I wonder how many people have driven along the A386 Okehampton to Tavistock road and looked down at the skeletal remains of the old Wheal Betsy engine house. From the roadside there is nothing unusual about the building, but if you park up and walk down to the bottom side there certainly is something very unusual. Forget Pisa and their ‘Leaning Tower’ this is Dartmoor’s very own ‘Leaning Tower’ or chimney to be more exact. For as long as I can remember the chimney has leaned at its famed precarious angle, every time a bad storm hits the moor I expect to read that the stack has toppled but thankfully it has so far withstood the savage moorland elements. The picture below shows that from the western side the building looks normal and it is only from the eastern end that the leaning chimney can be seen.
As previously noted this ruin is the old engine house of a once prosperous tin mine – Wheal Betsy. There is no doubt that this was an early mine, it has been suggested that the mine was opened in 1740 although it may have been earlier. The main lode associated with the mine runs N – S and was worked for about three quarters of a mile where it yielded lead, zinc and large amounts of silver. In the early days the ore was smelted on site by means of peat charcoal and in the case of silver it was refined by the old process of ‘cupellation’ which was a process where the impurities were separated in a ‘hearth’ by melting the impure metal in a ‘cupel’ (a flat, porous dish made of a high-temperature-resistant, material). There it was heated in a blast of air, converting the lead to litharge (lead oxide) which reacted with and absorbed other minor base metallic components. The litharge was drawn off, leaving metallic silver in the hearth, and then re-smelted to produce de-silvered (sterile) lead. This process was deemed to be expensive, time consuming and it burnt a lot of fuel therefore it was only carried out on silver ore that yielded more than 8oz a ton which must have meant the Wheal Betsy silver was of a good quality.
The mine was then closed sometime in the late 1700’s but was reopened in 1860 and from around about 1816 it was mined together with the nearby Wheal Friendship under the management of John Taylor. By the November of 1821 the ore levels were opened up at depths of 24, 45 and 57 fathoms, in light of which it was reported that the mine was ‘doing well’. Stocks were larger than the previous year and output was beyond the capabilities of the smelting furnaces. More importantly the lead ore which was being mined was rich in silver and the mine yielded 4,202 ounces between August and October. The following year saw ore production rise to over 100 tons a month but the amount of water was hampering work at the deeper levels which by December 1822 had expanded to six levels the deepest of which was at 70 fathoms. In this year work began on building a new engine house which, it was suggested, would make the deep extractions easier. Also in this year a new smelting process was adopted which meant all ores regardless of quality were processed at the mine.
During the period from 1821 – 1830 sales from Wheal Betsy were recorded as 52,302 ounces of silver, 4,000 tons of pig lead, 1,195 tons of lead ore and 77 tons of litharge which produced a net income of £102,661.00. Sadly during the period from 1828-9 the price of lead dropped from £25 a ton to £13.10.0 per tone this meant that the mine was now working at a loss and to compound matters further the winter of 1830-31 saw growing water levels causing severe problems. Taylor’s answer to the water difficulty was to drive the nearby Wheal Friendship adit into Wheal Betsy which should result in the drainage of the top 40 fathoms, this was proposed in 1831 and work finally began in 1835. From 1830 – 34 Wheal Betsy produced around 1,540 tons of pig lead which realised a price of £12.15.0 per ton but this was not enough to return a profit. The low price of lead and the massive expenses incurred by the water pumping resulted in a loss of £1,430. In 1836 the price of lead rose back up to £25 a ton and profits were optimistically forecast. The following year the association with Wheal Friendship was terminated and a separate company for Wheal Betsy was formed. This lead to some expansion in 1842 when the mine was equipped with four over-shot wheels which would accommodate water pumping and hoisting and crushing the lead ore. But once again by 1846 the mine was hardly making a profit so it was decided to abandon the workings and sell off all the materials.
In 1863 a new Glasgow based company was formed and under the name of Prince Arthur Consols the mine was re-opened and over the following few years a great deal of equipment was installed. In 1866 the new mine produced around 210 tons of lead ore which realised a market price of £2,882 but this did not cover the investment in the new equipment. In 1868 the mine was employing 128 workers many of which came from the surrounding area. Sometime in 1869 the mine was sold to another company who for some reason went back to the original name of Wheal Betsy. This concern worked the mine on a very reduced scale until in 1877 when after a working life of at least 137 years Wheal Betsy was shut for good.
Today, the engine house, at Job’s shaft, is the last standing example on Dartmoor. In 1954 when the Army was given permission to demolish it but luckily it was saved by the intervention of A.K. Hamilton Jenkin and other campaigners and is now a National Trust property, Hamilton Jenkin, 2005, pp 87 – 89.
I recently (Nov. 06) received a letter from a lady in New Zealand asking if I knew anything about a snuff box made from silver taken from the Wheal Betsy mine. Hamilton Jenkin notes the following:
“A snuff box ‘Made of silver, the produce of Wheal Betsy in the parish of Mary Tavy, Devon, 1820’ was formerly in the Plymouth Museum. Weighing 3½ ounces it bore the initials R. E. and E. B. i.e. Rebecca Emes and Edward Barnard, London silversmiths of the period“. This article came from the Western Morning News on the 15th of January 1954.
I then emailed the lady back with this information and received the following reply:
“Please see attached photos of the silver snuff box. It has a gilt lining. You will note the makers mark of Rebecca Emes and Edward Barnard confirms the information as noted by Mr. Jenkins in your email. Your response to my query most certainly answered some questions. I am also having to review the other marks regarding city mark and date. It would be interesting to find out what happened to the other snuff box formerly in Plymouth Museum and if the designs are similar.
I greatly appreciate your assistance. I have contacted my father who lives in Prince Edward Island, Canada and he was amazed by the information you sent me. He recalls having met Richard Barstow about a year prior to Mr Barstow’s passing; a great loss to those in the mineralogical fields. Mr. Barstow had vaguely mentioned something about three snuff boxes having been made but was unable to elaborate further on the subject. So, with your help, I am able to put pieces of the puzzle together“
The lady kindly sent a photograph of the snuff box as can be seen above. So it could well be that there were/are three such items made from the very silver that was taken from Wheal Betsy.
Hamilton Jenkin, A. K. 2005 Mines of Devon, Landmark Pub. Ashbourne.