Gold at North Molton,

and the surviving evidence to be found on the Bampfylde Mine site, Devon.


This paper is a response to an element of mis-information as to the site of the late 18th / early 19th century gold discoveries at North Molton and in the interpretation of the documentary and field evidence on the principal gold and copper mining site at the Bampfylde Mine (NGR SS737327).

In a talk to the Exmoor Mines Research Group in April 1996, entitled 'The North Molton Gold Rush,' reported in their newsletter (EMRG 9, 3), David Dixon incorrectly associates both the activities of John Williams and the Prince Regent Mine with the Britannia Mine site. Some link is suggested between the new 50 foot wheel and the Berdan machine installed on the Bampfylde site by the Poltimore Copper and Gold Mining Co., which requires explanation. The presence of gold in the gossan is cast into doubt and suggestion is made of fraud on the part of the Poltimore Co. with which I cannot agree. In a more recent work (Atkinson 1997, 41-72) Dixon removes the doubt as to the presence of gold but repeats the earlier errors as to location.

The opportunity is also taken to expand on Dixon's interpretation of the field evidence at Bampfylde, bringing in that for gold working, using the recent RCHME survey of surviving features on the site.

The gold discoveries

Gold was first discovered at the North Molton Copper Mine (better known by its later title the Bampfylde Mine) sometime before 1785, but initially there is no evidence that it was anything more than of academic interest. (Note 1) It was copper which drew Messrs Warde and Rohde to the mine in the early 1800s. Both had copper smelting interests at Llanelli and were sufficiently interested in the mine to commission the civil engineer John Rennie to examine the site in 1804. But it was John Williams, of Scorrier House, Gwennap, Cornwall, who commenced operation there in 1808. Williams' lease (DRO Z3, Box 12), signed in the following year, defined the boundaries of the sett as being 400 fathoms west and 300 fathoms east of the point where he had opened up the lode in the valley bottom, 'the said several quantities of fathoms being situated at or near the entrance gate adjoining or near to the sawpit on the lower side of a certain wood or coppice belonging to the messuage and tenement situated in or called Lower Fyldon ... in occupation of .... John Dee.' Reference to the tithe award and land tax assessments identifies that wood as being that, immediately north of the confluence of the stream from Bentwitchen with the Mole, later known as Little Mines Wood. The boundaries 200 fathoms north and 130 fathoms south of the lode were sufficient to encompass the lodes (Note 2) later known as North and Bampfylde and it is evident that the mine was operating within these restricted boundaries as late as 1860 (MJ 1860 p. 301).

Some time shortly after 1810 a company was formed to work the mine under the name Prince Regent. Divided into 64 shares this company was still operating in 1812 but the mine had closed by 1822. It was about this time that further well publicised discoveries of gold were made on the spoil heaps. The name Prince Regent, and the gold discoveries, have hitherto been linked with the Britannia Mine site but contemporary references to gold being found in the 'rich' copper mine clearly identify it as the Bampfylde Mine site.(Note 3)

The Britannia Mine site had been worked in a small way for copper, first about 1806 'under the agency of Capt. Joseph Odgers' and later by a group of adventurers 'from London and Plymouth,' probably the same group who were working the Bampfylde Mine site as Prince Albert, but there is no mention of gold in connection with this site until 1852. When reopened in 1852 the workings there comprised no more than an adit, 81 fathoms long, and two shafts, one 10 fathoms deep drained by a 25 foot water-wheel, with no evidence of sustained copper production (Guildhall Library).

Bampfylde, on the other hand, had a long history as a rich copper working enhanced by the discovery of gold, the working of which was actively considered from at least 1840. In April of that year Robert Backwell made approaches to the Treasury for a licence to work minerals covered by Crown privilege. Although the Mines Royal Acts of 1689 and 1693 had removed that privilege from silver and gold combined with lead, copper or other ores, gold in its free state, as found at North Molton, was still Crown property (CRO DDFS 3/134 and 135).

Backwell, of Devonport near Plymouth, was one of a number of adventurers who formed the Prince Albert Mining Company in 1840, a lease having been obtained from Lord Poltimore at one fifteenth royalty. Operations had commenced in the November. Although small amounts of copper were sold there is no record of gold production. However, all the publicity on the mine in this period refers to the occurrence of gold with the copper (Mems. Geological Survey, vol. 2, pt. 2, 1848, Table 3. MJ 1840 p. 370; 1844 p. 256. NDJ 12 Nov 1840).

Working for gold

The Prince Albert Co. had ceased operations and the plant was for sale in 1845 (MJ 1845 p. 129). Within two years another company was formed with the intention of continuing the interest in gold, but not to the exclusion of copper. The Poltimore Copper and Gold Mining Company, promoted by George Dyson of Hammersmith, was registered under the Joint Stock Act in March 1847 (PRO BT41/564). However, mining appears to have been at a low ebb, with only a handful of miners in the parish in 1851, and nothing appear to have been done by this company. It was not until five years later that another company of the same name was promoted on the cost book principle to work the Bampfylde Mine site. By which time operations had already commenced at the Britannia Mine with gold, rather than copper, of primary interest.

That gold exists at North Molton cannot be denied but it is, overall, found in small uneconomical quantities. Returns of up to 86 ppm have been found in sulphide ores from the North Lode at Bampfylde (Rottenbury 1974, 130-1). What had attracted attention was the metal exposed in the oxidised zone of the lodes near surface. Here copper had been leached away leaving the iron gossan in which were small amounts of free gold, some large enough to be visible to the eye. The problem at North Molton was not the search for gold itself but the efforts made to promote the schemes, the deception used to substantiate the claims for economic viability, and the blind trust in those promoting and managing the schemes. In this the Britannia and Poltimore companies were no different to the majority of companies promoting marginal non-ferrous mining ventures in the investment boom of the mid 19th century.

The prospectus of the Britannia Co., published in May 1852, laid great emphasis on the finding of gold in the gossan. Claiming one discovery to be 'a vein a quarter inch solid .... A pure pipe of gold.' Such claims were backed up with flattering assays of the gossan, but very little mention of copper ore. The captain of the mine, Thomas Fezzey, had been in the area since at least 1850 engaged in clearing out the old workings. It was he and William Moorsom, the consulting engineer, who encouraged the Britannia and the neighbouring Poltimore Co. in considerable capital expenditure before the viability of gold mining had been tested.

The Poltimore Co. did not publish its prospectus until October 1852, by which time 50 tons of gossan had been raised at the Britannia and a six ton sample despatched to Messrs Johnson for a large scale assay. Unfortunately the machinery required was incomplete, the assay delayed and the result, when received. was poor. Subsequent trials by separate firms gave only 10 dwt per ton. In the meantime an assay of gossan from the western side of the river at the Poltimore gave a return of 11 ounces per ton, encouraging both companies to continue with plans to raise gossan in large quantities (NDJ 9 Sept and 25 Nov 1852; MJ 1853 p. 136 et seq.).

Both companies requested tenders for the processing of large batches of gossan but there were no takers, although Poltimore did ship 100 tons to Liverpool for further assays in February 1853. The initial results in Liverpool were varied, one of 6 dwt per ton and another considerably higher at 10 ounces per ton, but neither company lost heart and used the one good result to justify continuing operations with further expenditure (NDJ 17 Feb 1853; MJ 1853 p. 272 and 534).

The spring of 1854 came with the companies holding high hopes of success. Both had large stocks of gossan for processing. Britannia was the first to commence operations on site but the results were not what was expected, as P F Nursey, the purser, was later to recall,

Captain Moorsom's arrangement consisted of heavy edge runners, accompanied by scrapers, and working in pairs; they ground and amalgamated the ore, previously calcined in pans. Gold extraction proceeding but slowly, barrel amalgamation was substituted, the ore being ground dry in the mills, which worked very effectually, reducing the gossan to an impalpable powder ...... This arrangement was superseded by Perkes' machine, a cast iron pan, six feet diameter and three feet six inch high, in which five heavy cast iron cones revolved, worked by a central vertical shaft. Numerous working trials were made ...... one upon 50 tons of auriferous gossan. The time occupied in reduction and amalgamation was four weeks of day and night work, and the final results were a loss, by disintegration, of 50 per cent of the mercury employed, and a ultimate yield of 1 ounces of gold, or 14 grains per ton of ore. Every attempt to extract gold from North Devon ores remuneratively by this machine proved a failure. (MJ 1860 p. 60.)

The Berdan pans installed by the Poltimore Co. worked on a similar principle to the Perkes machine, using larger steel balls instead of cones, but were no more successful. They commenced working in May 1854, each processing three tons of gossan per day as against the ten tons per day projected. Despite working day and night over a long period no gold was produced. Similarly a 48 ton batch treated in Liverpool produced no gold.

Of course by now questions were being asked as to the viability of gold working at North Molton. Why had Berdan's machine been successful when tried prior to the company's order being placed? The finger of blame was pointed at Berdan, with the suggestion that he had introduced the gold into the gossan tested. Unfortunately Berdan had left the country and was unable, or unwilling, to answer the charges. However, his involvement could not account for the reasonable returns made from some of the trials at Liverpool. In fact the very varied results of the trials would be typical of the patchy nature of deposition of free gold in the oxidised zone.

The Britannia and Poltimore companies had ignored the poor returns and based their ideas of economic viability on the few good results, spurred on by their advisers to greater expenditure in relatively untried technology. A recipe for financial disaster.

The field evidence for gold working

As regards the industrial archaeology of gold mining, evidence for two of the features mentioned by David Dixon, the new 50 foot wheel and Berdan machine installed by the Poltimore Co., survives on the ground but they are not directly connected. The 50 foot water-wheel, situated on the western side of the river and intended to pump at Engine Shaft, thereby releasing the older pumping wheel to power the Berdan machine, was a further example of Moorsom's ill conceived ideas. There was insufficient water on the western side to power a wheel of that size and it was never completed.

The remains of both are marked on the recently published RCHME survey and the following plan is intended as an aid to interpreting that survey.


The South Poltimore Gold and Copper Mining Company

Surprisingly David Dixon mentions nothing of the third gold mining company at North Molton. Whilst the Poltimore and Britannia had been spending their capital and time in the erection of costly machinery a third company waited in the wings, holding back until it had confirmation that gold mining would pay.

The old iron mine at Crowbarn and an extensive sett stretching for some distance to the south and west of the Poltimore (Bampfylde) mine was taken under licence, with the option of a lease, late in 1853 to be worked by the South Poltimore Gold and Copper Mining Company. Activity was confined to the clearing of an old adit and shaft at Crowbarn, and raising a few hundred tons of gossan. With the failure of on site treatment at their northern neighbours the company did not take up the lease and the mine was abandoned, with 19 shillings in the pound being returned to shareholders. Whether gold really exists in the Crowbarn lode is unknown. The company's claim of over one ounce per ton was based entirely on trials carried out by Mr Berdan. Many of the directors and the management of this company were common to the Poltimore and it was unfortunate that their caution could not have extended to the activities of the latter (Pattison, op cit; MJ 1854 various).

The effect of the gold trials extended beyond financial loss by shareholders. Nursey referred to the disintegration of 50% of the mercury used at Britannia. That resulted in the disabling of at least one miner, who received 7.10 in compensation, and untold damage to the environment.

A version of this paper first appeared in the Exmoor Mines Research Group Newsletter, 10 (January 1997), pp. 2-7.



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Last modified 26 September 1998