Widecombe History Group Talk on Underground Mining in Devon

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A résumé of the illustrated talk given by Chris Kelland on “Underground Mining in Devon” at Widecombe and District Local History Group at The Church House, Widecombe on Wednesday 2nd March 2005 at 7.30 p.m..

Chris Kelland arrived at the meeting supported by some of his fellow mining and caving enthusiasts. These ‘fanatics’ are so keen on their hobby and they wanted to infect us with their enthusiasm, whether they did achieve that or not, we must wait and see!

The meeting was surprised by the number of old mine sites that are in this county of ours. Some are situated on Dartmoor itself, some on the edges and some even out near the coasts of Devon. These mines produced a wide variety of minerals and metallic ores. The great difficulty that our ancestors must have experienced in the working of these mines was brought home to the meeting most vividly.

We were shown a cross section of mine depicting shafts, adits, winzes, air shafts and levels etc and the amount of work needed to construct (or dig) such a structure was immediately brought home to the meeting.

As the mine gets deeper, particularly when it gets below a gravitational adit, one which permits water to drain out of the mine workings normally, the workings begin to flood. It is then that power is needed to pump the water up to the level where it can freely drain away.

The photographs that were shown emphasised how much hard physical manual work was undertaken in these sites, all dug by hand years before engine power was introduced, hammers & drills, picks, iron bars and shovels and wheelbarrows and trolleys all carried pushed or pulled by these hardworking miners of Devon.

There are some wooden rails in some mines for carrying the trucks and in one mine what appears to be a wheelbarrow’s wheel track. An interesting fact is that the majority of tin lodes run East to West where copper and arsenic seem to run North to South.

The depth of these mines is phenomenal, over 250 fathoms, (one fathom equals six feet), and some adits and mining levels are several hundred yards long.

These cavers have to be aware of the tremendous risk that they are taking as some of the now exposed bed rock is decomposing, this was clearly shown, and they must be always aware that as these sites have not been used, for in many cases well over 100 years and in many cases much longer, the walls roofs etc can become very unstable and the timber that remains has become very rotten.

There are some elements of wildlife in these mines particularly bats which must not be disturbed, sometimes the remains of animals that have fallen or become trapped in the mines are found.

The majority of the mines on Dartmoor, some dating back 500 years or more, were for tin but some iron, copper, arsenic, lead was also produced, and some exposed rock are radio-active with traces of uranium and even silver. Other minerals are evident but not worth commercially mining, tourmaline and iron pyrites for example.

The life expectancy of a miner was about 35 years, due to this dangerous occupation.

The colours in some of these photographs depicted to action of the minerals still remaining in the surrounding rocks, greens & blue from the copper, reds & yellow from the iron creating an ochre pigment on the rock faces and there are many of the mine workings fully or partially flooded and below the water is a morass of red decomposed granite sludge that these cavers walk and drag themselves through.

Some of these mines have miles of tunnels, it can easily be understood why it is that every so often we hear of gardens and houses being effected by subsidence.

Both Metal and wooden artefacts that are submerged in the waters have kept extremely well but as soon as they are removed from the water oxidisation takes place and rust and rot begins.

The temperature in these mines remains fairly constant winter or summer.

Many mines have never been accurately mapped, so who knows what lies beneath us today.

It appears that there are quite a lot of the old mining artefacts still below the ground. Ladders - how safe are they now after being below ground all these years in a very damp atmosphere? Pipes and rods used by the pumping engines to help clear the mines of water, still there to climb over, several tools where these men of old left them.


Was there an accident and the men brought out never to be reworked? We can only guess and admire their determination and ‘guts’.

It is a different world down there now, it is not a place for the faint-hearted. These places should only be visited under the strictest supervision of well organised members of a group such as what Chris and his team belong to. Fortunes were made and lost in this Dartmoor/ Devon industry. A very labour intensive industry.

The variety of rock that has been excavated varies, granite on the moors, limestone further down off the moors where stalactites can be found, even sandstone and slate nearer the coast, each surely presenting its own problems of safety.

It is interesting that these groups do explore these underground caverns, bringing to life part of our industrial archaeology that would otherwise be lost for ever.

Good luck to them!

This is a hobby only for those that respect the challenge, work as a team, conscious of the dangers and the risks involved, but dedicated to explore and record this fascinating ‘underworld’!

A vote of thanks was expressed to Chris Kelland and his friends. Congratulating them on their effort in recording these details and photographs for others to see. Chris is always pleased to know of any tin mining artifacts, documents etc that are in existence.

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The information on this page was last modified on March 18 2013 12:55:26.

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