The article below first appeared in "Notes and Gleanings" 16 July 1888. Its author was H. O'Donaghue Macan MA; Fellow of the Chemical Society:
"In every standard work dealing with mineralogy, chemistry or metallurgy, there will be found under the heading "Gold", the somewhat vague statement that "Gold has been found in small quantities in Devonshire", and immediately the subject is dismissed from notice with the assurance "but never in sufficient quantity to pay the cost of extraction."
As is well-known, gold has been frequently discovered in a new district by geologists who noticed the similarity of the rocks with those of a country which they knew to b e auriferous. Sir Roderick Murchison in this way predicted the finding of gold in the Eastern Australian mountains from a comparison of their geological features with those of the Urals. Arguing in this way, all probability points to Devonshire as a gold-bearing county. Native gold is generally found in quartz veins which run through slatey deposits, the schists most frequently thus intersected being talcose or argillaceous. But i ts presence is not confined to any particular formation, and in certain cases it has been found in granite, and sometimes, but very rarely, in chalk. Now the extreme south of Devon, round Start Point and a large district in the north, just below Hangman's Hill, is almost entirely composed of slates of various kinds, while between these points, widely distributed throughout the county are patches of other rocks which might be auriferous.
History relates that gold in some quantity has been actually found in three Devonshire districts, namely near North Tawton, North Molton and Combe Martin. Scattered grains have also been occasionally picked up by "tin streamers" on Dartmoor, previous to the cessation of tin mining there in 1808, and enclosed by them in quills, as their custom appears to have been since the time when Carew wrote "Tynners doe also find little hoppes of gold amongst their owre which they keep in quils*". Copper miners have also found small specks of gold in gossands in various parts of the county.
North Tawton can be dismissed in a few words. On one occasion when working near the chief veins in that district, some miners came upon a ferruginous lode from which they extracted a small quantity of gold, but no particular interest attached to the find and the matter does not seem to have been pursued further.
The North Molton mines, according to the pamphlet printed for distribtuion at the meeting of the British Association in Exeter in August 1869, were worked by the Romans, and subsequently in the reign of King John, as royal mines, stated to be rich in gold and silver and copper. Lord Poltimore informs me of the existence of a legend, that at one time enough gold was found in these mines to pay for a military expedition of one of our earlier kings. Now if this is so, we shall be placing sufficient belief in the abundance of North Molton gold if we consider that the "expedition" was one of the smaller raids into Wales in the time of Edward I, rather than one of the more important attempts on Scotland or France.
Nothing further of importance concerning the North Molton mine is related until we come to the year 1840. Quoting again from the above-mentioned pamphlet, it is stated that a small company worked it in that year for copper under the title of "Prince Albert Mine" and the copper found contained a considerable percentage of gold. The Devonshire Directory for 1856 confirms that statement partially by asserting that "about 1840, gold was found in a large lump or pocket." This story has, however, since been refuted and was possibly got up for fraudulent purposes.
The Combe Martin Mines have a much more important and respectable history. According to Lyson in his History, during the reign of Edward I, especially in the year 1296, great profit was derived from the Devon mines at Combe Martin and Beer Alston (a silver mine) and 360 miners were forcibly removed from their homes in Wales and Derbyshire, and made to work in these royal mines. In the reigns of Elizabeth, and later, William and Mary, the Combe Martin mines were again worked but then with little success, and probably only for the sake of their silver. By this century (i.e.the 19th), even the memory of their former glory appears to have faded away, for the late Vicar of Ilfracombe writes, "Although I have lived here for forty years, I have never heard a whisper of gold being found at Combe Martin, and as far as I know it, it is pure fable."
*Quils or little bunches of feathers from birds normally were used by tin miners to wrap up small explosive charges.