A collection of walks, discoveries, insights and pictures of exploring Dartmoor National Park
January 29, 2023
Omen Beam Tramway
The Omen Beam Tramway was built and served the peat extraction areas of the Blackabrook peat sett in the mid-19th century. The first company to operate the sett was the British Patent Naphtha Company, which was set up by Jacob Hall-Drew and Peter Adams in 1844 to supply peat for their naphtha factory at Bachelors Hall. By May 1846, Hall-Drew and Adams had rented part of the former Napoleonic War prison (which had closed in 1815) and built a naphtha gas plant there as well as building a horse-tramroad to Yearlick (Greena) Ball with a branches to serve Omen Beam and Black Dunghill. Trucks on the tramway were 10ft square and made of steel and iron, drawn by horses. The probable gauge of the tramway was 4.5ft (1.3m). The early ventures extracted naphtha and ammonia from the peat, with candles and mothballs being produced and gas being used for lighting purposes. Paper was manufactured from the fibrous upper layers of peat. The venture provided work for the local community, and used over 30 tons of peat per day. The peat was cut each year from late April to the first Wednesday in September, which was Princetown Fair Day. We are told (by Hemery, Harris and Newman) that the overall cost to Hall-Drew and Adams was around £19,000 but this venture had failed by 1849.
All the property of British Patent Naphtha Company was put up for sale in late August 1850, when everything was sold with the exception of the railroad and the waggons. The prison re-opened as a convict gaol in November 1850 and in all probability the processing operation was taken over by the prison authorities. The prison governors report in 1851, recorded that 2000 tons of turf was cut between June and September and used for fuel and to produce gas for lighting. In 1852, 2279 tons of turf were cut. It is likely (ref: Newman) that the prison authorities remained in control of the gas plant throughout the 1850s and 1860s as the governor’s reports continue to list the tonnages of turf produced.
By the 1870s the tramway has been reported (prison records) as being in a dilapidated state. In 1874, Major Frederick Hinton was granted ground within the following limits: “On the north by the ancient road or trackway leading from Lydford Tor, on the west by the eastern bank of the watercourse known as the prison leat, on the south in two parts by the open forest and on the east in two parts first by the western bank of the Black Brook River and in the other part by the open forest”. It is unknown if this sett was the same one leased to Hall-Drew and Adams, 30 years earlier. The tramway caused Hinton a lot of problems as the lease constrained him to used it as it had originally been built and suffered from degradation especially the wooden sleepers. He was unable to use traction engines or an aerial ropeway and was thwarted by the prison commissioners to modernise. Hinton had hoped to build a trackway to the quarries (assumed to be Foggintor area) via Little Mis Tor and thus meet up with the Plymouth and Dartmoor Railway, which had been built between 1823 and 1827). Hinton blamed the prison authorities when his company was liquidated in 1877. At this time most materials had been removed from the operation but a large timber shed remained in situ and was sold to the prison for £20 (the author believes this is ‘Hinton’s Shed’ marked on old maps. Sadly, Hinton died only two years later in 1879, having briefly flirted (as a Director) with the peat extraction operation near Rattlebrook Head. This post explores the tramway on public access land north of the B3357.
Walking the Dartmoor Railroads by Eric Hemery (Section 4 – Omen Beam Tramroad)
Domestic and Industrial Peat Cutting on North-Western Dartmoor, Devonshire: An archaeological and historical investigation by Phil Newman
The Industrial Archeology of Dartmoor by Helen Harris (Chapter 5 – Peat – Page 106)