This project has been developed by The Burton Art Gallery & Museum, with thanks to Torridge District Council and The Friends of The Burton

Your Stories

Working with North Devon earth pigments has inspired many rich stories and memories especially with regards BIDEFORD BLACK. The stories and objects associated with the industry surrounding this unique natural resource and the hope of uncovering more has been the inspiration for this project especially when appreciating how the opportunity to uncover them is so rapidly fading. It is hoped that such knowledge - scientific, historical, practical and personal - may help to promote a deeper appreciation of our local natural environment, its evolving history and our relationship within it, as well as enriching our experience and practice as creative artists.

Chapel Park Paint Works Tree line, East-the-Water (P Ward 2010)

So far stories have included …

As a young Appledore shipyard worker, during the last war, a gentleman recalled collecting bags of ground Biddiblack from the processing plant in Chapel Park by bicycle. He would then mix the powder with shellac and paint onto floorboards of the pattern room/loft. Patterns for boats and sails were drawn on the black floor with chalk and then painted over for next pattern.

The past owner of a local hardware store told of bags of Bideford Black still being sold (along with other earth pigments) until as recently as 1996. They were bought predominantly by farmers for rams to mark ewes while ‘covering’. Maybe this was more useful than the garish modern colours and dyes as they could be washed out of wool, and the wool could then be used.

One lady told how as a child she remembers living and playing around the Mines in East-the-Water and how the chickens that were raised locally had black flesh from pecking food and living among the darkened soils there.

Bideford Black mine entrance, East-the-Water (P Ward 2010)

There was apparently until recently a coal yard near the old Mine entrances in East-the-Water – maybe further evidence of the industry’s long heritage and the mining and selling of coal as well as pigment from the site.

A local quilt maker is looking to use local pigments and especially Bideford Black to dye material with which she will create a quilt to celebrate her family’s historical connection to the mines. They moved to North Devon from Cornwall at the end of the 19th Century to work in the mines and worked there until they closed in 1968. She has many memories of growing up around the mines, as do many others who lived in the area as children.

During an early workshop an illustrator from Bratton Fleming showed a set of earth pigment colouring pencils produced by the Bideford Black Mining Company. It is artifacts such as these that we are hoping to unearth and share during this project.

Mitch Warburton, a mining expert from Combe Martin Silver Mines, told of his collection of letters and communications between the mine owners in the area – Bideford Black, the Silver Mines, the umber mines in Berrynarbour and the ochre mines in East Down to name but a few. We look forward to learning what secrets these documents may reveal.

More recently, Peter Ward exchanged some Bideford Black with visiting Aboriginal Elder Noel Butler for some Australian earth pigments. Noel’s nephew has since used the Bideford Black to paint his body for official ceremonial performances at events in New South Wales .
Narooma Noel & Phil, New South Wales (image courtesy Trish Roberts 2012)

If you have a story or memory to share, or even an artifact connected to BIDEFORD BLACK, please get in touch and we will be more than happy to add it to our growing archive. Similarly if there are any other contributions or ideas you would like to make to the project it would be great to hear from you.

phone The Burton Art Gallery & Museum on 01237 471455
or visit The Burton Art Gallery & Museum, Kingsley Road, Bideford, EX39 4QQ


  1. The Mine Shaft MARY-ANN
    The Mary Anne was a air shaft built on the side of a hill to allow a flow of air through the mine shafts of Bideford Black. It was still open and being used when I first worked there 1958, but when I finished there in 1968 it had collapsed along part of it so Mr Cookes arranged for air to be pumped down the main shaft through a 12" diameter pipe. No-one knows why it was called Mary Ann (perhaps after one of the original miners wife. As kids we used to play down there (risky) Gerald Ford.

  2. That is certainly NOT the entrance to Bideford Black. BBP Ltd was a good half a mile down a narrow lane, NOT on a main road..!

    Howard Cookes

    1. Dear Mr Cookes, thank you for your comments! From your name I take it you are related to the previous and last owner of Bideford Black Pigments Ltd?

      While you are correct in saying that the photo does not show the entrance to the BBP Ltd mines and processing plant (at Chapel Park), as far as I am aware and based upon information from reliable sources, the 2 bricked up archways in the photo were entrances to adits at the East-the-Water Mine accessed through tunnels beneath the railway line not used by BBP Ltd but by previous mining companies in the town. If however you have evidence or information to the contrary then we are more than happy to hear it.

      Many thanks again for sharing your thoughts and we look forward to hearing any further information you may have :-)

  3. I can't remember where I saw the photo but I have seen a photo of an inclined track on the hill behind that old building. The water runs orange onto the railway possibly from the old mine working above on the hill.