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Mining in Devon and Cornwall

Combe Martin History Project, Engraving of a Roman solder iun AD 50, combemartinvillage.co.uk

The Romans Mined for Silver in Devon and Cornwall

And throughout the late medieval period: Combe Martin and Bere Ferrers were the primary sources of silver in England and Wales

Combe Martin History Project 2023, Medieval miners picture in black and white, combemartinvillage.co.uk.

Modified on January 20, 2024  

Combe Martin Silver Mining

The Old Combmartin Mines in North Devon were highly productive in the Middle Ages and Early Modern period (Claughton & Smart, Historical Metallurgy, 2010). Once a primary source of England's precious metals: Combe Martin has for many centuries been associated with the Bere Alston mines in West Devon.

Galena, a principal ore of lead, often bears silver. Besides Combe Martin's eastern Mine Tenement at Bowhay Lane: the Exmoor Historic Environment Record lists silver-lead workings around Berrynarbor and Watermouth between Combe Martin and Ilfracombe.

The oldest of these workings is situated near the Iron Age univallate hillfort - 'Newberry Castle' - on Newberry Hill (HER Number: MDV12550). A small but typical Iron Age fort at the eastern end of Newberry ridge: the west side is fortified with a bank and an outer ditch.

Silver in Devon and Cornwall

Parts of Devon and Cornwall - archaic Dumnonia - contained some of the richest mineral deposits in the world (Newcastle University, June 2023). Southern Devon's Dartmoor heritage is intertwined with mining activities, particularly the extraction of copper and silver-lead.

Mary Tavy on Dartmoor’s western boundary was renowned for these mineral deposits. The mines in this region were active from the 18th century to the 20th century, evidencing Dartmoor's long industrial mining history (Devon & Dartmoor HER MDV4185: Wheal Friendship Mine, Mary Tavy). 

The British Geological Survey (BGS, 2023) states that mining for Lead ore and argentiferous galena (silver) has a long history, dating back to the Iron Age. 

Silver is rarely found as a single native element. Historically, many Lead-mines around the world have produced significant quantities of silver as a by-product; and production remains constant today.

Ancient to Modern Age Silver Mining

Marcus Tullius Cicero wrongly claimed that there wasn't an ounce of silver in Britain (Cicero to Atticus; in Robert Yelverton Tyrrell (1915): Cicero's Letters, No. CXLIV).

Peer-reviewed journals suggest the ancient Canaanite Phoenicians mined for lead ore silver in the 9th century (MDPI.com, 2023). They supposedly took silver from Combe Martin albeit no records are available.

However, the British Geological Survey (2023) states that the majority of historic mining activities in Britain occurred during specific time periods. Lead ore and silver mining featured prominently in Britain during the Roman occupation, and large scale industrial mining for lead-ore continued well into the 19th century (BGS, 2023).

Modern statistics report the estimated global production of silver as 26,000 metric tons in 2022 (Statista.com, 2023). This is equal to 822.4 million ounces at about £18 per ounce; amounting to almost £15 billion in 2022.

To help with orientation we have provided links in this article, some of which will open in new tabs. Footnotes are included.

Evidence of Roman Occupation

Local archaeology suggests that North Devon including Combe Martin was an important part of the Roman economy. Ancient relics found in Combe Martin include pottery dating to the 4th century, along with traces of Roman strip mining or dragline excavation in the eastern part of the parish (Moore, J. H., online 2023: ROMANS; c50 AD to 410 AD).

The Beacon at Martinhoe near Combe Martin was a Roman coastal fortlet established in the 1st century AD. This fortlet consisted of an inner square enclosure surrounded by a sub-circular outer enclosure.

During the 1960s, archaeological excavations uncovered the foundations of three building ranges within the Martinhoe fortlet (Exmoor National Park: MDE1020).

There is another Roman settlement located at Old Burrow near County Gate. The site features a square enclosure measuring approximately 44 meters across, situated within a larger sub-circular enclosure that spans about 85 meters (Exmoor National Park HER MDE1223).

Archaeological excavations conducted in 1911 and the 1960s indicate that Old Burrow was a Roman signal station, occupied for a short period in the middle of the 1st Century AD (Ibid).

Recommended article: an antiquarian history of Combe Martin incl. the mines.

Medieval Devon and Cornwall 

The Devon silver mines contributed substantially to provincial mints in England and Wales throughout the late medieval period. Covering 20,000 hectares across Cornwall and West Devon: the Cornwall and West Devon landscape is a Mining World Heritage Site (UNESCO, 2023). 

Claughton and Rondelez (2013) wrote that the abundant surface silver deposits in the dales and moors of England's North Pennines - the present National Parks of the Yorkshire Dales and Northumberland - were 'exhausted in the late 12th century'.

Allegedly, England then relied on mineral resources from mainland Europe (IbidEarly Silver Mining in Western Europe). Historically, northern England's wealth of coal and metals drove industrial developments in the region.

Northern England contributed to the UK's national wealth (British Geological Survey, 2010). Yet recent archaeological evidence indicates that the Romans mined for precious metals in Devon and Cornwall, shortly after their arrival in Britain (Merrington, A., June 2023).

Medieval Silver Production in Devon and Cornwall

The thirteenth-century English monarchy invoked prerogative powers with rights and profits over silver-bearing ores, and opened up mines in Devon including Combe Martin. In practice: unprecedented Royal powers, and direct management over England's silver production, did not require consent from the Commons or Lords (Claughton, P., 2007). 

According to Martin Allen (2010): around the year 1200 AD, mines in Wales provided a modest quantity of silver to nearby mints. And silver from Devon contributed to the national mint production (Silver production and the money supply in England and Wales, 1086–c. 1500).

Yet Allen argues that Devon silver was not the main source, especially during periods of great depression, or during the 'Great Bullion Famine' in the 1290s and the mid-15th century.

The Combe Martin Silver Mines

The Combe Martin Mine Tenement, situated at Bowhay Lane, Combe Martin, Ilfracombe EX34 0JN, is a prominent historic site of silver extraction dating back to the 13th century or even earlier (Combe Martin Silver Mines online). The mine tenement can be visited on certain days.

Silver from the Combe Martin mines was exploited for the Crown's war chest, during the Anglo-French Wars in the Middle Ages (White's Gazette, 1878). The produce was so considerable as to assist the Black Prince - Edward of Woodstock (1330 – 1376) - in The Hundred Years War.

Those same mines also yielded good amounts of silver under the Tudor monarchy; "their most productive period was the latter part of the sixteenth century onwards" (Devon and Dartmoor HER MDV12545). 

Bere Ferrers and Bere Alston, Devon

Bere Ferrers, on the Bere Peninsula bordering Cornwall, contributed substantially to the silver output in England and Wales during the late medieval period (Archaeology, University of Exeter, 2023). 

Mindat.org (2023) reports that the thirteenth-century mines at Bere Alston, Yelverton - a group of silver-lead mines in the civil parish of Bere Ferrers - are amongst the oldest workings in Britain.

According to the University of Exeter: the Bere Ferrers complex at the confluence of the rivers Tavy and Tamar in South Devon is a well-preserved example of medieval silver mining.

The Tamar Gawton Mine Complex

The University of Exeter’s Bere Ferrers Project has investigated the impact of these medieval mines on the historic landscape. Another significant complex is the Tamar Gawton Mine, a neglected national monument that has been "damaged by vehicles" (Historic England, 2023).

The Gawton Mine is a former copper and arsenic mine and processing complex, comprising a full range of buildings from cooperage to engine houses. It is located on the eastern banks of Devon's Tamar Valley (Devon and Dartmoor HER Number: MDV5490).

Evidence of Roman Mining Activity

In traditional silver mining, galena and jarosite extracted from mines was processed in nearby furnaces. Slag and sludge was deposited in heaps on site, which depending on the mining history is still found at some sites today including ancient structures (Hirt, Alfred M., 2020).

The Mendips Charterhouse Lead Mines, south of Bristol and Bath in Somerset, and the Deeside Pentre Ffwrndan Roman Settlement: are two known examples of Roman silver mining. 

The Roman Army Legio II Augusta established a fortress at Exeter around AD55, and they remained there for about two decades. The city, known as Isca Dumnoniorum (Exeter Royal Albert Memorial Museum information), was a significant Romano-British settlement (Exeter City Council, 2019).

In order to meet demand for consumables and lustrous metals in their empire: the Romans mined in Britain for a variety of ore deposits crucial to industry and trade.

Besides the noble metals gold, silver and copper: one of the most valuable metals was lead, used for plumbing and in Roman villas. Ore deposits could contain amounts of galena or zinc for making silverware, nickel and coinage.

Archaeological evidence suggests Roman mining activity near a fort discovered at the village of Calstock in south-east Cornwall during 2007 (BBC News, 2019; Ancient Origins, 2019). Calstock lies 12 miles upstream from Plymouth in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

The Roman silver denarius coin, initially pure silver, was the linchpin of the Roman economy and the genesis of the Roman coinage system. To support those systems, the Romans sought and exploited argentiferous lead mines in Britain and elsewhere (Hirt, Alfred M., 2020).

Over time, the amount of silver in the standard denarius coin declined gradually along with the Roman empire; and then steeply to a negligible amount. It seems logical that the Romans shifted their silver mining activities to support their debased coinage, in their economy dependent on freshly-minted silver coins and bullion.

Calstock Roman Fort

The Calstock Roman fort was established around AD 50. It wasn’t unearthed until 2007, when a group headed by landscape archaeologist Dr. Chris Smart from Exeter University’s Department of Archaeology and History, conducted geophysical surveys of the region in search of medieval silver mining evidence (Merrington, A., June 2023). 

Archaeological evidence indicating that the Roman army conducted metal mining operations in Cornwall, shortly after their invasion of Britain, was discovered and reported in 2023. This significant discovery is thanks to research by archaeologist Dr Duckworth from the University of Exeter, in conjunction with the new series of Channel Four’s The Great British Dig. 

Dr Duckworth reportedly analysed rocky material, found during excavations of odd-looking patches. A specialist portable x-ray fluorescence (pXRF) device was used. The material turned out to be Roman mining waste and the first excavated evidence that the Romans were mining for Cornwall’s mineral-rich deposits. 

It's not explicitly stated that silver was mined at Calstock Fort during the Roman period, but a series of deep pits connected by arched tunnels, thought to be part of an ancient mine, were uncovered. Further analysis was necessary to provide more insights into the scale and methods of Roman silver mining in Devon (Merrington, Exeter University News, 2023).

In conjunction with Combe Martin's history of metalliferous mining, and regional geological data: archaeological reports indicate that parts of Cornwall and Devon contained some of the richest mineral deposits in the world.

Mining for Lead in Ancient Britain

The British Geological Survey (2023) states that Lead mining has a long history, dating back to the Iron Age. However, the majority of mining activity occurred during specific time periods. Notably, lead mining was prominent during the Roman occupation, as well as in the 17th and 18th centuries. This continued into the 19th century.

During these eras significant efforts were made to extract lead, in regions like the Mendip Hills and Derbyshire. The Romans, within six years of their arrival in Britain, were already engaged in mining activities. Large ingots of lead from the Mendips have been discovered, some of which are now displayed in museums.

Later periods saw renewed mining efforts, technological advancements, and the use of Cornish mining techniques to explore deeper mines in search of richer ore deposits. Interestingly, in one mine, miners left their names imprinted in the mud, providing a glimpse into their lives and work.

At Charterhouse in the Mendip Hills: Henry Young and John Clark were working underground on 20th November 1753. The handwriting and the small size of finger marks suggest that some of the miners were children (BGS, 2023).

Overall, lead mining has left a significant historical footprint across different epochs, reflecting both technological progress and the economic importance of this valuable resource.

© Author Harrison

09 November 2023

 

References retrieved 28 October - 13 November 2023:

Allen, Martin (2010, 2011); Silver production and the money supply in England and Wales, 1086–c. 1500. The Economic History Review: https://www.jstor.org/stable/27919484.

BBC News (2019); Roman fort discovered under Cornwall’s streets. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-cornwall-48841598.

British Geological Survey( 2023): History of lead mining | Minerals and mines | Foundations of the Mendips (bgs.ac.uk)

Combe Martin Silver Mines Society (CMSMS): https://www.combemartinmines.co.uk/contact/.

Claughton, P. and Smart, C. (2020): The Crown silver mines in Devon: capital, labour and landscape in the late medieval period.

Claughton, P. (2010): Journals, Open Edition; The Crown Silver Mines and The Historic Landscape in Devon (England). https://journals.openedition.org/archeosciences/2574.

Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape World Heritage Site Management Plan 2020-2025; https://www.cornishmining.org.uk/media/Conservation/Management%20Plan/PDFs/Appendix_1-World_Heritage_Site_Area_Statements_A1-A10.pdf. 

Devon & Dartmoor HER (n.d.): HER Number: MDV12545. https://www.devon.gov.uk/historicenvironment/historic-environment-record-guidance/.

Exeter City Council (2019): Remains of Roman defences discovered under Exeter’s Bus Station site.

Exmoor National Park Historic Environment Records: https://www.exmoorher.co.uk/.

First excavated evidence of Roman metal mining in Cornwall found ; Newcastle University Press Office, June 2023. 

Great Bullion Famine of the Fifteenth Century (The); Day, John (auth. 1978). https://www.jstor.org/stable/650246.

Harrison, JP; Combe Martin History Project (2023). Combe Martin Silver Mining. https://www.combemartinvillage.co.uk/combe-martin-industrial-history/early-silver-mining-in-combe-martin.

Hirt, Alfred M. (2020); Gold and Silver Mining in the Roman Empire. Retrieved from https://livrepository.liverpool.ac.uk/3066254/3/Hirt%20Warwick%20Publ.%20III%20(revised).

Historic England (2023): Gawton Mine complex, Bere Ferrers / Gulworthy - West Devon. List Entry Number:1002667.

https://www.exeter.ac.uk/research/heritage/newsandevents/archaeology-cornwall-roman/.

Huge Hoard of Ancient Roman Silver Coins Worth £200,000 Found During Treasure Hunt. Retrieved from https://www.ancient-origins.net/news-history-archaeology/roman-mine-0012234.

MDPI.com (2023): Silver Isotopes in Silver Suggest Phoenician Innovation in Metal Production.

Merrington, Andrew (June 2023): https://news.exeter.ac.uk/faculty-of-humanities-arts-and-social-sciences/great-british-dig-and-university-archaeologist-find-first-excavated-evidence-of-roman-mining-in-cornwall/.

Moore, John H. (n.d.): Roman Hele Bay, Ilfracombe, north Devon (johnhmoore.co.uk).

Northern Mine Research Society: Cornwall & Devon. Retrieved from https://www.nmrs.org.uk/mines-map/metal/cornwall-devon-mines/.

Prof. S. Rippon, Dr P. Claughton and Dr C. Smart (2009): Medieval silver mining in at Bere Ferrers, Devon. https://archaeology.exeter.ac.uk/research/projects/silvermining/.

Rondelez, P. & Claughton, P. (2013): Early silver mining in western Europe: an Irish perspective. https://www.academia.edu/7606260/Early_silver_mining_in_western_Europe_an_Irish_perspective.

Statista.com (2023): Mine production of silver worldwide from 2005 to 2022 (in metric tons).

UNESCO World Heritage Convention (2023): Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape. https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1215/.

University of Exeter (n.d.): Archaeology: Cornwall’s Roman Fort. Retrieved from 

University of Exeter. (n.d.). Silver Mining. Retrieved from https://humanities.exeter.ac.uk/archaeology/research/projects/silvermining/ .

White's Gazette (1878-1879): https://www.combemartinvillage.co.uk/white-s-gazette-1878-1879.