Bideford Black: A Tale of History and Colour

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Bideford, a port town on the estuary of the River Torridge in North Devon, South-West England, holds a secret as dark as night yet as fascinating as its centuries-old history.

This small town, known for its rich historical narratives, is the birthplace of a unique pigment known as “Bideford Black”.

The Deep Geological Origins of Bideford Black

Bideford Black has a rich geological history that dates back millions of years.

It was formed 350 million years ago during the Carboniferous period on the primordial supercontinent Gondwana.

This unique pigment consists of carbon, silica, and alumina, with a distinctive black colouration derived from carbon.

A deposit of Bideford Black

These deposits stretch from Hartland, passing beneath Bideford, and onto Umberleigh, forming an underground map of the town’s geological heritage.

It was once extensively mined in the Bideford area and was used in a variety of applications, from the paint used in shipbuilding to mascara and camouflage paint during the war times.

This pigment, along with Bideford’s unique geographical location and its rich historical background, helped the town become a significant trading port.

Goods, including Bideford Black, were transported from the town to the new American colonies, establishing Bideford as a key player in international trade.

Processing and Utilization of Bideford Black

Processing Bideford Black was a significant local industry. The pigment was processed into paint and dye, used in myriad ways from the practical to the artistic.

The Bideford Black Mining Company, based in Chapel Park, East-the-Water, was known for producing ‘Biddiblack’ powder.

The versatility of Bideford Black saw it used in various sectors, including in World War II as camouflage paint, in mascara by makeup giant Max Factor, by artists for its rich depth of colour, and within the boat-building industry for its robustness.

Featured Places to Stay Near Bideford

Evidence of Mining History in Bideford

The mining history of Bideford Black is still evident in the town today, with subtle reminders dotting the landscape.

You can find old mine entrances just off Barnstaple Road and several roads in the town named after the industry, including Mines Road, Pitt Lane, and Biddiblack Way.

These landmarks serve as a constant reminder of the town’s industrial past and the significant role Bideford Black played in its development.

Bideford Black in Australia

Bideford Black has even found its way into cultural rituals far from the English shores.

Recently, some of the pigment was exchanged by locals for pigments provided by Australian Aboriginal Elder Noel Butler.

Butler’s nephew has used Bideford Black to paint his body for Aboriginal ceremonial events in Australia, symbolizing the interconnectedness of global cultures and the enduring allure of this unique pigment.

Preserving the Legacy of Bideford Black

Burton at Bideford Art Gallery
Burton at Bideford Art Gallery

Today, the legacy of Bideford Black is being carefully preserved for future generations.

The Heritage Lottery Fund granted £8700 to the Burton Art Gallery to fund research into this unique pigment. Additionally, the gallery hosted a display about Bideford Black in October 2013, offering visitors a chance to learn more about this fascinating piece of local history.

Historical Origins of Bideford Black

A Special thanks to Al Brown for these images

Bideford Black, a dark, earth-based pigment, is an integral part of Bideford’s historical tapestry.

The town’s history dates back to the times of Hubba the Dane, who was said to have attacked Devon in the area around Bideford near Northam. However, it was the Grenville family who held Bideford for many centuries under the overlordship of the feudal barons of Gloucester.

The Grenvilles played a significant role in the town’s development, including its eventual specialisation in trading with the new American colonies.

Among the Grenvilles, Sir Richard Grenville, born in the manor house in Bideford, was a notable figure. A captain of the ship Revenge, he built himself a mansion on the quayside in 1585 and played a pivotal role in transforming Bideford into a significant trading port.

It is during this period of transformation that the use of Bideford Black took off, with the unique pigment becoming a sought-after commodity.

Bideford Black Legacy

The cultural impact of Bideford Black extends beyond its industrial uses. It has been used by generations of artists for its intense, velvety darkness, contributing to the artistic and cultural heritage of Bideford.

Even today, contemporary artists continue to explore its potential, drawn to its historical significance and unique properties.

The legacy of Bideford Black continues to be celebrated in the town. It remains a symbol of Bideford’s rich industrial past, its role in global trade, and its cultural history.

From being an integral part of the town’s economy to becoming a muse for artists, Bideford Black encapsulates the town’s history and its spirit.

Bideford, with its intriguing history of invasions, influential families like the Grenvilles, and its unique geological treasure in the form of Bideford Black, continues to fascinate residents and visitors.

As the sun sets over the River Torridge, one can’t help but marvel at the journey of this historic port town and its dark, yet captivating, pigment – Bideford Black

Author Matt Ogborne
Matt Ogborne
About the Author

Welcome to! I’m Matt, a seasoned explorer and avid fan of Bideford and the broader North Devon area. With over a decade of consistent family visits, virtually every weekend, I’ve immersed myself in the rich history and vibrant culture Bideford & North Devon.

On this site, you’ll find a wealth of knowledge amassed from my adventures here. From in-depth local guides to engaging blog posts about Bideford. Whether you’re looking for recommendations on things to do or guidance on where to stay we have you covered. Join me as we delve into the heart of Bideford, North Devon – a town that’s more than just a destination, but an experience waiting to be discovered.

Do you want to see your favourite Bideford attraction, place to stay, event or activity listed here? Contact Us!