Combe Martin in The Blackmore Country (1911)

Modified on May 24, 2027

By F. J. SNELL (1862-1935)  Author of A Book of Exmoor, etc.

2nd Edition with 32 full-page illustrations from photographs by Catharine W. Barnes Ward.

This book is available in the public domain.

Verbatim excerpt; pages 272-275

Combmartin, *Westcote’s village—a long, straggling place, which Miss Marie Corelli annexed for her Mighty Atom, and another lady, whom I met at Challacombe [Exmoor] some years ago, designated with pious horror as “dark”—no doubt in allusion to the bits of folklore, which—happily, as I think—yet linger in these rural districts.

[ *Thomas Westcote (c. 1567 – c. 1637) (alias Westcott) of Raddon in the parish of Shobrooke in Devon, was an English historian and topographer of Devon. He married Mary Roberts (died 1666), eldest daughter and coheiress of Richard Roberts of Combe Martin, Devon].

[Richard Roberts (d. Christmas Day 1622) was patron of Berrynarbor Parish Church whose son in law was rector there. By Mary Roberts he had one son and heir, Philip Westcott (1614-1647/8), and five daughters.]

It would be easy to cite many illustrations of West-country superstition, such as the fruitful influences of the moon, which will send a man to dig in his garden when it is covered with snow; but, having devoted a considerable section of my Book of Exmoor to this fascinating topic, I will here confine myself to the principal interest of Combmartin—namely, its silver mines.

In the reign of Elizabeth [r. 1558 until her death in 1603], however, it was a great place for hemp, and a project was formed for establishing a port at Hartland entirely on account of this trade. As it was, the shoemakers’ thread manufactured in the neighbourhood was sufficient to supply the whole of the western counties.

As to the mines, Westcote states:—

“This town hath been rich and famous for her silver mines, of the first finding of which there are no certain records remaining. In the time of Edward I. they were wrought, but in the tumultuous reign of his son they might chance to be forgotten until his nephew (?) Edward III., who in his French conquest made good use of them, and so did Henry V., of which there are divers monuments, their names to this time remaining; as the King’s mine, storehouse, blowing-house, and refining-house.”

The industry was resumed in Queen Elizabeth’s reign, but seems to have been checked by the influx of water. However, a great quantity of silver is said to have been raised and refined, mainly through the enterprise of Adrian Gilbert [brother of the Elizabethan navigator Sir Humphrey Gilbert], and [Elizabethan speculator] Sir Beavois [or Bevis] Bulmer, who bargained for half the profit. Each partner realised £10,000.

The owner of the land, Richard Roberts, who happens to have been Westcote’s father-in-law, presented William Bourchier, Earl of Bath, with a “rich and rare” cup, bearing the quaint inscription:

In Martin’s Comb long lay I hiyd,

Obscur’d, deprest wth grossest soyle,

Debased much wth mixed lead,

Till Bulmer came, whoes skill and toyle

Refined me so pure and cleen,

As rycher no wher els is seene.

“And adding yet a farder grace,

By fashion he did inable

Me worthy for to take a place

To serve at any Prince’s table,

Comb Martyn gave the Oare alone,

Bulmer fyning and fashion.”

Another cup was given to Sir Richard Martin, Lord Mayor of London, who was also master and manager of the Mint, the design being that it should remain in the permanent possession of the Corporation.

It weighed 137 oz., and like its fellow, was engraved with naïve, and, I fear, doggerel verses.

“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.

The Latin appendices to the “poems” show the date of the presentations to have been the year 1593; and Blackmore seems to refer to them when he speaks of the “inaccurate tales concerning” the silver cup at Combmartin, sent to Queen Elizabeth (Lorna Doone, chapter lviii.).

Ultimately the flooding, with which there was no means of effectually coping, put a stop to the operations; but it is possible that they were not entirely suspended, as a few years ago I saw a report in a local journal that a Combmartin half-crown of 1645 was sold in an auction room in London for the sum of £5. 12s. 6d.

In 1659 the working of the mines was brought before Parliament by a distinguished mineralogist named Bushell, but nothing was done, and, when, forty years later, an attempt was made to exploit them, it resulted in failure. Between 1796 and 1802 the experiment was renewed, and 9293 tons of ore were shipped to Wales.

The mines were then closed, and so remained till 1813, when 208 tons were sent to Bristol. The cost, however, exceeded the profit, and in 1817 the mining was again abandoned.

Yet another effort was made in 1833, this time by a joint-stock company with a capital of £30,000, nearly half of which was expended in plant, the sinking of shafts, etc. However, a rich vein having been discovered, work was carried on feverishly night and day, and a large profit realised, three dividends being made to the shareholders. 

As the result, shares were run up to a high premium by speculators, who, in mining phraseology, “worked the eye out.” In 1845 a smelting company was formed, but neither this nor the mining company, whose expenses averaged £500 a month, was destined to last.

In 1848 the engines were taken down, and apart from a spasmodic and, ’tis said, unprincipled attempt at company promoting in 1850, nothing has since been done.

The levels were driven under the village; and beneath the King’s Arms (or Pack of Cards, as the old manor-house of the Leys is usually designated) runs a subterranean passage, constructed for drainage purposes.

The ore is exceedingly rich in silver and lead, and the opinion has been expressed that the mines, worked fairly, would have yielded a tolerable return.

There is an old saying, “Out of the world, and into Combmartin.” On this odd text Miss Annie Irwin has based the following pretty verses:—

“‘Out of the world’ they call thee. True,

Thy rounded bay of loveliest blue,

Thy soft hills veiled in silvery grey,

Where glancing lights and shadows stray;

“Thy orchards gemmed with milk-white bloom,

Thy whispering woodlands, grateful gloom,

Thy tower, whose fair proportions rise,

’Mid the green trees, to summer skies—

“Viewed thus afar, by one just fled

From the vast city’s restless tread,

He well might deem, when gazing here,

His footsteps pressed some lovelier sphere.”

End quote.

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Updated 11. December 2023.



Excerpt from The Blackmore Country (1911).

London. Adam and Charles Black, 1911.

Verbatim extract; pages 272-275.

By F. J. SNELL (Frederick John Snell [1862-1935]).

Author of A Book of Exmoor, etc.