Dartmoor Explorations

A collection of walks, discoveries, insights and pictures of exploring Dartmoor National Park

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.

Bibliography:

  1. Walking the Dartmoor Railroads by Eric Hemery (Section 4 – Omen Beam Tramroad)
  2. Domestic and Industrial Peat Cutting on North-Western Dartmoor, Devonshire: An archaeological and historical investigation by Phil Newman
  3. The Industrial Archeology of Dartmoor by Helen Harris (Chapter 5 – Peat – Page 106)
0. Map
This sketch map is based on one found in the Eric Hemery publication Walking the Dartmoor Railroads (map 7, page 42) and represents the area covered in this post.
1. Prison Tramway a
The tramway trackbed to the south of B3357 coming in from the former naphtha plant at the prison. Picture taken May 2020.
1. Prison Tramway b
The trackbed of the tramway on prison land taken in January 2023.
2. Signpost
Leaving the B3357 along the footpath (marked by this signpost), the trackbed of the tramway can be followed.
3. Sheep Creep
In the wall, just inside the enclosure on the north side of B3357, this structure can be found. In all probability, this is a sheep creep. It can be found at SX57835 74998
4. Tramway to Touchstone a
The trackbed of the tramway is easily followed and leads up the west side of the Blackabrook valley.
4. Tramway to Touchstone b
The trackbed in May. The ‘touchstone’ soon comes into view as it is only 150m from the road.
4. Tramway to Touchstone c
The desolate nature of the moor, soon come into view as the Touchstone is approached. The view was photo-bombed by a sheep.
5. Touchstone a
The Touchstone next to the tramway in early Summer.
5. Touchstone b
The Touchstone was dedicated on Winter Solstice 1999 (21st December) having been erected at the Summer Solstice, 6 months earlier. John Powls (poet in residence with the National Park) thought it would be a fitting monument to celebrate the new millennium and put his idea to the DNPA. John Powls wrote a poem to be inscribed on the stone. 
5. Touchstone c
The Touchstone is a 2m menhir which was erected to mark the new millennium. John Powls was the ‘poet in residence’ when the National Park decided it would be a fitting monument to celebrate the new century with and put his idea forward. He wrote a poem to be inscribed on the stone. The stone for the menhir came from the old prison quarry where Powls was the one-time governor and the poem was carved on it by Kevin Andrews of Polzeath in Cornwall.

The Touchstone
Inspiring
This stone touching
Open moor and sky
Granite land mark
Raised to stand
For all times
As one time;
Now, then and ever
In love and beauty
Our story is a book
Always open
At the centre
Half of experiences
Half of
Un-named hopes.
John Powls 1999
6. Gate b
Moving north along the trackbed from the Touchstone. This gateway opens up into a remarkably symmetrical enclosure.
6. Gate c
The desolate north moor lies ahead with the Blackabrook being seen towards the middle-right of the photograph.
6. Gate d
Looking back southwards to the first gateway.
6. Gate a
Moving north along the trackbed this second gateway hides a secret.
7. Gate a
The second gateway in winter. The ‘secret’ can just be seen on the ground next to the left hand gatepost.
8. Old Tram Rail
In the gateway is what looks like and old tram rail. It certainly looks the correct shape. It can be found at SX57740 75583
7. Gate b
Looking south from gateway 2.
9. Gate a
Gateway 3, beyond which it is speculated (Hemery) that stables were built for ‘booster’ horses. The speculation is that these horses were used to assist with the traverse the slopes of Omen Beam.
9. Gate b
Close up of gateway 3 with gateway 4 beyond.
10. Omen Beam Peat
Looking east between gateways 2 and 3 towards Omen Beam peat works and (in the foreground) Fice’s Well
11. Fices Well a
Wall surround at Fice’s Well is believed to have been built by Dartmoor prisoners in the 19th Century. 
11. Fices Well b
Fice’s Well is a stone covered spring
11. Fices Well c
The lintel stone is carved ‘I.F. 1568’, standing for John Fice.
11. Fices Well d
Close up of the lintel “IF 1568”.
11. Fices Well e
On 11th May 1958, Fice’s Well stone wall surround was restored. Men of the 571 Construction Squadron, Royal Engineers, Territorial Army from Raglan Barracks, Devonport worked on the restoration. They also assisted in the restoration of a clapper bridge over the Blackabrook a short distance away
12. Blackabrook
View of Fice’s Well and the tramway from Blackabrook.
13. Clapper a
Blackabrook clapper looking south. Crossing records that the bridge was swept away in 1873.
13. Clapper b
Blackabrook clapper with Fice’s Well beyond. The bridge allegedly lies on the former route between Tavistock and Chagford (ref Probert)
13. Clapper c
Probert reports in Dartmoor Prison Farm, Devon that: “The bridge has two openings and a total span of 4.6m. The deck stones appear to be relatively recent additions to an older set of abutments and central pillar”.
14. Prison Leat
Above (uphill) from the trackbed lies the Prison Leat, which was abandoned from used in 1990s. The leat was built between 1806-09 to supply the war prison and soldiers’ barracks. Of interest, immediately above where the assumed tramway stables are located is a sluice gate. Could this have been used to divert water down to the tramway stables ?
15. Stables a
Probable site of the tramway stables.
15. Stables b
Probable site of the tramway stables.
16. Tramway a
Moving north beyond the stables.
16. Tramway b
A part of the trackbed now collapsed. It is likely that Hinton struggled with such problems between 1874 and 1877.
16. Tramway c
More views of the trackbed as it leads into the north moor. The west (uphill) side of the trackbed no doubt having water runoff leading to regular flooding and the wooden sleepers becoming rotten.
16. Tramway d
The trackbed in May 2020.
17. Range Pole
The trackbed entering the Merrivale Range
18. Great Mis Tor
Great Mis Tor from the trackbed. A firing day.
19.  Tramway b
A wonderfully constructed bridge over a small brook as the tramway heads out. This is approx 500m from the final open moor secton, which is marked by a gate.
19. Tramway a
A granite embankment on the tramway
20. Tramway Branch
The tramway branch at SX57556 76432 heading off to the slopes of Black Dunghill
21. Hintons Shed a
Installed by Hilton’s Condensed Peat Fuel Company Ltd in the 1870’s, these are the subtle earthwork remains of what was described as a “shed” (Hinton’s Shed), which was most probably a peat store. Location is SX57498 76708
21. Hintons Shed b
Some granite remains at Hinton’s Shed
21. Hintons Shed c
Evidence of postholes (reed filled now) at Hinton’s Shed. There are 7 pairs in two double rows making 28 in total
21. Hintons Shed d
A pair of iron rods with ring fitments at Hinton’s Shed. Not sure if these were part of the original construction. SX57492 76715
21. Hintons Shed e
Another single iron rod with ring fitment at Hinton’s Shed. SX57499 76715
22. Quarry
Small quarry near Hinton’s Shed, most likely for material needed to build the tramway. Black Dunghill can be seen on the horizon. SX57530 76727
23. Map
Annotated map of the final sections of the tramway, from a Dr Phil Newman paper on peat extraction on NW Dartmoor.
24. Tramway
Stile and gate as tramway enters the open moor.
25. Loading Platform a
The end of the tramway, a granite structure which is believed to be either the front of a loading platform or possibly the site of a press (Taylor 1848) at SX57510 77027
25. Loading Platform b
The structure is approx 10m long. There is no evidence of the tramway continuing beyond this point, although it is possible that it did.

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