Exmoor’s mining industry

PUBLISHED: 16:21 19 January 2016 | UPDATED: 16:21 19 January 2016

Wheal Eliza, where the miners once worked

Wheal Eliza, where the miners once worked


Simone Stanbrook-Byrne takes us back through the chequered history of Exmoor’s mining history

Cow Castle and the Barle ValleyCow Castle and the Barle Valley

Aeons ago the molten rock beneath the Earth’s surface was being pushed and squeezed by the movement of the mighty plates that make up our planet’s crust and it was around this time that the minerals that would give rise to Exmoor’s mining industry were laid down in the rocks beneath the moor.

Fast forward millennia to the present day. Exmoor: remote, beautiful, preserved by its National Park status for more than 60 years. In the long, long years of those intervening centuries people have lived and toiled out on the moor, making it as it is today, adding to its layers of history.

Exmoor’s potential underground wealth was there to be exploited and mining has taken place on Exmoor since medieval times, possibly even earlier. Iron and copper were the principal ores but precious metals were also found including silver and gold. Even uranium has been found near Simonsbath. Mining was at its busiest during the 19th century and although substantial quantities of iron were extracted it amounted to less than one per cent of our national production.

One of the principal iron-bearing lodes ran from the Brendon Hills in South East Exmoor to just beyond Simonsbath, not far from the Devon border, although the seams of iron within this weren’t continuous throughout the whole distance.

A little to the south east of Simonsbath, settled on the banks of the River Barle and watched over by the wild red deer who graze the heights of Flexbarrow, lies what’s left of the Wheal Eliza Mine. A seemingly peaceful place of skylarks and sun-spangled river, it has a chequered story.

Originally known as Wheal Maria (wheal deriving from the Cornish word huel meaning working), there is some evidence that mining first took place here in 1552. But in 1845 it came to life as a copper mine, part of the estate of the Knight family who had extensive business interests across the moor. Exmoor’s human population was sparse and those who eked out a living here needed to be housed.

By 1851 nine miners worked Wheal Eliza, six of whom lived in a cottage adjacent to the workings. Life was harsh and the copper enterprise unproductive. After 1854 Wheal Eliza moved over to iron, but this was another disappointment and in 1857 the mine closed. Without maintenance, the underground workings flooded. Wheal Eliza lay dormant.

But in 1858 its story grew sadder. William Burgess was a widower who, with his young daughter, Anna, took lodgings in Simonsbath after the death of his wife. His older children had flown the nest but Anna was at the mercy of an alcoholic father. Despite support and financial assistance from the incumbent of Simonsbath Church, William Thornton, Burgess drank away his meagre resources. To add to the problems, according to some sources, the relationship between Anna and Burgess’ mistress was hostile.

In June 1858 Burgess left Simonsbath, telling his landlady that he was taking Anna to live with her grandmother at Porlock Weir. After their departure William Thornton grew suspicious. His enquiries found that Anna had never reached Porlock Weir and investigations ensued to discover her whereabouts. Her father had, by now, fled to South Wales but he was brought back and imprisoned in Dulverton.

The search for Anna was fruitless for some months until an eyewitness reported having seen Burgess near Wheal Eliza. At great expense the mine was drained – and poor Anna’s body was discovered. Her father was found guilty of her murder, to which he ultimately confessed. One of his ‘reasons’, in addition to strained domestic relations, was that he wished to save the money spent on Anna’s keep to supply himself with alcohol. Burgess was hanged in Taunton in January 1859.

And so Wheal Eliza was left to decay slowly into the landscape. The ruins that remain today are on both sides of the river and include the mine workshop and a store. After the closure of the mine the remaining buildings were inhabited over subsequent decades by shepherd families. During circa the 1920s young Maggie Little lived here; she and her mother used to collect laundry from the hotel in Simonsbath, bringing it back to wash in a ‘boiler tub’ on the riverbank near their home before returning it to the hotel. Life in such cottages was in tune with nature; homemade furniture and self-sufficiency were de rigueur.

The shepherd’s cottage was last occupied in 1952. Accessed along a footpath beside the river, the area is tranquil, with no hint of its associated tragedy.

A short stroll along the river from Wheal Eliza rises the Iron Age hill fort of Cow Castle. Near here another mine was established in the 1850s with mineworkers’ cottages being converted from the cowsheds of Pickedstones Farm. But, as with Wheal Eliza, the pickings were not rich, and by 1861 the mine and cottages had been abandoned. Although some attempt was made to open it again in 1911, transportation was difficult and work didn’t continue.

Mining on Exmoor had largely ceased by the end of the 19th century due to lack of economic viability, although, as at Pickedstones, some continued during the early part of the 20th century. Investigations during the First and Second World Wars ultimately did not result in further activity. Future mining is unlikely, the National Park Authority would resist it, but, as with Wheal Eliza, there are mementoes of mining all over the moor.

In recent years the Exmoor Mines Research Group has undertaken work to consolidate some of Exmoor’s mine buildings, preserving them in their ruined state while preventing further deterioration.

Other remnants decay naturally, subsiding under the slow weight of years to become an organic part of the landscape. The keepers of secrets.... the haunts of ghosts.

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