Mining on Dartmoor

            In addition to providing its inhabitants with land for agriculture and pasturing, Dartmoor has been the Southwest of England’s historic hub for industrial work –in the form of metal extraction– for thousands of years.  The lengthy history of mining, particularly tinning, as part of the landscape and culture on Dartmoor has left significant impact on its inhabitants, as is evidenced in Sabine Baring–Gould’s work Dartmoor Idylls.  Baring-Gould’s stories are steeped in the country’s extraction history and repeatedly references both physical features of the landscape involved with the extraction of tin and the lives of miners.  Even today the ruins of blowing houses– the buildings that housed the melting process by which tin ore was smelted– remain on the moors, as does folklore associated with the industry, such as Baring-Gould recorded.  Throughout Idylls, specifically in the stories “Little Dixie” and “Jolly Lane Cot”, which depict details about a miner’s life and travail, Baring-Gould’s writing, drawn from folk stories and cultural history, subtly emphasizes the importance of mining as a shaper of both Dartmoor’s people and the land itself. 

Wheal Betsy     Tin has been of particular importance to all of western civilization since prehistoric times for its alloying properties: when melted and mixed with copper, it forms the alloy bronze, and its extraction and use brought about a major development in human history– the Bronze Age.  It is believed that the tin–rich land, and the trade industry which prospered based on it, is what made the Southwestern part of England appealing to the Romans.  Written record of tinning in the Southwest dates from as early as 1198, evidenced in a document on the conditions of Stanneries– the districts into which Devon and Cornwall were divided that contained tin mining and smelting facilities under jurisdiction of the Stannary Courts (Worth, 272).  These Stannary Courts were developed in the 13th century to deal specifically with tin mining concerns and codes with a  separate legislative system granted to Devon miners by the crown; they remained active as an entity separate from Common Law until 1836 (Brooke, 9). 


            Despite the size of the districts, which split mining in all of Devon and Cornwall into four parts based on these courts, tin was really only mined on Dartmoor, and therefore the Stanneries were in towns on the moor– Chagford, Ashburton, Plympton, and Tavistock.  The power and importance these towns had for the economic wealth on Dartmoor, grown out of the mining industries, was so strong that they were and continue to be the largest towns on the Moor.  In each of these towns, after tin and other metal from the district was brought up and smelted in the town’s blowing house, it was taken for ‘coinage’, weighed and a percentage of its worth was taxed to the crown dependent on that weight, a tax that was paid by its owner (Newman, 8).  Other places important to the tin industry on the Dartmoor were Crockerntor, an outcropping of granite in the middle of Dartmoor where ‘Great Courts’ or parliaments of Stannary Law were held, and the Stannary gaol in Lydford. 

Wheal Betsy Side View


            Most of these place names appear frequently in Dartmoor Idylls: for example,Tavistock is the setting of “Goosie-Vair”; “Snaily House” begins at a crossing in the road “that crosses Dartmoor from Moretonhampstead [N.B. where a mine stood] to Tavistock… one branch goes north-east to Moreton, the other south-east to Ashburton,” (Baring-Gould 69);  “Little Dixie” is set near Lydford, “the nearest village with a church” (125), and in “Jonas Coaker”, Jonas was “the rate collector for the parish of Lydford, the largest parish in England, that comprises within its bounds the major portion of Dartmoor, in fact nearly 57,000 acres.” (151).


            Extracting the tin from the land of Dartmoor left some notable changes to the landscape, as well as the amassing of folkloric names and tales over time.  Underground mining likely began around 1500, but one of the primary means of extracting metals, dating back to prehistoric tinning, was not mining but streamworking or streaming.  Deposits of tin oxide, called cassiterite, dislodged by the powerful weather of the moors, were transported and separated out into the gravel of the river beds; tinners would sift this gravel through running water, which pulled off the lighter bits of rock and left the notably heavier tin ore behind, (Newman 12).  In order to stream for tin, the ground near a portion of river lowest to sea level, usually chosen next to a steep incline, had to be changed and broken up, so that the water spilt across it and ran off a breast– the ledge off of which the water flowed–in such a way as to wash away the light sediment and leave the ore behind.   The streamers would then toss the left over unwanted sediment, or stent, into linear heaps to the side of their small flooded section of ground,(Hitchen and Drew).  

Slag Heap remains around Wheal Betsy




In Baring-Gould’s “John and Joan”, it is one of these medieval stream works, “‘Old Men’s Washings,’ a gully where, in ancient times, tinners had streamed for metal” (32), which would have been a dangerous obstacle for Joan to avoid during her trek through the snowstorm.  In “Jolly Lane Cot”, George Hannaford is a worker at a mine in Swincombe, which had tin streamworks along the Swincombe River.  In “Little Dixie”, Young Oliver leaves Doe Tor to work at Mary Tavy on the moor, a mine which “yielded silver-lead” (126), or lead, silver and zinc and was worked up until 1870.   The engine house of Mary Tavy still stands on the open moor as a striking testament to the mines there, as do ancient tracks which cut into the land: “Not all the streams encountered [on Dartmoor] may prove natural watercourses; one which contours a hillside is far more likely to be a leat cut either for man’s immediate needs or for industrial purposes.  Following such a leat may bring one to an abandoned mine….” (Harris, 14).  In fact many of the tracks for hiking or driving across the open moorland are remnants of old tinners’ routes.   Baring-Gould’s Dartmoor Idylls is thus subtly saturated with the history of mining, which once granted Dartmoor industrial power; despite the pastoral and even rustic sense his collection of stories imparts, the influence this once-major industry had on both the physical landscape and its occupants is undeniable.  Mining in Idylls is still a strong choice professionally for several of Baring-Gould’s characters, though even as he was recording these stories active mining on Dartmoor was sucking its last gasps.  In his archaic, almost anachronistic portrayal of life on Dartmoor, Baring-Gould does homage to the presence of cultural history from the Moor rather than its changing present, but in that choice, has a rich tradition from which to draw– one that still endears itself to readers now.


© Copyright Anna Hale 2007



Wheal Betsy National Trust Sign

Dartmoor Productivity

In medieval times tin was still in great demand throughout England for its crucial role in making pewter, the alloy of tin and lead, which had become a highly desirable material for domestic house wares, such as cups, bowls, and utensils, (Newman, 6).  Tinning on Dartmoor reached its peak yield around between 1520 and 1530: in 1524 564,288 pounds of tin were extracted! (Worth 287).  There was a sharp decline in the tin mining for the next 70 odd years, and during the 1640s, a time of Civil War in England, tinning stopped almost entirely.  Thereafter, only smaller amounts of tin were dug in Dartmoor except for one year, 1706, in which 123,636 pounds were brought up, (Worth 288).  There was a slight increase during the Napoleonic Wars period, coupled with the approaching industrial aged, due to innovations of plating iron with tin, but tinning on Dartmoor continued to dwindle.  In the 19th century tin was required with the development of canning foods, but Dartmoor was by this time no longer a center for its production: smelting on the moor was finished by the beginning of the 19th century, and in 1838 an Act was passed which abolished the need to pay dues on coinage, (Harris, 44).  No tin has been mined in Devon since 1930, due to the cheaper cost of imports from other global mines in places such as Malaysia (Ibid).