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Broadun China Clay Works



Walk out from Postbridge along Drift Lane and you soon come to the bottom of Broad Down (Broadun) and then you are faced with a stiff climb to its summit, back in the day this particular ascent was know as ‘The Bastard’. Probably the reason it acquired this name was the fact that the climb was normally taken at 6.00 am. of a Saturday morning on the way to Cut Hill with a killer of a hangover. Anyway, having slogged up the 100 odd metre climb you soon are greeted with some wide ranging views of the northern fen. The can be no question that the going can range between wet at best and challenging at worse. However, having said that on a clear day the remoteness and silence coupled with the views make this a very scenic spot. But back in the 1929 a proposal lodged by the Whitehall Securities Corporation could have drastically changed what we see today into something akin to a moonscape.


It was announced at a meeting of the Dartmoor Board of Conservators on the 21st of October 1929 that the Duchy of Cornwall had given permission for trails of China Clay extraction on Broad Down and they were shortly due to take place. At the time the board wrote to the Duchy expressing their concerns as to the deplorable effects such an industry would have on Dartmoor’s amenities and beauty plus the fear of poisoning the fish in the river Dart. In due course Sir Walter Peacock, on behalf of the Duchy replied: “I do not think there is any need for you to be apprehensive about the fishery of the Dart. The Whitehall Securities Limited, who are carrying out the prospecting work, as I daresay you know, Lord Cowdray’s firm. Professor Illing is their expert adviser, and he first discovered the deposits of China Clay through observing discolouration of the river. The most stringent clauses protecting the fishery will be inserted into any lease, and as the lessees will have plenty of funds and are quite satisfied that these are sufficient for preventing pollution, I do not anticipate any trouble.”

At this point Mr. R. H. Worth was consulted and asked for a report on the matter but at that point of time he hadn’t completed the work. There were not only concerns to the effects on the Dart fishery but it was also suggested that other industries further down the river Dart would be effected. One being that the pollution from the China Clay would turn the river white thus effecting the town of Dartmouth and its tourist industry which lay at its estuary. Additionally it was felt that perhaps it would greatly hinder the paper making mills at Buckfastleigh. There was also a worry that also the water supplies to the towns of Paignton, Brixham, Teignmouth and Devonport would be endangered. The conclusion of the meeting was that once Mr. Worth’s report had been completed a conference would be called to include the local authorities, mill owners and riparian owners to discuss the matter.

On the 1st of November 1929 the Western Morning News & Mercury published a statement from Sir Walter Peacock given at the Duchy Estate Audit dinner in Princetown, he noted;

During the past few days there has been an agitation against the grant by the Duchy of a licence to work China Clay on Broad Down. Some of those who have been a little disturbed are reasonable and sensible people, like the Dart Fishery Board, who wish – and rightly – to be assured that the interests that it is their business to protect will not be imperilled.
The opposition is based, first, on the possible danger to the fishing through discolouration or pollution of the river. The pollution of the river is simply a matter of constructing a sufficient number of settling pits and seeing that they do their work efficiently.
The licence has not be granted to men of straw but to a wealthy and powerful organisation who have the means and desire, while providing a great deal of employment, to do everything in their power to preserve the amenities of Dartmoor.
There is no greater lover of Dartmoor than Mr. Hansford Worth, whose engineering experience of Dartmoor is unrivalled. He has himself been associated with a China Clay enterprise, and I am quite sure that he would never have done so if he had not been satisfied that pollution can be effectively prevented.
The second objection is that the amenities of Dartmoor may be injured by the raising of mica mounds and the carting of clay over roads. The company who has the licence has no intention of carting clay over the roads, an operation which would render their undertaking unprofitable. Their proposal is to pipe the clay to a point which it can be carried away by rail.”

At this point Sir Walter Peacock hit back at some of the ‘agitators’ by saying that Broadown was a; “lonely and rather desolate spot that you come upon rather suddenly, and a mica mound would not be seen from a distance,” (for anybody who has ever sat upon Snowdon and gazed across at the volcano-like Redlake Tip will know this not to be true). He then went on to add how many supposed Dartmoor lovers had never wandered more that  two miles from the road and that a lot of the agitators to the plan would rather; “praise Dartmoor than walk over it,” It was then confirmed that the company had been given a twelve month exploratory licence and prior to be given a proper lease they had to provide a detailed plan of their operations. Once this had been received the Duchy would either call a conference of interested parties or submit the plan to them.

A conference was convened by the Dart Board of Conservators on the 12th of November 1929 at the Seven Stars Hotel in Totnes and included the local authorities and the Fisheries Board along with other concerned parties. There was great amount of anxiety expressed as to whether or not the Duchy would in fact ensure that the ‘stringent clauses’ in any lease would be properly monitored. It was also pointed out that the promise of employment with the scheme was rather overstated as at the time the China Clay works of Lee Moor had just laid off 60 men due to the declining state of the industry. This being the case it was thought to extract further supplies of China Clay from Broad Down would have a further detrimental effect on those at Lee Moor. Hansford Worth’s report was then read, in which the salient points were:

We may start with the following ascertained facts: (a) There is clay in the valley of the East Dart, above Postbridge. As to its quantity or quality I express no opinion, favourable or otherwise. It will be suffice to assume that it is workable as a commercial proposition. (b) Given sufficient working space no clay works need pollute the rivers or streams. But the condition as to working space is essential: (c) Where the conditions have been favourable, and the Duchy of Cornwall has inserted stringent conditions in the lease under which clay has been worked, serious pollution of the rivers and stream has occurred. As at the last date that of which I have knowledge, the Erme was clear of pollution, showing that previous troubles were preventable. (d) For every ton of clay marketed there are from four to eight tons of waste to be disposed of, and these must either be deposited on the land adjacent to the pit, or be allowed to find their way, in part at least into the river or stream. There is also the unworkable head which has to be dumped. I conclude that it would be possible to work clay on Broadmarsh with none but occasional pollution to the river.  But only by the best and unremitting efforts of those concerned in the working. If the works were abandoned it would still be necessary to maintain the stability of the waste deposits.”

All in all a fairly non-committal report to say the least but then, wearing his other hat as the representative of the Dartmoor Preservation Associated he went on to highlight the dangers of losing many of Dartmoor’s amenities such as the prehistoric remains should they not be properly monitored. He also stated it was about time that all those parties which had an interest in Dartmoor, which supposedly included the Duchy, joined forces in preserving those amenities which would be endangered if commercial interests were allowed to step in. The famous Dartmoor landscape artist – Mr. F. J. Widgery who represented the Town Planning Committe of Exeter City Council said he was pleased to see that people were beginning to see the commercial value in the beauty of Dartmoor and that he was sure that if the public opinion expressed at the conference was made clear to the Duchy then they would abandon the scheme. There were also big concerns as to where the proposed 500 workers would be housed without spoiling the village of Postbridge and the surrounding area. It was calculated that 500 workers would mean an average family unit of three along with shop keepers and other services it would in the end mean housing for 2,000 people. In short this would mean the small picturesque village of Postbridge would become a town. Finally he strongly announced his support for the opposition of the scheme. As did the Chairman of the South Devon Joint Planning Committee who moved that a request be made to the Duchy for receiving a deputation of all those interested parties in South Devon to put their concerns forward. The Mayor of Totnes  viewed his worries about the discolouration of the water and the effects it would have on his town. The ex-mayor of Totnes noted how as  the owner of a bacon factory who used the waters of the Dart for cleansing operations he was perturbed at any prospect of river pollution. The proposal of the delegation was also backed by the Fishery Board, the County Council and the Commons Preservation Society. the motion was cariied and the elected deputation was to be; The mayors of Totnes and Dartmouth, Messrs. W. D. Thomas, Mr. Hansford Worth, the Chairman, Mr. W. D. Waterson, Hunter Joy and Mr. F. J. Widgery. It was also noted that attending the conference there were 35 local authorities and various private gentlemen representing themselves or their firms. As it transpired the Duchy refused any meeting with the delegation which as one can imagine was a cause of great concern.

The modern day effects and non effects of China Clay working.

As can be seen from the photograph above Broad down was saved from industrial disfigurement. On the 25th of April 1930 the Western Morning News announced that: “Whitehall Securities Corporation, after consultation with the Duchy of Cornwall, have decided, in view of all the circumstances, not to proceed any further with the China Clay proposition on Dartmoor.”

So thankfully the destruction of the high moor above Postbridge never came to anything, why the Whitehall Securities Corporation pulled out is a mystery. Was it their decision or was it the Duchy pulling the plug? As a small aside, about 25 years later another scheme was proposed for the Postbridge area which makes it seem that people were intent on destroying the moorland landscape in and around the village as can be seen from this newspaper report;

Work will start next year on what will become one of Britain’s finest motor-car racing circuits. It will be certainly one of the most testing in the world for both men and machines for it covers all the wild regions of Dartmoor.The Dartmoor Racing Circuit will have its headquarters at the little moorland village of Postbridge which will become, says the builders, a British Le Mans.  Large garages, a workshop, a grandstand and a number of hotels, as well as a space capable of accommodating 2,000 cars will be built.The full circuit is not yet planned, but it will be somewhere in the region of 75 miles long. The twisting roads and seven sharp hills and bends will make it one of the most difficult road circuits in the world, to say nothing of the sudden Dartmoor fogs.” – September 17th 1955.

I’m not sure which proposal is the most preposterous, the China Clay extraction of a racing circuit?

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

One comment

  1. Apart from a drive from Exeter to lostwithiel via Widecombe, two years ago, I had not ventured onto the Moor for about thirty years – I now live in Ireland. I found your website by accident and have been delighted today in spending some time reading your comments.
    It brought back many happy memories.
    If you are able to forward any previous messages, I would be over the Dartmoor moon.
    Many thanks.

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