Widecombe History Group Talk on the Industrial Archaeology of Dartmoor

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Illustrated Talk by Helen Harris of Tavistock on Industrial Archaeology of Dartmoor. Unfortunately Helens slide projector broke down early into her address but she continued and gave a very detailed and interesting talk. She stated that to the untrained eye Dartmoor looks as if it has hardly been touched by human activity, but if one walks on the moors and questions the shapes and landscape it can be seen that in fact man has been busy for several thousand years leaving his mark in many ways. Clapper bridges, tin workings, granite quarrying, warrening and the more recent reservoirs. When Dartmoor was created by igneous activity many million years ago the molten rock brought up with it gasses and minerals and as the mass cooled down hollows and cracks within the rock filled with mineral deposits and these are one of the causes for man's interest in the underlying bedrock. Man's activity with mining has left its mark, tin, copper an d even arsenic, the quarrying of the granite itself, the mining of the china clay deposits (this being the decayed felspar within the granite), and the use of the granite for buildings, archaeological remains of which Dartmoor is the richest area in Europe, peat works, railways, and of course the ways that water has been used and 'transported by leats' for various needs over the centuries.


One of the earliest records dated 1168 shows tin extraction from near the river Plym but it is probable that tin was used many years before that, possibly prehistorical in the Bronze Age. Panning was the earliest way of finding tin washed down by the rivers, then came blowing houses for smelting in the 13th century, one good example is in the Walkham Valley where there is a tinners mill and a fine example of a mould.


Rattlebrooke Peatworks dating about 1850 was one enterprise, but drying it was quite dificult. A horsedrawn railway was built to bring it down from the moors to Bridestowe, a drop of some 950 feet, in c1920/30's motorised transport was used but it ceased as the second World War came along. Horticultural was its last use.


Water was in abundance on the moors but how to harness it for the benefit of man and industry has led to miles of leats and some reservoirs being dug. Mills were in constant need of water to drive them, woollen mills, Bellford just out of Ashburton and Buckfastleigh, corn mills, in most villages and hamlets, tin, at various places along the valleys, papermills, one at Ivybridge and another at Horrabridge, and even gunpowder at Powdermills near Postbridge. There are tinners leats, millers leats and water leats the most famous is Drake's leat cut in 16th century to take water to Plymouth, and also the Devonport leat built in the 18th century, and which now feeds into the Burator Reservoir. Some of these leats had what was known as a 'bull-eye stone' , an inch hole cut in the side of the leat, to allow water to be drawn off for the farms as it passed by. Hydro electricity was develp oed at Mary Tavy in c1800 by a leat which dropped just 26feet in 5 miles, this prompted the meeting to record that in this parish at Old Walls, Miles Fursdon has in the last few years put in a hydro electric system on his farm, cutting his own leat which drops about 4 inch in about half a mile, this scheme enables him to sell any surplus electricity thus generated to the national grid. This led to speculation on how the men of that time managed to dig with such precision, perhaps a plank of wood and a bo ttle nearly full was used as a 'spirit level'! Miles used a hosepipe, water finds its own height so a vertual level was achieved. There was even an ice making plant at Sourton Tor but much money was lost in this venture. Founded by a George Henderson in 1875 he built ponds from which to collect the ice, only in two years did he get enough ice to make it pay


Stone taking and its use for numerous purposes was discussed from prehistorical times right up to date, commoners having rights to take stone for their own use. The stone was a readily available scourse of material for many purposes. In the early 19th century commercial quarrying was quite common on the moors. Haytor quarry was working by 1820, the granite railway from Haytor to Stover Canal (built by Sir George Templer), he already had the canal for transporting the clay from the Bovey Basin. The stones are cut with rebates so that the wheels would stay on course. From the end of the 18th century stone had been taken from Foggintor Quarry to be used in the building of much of Princetown, then Swell Tor Quarry was worked up to the c1920\rquote s. Surface granite was easily available and was used for cutting granite 'setts', these were used for paving the streets of Tavistock and Plymouth. Evidence of the cutting work is to be seen on Staple Tor and Pew Tor. On Staple Tor can be found the sett makers bankers, these are the 'work benches' that they used, they are made of two stones set on end with another resting across them, these structures were used in c1870's. William Duke who developed Merrivale Quarry in c1874, had been involved with the nearby Foggingtor Quarry, the stone cutting then took place inside the Merrivale Quarry and the bankers ceased to be used.

Leases were issued by the Duchy of Cornwall for the removal of granite. In 1847 marking stones were placed around Pew Tor so that no granite was taken from the side or top of the tor. Nine stones with markings of a cross within a circle were placed and they are still known to exsist . By the late 19th century c1896 concern was being expressed about the amount of damage being done in some areas and William Duke (of Merrivale fame), was leased an area, but had to cut four stones and arrange them to protect a wider area of the tor, the p osition of only three is known today. These had a slightly smaller circle with five shallow holes drilled within.


This is derived from decomposed granite and one of the first places this was processed was at Shipley Bridge near South Brent in the 1850's and 1870's. There can still be seen the series of tanks that were used , the top one where the mixture of sand , gravel and clay was collected allowing the heavy sand to settle out, the suspension then flowed down to the next and so on until th e clay was settled out at the bottom tank, the water drained off, the clay allowed to dry and then scooped out. There was also a peat works nearby. A vote of thanks was proposed to Helen Harris for a very interesting address.

Concert at Widecombe Church on Wednesday September 22nd 1999 Titled "The Parson and the Village Song Men" the concert will consist of Bob Mann (Devon dialect recorder for The Devonshire Association), who will do the introductions and dialect readings, two others, Mick Bramich and Les Noden will provide the music and songs. Billed as 'An evening of traditional Devon songs, tunes and stories collected from the mouths of people in the 1880's by the late Rev Sabine Baring-Gould, (including Widecombe Fair song). Proceeds for The Tower Fund.

Guided walk around Pew Tor and Staple Tor Saturday 4th September at 12.00 noon

Directions were given to the meeting for the walk on Saturday, meeting at Warrens Cross Map Ref:- SX 513 734. Helen Harris was asked that if she was doing the walk at some future date for another group or organisation, could she let us know as several members who are unable to do the Saturday walk, would be interested in attending.

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The information on this page was last modified on March 17 2013 14:02:34.

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