Wheal Friendship-The mine that made John Taylor

Navsbooks>John Taylor>Wheal Friendship

As my preparation for next month’s Trevithick Society talk continues this blog will continue its ramble around the life of John Taylor- the Victorian Mining genius.

In 1798, near Mary Tavy in Devon,  there was an extraordinary event that transformed the life of the young John Taylor, and changed the economic fortunes of the Tavistock District.


1883 Ordnance Survey
Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

Sometime in that year the nineteen year old Taylor visited Wheal Friendship mine with members of the Martineau, family. The family were both major share holders on the mine and close family friends of the Taylor’s. And so, as members of two Norwich families met on the western border of Dartmoor, far from their homes, they made a daring  decision, to give the young Taylor the management of the mine.

Wherever it was Taylor’s genius so impressed the mine owners that they had to offer him the post, or that this was a blatant act of nepotism is hard to tell so far distant from the event, but either way it was a bold move. John had no experience in the mining industry, he was very young for the position and did not come from the area. It has been claimed that it was John’s comments made on the mine’s operations that swayed the Martineus on that day; whatever the reason they were never to regret their decision.


2016 Ordnance Survey
Contains OS data © Crown copyright  published under OGL

John immediately started a transformation of the mine that he would repeat many times in his career. He secured the long term profitability of the mine with heavy investment in mechanisation and modern technology. He demonstrated a faith in the long term, rather than chasing quick returns.

By 1801 he had started construction of a complex system of leats that enabled Wheal Friendship to build the most mechanised dressing floors in the South West, and made the mine the largest copper producer in the Tavistock District.

In 1803 Taylor commenced a massive civil engineering project as part of the Mine’s infrastructure, the Tavistock Canal. But that will be a topic for a later post.

Despite of this success, John took a surprising step in 1812 by resigning from his commitments in West Devon to establish a chemical works in Stratford, Essex. But this exile from Wheal Friendship was not to be permanent. For in 1816 the mine requested that he should return as Secretary to the committee of Management, a position with wide powers over the finances of the mine, and its day to day working.

At the time of John’s return Friendship was being worked as joint concern with Wheal Besty, and the company was not in a good financial condition. But by 1817 he had cleared the debts, and by 1818 both mines were in profit. On December the 1st the sole responsibility of running the mine passed to John, in whose hands mine prospered for almost 50 years. The mine became the second largest copper mine in Devon, it would play a major part in the economy of the Tavistock area, make Taylor’s fame and much of his fortune.

Water power played a major part in Wheal Frenship’s operations. Large leats contoured their way many miles from the rivers of Dartmoor to feed a complex, and well planned, system of water distribution on the mine.

Among the many waterwheels on the sett was a huge 50 foot wheel at Old Sump shaft. Two wheels were built underground, one with 52 foot diameter was said to be the most powerful installed in Britain at that time (125 hp).

Taylor believed in investment for long term profits, strategy that set him apart from many other mine owners of the day who operated mines to achieve rapid returns at the expense of long term profits. An example of this is use of incline planes.

in 1826 he sunk a new incline plane at Friendship.  It inclined at 40 degrees was 7ft high 5 feet wide. The wagon carried one ton of ore and was hauled by 40 foot waterwheel. Incline planes was one of John Taylor’s technical specialties. Although they required more capital to sink then traditional shafts they greatly improved the deficiency of hauling ore to the surface.


Click here to download the above leaflet from South West Water

In the 1930s the John Taylor’s  leat was converted to supply the hydro electric power station at Mary Tavy. It is fitting that Taylor’s civil engineering achievements in tapping the power of the Dartmoor rainfall found use in the 20th century.

Some notes on Wheal Friendship
This mine worked for 130 years.

Activity started on the mine in 1769 (or 1870 depending on source).

It was located both sides of the main road in Mary Tavy.

Copper the principal product until the 1870s when arsenic became the main revenue earner.

It reached a depth of 220 fathoms.

In 1865 it was estimated that it had raised 145,805 tons of copper, 1170 tons of lead , 120 tons of tin and 4,343 tons of arsenic.

In the 1880s it was revived by the Devon Arsenic company.
In 1880 the mine’s name was changed to Devon Friendship

Work ceased in 1900 resuming in 1907.

Wheat Friendship was abandoned in 1925.

Some limited reworking occured in the 1930s, 40s and 50s

In the 1930s the leat was converted to supply the hydro electric power station at Mary Tavy.


Click here for information about ‘The Last Great Cornish Engineer’


One thought on “Wheal Friendship-The mine that made John Taylor

  1. Pingback: John Taylor, Mining genius- An index of posts | navsbooks

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