waste from local mining in the 19th century. Mining for silver and other ores in Combe Martin has been described as “boom and bust”; hit and miss, and so local people had to support themselves by other means.
In this case the archaeologists found evidence of local hemp crops and workings. The details can be found at Devon and Dartmoor HER Record MDV106696 (2023).
Medieval Trade in Combe Martin and Other Bristol Channel Ports
In the later sixteenth century, curing of herrings had developed as an important industry along the coast of Somerset and North Devon.
Climatically induced changes in the migratory patterns of herring, began to appear off the North Devon coast from the 1580s, when herrings were in great abundance (Taylor, 2009).
Mining and Trading in Ores
Exports of lead from smaller Bristol Channel ports in the 16th century, were much higher than is mentioned in either publications or in contemporary accounting. Exmoor -and therefore Combe Martin- literally had valuable ('noble') ores in spades.
Smuggling around Combe Martin and Bristol Channel Ports
For most of the 18th century, Great Britain faced a belligerent smuggling problem (Rosenberger, 2020). The major drivers for smuggling around the British Isles were punitive duties on imports and exports, especially Tea Tax.
And according to maritime historian Edward Keble Chatterton's King's cutters and smugglers, 1700-1855 (1912): Ilfracombe, Clovelly, Bideford, Combe Martin, and Porlock were especially affected by maritime corruption and excise evasion.
Contraband was trafficked along the coasts of Somerset and North Devon. In the 16th century, tons of Bristol Channel coast lead exports met high demands from the Spanish munitions market (Taylor, 2009).
Moreover, illicit cargoes carried by unregistered, unregulated vessels, were de facto smuggled goods, often in connivance with customs officials.
Increased tonnages of lead exported in the 1580s, nominally bound for France, were either directly or indirectly taken to Spain in contravention of a government embargo (Ibid).
Sixteenth-Century Trade in Textiles
Taylor states that the North Devon ports increasingly specialised in the export of kerseys - coarse woollen cloth for the textile trade in medieval England - and in lighter cloths. There was trade in calf skins, and in salt needed for example by tanners and in fish processing.
A Victorian 'Shammick'
Combe Martin is far from being a slum today but, in Victorian times the 'mucky' industrious village was derogatively called a 'Shammick' (a slum or a mess).
The term now titles the village monthly Shammickite magazine, and it is still very much used in the local dialect, for all sorts of purposes.
Combe Martin Lime-Burning Industry
With the highest concentration of limekilns in North Devon, the quarrying of limestone and lime-burning were major industries in Combe Martin, certainly during the 18th-19th centuries.
A John Cutcliffe, from a local family of limeburners, is recorded as burning lime as early as 1787. In many cases we are able to go as far back as the 1500s and the reign of King Henry VIII.
There is much more, and White's Devonshire Directory (1850) et al offer a wider picture:
A Fine Cove on the North Coast of Devon
"COMBE MARTIN, or Combmartin, is a decayed market town [in 1850), of one long, irregular street, in a deep and picturesque valley, about a mile from a fine cove on the north coast of Devon, and 4 miles E. of Ilfracombe...
Its parish contains 1399 souls, and about 3900 acres of land, including 1837 acres of open commons and hilly moorlands." GENUKI: Combe Martin, Devon (2023). The population of Combmartin put the land to good use.
White states that unsuccessful attempts were made to work Combmartin's silver mines with profit about 1800, 1813, and 1817. They were re-opened in 1837, and were worked in 1850 by a spirited company of adventurers who have a smelting-house here. ("History, Gazetteer, and Directory of Devonshire", 1850).
'Unusually Great Silver Production'
In 1839, Sir Henry T. De la Beche, English geologist, palaeontologist and the first director of the Geological Survey of Great Britain, said that "In Devonshire the Combe Martin and Beer Alston Mines have long been celebrated for their argentiferous lead ores [containing silver]...
It is stated that the produce of these mines was unusually great in the reigns of Edward I and II [1239-1327]" (Report on the Geol, of Cornwall, &c., 1839, p. 611).
In Dr Kingdon's undated journal on "The Silver Mines at Combe-Martin" (Transcr. Devon Assoc, ii., 190-9), Kingdon surmised that "the Phoenicians traded there", and Kingdon noted that reliable records for the mines were not available before the reign of Edward I.
Today, unidentified mine workings are still being discovered at Combe Martin's Mine Tenement.
In Victorian Gazettes: "Magnificent Scenery"
In W. White's gazette (1850), "Coal vessels and fishing smacks resort to Combe Martin Cove, where pilots for the Bristol Channel are generally to be found. The houses extend more than a mile along the dale, amid woods and ridges of rocks, tufted with foliage down to the level of the sea."
"The scenery is magnificent, and the mines in the parish and neighbourhood have long been celebrated for their argentiferous lead ore. In the reign of Edward I., 337 men were brought here out of Derbyshire to work the silver mines, which are said to have furnished money for the wars in the reign of Edward III." (White's, 1850).
Combe Martin During George III
In 1850, the Free School had half an acre of land attached to it, and it was founded in 1738 by landowning gent George Ley, who endowed it subject to 20s. a year for the poor parishioners. The school was rebuilt about 1820. It was free for children.
The 'Decayed Town' of Combmartin
Combe Martin in the early 19th century was noted for being run down. In 1849, the Rev Charles Kingsley - in his "North Devon, A Prose Idylls" published in Fraser's Magazine - called it a ‘mile-long man-stye’.
It was claimed that landlords deliberately allowed houses to deteriorate and avoided contributions to the parish Poor Law rates. Poet Laureate Robert Southey was, allegedly, equally scathing in his remarks.
Combe Martin Strawberries and the Village Jam Factory
Strawberries were grown mainly on the south-facing slopes of Combmartin, from the early 1800s, sending supplies to Barnstaple markets, Ilfracombe and Lynton.
The Combe Martin Jam and Preserve Co. Ltd was incorporated by local businessmen in 1911; Chairman Richard Clogg (JP, lived at Home Place 1895), William Delve, Fred Creek, Alfred Hopper, and Edwin Goddard from Stockton.
Mr Goddard had a 'lifelong experience in the manufacture of jam and marmalade in northern England' (Combe Martin Local History Group, 1997).
Mr Goddard was the managing director and lived at Lonsdale House near the Pack o' Cards Inn. The company produced - with 'best refined cane sugar': Fruit Jams, Marmalade, Bottled Fruits, and Lemon Cheese (CMLHG, 1997, p. 25).
The Combe Martin Preserves and Co Ltd factory - 'Proprietors of Golden Shield' - was built by Matt Darch and Jim Baker, and equipped in time for the 1914 season (CMLHG, 1997, p. 24).
The century-old Jam Factory building still stands on Pig's Lane in Combe Martin; now in the hands of kind and responsible owners, it was undergoing restorations in October 2023.
Combe Martin's Fruit-Growers
Fruit-growing was a major industry operated by several families in Combe Martin. Many families grew strawberries and other soft fruits while working the lime kilns and quarries.
In 1856 there were 97 public allotments in Combe Martin. In that same year, an enquiry reported them being 'illegally sold'.
In 1899, wholesale fruiterers in Wales judged the village strawberries to be of 'exceptional quality' (CMLHG, 1997, p. 23). Trade was soon started by Paddle steamers out of Ilfracombe, and local growers took cartloads of fruit by road to Ilfracombe Pier.
Many acres of Combe Martin land were opened up for fruit cultivation, and by 1903 -Edwardian times- around five tons of Combe Martin strawberries - per day - were shipped out on the PS 'Brighton' (Ibid).
Combe Martin Clyde Puffer the SS Snowflake
By 1904, they were shipped direct from Combe Martin beach harbour, when the locally owned Clyde Puffer the SS Snowflake transported many tons of strawberries to Wales.
At peak times, '26 carts were counted between the beach and the High Street' (CMLHG, 1997, p. 23).
Between 1906 and 1908, travel writers and illustrators noted that strawberries and gooseberries were sold on Combmartin's streets. The girls charged steep prices but "the fruits were certainly fresh".
Combe Martin Trade in Grain and Bark Tanning
The English Bark trade (1660–1830) was an important industry; around 90% of all leather was tanned with oak bark, keeping local tanners in business.
The crushed bark of Oak or other trees was used to infuse and convert hide into tanned leather. From ancient times and especially during the industrial revolution, both tan bark and oak timber were important commodities essential for the economy.
The Corn Laws 1815 and 1846
Corn was scarce because - under pressure from landed groups - government protectionism blocked the import of 'corn'. This applied to most cereal grains, including wheat, oats and barley, between 1815 and 1846 (The Corn Laws).
Grains became too expensive to import from abroad, even when food supplies were short. Locals were forced to buy grains from local landowners at inflated prices. No wonder they were poor.
Yet the grain embargo fostered local industry and trade, kept local people in employment such as milling and brewing, and fed them. On the other hand, the controversial Corn Laws caused a myriad petitions and objections before 1846.
Combe Martin Mineralisation and Exports in the 19th Century
In 1831, Samuel Lewis described the small cove harbour on the Bristol channel, "forming a convenient port for exporting Combe Martin's mineral produce".
Lewis stated that Combe Martin's smelting mills and accounts houses were sited conveniently close to the harbour for shipping, [sometimes perched precariously on cliffs]. And from its harbour, Combe Martin shipped coal and lime to other towns, receiving corn and bark in return.
Combe Martin Ship-Building and 'Hobblers' in the 19th Century
Ship building took place on Newberry Beach from 1837 until early 1900, when around eight sloops and schooners were laid down. In the harbour there are still remains of one of many hobblers' posts once used to moor sailing ships.
In the archaic Cornish dialect, a hobbler was a paid odd job labourer, mooring and un-mooring vessels (a pilot). If two or three men owned a small boat for piloting, they would split the 'hobbles' between them.
In old photographs, pilot boats appear by the side of large boats in harbours. There are several photos of vessels and pilots in Combmartin history books, and a few can be viewed at Combe Martin Museum.
Hobblers acted as unlicensed pilots, rowing or sculling small boats carrying ropes. Ship pilots safely navigate marine vessels into or out of harbours, sounds, straits, bays and other large bodies of water.
Medieval to Modern Day Hemp and Threadmaking in Combe Martin
At Combe Martin in 2008, evidence of an extraordinary industrial complex dating back to the 12th century was discovered. Archaeologists found what they believed was a Monastic Grange complete with a Hemp Processing Mill, a Retting Pool and a Fulling Mill. Read more about this significant find, here.
Hemp has always been important in the history of civilization. It was grown and worked in Combe Martin, probably as early as the twelfth-century. Combe Martin hemp cultivation and production continued into the late 19th century.
Thanks to Fenella Rook's notes on the Combe Martin Local History Society (1989), we know that the Devon historian and topographer Thomas Westcote described local hemp growing in 1630. Westcote also referred to Combmartin as 'a poor haven'.
Tithe records - one tenth of annual produce or earnings formerly taken as a tax for the support of the Church and clergy - show that Combe Martin's hemp harvests were equal to that of wool and only second to corn.
Local clerks kept written accounts of hemp growing; there are records of growers, plots and lessees of local hempland from the eighteenth-century.
Walter Lerwell and Anne Beels sold hemp from Combmartin in 1732. Earlier than that, William Ley was a threadmaker and hempland lessee during 1709.
According to Combe Martin's own history books, the village hemp was well-used for threadmaking and by local ropers (CMLHG, 1989). Yet as we will see, its history in hemp appears to date to the twelfth-century.
The BBC in Combe Martin in 2008
The BBC reported the dig, and that the archaeological finds were put on display at Combe Martin Museum. In the longer term the group hoped to attract funding for a more detailed interpretation centre.
Combe Martin Field Archaeologist Trevor Dunkerley said in 2008, “the amazing thing about [this] site is that local mining in the 19th century literally covered up centuries of early industry...quite clearly during the bust years they turned to hemp growing, hemp retting and also the fulling of cloth".
"And that appears to be what kept the people of this village fed throughout the centuries...if you look at the foundations, the walls, the buttresses, this place just shouts of power.
And the people who had the power in the 12th century were the monastic orders.” Trevor Dunkerley, in the BBC Devon article of 21/07/2008.
Trevor noted that, "From the evidence we have so far, this site was certainly monastic; it was probably built by the Cluniacs from St Mary's Priory in Barnstaple. [St Mary Magdelene's Priory, founded in the 11th century, dissolved in 1536].
Pottery finds have shown us they were here. My theory is they came here for the silver, but then of course they had to have other industries.”
A Probable Monastic Cluniac Movement in Combe Martin
In its heyday (c. 950–c.1130), the Benedictine offshoot Cluniac movement -origin Cluny in eastern France- was one of the largest religious forces in Europe (Oxford Reference, 2023).
The abbey of Cluny in Burgundy was founded in the year 910 AD. Why the Cluniac movement was in Combe Martin is unclear, yet it seems they were here for the hemp crops, to make clothing.
Medieval Hemp and Fulling
In fulling or fulling mills, woven woollen cloth was beaten while wet to make the opposing fibers interlock and form a more homogeneous uniform textile.
Although the practice of fulling cloth was common much earlier, mechanized fulling mills appeared in Europe in the 12th century.
Examples of uniform homogeneous textiles include multi-ply yarn or thread, polypropylene, and nylon. Combe Martin was an early pioneer of hemp.
We know that Combe Martin had smelting mills. Smelting is simply the process of applying heat to an ore, to extract a base metal.
For centuries, natural minerals, pigments, and precious metal ores, have been in high demand. Combe Martin had most of them in spades.
Ore is natural rock or sediment containing valuable minerals, typically with metals that can be mined, treated and sold at a profit.
Keeping With Tradition - Fairs and Markets
Customary carnivals, parades, and the Hunting of The Earl Of Rone, take place every year over the Spring Bank Holiday and during August. Combe Martin's drivers and tourists have long complained over these historic rituals, unheeded.
The village is now a hive of modern trades, and a form of mining is carried out by the Combe Martin Silver Mines Society, mainly for explorations and for archaeological purposes.
Strawberry Fairs have for a very long time been held in Combe Martin. Book sales are held at Combe Martin Village Hall during holidays, and Farmers' Markets are held there each month.
Combe Martin's commercial prosperity and industrial heritage rival even the Midlands and northern towns during the great industrial revolution.
In many respects, social commentators show a comparison with poor and under-privileged populations, across Victorian Britain.
Yet Combe Martin keeps its medieval tradition for markets, fairs and carnivals alive today. Many of the village's customs, and celebrations, derive from its rich and unique history from the earliest times.
Local Information Providers
For more of Combe Martin's social and industrial history, several history books with old photographs are available to read at Combe Martin Library, on the High Street.
A range of books on the local history are available to buy from Combe Martin Museum and Information Point on Cross Street.
The museum also has a good historical collection, archives and geological displays. Combe Martin Museum's photographs of old buildings and characters can be viewed on opening days or by arrangement.
BBC Devon Local History article (21.07.2008). "Centuries of industry uncovered" (archived).
Chatterton, Edward Keble (1912):King's cutters and smugglers, 1700-1855. Philadelphia : J. B. Lippincott company; London, G. Allen & company, ltd.
Combemartinmines.co.uk (online, 2023).
Combe Martin Local History Group (1997): "Combe Martin Yesterday". Rotapress, Combe Martin.
Combe Martin Silver Mines Society: https://www.combemartinmines.co.uk/ (2023).
Combe Martin Tithe Apportionments: template-1.xls (sharepoint.com). Devon County Council (2023).
Devon and Dartmoor HER Record MDV106696: "Hemp retting pool in the early 12th century." 2023.
Exeter University: List of Mines in North Devon and West Somerset. Mining History Information Pages. "Combe Martin" (2023).
Lamplugh, L. (1983): "Barnstaple: Town on the Taw". Phillimore & Co Ltd; 1st Edition (1 Jan. 1983).
Other sources listed in article.
North Devon Archaeological Society (NDAS)- ISSUE 9 SPRING 2005. June 2023.
Out of The World And Into Combe Martin; Combe Martin Local History Group (1989). Rotapress Combe Martin.
Samuel Lewis (1831). "A Topographical Dictionary of England".
Silver, Smoke and Strawberries: North Devon Coast AONB. Barnstaple (2023).
Snell, F. J. (1906). The Blackmore Country. A. and C. Black, London.
Taylor, Duncan (2009). 16th Century Maritime Trade In The Bristol Channel (Milford).