Simonsbath Sawmill was purchased by Lord Fortescue in 1886 but he didn't take possession until Sir Frederic Knight died in 1897. Lord Fortscue transferred the management of the estate to his son Viscount Ebrington - the future 4th Earl Fortescue - and a major refurbishment programme began almost immeadiately.
The Agent, George Smyth-Richards, had become increasingly concerned about the condition of the water wheel at the old workshops and sawmill. A few months after Sir Frederic died and Viscount Ebrington took over the management of the estate, Mr Smyth-Richards contacted Messrs Garnish and Lemon, the well-known Millwrights and Engineers of Pilton, near Barnstaple for their advice.
In October 1897 Mr Smyth-Richards wrote to Viscount Ebrington saying that “I think the water wheel must be repaired or we shall be unable to do anything this autumn to sawing or chaff cutting” but it was recognised that more fundamental changes were necessary to make the equipment adequate for the needs of the estate.
Some remedial work must have been carried out because in February the following year Mr Smyth-Richards told Viscount Ebrington that the saw and water wheel were working very well. However he was concerned that, despite the fact that they had some excellent timber available, the saw and water wheel would break down under the strain of cutting the joists needed for new cottages under construction in the village.
Garnish and Lemon’s report was submitted in October 1897. They came up with two options. The second, preferred, option would involve taking water from the River Barle and tributary streams. It was estimated that, with a 22 ft head, this would develop about 50 - 60 BHP and would give ample power for the estate’s requirements all year round.
Garnish and Lemon also provided a plan showing the necessary buildings for the saw mill, carpenters shop, chaff and mill house, and also for a dynamo and accumulators for electric lighting. To save money they proposed that the existing main building would be repaired and new extensions added for the chaff and mill house and for the electric light plant.
Viscount Ebrington sought further advice on Garnish and Lemon’s ideas and in particular, on whether he should go for a new water wheel, a turbine, or perhaps an oil or steam engine.
Discussions about the Garnish and Lemon proposals continued into 1898 and while George Smyth-Richards said that the saw and water wheel was working very well he was clear that “the present water wheel will not to any advantage cut timber.”
Work appears to have started on the weir and leats in about March 1898 but discussions about what George Smyth-Richards in June 1898 described as “the old Saw Mill and barn” continued and he gave some thought to the site for the proposed new Saw Mill. He favoured siting the new Saw Mill on the South side of the river and thought that the old barn could be altered to make two good cottages which would be “prettily situated”.
By October 1898 the main issue was the location of a new granary. Mr. Smyth-Richards felt that it would be better to build it at the west end of the existing building and for the old chaff house to be utilised for the dynamo and accumulators. He was worried about interfering with the old walls of the existing Carpenter’s Shop as they “are not calculated to carry heavy weights or bear the jarring of machinery.”
It had been more than a year now since George Smyth-Richards had raised his concerns about the water wheel and Garnish and Lemon had produced their report and estimates. As 1898 drew to a close George Smyth-Richards appeared to be seeking to bring these discussions to a conclusion by setting out what he proposed to do. His previous suggestions of a new saw mill south of the river, and of new barn at the west end of the existing buildings, had not been accepted but a plan that is consistent with what was actually built appears eventually to have emerged.
On 20 December 1898 George Smyth-Richards sent Viscount Ebrington a new plan. He saw that advantages of this being that the farm buildings would be kept quite separate from the saw mill. It envisaged that the granary would be an extension at the west end of the existing buildings. By pulling down the wall across Saw Mill and building a wing southwards, logs could be brought in on trolleys to the saw bench from above and the sawn timber and outshells can be run out to be stacked in the yard below. This would save labour in handling the timber.
The Carpenters Shop, Ironmongery Store and the foreign timber store would be provided in the old building in addition to one half of the saw mill. Because of the fall from north to south across the site, a chaff house could be provided in the basement. This would mean that the mill and chaff cutter could stand on the floor of the barn again saving labour in chaff cutting. A granary would be provided over part of this building.
Two days before Christmas 1898 further changes were suggested by George Smyth-Richards. Following discussion between Mr Bowden and Mr Lemon it was suggested that it might be advisable to somewhat alter the position of the turbine so as to let the shafting run East to West instead of North to South. The course of the tail race at the higher end would need to be altered and this might allow the barn to be shifted to the West side. George Smyth-Richards felt that “ the principles laid down are correct and we have to consider the best way of carrying them into effect bearing in mind the old buildings, position of machinery and with due regard to economy.”
Mr Smyth-Richards assistant, Mr Bowden, met John Lemon of Garnish and Lemon on 28 December 1898 and they went through the plans in detail. Mr Lemon apparently thoroughly approved of the position and arrangement of the barn and granary and considered that this block would be situated in exactly the correct position. Mr Smyth-Richards sent Viscount Ebrington a pencil tracing the same day showing the result of their joint ideas.
He explained that the main issue related to the saw mill and carpenter’s shop. He felt that the previous plan – presumably the one showing the shafting aligned East to West - had been workable but its value was reduced because of the extra cost of shafting, pulleys, and so on and the alteration of the wheel together with the need to alter the tail water race,. The new plan showed the retention of the existing tail water race with the turbine in its original position and so only about 30’0” of extra shafting would be required plus two new pulleys.
He suggested that the saw could be provided with either a rack bench or trolleys and in either case the logs would be rolled in from the timber yard above, through the big opening. After being converted they would be taken to the carpenters shop, put into a new lean-to drying shed or stacked in the yard outside as required. The small portion of the existing lean to could be used as a store for ironmongery or any other purpose. He thought that flooring boards, deals etc. could be stored in the roof over the saw mill.
Mr Smyth-Richards advised Viscount Ebrington that Mr Lemon considered “that the plan as now worked out is very convenient – as convenient as any saw mill that he knows of – in fact more so than most.”
By June 1899 work was underway. The Estate Mason, Mr Bament/Balment had been given the task of constructing the sluice at the head of the leat and the chamber at the intake from the leat. Mr Brailey, who in December 1898 was working on the leats, had made a good job of the waste weir and fender (presumably by-pass leat) but was not getting on well with the sinking of the tail water trench. He apparently had difficulty in getting men to work on this task but Mr Smyth-Richards offered to do what he could to hasten on the work. A year later, in December 1899, George Smyth-Richards was becoming increasingly concerned at the progress being made by Mr Brailey with the turbine pit and while it appeared that he had got over the worst of the work it was anticipated that it would be some time yet before it was absolutely finished. He was greatly relieved when, in March 1899 he was able to write to Viscount Ebrington to say that “Brailey has cleared out of Simonsbath of which I am very glad.”
For more information see The Exmoor Carpenters by Graham Wills (2018).