Widecombe History Group Talk on The Dartmoor Peasant - a paper delivered by Freda Wilkinson

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Freda read from a paper that she had published in The Devon Historian in May 1977 which she entitled "The Dartmoor Peasant".

A Peasant was not a derisive term as may be thought today, he was in fact a small husbandman, employed or sometimes self-employed, with roots in the district where he lived, independant, resourceful, self-supporting and very much in step with the environment in which he lived.

One such family was the Hamlyns (Hamelin), arrived in Britain possibly with William the Conqueror. There were Hamlyns at Holne for about 700 years and at Dunstone in Widecombe for about 500 years. The French family name too came to Britain at about the same time. The Saxons were probably here before the Conqueror and may well have married into the local Briton families. If a young Saxon wished to establish himself in a community what better way than to marry a local Celtic girl who had all the knowledge required to make a success of farming in that area. Some old traditions were kept alive - the Celtic river names - Dart, Glaze and Teign for example and the traditional farming practices of walling, building corn stores with stone, kilns and perhaps tin mining.

From the 12th century the tin industry provided alternative employment to agriculture, the fit young man could ‘throw off the yoke’ of fuedal lords and take a pick and shovel up onto the moors, a ‘free man’ and hunt for tin. By Stanary Law the fuedal lord could do nothing to stop him. In 1494 the Stanary Court or Tinners Parliament meeting at Crocken Tor passed the following rules:-

"That no person holding property worth ten pounds yearly might acquire tin work, neither might any Abbot, Prior, or other spritual person, nor any Stannary Official, nor Forester of Dartmoor, and that no man learned in law, (spiritual or temporal) might plead or council in the Stannary Court. How long the ‘establishment’ stood for that sort of treatment is not clear but it showed the independant nature of the Dartmoor Tinner, who was often a Dartmoor husbandman.

In 1303 amongst those bringing tin to Ashburton were William of Sherwell, Hugo of Corndon, Sarah of Holne, Mugg (Mudge) of Chittleford, Adame of Blackaton, Robert Schire of Widecombe and others from Torre, Leusdon and Uphill, all farms in Widecombe Parish.

Tinning was a bit of a hit and miss affair as when a tin bearing stone was found on the surface a trial pit would be dug in the hope of finding a vein, those accustomed to the task were often successful. Once a stake had been made to the ground, the following winter would be spent mining and the summer perhaps farming his small holding, was this a kind of ‘diversification’?

Challacombe was a typical example of a mining-cum farming community, originally five farms, open cast mining at Vitifer, Birch Tor and Golden Dagger, resulting in farming being neglected in 19th century. The remains of the old farming ‘lynchets’ can still be seen above Challacombe. The Medieval settlers knew the value of co-operation and there are several reports of land being taken in together, pooling labour and effort. Well into the mid 20th century this cooperation continued with neighbours, two or three together, helping each other with harvest, sheep shearing, gathering stock etc.

In Medieval days a peasant’s holding would be about ‘32 acres ferling’, ploughable land, an acre or two of meadow, some rough pasture and ‘rights of common’ on the open waste. Some holdings (known as half tenements), were about half this acreage, and were probably occupied by those that worked part time in other trades, or for other men.

In a Charter pre 1290, William, Lord of Spichwyk, (Spitchwick, a manor in Widecombe Parish), granted Hamelin, carpenter, 13 acres at Haneworthy (Hannaford), with common of pasture for all animals, especially pigs and goats. The rooting pig and the browsing goat were the allies of the pioneer small cultivator, breaking down virgin scrubland for cultivation.

A nice example of a classic cottagers holding in this manor was Higher Hannaford (above Newbridge), as in 1842. It comprised cottage and garden, four and three-quarters acres of arable land, three-quarters acre of meadow, and an acre of orchard. Three of its little fields were known as Adam’s field, Adam’s mead and Adam’s orchard; in 1740 it was let to a charcoal burner. Many of these small holders worked the tin and there are records of Sherwell (Sherrill) men, taking tin to Ashburton coinages, an old footpath leads direct from Sherrrill to Dartmeet where there was a tin blowing house, where smelting was done.

A success story on Dartmoor was the Hooper family who made Nuns Cross Farm, near Foxtor Mire. Crossing wrote in 1903 "It is surprising what can be done even on Dartmoor with perseverance. I remember very well when John Hooper enclosed the little farm at Nuns Cross, and he told me not long afterwards that by the time he had got his walls and his tiny dwelling, and bought a cow, his limited capital had disappeared, or as his wife more forcibly put it, he possessed no more than "fourpence hap’ny" to go on with. Yet he did very well there. During the latter part of his life he was able to sell £100 worth of cattle yearly, which considering the size of his place, was most satisfactory, but he worked hard, for though not a Dartmoor man born, he possessed all the instincts of one".

Another mining settlement was Whiteworks, the inhabitants had several acres of cultivated land between them and kept cattle, sheep and ponies, and up to the 1940s several people still lived there. Another such homesteader was old Mr Cator, who had a cottage near the head of the Blackabrook, not far from Princetown. Cator worked as a turf cutter and road maker, to make his living, whilst building his farm where he and his wife reared nine children. He eventually ‘set up’ two of his sons in similar little farms, built with family labour. The story of ‘Jolly Lane Cottage’ near Hexworthy, built in a day, is well recorded. There was a tradition that ‘squatters rights were obtained’ if a piece of land was enclosed and a dwelling completed on it between sunrise and sunset, and smoke was coming out of the chimney. So in about 1835, on what was believed to be Ashburton June Fair Day, when all the farmers who had rights on the common were away, the labourers, who had already got all the materials assembled in readiness, all worked together to help one of their number, called Satterley, build a stone and thatched cottage for his parents to live in. It was finished by sunset and though the Duchy later charged a token rent, it is still there today, though enlarged. Sally Satterley who lived there until her death in 1901, was a dauntless woman, she worked at Eylesbarrow tin mine, she drove pack-horses, cut peat, mowed with a scythe and could nail a shoe on a horse as well as any blacksmith. Other Dartmoor women who farmed farms entirely on their own, would shear sheep, wrestle with unbroken ponies and deal in market as well as any man. An example of this was one Dinah Coaker who was pound keeper at Dunnabridge Farm and was known to be quite fierce. She regularly took her cream and produce to Ashburton in her pony and trap. At Newbridge there was a gate across the road and local children would man the gate, then open and shut it for travellers who often tossed them a halfpenny for their pains. Dinah was not in favour of this practice so the children were not in favour of Dinah. This meant that she had to get down from the trap and open the gate herself, but the piece of wood to prop open the gate was missing, it is said that she settled that by loading the gate onto the trap, drove on to the middle of the bridge and tossed the gate into the river. A story goes that she had a pony entered into Huccaby Races in 1909, when the Prince and Princess of Wales attended. Her great nephew was riding it, but not to her satisfaction, so when it came around for the second time and poor ‘Darkie’ was scampering gamely but vainly after the faster imported blood ponies, Dinah thundered onto the course and dealt a flying ‘thwack’ on the pony’s rump with her walking stick. "Put to ‘en!" she hollered;- "The beggar can travel when he’s a mind to!"

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