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Combe Martin Silver Mining

 

Welcome to our Article on Mining at Old Combmartin, North Devon

By Combe Martin History and Heritage Project 2023-2024 

Compiled and published © April - December 2023

Modified on February 25, 2024

✪ This was our most popular page during  January 2024

Abstract

This referenced article explores the early history of the Old Combmartin Silver Mines in North Devon, worked for King Edward I (Longshanks, r. 1272 - 1307), and sporadically until the late 19th century. 

The Combe Martin Silver Mines Society at Mine Tenement plays a crucial role in safeguarding and investigating this heritage. Their dedicated efforts ensure that the legacy of miners and their machinery are kept in the public eye.

There is evidence of disused mines, tunnels, a 19th century Forge, and engine works used for ore extraction. We also shed light on other mining sites in the area, such as the Knap Down Silver Mine, and Cornish Engine Houses.

Pottery discoveries confirm the site was in use during medieval and post-medieval times. Combe Martin silver mines were in production intermittently between the thirteenth and the nineteenth centuries, and possibly earlier.

Drawing on old and modern texts, we further discuss evidence of historic mining operations throughout Combe Martin. We highlight the abundance of Combe Martin's accessible natural minerals, ores, and pigments.

In hand with more recent studies and archaeological reports: old texts, antiquaries, and old journals play critical roles in the study of history. Antiquarian scholars provide primary sources and specialist studies of ancient artifacts, monuments, and historical remains. We are happy to receive new information.

The webpage also touches on broader aspects of mining history in England, including medieval silver mining practices. The decline of local silver mining in the late 19th century led to a shift towards market-gardening in the village.

Queen Victoria's purchase of Combe Martin silver items in 1848 is also mentioned. Overall, we offer a comprehensive overview of early silver mining in Combe Martin, to the best of our knowledge, emphasizing its historical significance and connection to the village's heritage.

Read more at Combe Martin Silver Mines online

Photographs and Reliable Sources

To help with understanding, we have included enlargeable pictures in this article. You can find even more pictures at the end of this page. Some links will open in new tabs. A comprehensive list of sources, old and modern texts, is provided at the foot of this article.

Combe Martin Photo Gallery |Civil War Coinage |Combe Martin Parish Church

Introduction

Evidence of historic mining operations can be found in the northern, southern, eastern and western sections of Combe MartinBesides the Mine Tenement on Bowhay Lane there are old mining adits on the western side of Combe Martin, also at the harbour and on the cliffs.

The earliest known records for silver mining in Combe Martin are from the early 1290s; yet archaeology and references to earlier activities tell a different story. 

Besides silver-lead: Combe Martin boasts a wealth of accessible natural minerals, ores and pigments. The River Umber, running through Combe Martin, was named after its umber pigment. Read about Combe Martin's geology.

Metalliferous mining in Devon and Cornwall dates back to the Bronze Age (2300–800 BC). The Romans also mined for metals in this region, including galena which is the natural mineral form of lead sulphide and an important source of silver.

From Silver Mining to Growing Strawberries

At Combe Martin by 1880: high costs, economic challenges and unsuccessful searches had virtually ended local mining for silver-lead. In May 1880, calls were issued to revive mining in the village. At that time: lodes on the western and southern flanks of Combe Martin were relatively neglected.

Contemporary records and surveys indicate that the last Combe Martin silver- lead mine had closed by 1890, and that the mines were abandoned. In 1904, it was reported that "the mines had been closed for forty years and were unworkable". Evidently, Combe Martin soon turned to market-gardening.

Deep Dive into Combe Martin's Long and Varied History ˃

Hidden History Underneath Combe Martin

Beneath the cottages and fields of Combe Martin by Exmoor, lies a vast honeycomb of mine adits and tunnels. For nearly seven centuries, much of this village was worked for valuable ores and minerals.

The mines and other landmarks in Combe Martin, are linked to metalliferous-related ores, and mineralisation. This simply means mining and processing economically important metals from ore bodies called veins or "lodes". 

Try using our Google interactive map to navigate around Combe Martin.

Medieval Silver Mining in England

From the 12th to the 15th century: silver mining in medieval England was a continuous activity over several centuries, involving several changes in production and practices.

Various areas, such as Cumberland, Durham, Northumberland, and Devon, were sources of silver which was extracted using techniques such as strip mining, bell-pits much like a well shaft, also trenches and tunnels. Silver was a precious metal for the royal mint, the church, and the international trade (Allen, M., 2011).

The lead at St Peter and Paul’s Church in Barnstaple is believed to have originally come from Combe Martin. "It is rich in silver, which would account for its particularly good colour" (Ward Lock and Co., Illustrated Guide, 1930s).

Antiquarian Records of Old Combmartin Silver Mining

The author and antiquary William Camden (1551-1623) in his survey Britannia  (2nd ed. transl. from Latin, publ. 1722), wrote that "the Combmarton [sic] silver mines [North Devon] were first discovered in the days of Edward I [r. 1272-1307]".1

In Britannia, Camden reported "some old lead-mines [? r. Elizabeth I ?]" at Old Combmartin, and that "the addition of Martin [to the old British toponym Kum or Combe] to the village name, is from Martin de Tours a Norman Lord, who had great possessions here in the time of Henry I" (Britannia, posth., 1722, p. 47).

The Ancient Phoenicians

Over a century ago: antiquarians John Presland and Frederick J. Snell wrote that pre-Roman Phoenician galleys passed along these coasts, on their way to Cornwall. They ostensibly came into Combe Martin to collect silver and lead; and used - or cut - the extant 'Phoenician Steps' on Combe Martin's Newberry Beach. 

Queen Victoria Purchased Combe Martin Silver in 1848

In 1848, Queen Victoria purchased items made from the Combe Martin silver mines (Peter Christie, A North Devon Chronology). Victorian and Edwardian costume items included brooches, pins, charms and thumb-bells (thimbles).

Ellis and Son Silversmiths of Exeter

Worked by Victorian silversmith Henry Samuel Ellis of Exeter (mark HSE): antique items of Combe Martin silver bear historical city hallmarks for Exeter, the Combe Martin silver mines, and design patent stamps. They are still collected today.

Ellis and Son advertised that their spoons were made with silver from the Combe Martin silver mines. At The Great Exhibition of 1851, Henry Samuel Ellis & Son of Exeter— Inventors, Designers, and Manufacturers (hallmark HSE), displayed a Combe Martin silver-wire gauze [mesh] jewel-casket with a silver knitting-basket.

The Old Combmartin Silver Mine Tenement

Silver-mining really means workings for lead-ore with a high silver content. Historic England states that the Old Combmartin Silver Mine a.k.a. 'Fayes Mine' on Bowhay Lane - is of historic importance because it is a documented Medieval Mine (LEN 1350386).

The Mine Forge, constructed in 1837, features a steeply pitched slate roof with gabled ends. It has small stone integral gable-end stacks. The building follows a single-cell rectangular plan, nestled into the bank at the rear (north) and with its entrance positioned at the center of the south-facing front. 

This historical structure likely played a significant role in the mining operations of its time (Historic England: List Entry Number 1350387).

Mine Works Around Combe Martin

The Exmoor Historic Environment Record indicates there are also silver-lead workings around Berrynarbor and Watermouth near Combe MartinThe oldest of these workings is situated near the Iron Age univallate hillfort 'Newberry Castle' - c. 750 BC to AD43 - on Newberry Hill at Combe Martin.

See the Historic England Records: The Castle at Berrynarbor.

Devon and Cornwall Silver | Combe Martin Ores and Smelting | English Civil War

In one of the last references to old Combmartin mining: a letter dated May 11, 1880 was printed in the Mining Journal Trade Magazine Supplement (GPO Newspaper). It proposed that a potential lode of silver should be worked at the western side of Combmartin:

MINING IN THE COMBMARTIN DISTRICT.

SIR
Hearing that a gentleman of considerable mining experience intends paying Combmartin a visit very shortly for the purpose of inspecting some mining property on the west side of the valley, where little or nothing in the way of mining has ever been done, I would venture to suggest that a visit be paid to some property adjacent, belonging to Mr. John Boyle.

There are said to be several well defined lodes running through the property, which can be very easily worked, and which certainly ought to be opened out. It is the candid opinion of the inhabitants of this village that could any one be found sufficiently spirited to make a fair trial on this property, something rich would shortly be discovered.

There are splendid advantages of situation, water, &c., and any practical man would confess that a thorough trial of the whole of the lodes could be accomplished for a very small sum.

DEVONIAN. Barnstaple, May 11 1880. Railway & Commercial Gazette - No. 2334, Vol. L. 

The Romans in Britain

The Romans stayed in Britain for nearly four centuries, and silver became widely used for coinage in the Roman world from the 7th century BCE onward. The  Roman silver denarius (pl. denarii) was their principal silver coin, and the backbone of the Roman economy until the 3rd century CE.

Combe Martin Silver During the Anglo-French Wars

The Combe Martin mines were exploited for the Crown's coffers during England's medieval wars with France, and yielded good amounts of silver in Tudor times. Read more on the history of Combe Martin silver in White's Gazetteer (1878-1879).

Also see: Was there Combe Martin Silver in English Civil War Coinage?

King Charles I Encouraged Silver Mining in Combe Martin

According to Plymouth geologist and historian R. N. Worth F.G.S. (1895): the silver mines were opened in the year 1648, but without much being done, though the project was personally encouraged by the King. During the 19th century the old Combmartin mines were worked again, and new ones opened.

Worth states there was no significant yield during the last explorations. Yet "the ore was rich, yielding 140 and 150 ounces of silver to the ton" (ibid) which equates to approximately 0.42% of an Imperial ton. The works of R.N. Worth provide a detailed account of the trades and occupations in Combe Martin.

Notable Uses for Silver and Sulphides

The Gilbert Spoon in the Exeter RAMM (made in Exeter between 1580-90) is a rare example of Elizabethan craftsmanship.

Silver is associated with lead ores, mainly lead sulphide galena, but also silver-rich tetrahedrites (a noxious antimony sulphide of copper, iron, zinc, and silver).

Used for coins in the 7th century and more commonly in the 12th century: silver is found in antiquated ornaments, in old jewellery, and in church plate made of precious metals.

Silver is valued for its sheen and for its antibacterial properties. Besides its bullion value and once being essential for coinage, silver is intrinsically linked with aesthetics, state assets, historic milestones and events, and sentimentality.

Devon's Medieval Mines and Contributions to Mint Output

Martin Allen (2011) states that "Devon silver made a significant contribution to mint output, during times of bullion scarcity in the 1290s". The same silver especially mitigated the effects of the Bullion Famine in the mid-fifteenth century, when Europe suffered a severe shortage of precious metal.

The roots of the Great Bullion Famine during the 1400s were in the exhaustion of European silver mines ('the eyes had been mined out of them'). Adding to the crisis were European trade deficits with Middle Eastern and Far Eastern countries (ibid). 

Allen contends that the greater source of the metal in the English currency was imported silver rather than locally mined silver. Moreover, gold coins constituted most of England's money supply from the mid-fourteenth century onwards.

William Camden's Report on the Combmartin Silver Mines 

Antiquarian scholar William Camden (1551-1623), said of the Combmartin mines, "the first fynding and working of which ther are no certain records remayninge. In the tyme of Edward the first they were wrought [sic]" (Camden, in Besley, H.,1901, The Route Book of Devon &c).

According to Charles G. Harper (1908): in 1296 “was brought to London, in finest silver, in wedges, 704 lbs and 3 dwt [pennyweights]. [The total equates to 320 kilograms]. And the next year 260 miners were pressed out of the Peak and Wales—and great was the profit on silver and lead.”

According to Camden: the silver mines here in the reigns of Edward III. and Henry V. were found very useful in defraying the costs of the wars in France. But for more than a century and a half afterwards the industry declined, to be revived in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

Camden wrote the first detailed historical account of the reign of Elizabeth I. He continues [sic], "But in the tumultuous raigne of his sonn [the Combe Martin mines] might chance to be forgotten, until his nephew, Edward the third, who, in his French conquest made good use of them". 

"And so did Henry the fifth ; and lately in our age, in the tyme of queen Elizabeth, there was found a new lode in the lande of Richard Roberts, gentleman, first begann to be wrought by Adrian Gilbert, Esq., and after by [engineer] Sir Beavis Bulmer, knt." ([sic] ibid).

These adventurers provided the working expenses, and agreed with the landowner Richard Roberts for half-profits. Camden wrote that through Bulmer's mineral skill: "great quantities of silver were landed and refined, of which he gave a rich and fair cup to the Right Hon. William, Earl of Bath".

William Pulteney, 1st Earl of Bath, PC (22 March 1684 – July 1764) was an English Whig politician and peer under George III.

Lead Smelting in the Centre of Combe Martin Village

Excavations at Christmas Cottage on Church Street, reported in 2010, revealed undisturbed accumulations of material from the early medieval period to the present day. The material included dense, heavy, black and grey green smelting slags thought to be lead smelting. Also found were large quantities of quartz.

See Paynter, Claughton and Dunkerley (publ. Oct 2021): Further work on residues from lead/silver smelting at Combe Martin, North Devon.

What's all the fuss about Silver?

Mine workings run through the main street of Combe Martin (Stuckey, 1965, p.5). There is a tale that Combe Martin silver is in the Crown Jewels.

Certainly, Combe Martin sterling silver items are found in the London Mansion House Plate Collection; and Combe Martin silver continues to be sold on the open market. 

Today, thousands of metric tons of silver are mined and consumed worldwide.  Ancient products from Combe Martin survive; there are 16th century items in London. 

The London Mansion House Plate Collection

In 1593, engineer Sir Beavis Bulmer had Medley Goldsmiths - of Foster Street in London - make two fine cups from Combe Martin silver.

One of those cups weighing 137 ounces was given by Queen Elizabeth I to Sir Richard Martin (Goldsmith), who according to the Livery Committee was Lord Mayor of London and Master of the Mint during 1594. The cup bears the date 1593 (Lewis, 1858). 

A tankard made of Combe Martin silver is on display in Combe Martin Museum, on Cross Street. It is a copy of a Combe Martin silver tankard kept in the City of London Mansion House, now the official residence of the Lord Mayor of London.

The Mansion House Palace gold and silver plate collection is one of the largest and finest in the world. It includes bowls and vases, flagons, rosewater dishes, candelabras, cups, cigarette boxes, wine labels, and cutlery.

The Mansion House plate collection is regularly used for ceremonial events, serving as both decoration and tableware throughout the house.

The Combmartin Silver Mines Reported by John Banfield (1840)

According to Besley's Route Book Of Devon &c. (1901), the silver mines were re-opened in 1813, and worked for several years. They were opened again from 1835, and were also working in 1901 (p. 83).

Ilfracombe publisher and gazetteer John Banfield agreed that the Combmartin mines were re-opened in 1835. He wrote that "three steam engines and other machinery were erected by a company with a capital of £30,000, about half of which was expended before any important discovery was made."

The shafts were on the point of being abandoned, when a lode was found which offered a fair prospect of remuneration. However, three dividends had to be paid, besides defraying the expenses of about £500 a month (ibid).

Banfield states the works were ultimately closed after the lode became poor; this "was a great loss to a poor and extensive population." (1840, p. 64).

During 1842, the local Journal reported that a plate weighing 5 pounds and made of Combe Martin silver, was put on show to prove the mines were flourishing.

A Description of Combe Martin Silver Mines in 1871

The Imperial Gazetteer of England & Wales (1871) reported that "Combe Martin's  silver-lead mines had been worked at intervals since the time of Edward I. They were last resumed in 1835 and had shafts between 20 to 120 fathoms deep. They yielded between 20 and 168 ounces of silver [up to 0.53%] per ton of ore".

The Imperial Gazetteer of England & Wales topographical dictionary was first published between 1870 and 1872. Edited by the Reverend John Marius Wilson, this invaluable historical resource contains a detailed description of every county, city, borough, civil parish and diocese in England and Wales.

Antique Silver Thumb Bells (Thimbles)

The fashion for collecting thimbles was popular in England during the Victorian and Georgian eras, when silver thimbles were considered ideal gifts for women, who sometimes wore a waist hook device called a chatelaine to which sewing items or keys would be attached.

In England, silver thimbles also commemorated 19th-century British coronations; and ceramic thimbles are still sold today as tourism mementoes. Nowadays, silver thimbles are collectors' items; and the rarest and most intricate thimbles are valuable. Read more at the London Thimble Society.

London's Great Exhibition of 1851

Combe Martin silver is listed in the 1851 Descriptive and Illustrated Catalogue for The Great Exhibition; the international fair held in London during 1851.

That exhibition was the first ever international exhibition of manufactured products; and it set the precedent for international exhibitions over the following 100 years.

It was the most successful and memorable event of the century. From May to October 1851, Hyde Park in London was packed with over six million visitors to the ‘Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations’. (The Gazette: The Great Exhibition of 1851. 2023). 

Silversmith Henry S. Ellis of Exeter

Henry Ellis & Son; watchmakers, jewellers and silversmiths active 1825-1905, were successful Exeter goldsmiths and opened their first shop at 200 Exeter High Street. A watchmaker by trade, Henry Ellis traded in pieces made in Exeter,  Birmingham and London.

In 1847 the eldest son, Henry Samuel Ellis, registered the firm’s design for ‘Patent Safety Chain Brooches’ including rare pieces made from Combe Martin silver (Exeter Ramm, 2023).

After Queen Victoria purchased five Combe Martin pieces: Ellis & Son were appointed silversmiths in ordinary to the Queen in 1848, exhibiting at the Great Exhibition in 1851. In effect they were given the Royal seal of approval.

Ellis was Exeter Mayor in 1868, and his items of silver such as cloak pins and shawl brooches (1847-8) are rare (he died in 1878). 

These were among many pieces smelted from ores raised at the Combmartin mines; and they bear the Combe Martin hallmark. The Ellis business was founded by Henry Ellis Senior (1790-1871), continued by his son Henry Samuel Ellis, and then by his grandson William Horton Ellis.

This information is sourced from The Great Exhibition 1851; Official and Descriptive and Illustrated Catalogue (Vol. 2, p. 671, 1851). Also from the British Library and the Exeter Royal Albert Memorial Museum (2023).

Combe Martin Silver Mine Shares Sold in 1876

In 1876, a new company was formed to work the Combe Martin silver mines. Shares were priced at £2 each - worth around £300 today - to make them "within reach of the many.' (The North Devon Journal).

'Quantities of Combe Martin Silver Remained Unworked'

John L. W. Page wrote in 1895, that towards the close of silver-mining in old Combmartin, "miners reported there were lodes beneath Combe Martin Bay, close inshore, and not more than three or four feet from the surface. At Knap Down, a quantity still remained unworked" (The coasts of Devon and Lundy Island).

Old Combmartin's Reciprocal Ores Trade with South Wales

In the 17th-19th centuries, apart from being a busy agricultural centre, North Devon was heavily mined for both iron and copper on Exmoor. Hundreds of tons of these ores were mined in Combmartin, which had strong links to South Wales for supplies of coal and lime, and reciprocal trade.

Links With Cornwall and Wales

There is a historic relationship between Combe Martin, Cornwall and South Wales, which still lingers in the local dialect and monuments. Aside from a long-running trade in ores and bulk cargoes, there was a significant movement of miners back and forth between Wales, Cornwall, Exmoor and Combe Martin. 

Overground and Underground Mining Operations in Combe Martin

Combe Martin's mine workings stretch for almost two miles along the entire length of the borough. Evidence of underground and overground mining operations - trenches, tunnels and mines in Combe Martin - have been found at numerous locations along both sides of the valley.

Rich Geological Formations on Exmoor

North Devon has rich geological formations dating back over 350 million years. Great quantities of silver-lead and iron, and some manganese and copper, were mined in Combe Martin. And to a great extent, lime was quarried and burnt for agricultural use. Large quantities of lime putty were used by local builders.

The Copper Development Association (2023) states that the pinnacle of British copper mining happened during the early 19th century. Britain accounted for over half of the global output, with the majority being extracted from Cornwall.

Industrial needs were growing rapidly, which led to a large quantity of copper being imported from abroad, particularly from Russia, a significant producer, and from Chile.

However, by the end of the nineteenth-century, the availability of large quantities of foreign-mined metal, combined with the exhaustion of Cornish mines and the difficulties and expenses caused by water in the workings, reduced the output of Cornish ore from 18,300 tons per annum to virtually nothing.

However, by 1933, the world's output from smelters had risen from 291,000 tons in 1852 to approximately three million tons annually. The singular cause for this expansion was rapid development in the electrical engineering industry.

The Romans and Lead Mining in Britain

The lead mines of Britain were worked by the Romans from the earliest days of their occupation of the island. Pigs of lead have been found in the Mendips, stamped with the titles of Britannicus (A.D. 44-48) and Claudius (A.D. 49).

The British lead-ore mining industry continued after the Romans departed.

Ancient Lead Pig Ingots

Lead Pig ingots have been found in cargoes from ancient Mediterranean  shipwrecks. Lead Pigs (or Pig lead) are similar to lead ingots; they can be re-melted for casting other lead products.

Pig lead can also be used as ballast weights or anchors in other industrial or marine applications. 

Mining in England Before the Thirteenth-Century

Before the 13th century, silver-bearing ores were largely mined in northern England, such as Derbyshire, and customary regulation (local custom and practice rather than national laws) allowed entrepreneurs to exploit rich but shallow resources (Rippon, Claughton & Smart, 2023).

The First Sterling Silver

In 1300 Edward I enacted a statute requiring that all silver articles must meet the sterling silver standard of 92.5% pure silver (925). To prevent frauds, the first Standard mark placed on silver to guarantee its level of purity, used from 1300, was the leopard’s head.

King Edward Longshanks' Statute

‘No goldsmith… shall from henceforth make or cause to be made any manner of vessel, jewel or any other thing of gold or silver except it be of the true alloy […] and that no manner of vessel of silver depart out of the hands of the workers, until further, that it be marked with the leopard’s head' (The London Assay Office, 2023).

In 1327 Edward III granted a charter to the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths to assay all silver and gold mined in England. 'Les Gardeins du Mester’ (Guardians of the Craft) were required to test the silver and mark it with the ‘King’s mark’, the leopard’s head. A crown was added to the Standard mark in 1478 (Edward IV). 

Silver Hallmarks

Hallmarks were applied by trusted guardians of the craft, going from shop to shop. Hallmarks are not trademarks or maker's marks - a true hallmark must be guaranteed by an independent body or authority certifying contents are as marked. Therefore a stamp of '925' by itself is not a hallmark, it is an unattested fineness mark.

Mines Under Direct Crown Management

The Crown had been engaged in silver-mining since at least the twelfth-century, yet the thirteenth-century break from customary regulation, in Devon and elsewhere, was unprecedented.

Mines in Devon came under direct Crown management, and mineworkers were often pressed into service as direct employees of the Crown. 

Mining became a large scale economic operation, and while it must have been carried out much earlier here, Combe Martin came late to the medieval silver-mining scene.

Early silver mining was primitive and hard, and from early times the mines were generally closed over winter, due to rising groundwater levels. 

The measurement of groundwater or the water table is dependent upon the season. In the summer season the groundwater tends to get low because of dryness and evaporation. It swells in abundance during the rainy season and in the winter season. 

The Medieval Economy

The most important economic resource in medieval Europe was silver. It had been highly valued since the Romans, for the advancement of civilizations, and for international trade.

The Vikings used hacksilver for trading and reserved assets, as bullion and as currency by weight.

The late 13th century was a period of boom for mining in Combe Martin, and under Edward I Longshanks they were Mines Royal; regulated property.

Direct Crown management over mining put it beyond the capacity of the small operator, starting the capital and techniques adopted in later mining.

Fundamentally an agricultural society, England's mining of iron, tin, lead and silver, and later coal, played an important part within the English medieval economy (Claughton, P., 2010).

Monarchs, investors and governments have always turned to precious metals in times of crisis, especially to support themselves, their wars and their economies. 

Bullion has been kept as a reserve asset over millennia - not in general circulation - by governments and by central banks.

Silver was much more abundant than gold, and during silver-mining boom periods it was universal and a common means of exchange or currency.

Vast Wealth of Combe Martin Silver C13-C14

From 1290 onwards (Edwards I & II) until 1340 (Henry VI) in Combe Martin, "£4,046 of silver" (about £2.9 million today) and "£360 of lead" was obtained (Combe Martin Silver Mine Society). 

In 1295, King Edward I sent Derbyshire lead-miners to work in Combe Martin. Additional labour was recruited from six English counties, and from Wales.

The Frescobaldi Merchant Bankers C13

In 1299 the mines were leased to the Frescobaldis of Florence, merchants and money lenders. The English monarchy relied heavily upon the great firms of Italian merchant-bankers in its employ, selecting its financiers from the greatest companies.

Stuckey, 1965, p.6.  & Richard W. Kaeuper (2015): "Kings, Knights and Bankers", pp. 43-92.

Combe Martin Silver Enriched the Treasury of Monarchs

From Edward I forward, the Combe Martin mines were worked intermittently under Henry IV (Henry Bolingbroke) (1367 – 1413) but mainly by his son Henry V (1386 – 1422) to finance his wars in France.

This is all according to Thomas Westcote (1567 – c. 1637), English historian and topographer of Devon (A View of Devonshire, c. 1630).

In 1822, Rodmarton rector and topographer Daniel Lysons wrote that "the lead mines of this county and of Cornwall are more enriched with silver than those of any other part of the kingdom..."

"...The produce of the mines at Combe Martin and Beer Alston, is said to have been unusually great in the reigns of Edward I. and II., and to have much enriched the treasury of those monarchs" (Daniel Lysons, 1822).

Magna Britannia; being a concise topographical account of the several counties of Great Britain (1822).

Combe Martin Silver Funded The Hundred Years War?

Referring to rumours that the Combe Martin mines 'supported the wars of Edward III and Henry V' (the Hundred Years' War): Dr Peter Claughton considers them "wide of the mark" (2000). We are not, however, going to argue with Dr Claughton nor with Combmartin's esteemed local historians.

Yet while local silver would have helped, Dr Claughton may have a point. For by 1339, two years after hostilities began with France, Edward III himself, and large-scale borrowing, had already raised hundreds of thousands of pounds.

The coffers were bolstered by taxation raised through parliamentary grants. Also by fundraising and by open lines of credit to the monarch. The powers of the monarchy in medieval England were virtually unlimited, and Edward exploited them. He had credit and funds readily available for emergencies,

Even the Great Crown - St Edward's Crown, the centrepiece of the Crown Jewels - was used as security (Moorhouse, 2021).

Claughton argues that Combmartin's mines had been abandoned after only two years production in 1294. Attempts to rework them, under a succession of lessees in the late 1320s, failed.

Claughton also maintains that the quoted size of the mining workforce during the 1290s, over 300, are those for Devon as a whole. Most of the miners were used at Bere Ferrers (Claughton, 2000). That's all we are going to say here.

Crown Prerogative over Silver

Edward I 'Longshanks' claimed all rights to silver-bearing ores in England, with one or two exceptions (Claughton). Therefore the Combe Martin Silver Mines  were managed directly by the state from 1292 until around 1350 (Claughton).

The Principal Silver Mines Opened in Devon

The principal Devon silver mine opened up by the Crown in 1292 was at Bere Ferrers, to the north of Plymouth on the border with Cornwall (Dr Peter Claughton, 2010).

Other mines at Combe Martin were opened at the same time, but abandoned by the Crown by 1296 (The Crown Silver Mines &c., pp. 299-308). 

The scholar F.J. Snell stated in 1895 that "the mines were known to have been exploited in the reign of Edward [Longshanks]. Grants were made to the miners by Edmund, the King's younger brother, and confirmed by charter in 1305".

"Great was the Profit in Silver and Lead"

Reference to lost records suggest that Combe Martin silver mining was carried out in the 12th century (Devon and Dartmoor HER, MDV12545). And Victorian scholars refer to Combmartin silver as funding the Hundred Years War (1337–1453). 

In 1895, scholar F.J. Snell, contributor to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, also claimed that "the land battles of Cressy and Poitiers, and the battle of Agincourt too, were won in the shafts of Combmartin" (1895, p. 52). 

Combe Martin's Mining Monuments

Mine workings exist from Combe Martin beach to the landmark Hangman Hills, up to Combe Martin Knap Down and Holdstone Down, and two miles east. Tunnels also run under the length of Combe Martin High Street. 

Local miners say you are never far from a mineshaft or a tunnel in the centre of Combe Martin. Historic England lists a wealth of local mining sites and other monuments in our corner of Exmoor.

In addition to Bowhay Lane (G+ 5XXH+VH Ilfracombe), there are mining monuments all over Combe Martin; at Lester Point, at West Challacombe, on the Hangmen Hills, and two miles east towards Trentishoe.

West Challacombe Silver Lead Mine was active during the 1800s. The workings are now very much overgrown and only the spoil heap is visible. Sites and workings at West Challacombe and on Knap Down are "ancient" but they cannot be dated accurately.

Prospecting for silver lead was apparently happening in the mid 1850's at West Challacombe. Refer to the Historic Environment Record for Exmoor National Park; www.exmoorher.co.uk/Monument/MDE8262.

Several adits lie out of sight on the Hangmen cliffs, and some of these sheer cliffs and slopes should be considered highly dangerous.

At the precipitous cliff base of The Rawns in Combe Martin - elevation 72.5 metres - two short adits are thought to have been for iron or manganese, and associated with the nineteenth-century Girt Down Mine sett. The grid references are SS 5930 4830 and SS 5937 4835.

Cornish Pumping Engines

A Cornish pumping engine - usually housed in an engine house - is a type of steam engine developed in Cornwall. Sometimes called 'wheelhouses' in Cornwall, the engines mainly pumped water from a mine. The Cornish beam engine uses steam at a higher pressure than other engines.

These pumping engines were also used for powering man-engines for getting underground miners to and from their working levels. They also winched    materials into and out of the mine, and powered on-site ore stamping machinery.

Silver-Bearing Galena

Galena, also called lead glance, is the natural mineral form of lead-sulphide. Silver-bearing Galena (PbS with Ag) or argentiferous galena is the most important ore of lead (Pb, plumbum), and an important source of silver (Ag) - (Mindat.org, 2023).

Usually, the silver is present as tiny inclusions of various silver sulphosalts. By the 19th century, Combe Martin's lead mines were worked not so much for silver, but rather because of the high market value of lead. 

According to heritage records, in 1292 the Crown opened up new silver mines in Combe Martin, which closed again in 1296. Work restarted in the 1320s, and up to 1330 the mine was leased by five separate individuals including the lord of the manor (Heritage Gateway, 2023).

The Boom Period for Silver Mining in Combe Martin

The late 16th century was the most productive period for silver in Combe Martin, partly due to inventive engineers and to improved pumps allowing access to deeper parts of the rocks. 

Queen Elizabeth I

According to Magna Britannia (Vol. 6, Devonshire, 1822) the Combmartin mines were re-opened in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (r.1558-1603), "under the direction of Sir Bevis Bulmer, a skilful engineer much esteemed by the queen and her ministers" (Cadell. T., & Davies, W., London 1822).

The English Civil Wars (1642-1651) and Sir Thomas Bushell

Thomas Bushell (1694-1674), a celebrated mineralogist and miner of his day, and a pupil of statesman Sir Francis Bacon, governed and defended one of the last Royalist strongholds in the series of civil wars: Lundy Island, which was also under constant attack by pirates.

The so-called 'English' civil wars were part of a wider conflict also involving Wales, Scotland and Ireland. These 'Wars of the Three Kingdoms' wreaked a terrible death toll.

During 1643-4 Bushell had received the grant of Lundy from the King, together with the customs of the lead, an extension of his lease of the royal mines of Wales, and a lease of the lead mines at Combe Martin.

From Lundy, Bushell would have access by sea to Aberystwyth, probably to the silver-lead ore mine at Llywernog. And he seems to have spent a great deal of time in Combe Martin as either the lessee or owner of its mines. 

Bushell did not surrender Lundy Island until the King had given him leave to do so — "with this caution, that you do take example from ourselves, and be not over credulous of vain promises, which hath made us great only in our sufferings, and will not discharge our debts" (Morrieson, The Coinage of Lundy).

In 1659, Thomas Bushell lobbied the English Long Parliament to re-open the Combmartin mines. Soon after the Restoration in 1660, the mines had not recovered their former credit. They do not appear to have been reopened before 1700, and then without success.

The Old Combmartin Mines in the Civil War

An attempted reopening during 1646-8 (the English Civil War) were said to have failed when the old workings were not drained. During this civil war era venture, Thomas Bushell's attempts to exploit Combe Martin silver seem to have been unsuccessful. Or were they? 

Old Combmartin Silver Coins 1647-1648

There are historic documents showing silver coins from Combmartin, minted during 1647-1648Furthermore, in 1911, English historian and artist Frederick J. Snell B.A. recalled reading that 'a Combmartin half-crown of 1645 was sold in an auction room in London, for the sum of £5. 12s. 6d' (The Blackmore Country, pp. 272-275).

The Early Nineteenth-Century

'The mines were opened again in 1813, and continued to be worked for four years, during which time 208 tons of ore were shipped for Bristol' (ibid).

Irregular deposits, and difficulties in forecasting and prospecting for new lodes hampered by water ingress, stymied the workings up to the 19th century. 

'The quantity of silver obtained being not found sufficient to pay for the expense of working, they were given up in the month of August, 1817' (ibid).

Thereafter, British Mining Journals, and White's Gazette of 1879, record other attempts to work Combmartin mines i.e. in 1837 by a company with a capital of £30,000. After a short season of varied success they were again closed.

After 1837 the mines were worked by several different companies (White's Gazette, 1878-1879). Local Journals in 1842, reported that "a plate weighing 5lbs made of Combe Martin silver was displayed, to prove the mines were flourishing."

The Later Nineteenth-Century

In 1895, English explorer John Lloyd Warden Page, author of many guidebooks, published a piece about Combe Martin's Hangman Hills. In his guidebook The Coasts of Devon and Lundy Island, Page described mine workings he observed on the Hangman Hills. His observations are quoted below:

About three hundred feet from the summit of Great Hangman, an old mine track leads outwards and along the face past the chasm inside Blackstone Point to some adits tunnelled in the days when these hills were worked for silver, lead, iron, and copper. The first opening is a mere pit, but the second discloses the entrance to two passages or tunnels. 

The first, a steep and loose descent underground, dives into a short passage, which, turning sharp to the right, opens suddenly on the face of a precipice some seven hundred feet high. In the roof is a round hole which lets down a little light. 

The mineral was doubtless hauled up the shaft, the refuse being tipped into the sea below. The tunnel to the left passes into the hill for a distance of one hundred and fifty feet.

Beneath the track is an overgrown path running obliquely nearly to the edge of the cliff, where we come upon another tunnel, striking for about ninety feet in a direct line into the hill, and then branching to the left. Its greatest length, from the window-like opening in the cliff to the end, is one hundred and ten paces, or, say, three hundred and thirty feet. 

None of these passages are more than about three feet wide and about seven feet high. Half a mile beyond—to the westward—a zigzag path descends a sloping part of the cliff to the beach. It is now used by people to collect driftwood and laver from the rocks.

Laver, by the way, is a seaweed which is boiled and eaten very much in the same way as spinach, which in appearance it somewhat resembles. But in the old mining days this path had other uses, for about forty feet above the beach are two more caves.

They have long been abandoned, and could never, one would think, have been very productive, for no cart could by any possibility have ascended the face of the cliff, and the mineral must have been carried up in baskets.

A little further west a path, cut in the cliff, leads to another adit which has been filled up (apparently by a fall from the roof) just within the entrance. (Page, J.L.W.,1895).

The eminent Dr. A.S. Kingdon, in a paper read at a Barnstaple meeting during 1867, reminded delegates that the Combmartin lode had been worked for silver in 1818, and again in 1835.

The last company, which began its operations in 1835, succeeded in returning over £60,000. Dr. Kingdon felt justified in advocating renewed works at the Combmartin lode during 1837.

A Litany of Missed Opportunities

In effect and considering the reports across our articles: Combmartin never became an established centre of mining after the seventeenth-century. Water ingress and pumping problems stymied local silver mining, but neglect and inefficiency, evident in mining journals and reports, cannot be disregarded.

Sale of the South Combmartin Mine (1880)

On Saturday May 29, 1880, a notice was posted in The Mining Journal (registered at the General Post Office as a newspaper and for transmission abroad). In Vol. 560, Issue 2336, the great Combmartin entrepreneur John Dovell announced the sale of the South Combmartin Mine.

There were three lodes in the sett which was half a mile in length. A shaft had been sunk 30 ft. on one of the lodes carrying splendid specimens of silver-lead ore.

A level can be driven which would cut all three lodes for about £500, and would leave backs from 30 to 40 fathoms [180-240 ft]; water close by for dressing. Apply to Mr. John Dovell, Combmartin, North Devon.

Also see: Combe Martin Ores and Smelting | Combe Martin and the English Civil War | Bushell

Find out more by visiting Combe Martin Museum and Information Point.

 

About Combe Martin's Ilfracombe Slate Formation

In the Combe Martin district, the Ilfracombe Slate Formation contains lead-zinc-silver deposits which were the basis of the historic mining industry here. The  Combe Martin silver mines have been closed and re-opened several times since the 13th century (Benham, McEvoy and Rollin, 2004).


Combe Martin Museum and Information Point

Combe Martin Museum and Information Point, on Cross Street, has local geological items on display, including local rocks, silver-lead and antique jewellery.

The museum also displays a fine, accurate and complete model of the Knap Down Cornish Engine House. The model includes the James Sims compound pumping engine (Beam 'bob' engine).

Combe Martin Silver Mining Society (CMSMS)

We draw from a wide range of sources and it is not our intention to plagiarise the work of others. The Combe Martin Silver Mines (CMSMS) staff are publishing informationcarrying out archaeological work, and looking for young volunteers at Combe Martin Mine Tenement on Bowhay Lane. Their contact details are here.

Archaeological Sources for Combe Martin Mining

A major source for our knowledge of Combe Martin mining is Dr Peter Claughton and colleagues, economic historians and archaeologists, specialising in the extractive industries particularly non-ferrous metal mining.

In 2000, Dr Claughton reported that -like the rest of the area and South West England as a whole- the surviving physical evidence of mining at Combe Martin is mostly from the 19th century.

Primary Sources

Much information can be gleaned from local history books, mining databases, modern sources, older texts and topographies. Our sources are listed at the bottom of this article.

Another eminent, academic source for the district's history, is John H. Moore's website including his pages on Mining in the 19th and 20th Centuries.

Information from Qualified Mining Archaeologists

This information comes from Mindat.org: at the Old Combe Martin Silver Mines there were intermittent attempts at reworking through the 18th century. The workings were re-opened in 1813, closing after four years. 

Deep workings date to 1835-1848. In 1876, that section around Harris's Shaft was reopened by Combmartin Mining Co., and worked until 1880.

According to Dr Peter Claughton: there are remains (one wall and foundations only) of a Cornish beam engine house with a remote chimney at William's Shaft, angle/balance bob pit, buttressed walls retaining spoil, blacksmith's shop and dwelling based on account house (Claughton,1991). See next paragraph:

The Mine Tenement Blacksmiths' Shop

We were informed on 21.02.2024 that the Blacksmiths' shop was constructed after 1847, which aligns with the sale of the engine. Beneath the blacksmiths’ shop, there exists a building that likely served as the blacksmiths’ workspace when the engine was working. We are thankful for this information.

Combe Martin Knap Down Mine

At a nearby site, the ruined engine house and chimney - minus the engine - at Knap Down on Combe Martin's Corner Lane, is associated with Cornish mining engineer and engine erector James Sims (Historic England, 2023).

Combmartin Consols Mine

Exmoor National Park Heritage Records [HER] state that at GR SS 6260 4645 - Verwill Lane EX34 0PE - are the remains of mining activity, described by Dr Peter Claughton as the Combmartin Consols or Wheal Vervale silver-lead mine. Wheal means 'workplace' and it was used as the prefix for mine names .

The remains at Verwill Lane include a mill, spoil heaps, an alleged adit and shafts. The stub of a dam also survives with a tail race leading from it (Exmoor National Park HER  MDE9012). 

Bowhay Lane Combe Martin

The Mine Tenement on Bowhay Lane was possibly known as Fayes Mine at some time in its history (Claughton, P. F., 1989). Fayes Mine went down to a depth of 32 fathoms or 58.5 metres. 

During the nineteenth-century, Mine Tenement was a hive of mining operations, with an engine house and chimney, an associated shaft, a powder house and a forge.

Challacombe Mine Sett

According to Claughton, the Lester Point adit was most probably part of silver-lead workings associated with the West Challacombe Mine sett to the east, during a period of apparently unsuccessful activity at that site in the mid 19th century. 

Those workings are very much overgrown and only the spoil heap is visible. 

The northern part of the West Challacombe sett was worked for iron in 1796-1802, 1825 (Royal Stannary and British Mining Assoc.), 1855-56 (North Devon or Combmartin New Iron Mine), and again in 1867 (Hangman Hill Iron Mining Co.) (Atkinson 1997, p. 32-3).

Combe Martin Silver Mine Tenement History

Down through the centuries from 1200 AD, private prospectors and adventurers made considerable profits, and suffered disappointments.

Since 1991, workers have continued to examine, preserve and restore the  abandoned workings at Mine Tenement, EX34 0JNThe working tenement can be visited during visiting hours and by appointment. There are a few YouTube  videos concerning Combe Martin Silver Mines.

Master of Mines Joachim Höchstetter

In Elizabethan times, the ore was reportedly of 'remarkable purity, discovered in masses of 10 tons, 6 feet wide' (Stuckey, 1965). Combmartin Mine Tenement was reworked in 1528 under Joachim Höchstetter.

The German miners were for many centuries the most skilled in Europe, and from the end of the 13th century they were called in to take part in English mining enterprises.

A 'High German' from the highlands of southern Germany, Höchstetter was Principal Surveyor and Master of the Mines Royal (of England and Ireland).

In 1528 Henry VIII commissioned Höchstetter to oversee the minerals of his realm. The Höchstetter family - international mercantile bankers and venture capitalists - were retained for the same purposes by Elizabeth I.

The old Combmartin Fayes Mine was possibly worked again from 1587-94.

Tithes Due to Churches 

Combe Martin Silver Mines Society (CMSMS) at Mine Tenement, runs a YouTube channel here. 

In medieval England, mining prospectors were liable to pay tithes - a biblical custom - to the Church. One tenth of income compensated for the tithes of crops which would otherwise have grown on the ground taken by the mines.

A strange reason for claiming the lead-ore tithes was that 'lead was itself a titheable crop' that 'grew and renewed in the veins'. Based on both Old Testament and New Covenanttithing in Hebrew means the practice of giving ten percent of one's annual income to the Lord. 

Discussing Water Ingress Problems

Claughton states that out of the ore mined at Combe Martin in 1292, almost 4 tons of lead were extracted (1989-1992, p.5). The accumulation of water in the lead mines interfered with work, so that in early times the Devon mines were closed down during the winter.

The flooding problem was not solved until about 1297, when pits were drained by means of 'avidods' or adits. From then on, horizontal galleries (adits) were driven from the bottom of lead pits to a level of free drainage on the surface. Employed much earlier in tin mines, this technique and several adits can still be seen in Combe Martin.

In many mines it was also necessary to employ a number of hands in baling water out of the pits with leathern bodges or buckets. During April 1323 an average of twenty persons were so engaged at Beer Alston, and during one week the number rose to forty-eight. 

Umber Mining in Combe Martin

The working of umber (iron-oxide pigment) boomed locally during the late 1800s. Umber mining had taken place a century earlier in Berrynarbor, and the Combmartin and North Devon Umber Mines Co. resumed production in 1873.

Umber was quarried at Orchard's, Harris's, Allen's and other quarries on the southside of Combmartin. Old smelt mills were used for drying the produce in the village (Claughton, 1989-1992, p. 29).

Dark brown umber has been used in paints and dyes over millennia, right back to 1000 BC and the cave paintings in Lascaux, southern France. Renaissance shades of brown used umber.

Umber also featured in Victorian colour schemes, with rich deep shades of maroon, red, burgundy, and chestnut. 

About Manganese

Manganese - a hard, brittle, silvery metal - was mined in Combe Martin two centuries ago. It was used as a black-brown pigment in paint and, later, for dry cell batteries.

Also used by glass makers, manganese removed the greenish (iron-oxide) tint in natural glass. The manganese lends a magenta tint to glass. As the complementary colour to green, manganese effectively cancels out the green tint.

Girt Down Mine Combe Martin

The Girt Down Mine is on the southern and eastern slopes of Great Hangman, the highest sea cliff in England and Wales. Neither a central mine nor a silver mine, Girt Down was a series of prospecting plots for iron or manganese. In a leased area, the mine dates to the middle of the 19th Century.

Silverpoint

Silverpoint was used in medieval drawing and writing as one of several types of metal-point styli used by scribes, craftsmen and artists. It is a type of drawing in which an artist uses thin pieces of silver wire held in a stylus to make marks on prepared paper.

A soft silver stylus or thin metal rod inserted into a holder made an effective drawing instrument. Several celebrated artists used silverpoint styli and particularly during the Renaissance (C15 - C16).

The James Sims Compound Pumping Engine

Sims patented his compound engine in 1841, and it was by far the most widely used of the Cornish compound engines. There is much more Cornish influence in North Devon mining than is generally understood, including the miners' dialect.

The James Sims Compound Engine- What did it look like? (Article)

There are similar engine-houses in Cornwall and in Wales, and Knap Down had a self-contained beam engine. Early in 1843, the Sims combined cylinder engine, 26"/50", was erected for pumping on the main shaft (Claughton, 1989-1992, p.22). 

The Sims Compound 

According to Adam Sharpe in the Minion’s Area (1993) (quote) "the Sims Compound was a single acting Cornish engine in which the smaller steam cylinder was mounted above a larger low pressure cylinder, with the pistons having a common rod.

The engine was devised by James Sims in the 1840s. The duty was rarely more than a conventional engine, and its complexity and difficult maintenance meant that most Sims compound engines had short lives."

About Cornish Pumping Engines

Cornish engines were used for pumping water out of mines, and also for powering 'man engines' - mechanisms of reciprocating ladders or 'lifts' (up and down). There would have been stationary platforms but 'man-engine' mechanisms moved miners up and down the shafts. 

These engines were also used for winching materials into and out of the mine, and for powering on-site ore stamping machinery or crushers (stamping by pounding).

Knap Down Mine lies just under a mile northeast of St. Peter's Church. It was known as North Devon Wheal Rose in 1846. It closed in 1848, reopening in 1850 as Knap Down Consols (consolidated).

By October 23, 1852, "nothing had been heard of the Nap Down Consols (Combmartin) for eighteen months" (Mining Journal, London, 23 Oct 1852). 

Claughton states that this site was also worked by the North Devon Silver Lead Mining Company, in the Vale of Girt and Knap Down (1992, p. 30). They opened Knap Down Mine in 1859 and the Sims combined engine was restarted in 1860.

The mine probably worked an eastern extension of the Combe Martin Harris Lode, from Knap Down Shaft and Vivian's Shaft. Production records report that between 1842 and 1847 it raised 1,146 tons of lead ore.

Knap Down Engine House

According to Claughton (1992) Knap Down engine-house had a 'bob-wall', the huge mounting wall that took the weight and the force of the pivoting beam - the 'bob' - over the shaft beneath. A lean-to boiler house was on the east wall, housing high-pressure steam boilers. 

The bob-wall supported the pivot axle of the beam, or 'bob' beam, of the engine. Necessarily the strongest wall of an engine house, bob-walls were four to seven feet thick, often constructed of dressed granite.

For a pumping engine, the bob-wall was in close proximity to the shaft.  Photographs of the tall engine house at Knap Down, before it was demolished, indicate the pumping engine used two cylinders.

The smaller, higher pressure cylinder, sat on top of the larger, lower pressure cylinder (four times the size). They shared a common piston rod (Barton, D.B., 1989. p.108).

This design was supposed to control the reaction caused by higher pressures of steam, which passed from the small to the large cylinder to give a greater expansive ratio.

This configuration required a taller and more costly engine house. A taller chimney accommodated a larger draught (overcoming the resistance to the flow of air and combustion gases).

Engine-houses and bob-walls were made of masonry and timber framing, saving the costs of wrought iron. They also had to support the weight of the long pump rod, which reached deep down into the mine.

We can learn more about this from Bone and Stanier, 1998, p. 21. Knap Down engine-house was likely built in 1859, to contain the Sims compound pumping beam steam engine. 

The Combe Martin Borough Rd Smelting House 

A smelting mill house was located at the site occupied by Loverings Garage on Borough Rd. Its silver-lead smelter was operated by Combmartin and North Devon Smelting Co. Ltd, 1845-51. 

Supplies of local ore ran out, and imports rendered the business unprofitable. Thus smelting became unprofitable and the mill closed. The remains of the smelting house at this location have disappeared and no trace remains.

About Cupellation and Smelt Milling

Water-powered smelt mills were used to smelt lead and other metals. The older method of smelting lead, on wind-blown bole hills, was superseded by artificially-blown smelters.

A typical smelt mill used an ore-hearth blast furnace, and a slag-hearth furnace to reprocess stony waste material from the ore-hearth. This method recovered more lead from the waste.

The lead metal produced at Combe Martin would have undergone a cupellation process to extract its silver content. Cupellation is the oxidation of lead ore to litharge, in a shallow hearth lined with an absorbent material (Paynter, Claughton, Dunkerley, 2010).

Litharge is one of the natural mineral forms of lead(II) oxide, PbO; and a  secondary mineral which forms from the oxidation of galena ores. It has been used to manufacture Lead stabilizers, Lead glass, pottery, paints, inks, and enamels.

The silver is left unaltered whereas the litharge is absorbed by the hearth, lost as fume or skimmed off. The litharge can then be re-smelted to recover the lead (Tylecote, R.F., I990, p. 60)

Cuppelation separates 'noble' or precious metals under very high temperatures, from the base metals such as lead, copper, zinc, arsenic, present in the ore. It is not possible to remove all impurities such as lead and copper, from silver.

The Borough Rd smelting house (walls re-roofed destroying original clay tile pantile roof) had the remains of a flue, up hillside to the southwest (Claughton, 1998).

The proprietors of Combe Martin's Cranleigh House, state on their website that their building was erected on the site of the ancient Weighing House for the Combe Martin Silver Mines.

Combe Martin Lester Point Open Adit

Another local site, often overlooked, is the old adit or open entrance for silver at Lester Point on the west-projecting promontory on Combe Martin's main beach. Thought to be 19th century workings, the adit is clearly visible at low tide on the main harbour beach cliff.

Grid ref. SS5759047590, the Lester point tunnel is said to run for about 100ft before it turns off into the cliffs. Where and how much farther it actually goes, is unknown, and it would not be safe to find out.

The open adit is out on the northwest long path to the sea, and may have been part of an abandoned effort to find silver-lead.

Evidence of mineralisation, Edwards surmised this open adit was a trial. It was discovered in 1984 when storms washed away the rubble covering it (2000, p. 30).

Take good care if you decide to have a look - the Lester Point adit is a scheduled monument, the entrance apparently measures 1.5m wide and 1.7m high.

The workings extend into the cliff for some 32m or about 100ft, and records suggest it goes further into a broader network.

Tudor Period

Around 1490 under Henry VII, “the Combe Martin mines were both deep and worn out”. Work at the Combe Martin mines ceased and the mines were abandoned for fifty years (Stuckey, 1965, p.6). 

Henry VIII reserved the gold and silver mines when he sold the manor and borough of Combe Martin in 1537 to Richard Pollard, MP for Taunton and for Devon. 

In 1587 in the reign of Elizabeth I, a rich new vein was discovered by Adrian Gilbert of Sandridge, Stoke Gabriel (MP for Bridport) and John Poppler of London, “a lapidary” or a cutter, polisher, or engraver of precious stones.

Early attempts to work the vein were unsuccessful, yet Gilbert was instrumental in operating a silver mine at Combe Martin, and he is said to have reaped £8,000 profit within a few years.

Stuckey, 1965, p.6 ; The History of Parliament research project online, 2022.

Bevis Bulmer and Joachim Höchstetter

Sir Bevis Bulmer (1536–1615), English mining engineer and prospector during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, “being then a great man uponn Mendipp [sic]”, rode to Combe Martin and bargained with Gilbert for a half-share in the mine, possibly called Fayes Mine at a depth of thirty-two fathoms (58.52 metres).

The Elizabethan adventurer was to have half the ore and meet all the costs of digging and refining or smelting. A smelting mill and silver refinery had been built at Combe Martin when it was worked by Joachim Höchstetter in the 1520s.

(Tyson, L.O., 1996).

The mill was reportedly sited 'close to the sheltered cove' at Combe Martin, and could have been any one of the ruined smelting mills found locally.

Bulmer's venture went on for four years, and the “reasonably good yield” was worth somewhere between £6,000 and £10,000 to each partner (Stuckey, 1965, p.6. And Tyson, L.O., 1996).

Combe Martin Royal Silver for The Lord Mayor of London

The last Combe Martin silver in the 16th century was extracted in 1593, and Medley Goldsmiths of Foster Street in London made Bulmer two fine cups.

One of those cups, weighing 137 ounces, was given by Queen Elizabeth to the Lord Mayor of London at the Mansion House, with the date 1593 (Lewis, 1858).

In 1858 it was still used on the inauguration of each Lord Mayor. Stuckey says that it was presented in October 1594 to the Lord Mayor Sir Richard Martin (Goldsmith and Master of the Mint) and to the Citizens of London.

John H. Moore of Combe Martin.

The great cup or silver bowl was later melted down and made into three tankards with covers and spouts, which are still in the collection of plates at the London Mansion House (Stuckey, 1965, p.7). An engraving is included below:

When water workes in broaken wharfe
At first erected were,
And Beavis Bulmer with his art
The waters, ’gan to reare,
Disperced I in earth dyd lye
Since all beginnings old,

In place cal’d Comb wher Martin long
Had hydd me in his molde.
I did no service on the earth,
Nor no man set me free,
Till Bulmer by skill and charge
Did frame me this to be.

 

Footnotes:

1During the 1066 Conquest which affected Combe Martin: King William I implemented a largely feudal system where land ownership was tied to service to the monarch. However, in many respects this invasion had minimal impact on the English economy or its mining operations (Dyer, Christopher, 2009).

In 12th century England, mining wasn’t a significant component of the medieval economy. Yet the 12th and 13th centuries heralded a surge in metal demand. This was largely due to substantial population growth and the construction of numerous buildings, including grand cathedrals and churches (Homer, Ronald F., 2010).

During that era in England, commercial mining was conducted for four metals: iron, tin, lead, and silver, employing a range of refining methods (Hodgett, 2006). During the reign of Edward I, which began in 1272, a new coinage was introduced which included the farthing, halfpenny, and groat. This suggests that silver mining was active during his reign (Allen, 2004).

The amount of silver mined would have varied based on many factors, including the availability of labour, technology, and the richness of the silver veins that were mined. In the early 1960s, numismatist W.J.W. Potter wrote a multipart treatise on The Silver Coinages of Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V (The British Numismatic Society, 2023). 

Henry V reigned from 1413 until his death in 1422; his administration kept a sufficient supply of coins in circulation, implying that silver mining continued under Henry V. 

Potter (1959, 1960, 1961) argues that the experimental weight reduction of the coinage in 1412, which was continued by Henry V, was a response to the shortage of silver and the outflow of coins to the Continent (AMR Coins, 2023). 

The available information suggests that silver mining in medieval England was an ongoing process, and did not cease with the end of any particular monarch’s reign.

© Author(s) Combe Martin History and Heritage Project 2023-2024. All Rights Reserved.

Article created on 05 April - 12 December 2023.

Sources accessed Apr. - Dec. 2023:

10 Facts About Our Items on Display at the Guildhall, Barnstaple – "Tales From the Archives "(wordpress.com).

Allen, Martin (2004, 2011); Silver production and the money supply in England and Wales, 1086–c. 1500.

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