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Dartmoor Society Research Lecture, 23 November 2011

Phil Newman: ‘Environment, Tradition and Adventure; metal mining on and around Dartmoor in the 18th and 19th centuries’

A large audience of sixty-seven assembled at 7pm in the function room of the Dolphin Hotel, Bovey Tracey, to hear Phil Newman’s lecture, the 4th of the Society’s Research Lectures.  The audience included about a dozen non-members, mostly members of the Dartmoor Tinworking Research Group (DTRG), some of whom I’m sure will have been persuaded by the evening’s event to join the Dartmoor Society.

Our Chairman, Tom Greeves, introduced Dr Newman, MIFA, FSA.  Phil has been exploring and investigating Dartmoor for some 25 years.  He enrolled as a mature student at Exeter University where he gained a first-class degree in archaeology.  He worked for many years as a field archaeologist with the Royal Commission on the Historic Monuments of England and then with English Heritage.  He has carried out many important archaeological surveys of parts of the Dartmoor landscape for these bodies, especially relating to tinworking and other mining.  Back in 1991, following his personal research interests, he became one of the three co-founders of the DTRG.  About six years ago he decided to try to bring to a focus the knowledge and understanding he had accumulated over the years of the 18th and 19th century mining industry on Dartmoor.  The award of a doctorate from Leicester University in 2010 was the result. 

Phil started by explaining that his lecture was based loosely on his doctoral thesis.  The fundamental questions which he attempted to answer were: ‘Why did the miners do what they did – in the way that they did – and what are the observable results of those actions?’  Historical and archaeological research involves trying to answer questions about people’s behaviour in the past by examination of documents and evidence left behind in the landscape.

Geology determined the physical environment within which the tinners worked.  The collision of continental plates during the Variscan Orogeny resulted in the intrusion of a large granite mass with a metamorphic aureole in the Devonian shales.  This was followed by fissuring as the granite cooled allowing the formation of metalliferous hydrothermal veins, and then by uplift and weathering to expose the Dartmoor granite mass we know today.  The end results were shallow tin lodes in the granite, deep lodes of tin and copper in the aureole, and rich alluvial deposits of tin ore in many of the streambeds due to heavy weathering in the Quaternary. 

Tin streaming, the working of the alluvial deposits, required little special equipment or capital and was initially carried out by small widely dispersed groups.  Stannary laws were introduced in the 12th century to regulate the industry and to protect the Crown’s interest, but the stannaries remained more or less autonomous bodies of free miners (this was very different from the deep hard rock silver mining industry which required substantial start-up capital and operated under royal control).  Records show that tin production rose to a peak in the 16th century but then declined to almost zero by the mid-18th century as the alluvial deposits became exhausted.  A rise in the price of tin stimulated a partial revival at the end of the 18th century. Production continued with several peaks and troughs through the 19th century.  Meanwhile, new methods of mining had developed which depended on the accumulated knowledge of where the tin lodes came to surface – openworks, lode-back working, adit and eventually shaft mining.  But increasingly these required new technology, sources of power and capital.  As the mines got deeper, horse-whims were required for hoisting, and water-wheels and later in a few cases steam engines to power the pumps.  Ore dressing became more complex and tramways were built in some cases to link to distant shafts.  Systems were developed for sharing the work and the profits.  “In-adventurers”, often local suppliers of material, provided start-up capital and sold shares to “out-adventurers”, often city speculators with no knowledge of the mining industry.  Many of the start-ups were over optimistic; a few may have been scams.  The sale of shares was often more profitable than the sale of ores!

Phil explained how he had extracted information about this developing industry from a variety of documents – stannary records, contemporary observers’ accounts (including Kalmeter a Swedish industrial spy!), early local papers, mining journals, abandoned mine plans, etc. – and above all from the surface remains left by the miners’ activities.  He illustrated these with a wide variety of images – site photos, diagrams and documents.  The sites featured, most of which showed several phases of working and so merited several images each, included the following:

Phil rounded up by emphasising that the range of mining landscapes on Dartmoor represents the varied human responses to the social and economic contexts of the past, but within the constraints of the natural environment and the technological advances of the times in which each generation of adventurers lived.  He finished by urging each of us to get out on the moor and examine mine sites with many questions in mind – what metal were they looking for, were there several phases of working, with what technology, how long, when and how successful, etc., etc.?

Finally, after a few questions from the floor, Tom thanked Phil warmly for a very comprehensive, informative and interesting lecture.  The assembled company then adjourned to the bar and an excellent buffet to round off a very enjoyable evening.

Apparently Phil’s thesis will be available for consultation online in three years’ time.

Recommended reading

Bob Bruce

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