Widecombe History Group Talk on Old Tin Miners of Dartmoor

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Dr Tom Greeves gave us a fascinating talk based on his experiences of gathering information on the Tin Mining Activities on Dartmoor.

Tom’s interest in the tin industry began back in 1960s when his family lived near Yelverton. He attended meetings of the Plymouth Branch of The Devonshire Association and one of the first mining areas that he became interested in was Eylesbarrow Tin Mines. He then attended university where he intended studying the Devon Tin Industry from the 15th to the 18th centuries as well as archaeology. During his research he found there were still people that had firsthand knowledge of mining on Dartmoor, but this was from the 19th and 20th centuries. He realised that by speaking to these people he would benefit from their experiences, so he religiously recorded what they had to say. He talked to the people who had worked in those mines and also the connection of the people with the places. This fascinated him and he decided by 1969 that by listening to these people he could obtain information that had not been recorded before and there was, in fact, a huge pool of knowledge just waiting to be tapped. The site of Wheal Lucky Tin Mine at Rundlestone, near Princetown, within the Maristow Estate, was of particular interest to him and he found a Mr Easterbrook living there, whose family had been the tenants for 200 years. This was Tom’s first encounter with a man who had hands-on experience, and who was prepared to pass on that knowledge to Tom to record for posterity. During September 1969 Tom remembers visiting eight different people with something to tell, and what’s more, were prepared to tell it to him. A unique source of information, real people who could relate real experiences, like Mr Worth at Peat Cott, near Princetown. He could remember the water wheels at Whiteworks. Another such man was John (Jack) Hamlyn born in 1883, who had been employed at Runnage Farm, Postbridge for years and could relate all about the livestock that were brought up onto the moors each year from the South Hams. A photograph was shown of a real Dartmoor sledge, built by John Hamlyn. Wheels took a long time to reach Dartmoor due mainly to the narrow lanes where packhorses were the norm, hence not wide enough to accommodate wheeled implements, incidently that sledge is now preserved at Parke, the headquarters of Dartmoor National Park Authority. Conversations with these people can take you back 70 years, this is not conjecture but facts from those who had lived through that period, direct living experiences. This led in conversation to John’s relationship with Jonas Coaker, who was born in 1801 and died in 1890, the self named Dartmoor Poet, who lived at The New House Inn, frequented by the miners, on the opposite side of the road to now Warren House Inn. Characters like Jan Leaman and Chris Hill. Jan’s grandfather was blacksmith at Vitifer Tin Mines. Another good source of information was a Mrs Matthews of Harford, who lived to 100 years old. She related a story of a man who lived near Crazypool, he was dying and he wanted a drink of water but it had to come from Willabeam, ‘some Willabeam Water’. Those with him thought any water would do so they fetched some from a nearby source, only for the old man to spit it out and declare, "this is not Whillabeam Water". Did he know the distinct taste? Was there a special reason for him wanting water from that stream? We shall never know, but it is these tales that become the folklore of Dartmoor, thanks to people like Tom, retrieving them before they are lost for ever. There is still a very strong stream running out of the Willabeam Tin Works. Another Tin Work on the side of Challacombe Down called Studley Beam, it is marked on an 18th century survey map, a name that could easily be lost if not related by Dartmoor folk, in this case by Annie Sleep of Postbridge. It was at this stage in his address that Tom remarked on the work being done by Becky Newell of D.N.P. in recording the Oral History of people who have lived and worked on Dartmoor all their lives.

Tom then thanked Rodney Cruze of Pitton, for showing him some time ago the remains of the tin works adjoining his farm, Pitton Tin Mill dating from the 16th century. Rodney then pointed him in the direction of a mortar stone at Heatherstone (Stone), near Natsworthy. There he met Raymond Warren who showed him the stone and was able to tell him that in the 1930s he had brought the mortar stone, for the late Mr Stanhope, from Golden Dagger mine, to decorate his garden. Every so often Tom would show the meeting slides of some very old and interesting photographs that he had been able to copy. Some of the old wheels of Dartmoor and also some of the characters he had spoken to in gaining his knowledge of the subject. A good scource of information was 90 year old Mr Harry Trude who had worked at Vitifer and Golden Dagger in 1920s. This was the first man Tom met, who had direct experience in working in the surface Tin Mines of Dartmoor. Then there was George Austen of Moretonhampstead, who was also able and willing to give him a great deal of information. It was Annie Sleep of Postbridge, that produced to Tom’s amazement some wonderful photographs. We heard much about Vitifer, Birch Tor and Golden Dagger during the period 1903 -1913. A photograph of Sidney French, of Postbridge, working underground at Golden Dagger, pre-first world war, he worked for 10 years as an underground miner on Dartmoor, the only light he had was from candles. He was able to relate all the experience that goes with it, what a bonus. Sidney French was able to tell of a near accident, the men were outside an adit having their’crib’, food, when a terrible noise was heard and a great gush of water came out of the adit, an old flooded working had broken through to the one they were working on, fortunately they were outside at the time, otherwise they would have all undoubtably been killed.

Some of these old photographs helped us to realise what it was like back in those busy industrial days on Dartmoor. The houses that were on these sites, the dries where the miners dried their mining clothes ready for the next days work, the bunkhouse where they slept for five nights before returning home for the weekend, below which was the kitchen, and a room to change their clothes, the mine office, and where the ‘Foreman or Captain of the mine’ lived. The miners came from all around Dartmoor, Ashburton, South Zeal, Moretonhampstead, Tavistock and worked all week Monday to Saturday Lunchtime. They would then go home until Monday morning. They would be at work early on Monday after walking many miles to the mines. They knew what rising early inthe morning meant in those days.

The dressing floors, the kievs on the drying floors, the buddles for separating the ground stone and sand from the ground ore. One particular photograph was of men actually down in the mines with candles in their helmets. Reference to a young man that came from the city lights to work in the mines of Dartmoor.

Mr Bill Flewin’s niece was instrumental in introducing him to Tom, a man of 94 years. He insisted on them walking down to Vitifer and Golden Dagger mines, his father had managed the mines in the 1920s for about 5 or 6 years with his Swiss wife Marie. A lovely story about Bill was that in WWI he was a a motorcyclist who drove a motorbike and sidecar fitted with a machine gun. When he came home on leave he would tap into the turbine of the mine and get his mother electricity, this in 1920, enabled her to have an electric cooker, quite amazing!

Donald Smith the last manager of Golden Dagger Tin Mine was mentioned. At just 19 years of age having worked in the Strand Theatres of London as an electrical engineer, he came to Golden Dagger where ultimately he managed the mine. He was very ingenious, and designed and made a great deal of machinery for the mine, photographs of his machinery was shown.

One person that Tom seems so eternally grateful to was William Andrew Grose, born in 1886 at Postbridge, his father took over the management of Hexworthy Mine about 1899-1900. When Tom caught up with him he was living in America and Tom met him when he 90 years old, he lived to nearly 108 years and they corresponded over several years and he was able to identify what each building shown in some photographs and what they were used for. A 45 feet diameter wheel some 6 feet wide, was visable in some photographs of Hexworthy Mines. He could describe the buildings and their use, their construction, the paths and how it was all destroyed by tanks in World War II. He also told of happenings and experiences there. There was emotion in some of the letters, sadness as to what it is like today, joy in the sight of the old photographs and deep thoughts as he pondered over them. If some excavation was done there now, would it turn up some old toy, pottery, utensil or the like from his childhood days, perhaps something of his, or his mother’s or father’s? This should be a lesson to us all. Anyone hoping to get knowledge of what it was like years ago, in whatever field of interest you have, needs to talk to these ‘Old Stagers’, those that can relive what it was really like long before we were born. They KNOW what it was like, no supposing or surmising with them. They lived through it and if approached in a sensitive manner, what stories they can tell! What knowledge they can impart!

Take this as an example from William Grose. Quite a way from the mine was the Powder House or Gunpowder Magazine Room, now alas just a heap of stones, where the blasting powder was stored. It was fenced around and padlocked. On entering the first door there was a pair of large ‘overshoes’ that could be put on over the miner’s working boots. These were made of thick leather and held together with ‘Copper Rivets’. If there was any powder on the store room floor, a spark from the miner’s hob nailed boots would ignite the powder and the lot would be blown up. The leather overboots with copper rivets were safe to wear - NO SPARKS, so there was a standard of ‘health and safety’ even in those days, there was no second chance with gunpowder!!!

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