Is There Coal in Devonshire?

Devon & Cornwall Notes and Queries vol. VII, (1912-1913), Exeter: James G. Commin. 1913, pp. 57-62.


R. Pearse Chope

Prepared by Michael Steer

In the 1820s as interest in stratigraphy became widespread it was thought there may be a potential for coal in Devon. The Note describes attempts at exploring for Devon coal in the mid-late 1700’s. It introduces JAMES EFFORD an early inventor and mining engineer. The article, from a copy of a rare and much sought-after journal can be downloaded from the Internet Archive. Google has sponsored the digitisation of books from several libraries. These books, on which copyright has expired, are available for free educational and research use, both as individual books and as full collections to aid researchers.

Note 33. Is there Coal in Devonshire? - A rare pamphlet in the Patent Office Library not only raises this interesting question, but also brings to light an unknown inventor, one JAMES EFFORD, who devised a boring engine for making the necessary trials. The pamphlet is of 18 pages, 8vo., and was written in sections in 1773, 1776 and 1783. There is no record of it in the British Museum Catalogue or in Davidson's Bibliotheca Devoniensis. The title page runs as follows: "APPARENT SIGNS, Strongly indicating that coals exist as a native Mineral in several Parts of Devonshire, from the Colour of the Clay, Consistence and Texture of the Stones, Soils, &c. to be met with in various Parts of Devon, similar to those in many Parts of the Kingdom where Coals are raised. Also, of A NEW ENGINE, For Boring to discover Coals in a much cheaper and more expeditious Method than hitherto practised. With PROPOSALS For raising a FUND for prosecuting the Discovery of Coals in Devon. Humbly dedicated to the NOBILITY, GENTRY, &c. Of the COUNTY of DEVON, by their very obedient humble servant, at command, James Efford. Exeter: Printed by B. THORN and SON."

The first part of the pamphlet, written in 1773, when the author resided in London, was designed to be presented to " the Noblemen and Gentlemen of the Devonshire Club, at their annual Meeting in February, 1774, at the Star and Garter, in Pall-Mall, London; for which Purpose he applied to the Master of the House the Day before, to desire the Favor he would lay it before them for their Perusal and Approbation, &c, which he then promised he would do, but on his bringing it the next Morning, the said Master refused doing it. Being thus disappointed of the Honor of knowing their Sentiments thereon, a few Days after he waited with it at some of the Gentlemen's Houses in Town, viz. SIR RICHARD BAMPFYLDE’S, JOHN WALTER’S, Esq.; and DENNIS ROLLE’S, Esq.; for their Perusal; but as there were no Proposals annexed, (by Messages returned him) was only advised to make Proposals and go down to Exeter with them. Both which he should have readily complied with, had he not recently met with several considerable Losses through his own Family, &c, was obliged to take to teaching to support his Family, and as that Employ requires constant Attendance he could not then leave it." A short Appendix, giving the above information, was written in 1776, but, owing mainly to "the late dreadful unnatural War in which this Nation for many Years was unhappily involved," the matter remained in abeyance till August 15, 1783, when the author issued the pamphlet with proposals for raising by Voluntary Subscription the sum of £1000, or thereabouts, to enable to make thorough Trials for Discovery of Coals in Devonshire, and for compleating an Engine for expeditiously making the greater Number of such Trials in a cheaper Manner than can be done by any other Method at present in use."

The first part of the pamphlet states that the author is " very sensible there have been several fruitless Attempts to discover this useful Article in Devon, particularly near Cowley -Bridge, about 3 miles from Exon, "but having been for ten years "a principal Manager, and concerned in various Mines of Copper, Tin, Lead, and Coals," and having examined collieries in North Wales, Yorkshire, Lancashire, Shropshire, Staffordshire, Gloucestershire, Somersetshire, and South Wales, he considered that he had seen "Signs and Indications of Coals as promising and as ominous in various Parts of Devon, as in most of the Coal Countries recited." For this opinion he seems to have relied mainly on the proverbial saying in Staffordshire, "That there may be Coals without Iron Stone, but never Iron Stone without Coals" — a belief which we now know to be without foundation.

"In the Coal Countries before-mentioned," continues the author, "they Bore the Ground to discover Coals, being much cheaper than Sinking Pits for that Purpose; but the present Method of doing that is a laborious, slow, manual Work, consequently very expensive, tho' less than putting down Pits or Shafts. Therefore, from the first Time (some Years ago) of my seeing it done, I had some Thoughts of contriving an Engine, which should perform the Operation with greater Ease and Facility, and consequently for far less Expence. Being at Bristol in 1773, - BULLOCK, Esq.; Mr. PEREGRINE STOCKDALE, and some other Gentlemen, having a Grant from PAUL METHUEN, Esq., of Corsham, Wilts, to try for Coals on his Lands at Knowle, about half a Mile from Bristol, they set to Boring in the usual Way with three Men, and soon after with four Men. I attended them every Day for three Weeks, to observe minutely their Progress, what Obstacles, Difficulties and Accidents they might meet with. The little Advance they made, tho' experienced Colliers, (and, to do them Justice, they worked extremely hard, at least twelve Hours in a Day) confirmed me in my former Opinion, that a better Method might be found to do it, and renewed my Ardor to revise my Scheme of such an Engine ; which, after several Alterations and Improvements, is so far perfected, that I have the Vanity to think it is truly adapted in every Part for the Purpose ; having Simplicity in Construction, can be made cheap, and will endure any Number of Trials: It is moreover portable. And further, without Adulation I affirm, that with it five Trials may be made at least in the same Time as one is at present. As by this Engine the Rods descend perpendicularly, and preserve a vertical Direction in drawing up, consequently avoid a great Deal of Friction against the Inside of the Hole* by working in a straight Direction in two Centers, prevents the Rods from being bent in Angles, which cannot be avoided in the old Way, but with great Difficulty are drawn. As it is contrived to act as a Drill when it comes to a hard Rock, we can increase the Velocity of the revolving Rods as we see Occasion, and will perforate the most obdurate Body, which by the old Way is extremely slow and difficult."

There is no farther description of the engine, and no patent was granted for it, but in his final appeal the inventor says, "the Drawing and Description of it is ready for the inspection of any Gentleman or Lady whose Curiosity may induce them to see it, and should have accompanied this but for the Expence of engraving, which the Author could not afford, the other having been more chargeable already than his present Circumstances could conveniently admit of."

"This (engine)," he continues, " out of a particular Regard and anxious Wishes for my native County, I make the first Offer of, not doubting, by the Permission of God, the Vse of the aforesaid Engine, and reasonable Encouragement, to find Coals in several Parts of Devon, particularly near Exeter. What an Emolument it would be to that ancient and noble City ! Would it not be the Means of introducing the Iron Manufacture, the second Branch of Trade in the Kingdom. Might it not in Time rival Birmingham, Sheffield, Wolverhampton, &c, being so contiguous to the Sea for Exportation, which those Towns have not the Advantage of, from their less favourable Situation.

"Also the making of Glass, a very considerable and valuable Manufacture, having the raw Materials for doing it with near at Hand ; the Sea Coast of Devon abounding with Kali, a Sea Plant, commonly in Devon, called ORE-WEED, which being dried and burnt produces a Salt called KELP, a principal Ingredient in making GLASS; and from its Vicinity to the Isle of Wight, &c, for procuring fine Sand used in the white Houses, cheaper than at Bristol, &c, &c.

LIKEWISE the several Staffordshire Earthen Wares, whose extensive Sale all over the Kingdom is well known (besides Exportation) ; for making of which Devon produces the finest Clay in Abundance, and Flints for that Purpose to be got vastly cheaper than our northern Neighbours can procure them, as they are obliged to convey them such a great Distance at a vast Expence: Who lately (the Concerned) publickly advertized in the Bristol Papers, that they should be obliged to raise the Price of their Goods, on Account of the raw Materials standing them in near double the Price they did formerly.

"THESE great Advantages (not to mention more) would be in our Power to affect, if plenty of Coals should be found. The general use of that valuable Fewel needs no Explanation; in a Word, it must be of universal Benefit to the Inhabitants."

His proposals were as follows: -

"I. That such worthy Noblemen, or Gentlemen, &c., who are willing to promote this Vndertaking for the Emolument of their Country by an early Encouragement, be pleased to fix on some Gentleman of their Number to receive Subscriptions, and to act as Treasurer.

“II. That no Lady or Gentleman, &c, subscribe less than One Guinea.

“III. That when the sum of £500 is Subscribed, £100 of the same be advanced to the said JAMES EFFORD, to enable him to build such Engine at large, with the Apparatus of Iron Rods, Augers, Bits, &c. and for travelling Expences to remove himself and Family into Devon, and procuring experienced Workmen to assist.

“IV. That the said JAMES EFFORD be allowed £100 per Ann. Salary, in Consideration of his attending to direct and manage such Trials, seeking out the most likely Spots for such Trials, &c, &c, during such Time till Coals are found, or the Fund lasts.

“V. That the said JAMES EFFORD shall have Liberty from Time to Time (on producing a just Account of the Monies disbursed for Workmen's Wages, Materials, Smith's Work, &c, &c), to call on, or send to the Treasurer for such Sums as he the said JAMES EFFORD shall want to keep on such Trials.

“VI. That whenever it shall please God he the said JAMES EFFORD shall discover in the said County of Devon a Vein or Veins of Coals worth working, then he the said JAMES EFFORD, in Consideration of making such Discovery, Invention of the Engine, and leaving his other Concerns for that Purpose, be entitled to the remaining Part (if any) of the whole Sum subscribed of £1000 - also to the Boring Machine, with every Thing thereunto belonging.

"N.B. That the Author may not be suspected of selfish Views, he desires to submit the above Proposals, particularly such Parts of them as respect his own Emolument (if judged unreasonable or extravagant), to such Alterations as may be deemed more adequate to the Vndertaking : His principal Design and Desire being, to discover native Coals in Devon.'''

Is anything more known about the man or his invention?

                                                                 R. PEARSE CHOPE