Bideford Black is a coal-based pigment found only in the Bideford area, and it holds a significant importance in Bideford’s history.

The formation of coal and paint seams across north Devon began 350 million years ago in the warmer Carboniferous era and gave rise to Biddi-black (its local name), which is found in a number of seams stretching from Abbotsham on the coast to Umberleigh in the Taw valley.

Bideford Black exists in three forms

  • A hard anthracite coal
  • A thick black clay

  • A fine ‘smutty’ powder

They have all been used for different purposes over the years.

Mined from the 17th century until 1969, Bideford Black was used as fuel in local lime kilns and potteries. But more famously, it formed the raw material for a paint used by the Royal Navy to protect the hulls of wooden warships and by the Ministry of Defence for tank camouflage in WWII. It’s also been used as the basis for mascara!

Artist and researcher Pete Ward originally proposed the idea for a display of Bideford Black’s history as he worked with the material as an artist for a number of years. We now have a display that brings together Bideford Black’s three main themes:

  • Art

  • Geology

  • History

The display in our upstairs museum is incredibly informative and gives a full account of how Bideford Black was harnessed and developed.