Finds at Windmill Close, Brixham

Liz Wilkins
September 2022

I was recently asked by Brixham Heritage Museum to visit a house on the north-east, or harbour, side of Windmill Close, Brixham, to see a number of clay, iron and glass items that the owner had found whilst digging in his garden. The finds were as follows: numerous clay pipe fragments; an aqua-coloured glass bottle sherd; an iron patten; 2 iron bolts complete with washers, a number of square iron nails and 2 oval iron chain links; and a large iron horseshoe. All of these finds are interesting in themselves but the context in which they were found is also important to anyone with a fascination for old local Brixham industries.

According to the 1842 Plan of the Town and Environs on Rea Common adjacent to Windmill Hill – a map, sheet SX95NW, owned by Steve Soper of Shrives Monumental Masons, Bolton Street – a ropewalk once covered the flat area of Windmill Close, probably covering the area now occupied by the road and the houses and back gardens on the northern side of the close. It was built on land that was owned at the time by William Green. It is reported by heritagegateway.org.uk to have measured 275 metres (14 chains) in length with the building housing the rope-twisting machinery situated at the north-east end of Windmill Close where the cul-de-sac ends with a stone wall. The website also reports that the ropewalk still appears on the 1862 OS County Series first edition 1:2500 and on the 1904 revised edition as a solid structure. By the 1933 second revision only the terminal buildings are roofed.

According to Ellis (Arthur C. Ellis, Brixham, its history and people, 1992, volume 2, pages 85, 86) the ropewalk was owned by Mr Elliot of 66 and 71 Bolton Street, Brixham, and that by the 1940s only some of the brick uprights remained and the whole area was by then used as a large chicken run. Ellis (ibid.) also discusses two other ropewalks that existed in that area in the 1800s, a later one at Great Rea and an earlier one on Furzham Common where he records the use of a horse for turning the rope-twisting mechanism. This last piece of information could give a possible explanation for the presence of a horseshoe, for what appears to be a working horse, in the garden in Windmill Close.

iron nails, links and bolts
iron nails, links and bolts
clay pipe stem fragment
clay pipe stem fragment

Clay pipe stem fragments

All of the stem fragments were plain except for one which was moulded with the place name NEWPORT and the makers name R. COLE. Newport refers to Newport, Isle of Wight and the maker was Robert Cole, master pipe maker, 1817 to the late 1900[?]s. In his younger days Robert Cole lived in the Duke of York public house in Carisbrooke, Isle of Wight with other pipe makers. By 1851 he had become a master pipe maker and cider merchant and by at least 1875 he was living in Orchard Street, Newport, Isle of Wight where he produced pipes until at least 1881. His pipes were often decorated with a wine bottle and glass surrounded by a laurel wreath, possibly a reference to his public house origins. Large batches of his pipes were exported to Devon ports in the mid 1800s, a number of which have been found in Torbay. As the pipe stem from Windmill Close originates from Newport it was probably made some time in the 1870s. (Society for Clay Pipe Research Newsletter 83, Spring / Summer 2013).

Glass bottle sherd

The moulded aqua-coloured glass sherd embossed with HUMPHREY DARTMOUTH BRIXHAM – only part of which can be seen on the fragment – is possibly from a later period than the rest of the finds. The name refers to the chemist and pharmacy that existed in Fairfax Place, Dartmouth in 1939. The chemist was a Mr H Humphrey and he must have had an outlet in Brixham at some time but, so far, I have been unable to discover its location. The bottle probably contained a mild medicine or tonic.

glass bottle sherd
glass bottle sherd
iron patten
iron patten
patten, drawing by Liz Wilkins
patten, drawing by Liz Wilkins
a shoe of the period strapped to the board riveted to a patten, drawing by Liz Wilkins
a shoe of the period strapped to the board riveted to a patten, drawing by Liz Wilkins

Iron patten

The item consists of an oval iron band with a short bent-over upright at each end, one broken and one intact and containing a rivet. The iron band measures 8.9 cm by 12.7 cm by 1 cm. The short bent-over uprights are approximately 3 cm in height (see illustration). Only one of these uprights is complete, and containings a rivet. This object is a patten, a clumsy contrivance that was strapped to ladies shoes in the 18th and 19th centuries in order to keep long skirts and shoes out of the mud. The uprights at each end of the iron band were riveted to a piece of wood or metal which was then strapped to the shoe (see illustration). By the 19th century they were used less by women but more by working men in order to keep poorly made shoes dry in muddy working conditions. By this time men of quality had sturdier well-made shoes and boots.

According to janeaustensworld.com pattens were banned in churches in the 18th century because of the terrible clatter they made on the stone floors. Pegs were provided at the church door so that ladies could hang up their pattens before entering.

Iron horseshoe

The iron hand-forged horseshoe measures 16 cm (6.5 inches) across and 19 cm (7 inches) from heel to toe. It has a toeclip and is therefore post 1830s (Sparks, Ivan G, 1976, page 23). According to Tom Hill, master farrier, it is a left hind shoe to fit a horse of approximately 15.3 hands in height; a mule of this height is another possibility. The left outer branch is wider than the inner branch by 1.5 mm and it is thicker by 2 mm. In Tom Hill’s opinion these differences could possibly be illustrative of the need for extra stability on the outside of the shoe, the extra wear on the inside of the shoe being due to heavy repetitive work of a circular nature e.g. as would be experienced working a windlass or capstan. In the 1800s maritime ropes were often tarred and Ellis (ibid.) reports that pre-WW2 the remaining ropewalk building at Furzham, Brixham consisted of a shed with a loft with a floor still deep in tar. The traces of the harness of the horse used on the ropewalk could apparently still be seen at that time. It could suggest that tarring and horse power may well have existed at Windmill Close even though there is no obvious trace of tar on either the horseshoe or the patten.

According to a report on the ropewalks in the Chatham docklands in the 1800s the ropes were often pulled through a tar kettle by a capstans driven by horse power. The spun yarn was made into bundles and passed over a series of rollers to the tar kettle: ‘From there, propelled by the action of a horse capstan it was wound and allowed to dry. The bundles were then separated and wound on bobbins before being taken to the laying floor where the strands were formed’ before being twisted into cables or hawsers. (James D. Crawshaw, History of Chatham Dockyard, 1999, volume 1, pages 62, 63)

iron horseshoe
iron horseshoe
iron nails, links and bolts
iron nails, links and bolts

Iron nails, links and bolts

These consisted of 2 iron bolts complete with washers, a number of square iron nails and 2 oval chain links. These items could be remnants of the ropewalk construction or they might have a completely different origin. However the nails are typically Victorian so were produced and used in the right period.

Conclusion

The garden at Windmill Close has yielded some fascinating items that take us back to an old Brixham industry. If anyone else living in this area has also found odd items that may be connected to the ropewalk, or look as if they may have some other historic significance, let us know at Brixham Museum and either I, or another member of our team will endeavour to investigate them for you.

Liz Wilkins