Combe Martin Shipbuilding (19th Century)

John Dovell's Steam Saw Mills at Combe Martin

Including information submitted by Combe Martin Field Archaeologist Trevor Dunkerley, March 2024

Select images for a larger view.

Article modified by J.P. on April 25, 2024


We are grateful to Combe Martin's devoted Field Archaeologist Trevor Dunkerley for this contribution dated March 31, 2024. Trevor corrected local information about shipbuilding in Combe Martin during the nineteenth-century, having found no evidence for shipbuilding on Newberry Beach. We have posted photographs and documents at the end of this article.

There was however, a shipyard on the River Umber where Borough Road now runs (A399). This article complements our page on Combe Martin's 'Strawberry Boat', the SS Snowflake, and forms a welcome addition to our research on Combe Martin's industrial history.

Trevor kindly contributed historical documents and photographs, including Mike Guegan's research entitled Combe Martin Ships 1837 - 1843. The copyright materials are posted at the end of this article, with Trevor Dunkerley's kind permission. Note that this page is currently under construction. 

"Mike Guegan, a stalwart at the North Devon Maritime Museum, spent 40 years working at the Appledore shipyard" (Morris, The Guardian, 2019). 

John Dovell's 19th Century Steam Sawmills and Shipbuilders

Mr Dovell, and Robert Tanner Partridge from Barnstaple, established Messrs Dovell, Partridge and Co in about 1835, near the Seaside quarter of the village. With highly-skilled craftsmen, the company specialised in building various kinds of ships, schooners being one of them.

Together with Mike Guegan, Trevor "found no reference at all for ships being built on [Combe Martin] Newberry Beach" (Dunkerley, T., March 31, 2024).

The boat that is often cited was actually built in John Dovell's local Steam Sawmills site and yard, at the side of the River Umber or what is now Borough Road, as Mike Guegan's research shows (ibid). John Dovell was a prominent merchant and ship-owner at Combe Martin in the first half of the 19th century.


Schooners were used in consistent trade along the shores of Britain and Europe, and even across the Atlantic. They transported goods from one harbour to another throughout the 1860s until well into the 20th century (Historic England).

These commercial vessels were equipped with two or more masts with fore-and-aft aligned sails, and they played a crucial role in maritime commerce. On April 5th 1837 it was reported a "fine schooner was launched last Friday from the yard of Messrs Dovell, Partridge and Co." 

About 100 tons, the Mary and Elizabeth was modelled by Mr James Bale and built by Mr John Goss, shipwright. Commanded by Mr John Williams, formerly of the Comet, the cargo vessel was destined for the coasting trade (North Devon Journal).

"The schooner went off the stocks fully rigged in gallant style in the presence of about two thousand spectators" (ibid). This first schooner , the Mary and Elizabeth, was followed by seven other sloops and schooners built by Dovell, Partridge and Co for shipping coal and cargoes.

More information can be found in the local history book, Out of the World and into Combe Martin (Combe Martin Local History Group, 1989). 

Shipwrights' Timber

The correct form of timber was scarce, and shipwrights in need of crooked oak would take a boat to the foot of a cliff, about four miles east of Combe Martin. Shipwrights needed crooked oak to construct ships that were robust and long-lasting, a crucial requirement in the period of wooden shipbuilding especially in the early nineteenth-century.

For centuries, ships were built from oak, elm, beech and fir. English oak was often the material of choice for the hull, the ship’s main structure, due to its strength and resistance to water. This made it an ideal material for enduring the severe conditions at sea (Royal Museums Greenwich).

Quoting Trevor Dunkerley (March 31, 2024):


“Congratulations On Your Website”

“The Combe Martin Steam Saw Mill site was actually across the road from the Black & White on what is now Borough Road. You must remember that in the 19th century, Borough Road did not exist.”

“It was originally the route of the River Umber, the river being covered over in the mid/late 19th century. So Dovell's site was situated on the bank side of the River Umber, allowing vessels [up to 100 tons] to be launched [off the stocks] sideways-on, into the river during high spring tides.”

[Using the Archimedes Principle: a 100-ton ship would need to displace 100 cubic metres of water in order to float. Actual ship buoyancy can be affected by other factors such as the shape of the hull, weight, temperatures, and the salinity of the water].

“There was a ford at the seaside end of Cross Street adjacent to the lime kiln. (No bridge or esplanade then - see map), so any launched vessel would float over the bottom of the ford. Once the vessels were floating in the bay, they were then towed to Barnstaple where they were fitted out.”

“You will note the number of vessels built on Dovell's site in the 19th century and what happened to these vessels. I have noted that N.D.A.S. [North Devon Archaeological Society] have given an incorrect site reference for the Steam Sawmill site, somewhere in the caravan site. The site was actually across the road from the Black & White.”

“You must remember that in the 19th century, Borough Road did not exist. It was originally the route of the River Umber (see map) the river being covered over in the mid/late 19th century.” [Before Borough Rd was built, Cross Street was originally the road in and out of Combe Martin].

“Any launched vessel would float over the bottom of the ford. Once the vessels were floating in the bay, they were then towed to Barnstaple where they were fitted out” (Dunkerley, T., [Combe Martin], March 31, 2024).

Sawmills in the 19th century, powered by the revolutionary steam engine, provided the necessary timber for the construction of ships. This marked a significant shift in the shipbuilding industry, enabling the construction of larger, more efficient vessels (Ville, S. [ed.], 1992).

Trevor especially wished to thank Mike of the North Devon Maritime Museum, for his valuable research and hard work. We also thank Trevor for his kind permission to use and quote from the valuable research he has carried out for twenty-five years.

Saw Mills and Steam Power

The 19th century saw a revolution in sawmill production with the introduction of steam power. This development allowed sawmills to become mobile facilities thanks to steam-powered traction engines. The use of self-propelled steam tractors transformed logs and timber production from a labour-intensive manual task into a more efficient process (The BFI, 2024).

The Saw Mill Process

The process involved logging, felling, bucking, and limbing the logs (removing branches), which were then transported to the sawmill where they were classified and debarked. A sawyer would then break down the logs into cants and flitches (unfinished logs and planks).

The final steps involved edging, trimming, drying, and planing the lumber to prepare it for the market (BFI, 2024).

The Advent of Iron and Steel Ships

Until the 19th century and the Second Industrial Revolution, ships were constructed mainly of wood, and construction and maintenance were labour intensive. However, the 1800s marked a significant shift with the introduction of iron and steel ships, and the replacement of sails with steam engines.

It’s worth noting that hardwood ships had a size limitation, typically not exceeding 80 metres in length (Royal Museums Greenwich). The physical properties of wood, particularly its strength and flexibility, imposed vulnerabilities and constraints on the size of the ship that could be built.

These limitations led to the transition from wood to iron, and later steel, in shipbuilding. The advent of iron-hulled ships marked a significant advancement in naval architecture, allowing for the construction of larger and more robust vessels needing less maintenance.

The Circular Saw Blade

According to the British Film Institute archive, the circular saw blade had been invented during the Industrial Revolution, and the advent of steam power in the 19th century allowed for a significantly higher level of mechanisation. 

Samuel Miller’s 1777 English patent is one of the earliest mentioning a circular saw, but it’s uncertain if he was the inventor (Ball, N., 1975). However, these developments made wood-cutting and other industrial processes more efficient. In fact, offcuts of wood served as a fuel source for the boiler furnace.

Two Heritage Examples of Victorian Saw Mills

The BFI states that in the village of Simonsbath, a few miles east of Combe Martin, a heritage water-powered Victorian sawmill was in operation. The steam engine provided by Devon County Council attracted visitors with its charming Victorian noise.

Elsewhere, at the Victorian Sawmill Experience, Combe Mill, Oxfordshire, was the original power-house of the former Blenheim Palace Estate. The mill is a Victorian-era sawmill powered by steam and water, and it currently functions as an operational museum.

As a Grade Two Star listed structure, Combe Mill provides a fascinating glimpse into the behind-the-scenes operations of the Blenheim Estate (, Victorian Sawmill Experience, 2024).

© Author and respective owners.

Article created and posted by Admin on 08 April 2024 at 09:30 P.M. UTC. 

Page currently under construction.



Ball, Norman (1975): Circular Saws and the History of Technology. Bulletin of the Association for Preservation Technology. Vol. 7, No. 3 (1975), pp. 79-89 (11 pages). Published By: Association for Preservation Technology International (APT).

BFI online (News video 1966): A Head of Steam at Chapelton Sawmills - A Victorian steam powered engine is celebrated before its time is up. (2024): Victorian Sawmill Experience, Blenheim Palace Saw Mill.

Dunkerley, Trevor (Field Archaeologist), March 31, 2024: John Dovell's Steam Saw Mills and Shipbuilding at Combe Martin in the 1800s.

Guegan, Mike (no date): Combe Martin Ships 1837-1843. From the collection of Trevor Dunkerley, Combe Martin Field Archaeologist.

Historic England (2024): Ships and Boats: 1840-1950.

Morris, Steven (2019): Appledore shipyard closure a loss of jobs, skills and way of life. Guardian News & Media Limited.

North Devon Maritime Museum, Appledore (2024):

Royal Museums Greenwich (2024): Shipbuilding: 1800–Present. 

Ville, Simon [ed.] (1992): Shipbuilding in the United Kingdom in the Nineteenth Century: A Regional Approach. Liverpool University Press.

Materials copyright to Trevor Dunkerley (Combe Martin) All rights reserved.

The following document is copyright to Combe Martin archaeologist Trevor Dunkerley:

Combe Martin History | 2023-2024