A glance at the Simonsbath legacy

Simonsbath was originally a Royal Forest owned by the Crown. After Charles I was executed the land was up for grabs and James Boevey took full advantage. It was James that built the first house in Simonsbath. Unfortunately for James, when Charles II came to power, it was decided that the Crown would reclaim the land. This would make James Boevey then became a tenant.

John Knight

Time went on and the Crown finally decided to sell off the land. On 15th March 1820 John Knight won the bid after putting in a rather large tender for the time. Not only did he acquire the Kings Land he purchased other allotments totalling to a whopping 16,000 acres. Amongst these 16,000 acres was James Boevey’s house and his associated farm buildings.

Mr Knight had the grand idea of creating himself a large country estate and cultivating much of Exmoor. Now, those of you who are familiar with Exmoor and its charming characteristics will undoubtedly know, that if something does not already grow here, it isn’t going to. Lowland wheat and barley just cannot survive the harsh and tumultuous weather we have here. You only have to take a look at the livestock that graze the moor to understand how rough and rugged you have to be to endure it.

John Knight started to build himself a mansion and a vast wall around his estate. He was responsible for creating around 22 miles of public roads.


It is not known where the “original” Sawmill was situated, when the Sawmill we know today was built and by who exactly however, there is mention of “Mr Harvey’s Shop” where “two workbenches, two circular head saws, one part made wardrobe, two chimney pieces, four window frames”. It is assumed that carpenters were employed to work on the estate during John Knights ownership and the tooling could be the raw elements of the Sawmill.

John Knight was expecting a large legacy to continue his grand plans however, this legacy ended up with another branch of the family. It was at this time that John Knight decided to pass the management of the estate onto his son Frederic Knight (1841). In 1842 John Knight retired with his wife to Rome and died there in 1850.

Preserving the past whilst looking to the future

Frederic Knight, now left with the Estate and not a lot of money. Decided to exploit the area for its mining potential alongside creating and letting farm land. Frederic’s son died in 1879. He decided to sell to Viscount Eberington A.K.A Lord Fortescue who took ownership in 1897 when Frederic Knight passed.

The Fortescue Estate carried out major refurbishment works of the now standing Sawmill 1898/1899 and retained ownership until 1991 when ENPA purchased much of the Moorland surrounding Simonsbath. This of course brings us to the most recent history and today.

This snippet of history has been researched and built upon by the FOSS. It is a very brief outline of the history of Simonsbath and the Estate ownership. However, as with any narrative, there are twists, turns, integral characters, (such as the carpenters of the time) and hints found in old texts.

For a chance to step into the past and take a walk in the footsteps of the carpenters. Please do come and visit us.


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A recent history

In 1996 Exmoor National Park purchased the Sawmill and adjoining meadows and were able to restore the building using generous funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The Sawmill, after being restored to resemble its former glory, was re-opened to the public in 2003.

ENPA had a very dedicated team of volunteers run historical tours, maintain and look after the site up until July 2019 when Three Atop Woodland Services took over a lease to ensure the history lives on whilst playing a part in the future of Exmoor.

A particularly dedicated volunteer spent much of his time researching and collating as much historical information as he was able to find to ensure the characters in the story live on. The volunteers are still very active as the Friends of Simonsbath Sawmill and have their own website detailing their vast historical knowledge.


A Francis-type turbine

A turbine was installed in 1900 to replace a previously used water wheel. Turbines are far more efficient than wheels as they are fully ‘drowned’ and can create power instantly. We draw the water from a leat, fed by the River Barle, that sits in the pond ready and waiting.

It really is a fabulous piece of engineering and interesting for the avid miller, engineer or inquisitive mind. We are able to run the water power on our open days to display the immense power created and display how the power of old was not only sustainable but reliable and efficient.

Fortunately we have plenty of water in Simonsbath as it rains all year long. Well it certainly feels like it sometimes.

Ruston & Hornsby

This engine really does feel like it has a soul. It doesn’t have a name but we always refer to her as a she. Truly a feat of engineering, this single cylinder powerhouse creates her very own music.

This engine was installed in 1954, to replace the damaged water equipment, and is a Ruston & Hornsby, Size 6, Class HR, No. 352250 engine. It is around 30 horsepower, which by modern standards is nothing, however from a single cylinder engine that is at least 70 years old, that isn’t bad going.