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Widecombe History Group Talk July 1999
Mr Len Copley then gave the meeting a most riveting address on the subject of Tinners and Warreners on Dartmoor.
He spoke first about the tin workings on Dartmoor and pointed out that it is entirely different to that practiced in Cornwall where deep mines are worked.
Black lumps of "cassiterite" was what the 'old men' were looking for, that was the actual pure tin ore.
First records are of tin streaming about 12th century, however in the bronze age they had the ability to blend tin and copper to make bronze, evidence of this still being sought on Dartmoor.
At many places one can find evidence of tin streaming works in the valleys, mounds of stones and rubble thrown back after examination. Some places they would dig 15-20 feet into the ground and they would build retaining walls (tinners burrows) and throw the rubble in behind them to stop it tumbling back into their workings. The tinners had their own laws dating back to the 13th century and they stated that tinners could dig anywhere where tin could be found. One thing they could do was to mark off a rectangular piece of ground by cutting three turves at each corner and they then had the right to work that area for one year and a day. There is a possibility that on occasions a stone was uprighted and they cut their initials on it (slightly more permanent), possible examples can be found on Riddon Ridge.
Once rock containing the cassiterite was found it would have to be crushed and about 1 0% of that ground stone would be tin ore the remainder had to be separated, water was the best medium for doing this, the lighter sand and gravel washed away and the heavier tin ore would sink to the bottom, this then scooped out, dried and eventually smelted down. The slow hand process was improved by a "crazing mill", this was two circular stones, the ore put between them and ground down, the same principle as a cornmill! This was superseded by stamping mills, where water wheels were used to work a system of wooden stamps with iron ends that rose up and down beating the stone onto large granite stones that ended up with mortar-like hollows in them, these mortar stones can be found all over Dartmoor. Charcoal was used to smelt the tin ore into molten form and this poured into granite moulds to set, the ingots then sold on at the four "Stannary Towns" around the moors, Ashburton, Tavistock, Plympton and Chagford. They could only sell their tin every three or six months and the kings representative was there to see that "coinage" (a payment due to the King for every ingot produced) was duly paid, a corner cut off the ingot to check the quality and the ingot duly stamped with the King's sign. Tin was in great demand and on coinage days people from all over the country and even abroad would attend the market. Tin mixed with copper made bronze, tin and lead and antimony to make pewter, and spirits of tin was used to set the dyes in the woollen industry. The tinners had their own sign - the tinners rabbits - this can be seen on bosses in churches showing three rabbits around the edge and their ears set in the middle, (only three ears carved but each rabbit has two ears - you need to see it to understand that one)! An example can be seen in Widecombe Church roof. Tinworkers walked many miles from around the moors to work each week, get to the workings Monday and stay until Saturday, walking home then and back again for another week, they had quite substantial but basic houses to live in all week, single storey house, door one end and fireplace at the other! The tinners were very powerful and they had their own laws and their own court. 24 men from each Stannary Town would meet at Crockern Tor (roughly equal distance from the four towns), to pass judgement on anyone thought to have disobeyed tinners law, if an offence had occurred the offender would be sent to Lydford Stannary Prison..
People of Dartmouth and Plymouth were worried about the continual building up of sand and gravel washed down by the rivers and the ultimate silting up of the river mouths as a result of the tinners activities, this resulted in Plympton the port of the time being superseded by Plymouth as the main port, it getting more and more difficult to sail upstream. By tracing the tin deposits in the streams , up-stream, the exposed lodes could sometimes be found. The lodes being exposed on the surface and then followed into the side of the hills. Some ran deeper than others and 'adits' were then necessary to be driven in to let the water out.
There are many warrens on Dartmoor, places were rabbits were reared and farmed. Rabbits were introduced into this country by the Normans. Look at the Bayeux Tapestry and it will be noticed that most soldiers were carrying swords but in one place two soldiers will be seen carrying baskets and rabbits ears protruding out of them - this depicts that rabbits were brought into this country as breeding stock for food purposes. There are places on the coast named warren, these would have been the first places where the invaders began breeding them.
Warreners, to encourage the rabbits to breed, built artificial burrows in the form of pillow -Mounds, generally on a slope, these were a heaps of stones, covered with earth and a trench dug around them. Some of the warrens had a big shed which was used to store the rabbits when caught, before being taken to market or sent away to the centres of population to be sold. Kennel fields where the dogs were kept, stone kennels sometimes built into the walls surrounding these fields. The walls were built with an overhanging top inside the field to help keep the dogs in. Some enclosures or small fields are to be found at these warrens, and Len posed the question, were these to keep the rabbits in or out? Some rabbits were skinned and sold direct as meat, the skins being then sold on to the fur trade.
Headland Warren was mentioned, as one of the biggest warrens on the moors, 560-600 acres. The boundary of this warren has several stones marking it and they all have W.B. on them depicting "Warren Boundary", Bennett's Cross being possibly the best known example. The possibility of growing furze for winter fodder for the rabbits was suggested, but the general feeling of the meeting was, that furze was used as fodder, but far more likely for the warrener's horse or pony, after being put through a chaff-cutter to cut it up and mixed with other forage. The fact that many holdings had fields named 'Furze Park, or Broom Park' was also mentioned, this crop being an important one during this period of farming on Dartmoor. The number of warrens on Dartmoor was considerable, and each had its boundary stones to define their limits. Predators were a major problem, if you were breeding rabbits for a living you had to contend with this, foxes, stoats, weasels and birds of prey all took their toll of your 'stock in trade'. Before the days of shotguns they would have to catch them, and one of the most successful ways was to build 'vermin traps' around the warren. These were slabs of stone on their edge with a cover stone and grooves at each end in which were fixed two pieces of slate, these when raised and held up by two sticks and a piece of string, let the vermin in, only to drop down, when the plate on the ground holding the string was tripped, and catch the offender when it had thus entered the trap. The approach to the traps were walls built in a "V" formation which tended to funnel the vermin towards the trap, very basic but very effective. The warrener on his daily rounds with his dog, on finding the trap drawn would then release the vermin and the dogs would then catch and kill it. Mentioning Vaghill Warren, on the side of Dartmeet Hill, Len Copley referred to 'The Cocky House', where it is believed cock fighting took place, it is well situated for such an activity as it was a good vantage point, a lookout could see if anyone was approaching for miles around and then warn those taking part.
The chairman thanked Mr Copley for a most enjoyable evening.
The meeting was reminded that Len Copley would be leading a guided walk around Trowlesworthy Warren on Saturday 10th July, starting from Cadover Bridge at 12.00 noon. For a write-up of this walk, please click here.
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