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Tales of the black stuff

PUBLISHED: 09:00 22 April 2014


Caroline Rees reveals the fascinating history of Bideford Black, mined in North Devon

The port of Bideford is famous for its seafaring history, so it doesn’t spring to mind as a mining town. But for at least 150 years until business fizzled out in 1969, it played host to an unusual small-scale industry: a sticky coal-like substance known as Bideford Black was extracted from seams running under the town and used as a pigment for paint and even mascara.

Former workers found it hard to forget. Jenny Shepherd, a secretary in the 1960s, recalled: “When we got home, we had to scrub our faces with a nail brush and soap to remove the waterproof dust.” And that was just from working in the office.

Up until now, the little-known Bideford Black story has been the “missing link” in the Burton Art Gallery & Museum’s heritage display. So, with a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the museum embarked on a project to fill in the detail.

It held a public “show and tell” day last spring and, as a result, has acquired artefacts, such as pickaxes, lamps and signs, and recorded interviews with former workers. The findings went on view in February, bringing together three elements: art, geology and history.

“We’re trying to do the material justice from the artistic, social-history and geological sides, which is quite a challenge,” says exhibitions and collections officer Warren Collum.

“A key thing has been capturing stories associated with the day-to-day grind of a working mine, such as the fact that the pigment took three months to come out of the skin. It has also been nice discovering objects that weren’t valued then but, in this context, are incredibly valuable – though we are still trying to locate some pots of the paint.”

Bideford or “mineral black” was discovered as a consequence of speculative coal-mining ventures. Anthracite, a carbon-rich coal known in Devon as culm, was mined in the north of the county at least as early as the mid-17th century: a mine in Pitt Lane, Bideford, was reported to be “waterlogged” by 1680. The culm was used in the burning of lime as fertiliser. It was found in a 12-mile seam running west to east from the coast near Abbotsham through Bideford to Hawkridge Wood near Umberleigh, ranging in thickness from about 10ft to just a few inches.

As well as the anthracite, seams of a malleable, low-carbon form of coal were found, some of it in clay-like lumps and some more powdery. This was marketed by enterprising businessmen, with varying degrees of success, and was unique to the area. This black mineral was dug out by miners in gumboots with pickaxes, and later with air drills, and ground to form a pigment. Mixing it with oil produced a paint that was used to coat ships’ hulls and, for the first half of the 19th century, was used by the Navy.

In the early 1800s, a 240ft shaft was sunk at the top of Bideford High Street near the rectory, a notice proclaiming that 3,000 tons of the mineral had already been extracted. By the 1820s, mines had opened across the river at East-the-Water, at Westwood, Broadstone and Chapel Park, where the industry was subsequently mainly sited. Pits, shafts and adits (horizontal tunnels) dotted the area and an overhead tramway was built from the hillside down to the quay. This was later the subject of legal action as it showered everyone below with black greasy dust.

Underground accidents were inevitable. According to newspaper reports, the leg of a man was severed when he slipped to his death over the edge of a shaft in 1843. Six years later, another miner was luckier: he fell 130ft but landed in 7ft of water, which saved him.

The industry became uneconomic by the latter half of the 19th century, probably due to the tailing off of lime production, imports of Welsh coal and the flooding of shafts.

But in the 1920s and 1930s, there was a revival, due in the latter period to the enthusiasm of Howard St Louis Cookes, a local man who loved mining. A new plant was built on the hillside to filter, dry and grind better quality pigment. Different compounds were marketed under different names: Fillablack, Biddiblack, Bettablack, Jetablack. During the Second World War, it was used for camouflage paint and, in the 1950s, American cosmetics giant Max Factor was ordering it as an ingredient in make-up. It was also used to colour cement, as decorators’ paint and as a rubber reinforcing agent.

But, by the late 1960s, business was no longer viable and the remaining site at Chapel Park closed down. The old adit in Cleave Wood has been bricked up (leaving a gap for bats) but echoes of the past remain in street names such as Mines Road and Biddiblack Way.

Now there is a new strand to the story. Local artists have been experimenting with the pigment and an exhibition was held last autumn at the White Moose gallery in Barnstaple, showcasing their work.

One was Pete Ward, who has been spearheading the museum project. He collects the mineral on the beach near Abbotsham, where there is a seam in the cliff. In its raw form, it can be used like a wax crayon or it can be crushed and mixed with linseed oil, egg yolk or water. It produces a very black, matt effect. Ward enjoys using earth pigments in situ. “The simplicity of picking something up and using it is key,” he says. “I mix it with water and paint it on the rocks where it is. It’s about getting people thinking about where things come from.”

Burton Art Gallery & Museum, Kingsley Road, Bideford. Tel: 01237 471455 Open Monday to Saturday 10am-4pm, Sunday 11am-4pm. Further reading: Devon’s Non-Metal Mines by Richard A. Edwards (Halsgrove 2011)


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