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The Deerpark Dig – Life in Cornwall 100 Years Ago

There’s excitement in the air at Deerpark as the area’s explosive history is being revealed following the discovery of artefacts from a century ago.

A glimpse of late Victorian and early Edwardian life has been afforded to the guests of Deerpark in Cornwall recently. A whole plethora of finds from the industrial revolution has been unearthed by Forest Ranger Martin Summers and fellow enthusiasts. It reveals a story of work, play and no small amount of drink.

It all began when Deerpark Green Coordinator, Jamie Sprake, felt a crunch of glass under his feet after the near-biblical rainstorms of early 2014. Beneath his foot was a beer bottle that was definitely not from recent times. Further investigation revealed more – lots more – beer bottles, and some other interesting items, including poison bottles, an old Exide battery jar and assorted porcelain pieces.

It’s thought the heavy rains dislodged the damp earth which had been hiding its carefully preserved secrets for over 100 years.



Blue is for poison! One of the early finds

Deerpark’s Explosive History

Deerpark carries the distinction of being the longest ever serving explosive works in the UK. During the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, demand for metals such as tin, copper, lead, zinc and silver was high. A local, business-savvy family, the Isaacs, quickly saw the opportunity to start up Deerpark Powder Mills to supply the local mines with explosives, which they did from 1845 to around 1890. On 12 May 1876, a chain of explosions began with a spark from a workman's mallet hitting a grain of grit, and spread to an incorporating mill used for grinding the gunpowder's ingredients into particles: charcoal, saltpetre, and sulphur. Almost every building on the site was destroyed or severely damaged, but only three men died!

During the first and second world wars, the mill made explosives and anti-tank grenades, before reverting once more to coal mining explosives, supplying some of the seventy plus mines upcountry.

The explosive works closed over 50 years ago, in 1965, following the fallout from a fatal explosion during the loading of a lorry 2 years previously.

Deerpark opened as a cabin site in 1977. At the turn of the 21st century the present cabins were constructed and they were refurbished in 2013.

The Deerpark Dig

Following the initial find, a careful excavation began and treasures piled upon treasures, leading the team to believe that the area may have been either a dumping ground used by workers or even perhaps the area that they enjoyed some precious moments of recreation with their families. Alongside the beer bottles, they have many other items of interest.



Some of the items recovered, including leather from a shoe, medicine and poison bottles, toothpaste (cherry flavoured!), a Dundee Marmalade jar and those beer bottles 

The area has a lot of burnt material next to fertile soils. It spans over 100 metres and although there are some places where dumping appears to have occurred, Forest Ranger Martin would prefer to imagine a cultivated strip of land where fires were lit and workers relaxed with their families. “Small porcelain cups and saucers may tell of young girls playing together, the lead toy soldier of their brothers’ games. Today, rather appropriately our “Teddy Bears Picnic” passes this area on the way to the Gruffalo cave.” says Martin.


Toy tea set

Pieces from the toy tea set

The parents took some time out too, it seems. As well as those beer bottles, there have been discoveries of clay pipes and teacups. And one of the latest finds – pieces of an ornate teapot, patterned blue.



Acting Operations Manager at Deerpark, and keen archaeologist, Keith Renfree stops for a cuppa!

In one area, about 50 metres from the cultivation site, there is a lot of porcelain. One piece is a large broken tureen. Patterned blue, one can perhaps imagine it flying off a shelf in the manager’s house during one of the many blasts that shook Deerpark.


The story continues…

With the help of various local enthusiasts and Forest Holidays guests, new finds are being made almost every day. The latest is very revealing: a postcard advertising the New Smith Premier Typewriter. On the reverse, a 1910 calendar, evidence of the era to which that the finds relate.



The New Smith Premier Model 10 Typewriter (No Modern Business Complete Without it!)

Martin and Jamie recently discussed the finds on Radio Cornwall, such is the interest in this exciting discovery. The broadcast has already resulted in enquiries and offers of help.  The local Historical Society will be visiting in March and Deerpark guests are booking in just to be involved in the dig. There is even a Victorian evening on the cards.

Martin says, “The dig has really only just started, but it is capturing the imagination of many people, There is still much to find to piece our story together and I would appreciate any help in any way – already visitors to Deerpark have enlightened me with some good ID – one supposed candle holder is, I understand, for containing salt at the head of a dining table!”


And for the armchair enthusiasts

If the Deerpark dig has piqued your curiosity, why not come for a log cabin break at Deerpark? Many of the finds are on display in the Forest Retreat and Martin and the team will happily spend time telling you all about them. Martin also hosts a popular history walk as one of his Forest Ranger activities, with the story of the area now being brought vividly to life as more treasures are discovered.

This picture of life from another century has only just begun to unfold. Look out for our updates as the Deerpark dig gathers pace and reveals ever more of the fascinating history of this seemingly tranquil corner of South East Cornwall.



Some of the finds on display in the Forest Retreat


Those were the days

1845       Deerpark Powder Mill opens

1901       Queen Victoria Dies and is succeeded by Edward V11

1908       The Smiths Premier Model 10 Typewriter is launched!

1912       The Titanic sinks on her Maiden voyage

1914       World War One breaks out and Deerpark Mills provides explosives to the war effort