Local History ~ Family History ~ Walking Notes

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Last Updated 20th October 2002
Articles (Publications List at End)
Mary Tavy1 Some Notes on Wheal Friendship
Mary Tavy2 The Mining Community of Mary Tavy - The 1851 Census
Mary Tavy3 The Dartmoor Path
Mary Tavy4 Kent House
Mary Tavy5 St Mary's Church & Zoar Down Chapel
Mary Tavy6 Notes on Parish Registers
Mary Tavy7 1851 Census Placename Corrections
Mary Tavy8 The Miracle of Deliverance
Mary Tavy9 Full Transcript of Village War Memorial (War Memorials Web Page)
Mary Tavy10 1688 Note re Affidavit for Burial in Woollen (Help Desk Web Page)
Publications Mary Tavy CD-ROMs/Floppy Discs Available from Dartmoor Press
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Publications Reviews Dartmoor Picture Gallery Links to Other Websites
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Some Notes on Wheal Friendship
Mike Brown, Dartmoor Press

The (now dry) course of the Wheal Friendship Leat is still a prominent landscape feature on the lower flank of Gibbet Hill (grid reference SX503811), where for some distance it runs parallel with the Tavistock-Okehampton turnpike road. At a point just south of the (now dismantled) footbridge marked by O.S. on their Outdoor Leisure Map 28, the leat splits into three separate channels, and remains of short sections of walling along the embankment, together with part of a rusting sluice gate, may be seen here. The walls were required on this short section of the leat to prevent an otherwise serious erosion problem where this bends sharply, and the water rapidly increases its speed, as it drops off the escarpment high above the Wheal Friendship workings.

These latter were the leat's ultimate destination when it was operational, where in mid-Victorian times its water provided part of the motive power to turn no less than eight wheels. Some of these latter were of massive proportions, amongst the largest on Dartmoor at the time, including two over 50ft in diameter and 10ft in breadth, and it was to turn these giants of the water- powered industrial age that the driving of the leat so high above the mine was necessary. This course provided a sufficient head of water capable of turning such immense wheels, and it was here on the flank of Gibbet Hill that the leat turned to begin its final dramatic surge before its tens of thousands of gallons a day were harnessed, rather perversely perhaps, to rid the mine of water!

For the primary purpose of the wheels at Friendship were to operate the pumps to dewater the mine in the deeper levels, and it was with water that this and many other Dartmoor mines engaged in an unending battle. It was a constant fight for supremacy between the supply of water on the surface and the ingress of water underground, and frequently the battle was momentarily lost. In one particularly harsh winter, for example, Wheal Friendship had to be entirely abandoned for a full two months, because the entire course of the leat, and all the wheels, were frozen solid, and the pumps were therefore inoperative. Conversely, during very dry summers, sometimes the meagre supply of water on the surface was barely enough to turn the wheels, and the power thus provided scarcely sufficient to cope with the ingress of water below. Again, operations were occasionally brought to a temporary halt.

In one disastrous year, when a new part of the mine was first opened up, the sudden influx of water was so great that the existing wheels could not cope, pumps failed, and even some of the iron pumping rods buckled under the immense strain which was placed upon them. Operations were again brought to a standstill, and the mine was entirely flooded from the 200 fathom level right up to just below the 80. It was this calamity which prompted the mine adventurers to install the 50ft diameter giants, and to rearrange the leating system in an attempt to harness even
more water power on the surface. They also purchased a steam engine for use in emergencies when the surface water was not sufficient to drive the wheels without assistance.

But it was not the loss of another battle against nature and the elements which heralded the final closure of the mine in the 1870s, and it finally succumbed and gave up its unequal fight to stay alive in the face of an ever tightening economic recession. By this time the operation was a mere shadow of its former self, and had been tottering on the brink of collapse for a decade or more, suffering from ever diminishing returns and escalating operating costs. The end was a long time coming, and the veil was finally drawn over a once great mining enterprise in the spring of 1875 when the Wheal Friendship Company was put into liquidation. The final report on the mine is pasted into the rear of one of its minute books and, in stark contrast to the long passages written on the opening pages of that ledger, holding out such high hopes for the future, is one of few words -

Return of Winding-Up Meeting of the Wheal Friendship Company Limited. To the Registrar of Joint Stock Companies. I have to inform you of the Meeting of the Shareholders of the Wheal Friendship Company Limited, was duly held on the 17th day of March 1875, for the purpose of having an account laid before them, showing the manner in which the winding-up of the Company had been conducted and the property of the Company and that this was done accordingly.
                                                                                    [signed] Richard Taylor, Liquidator.

It is to the credit of the principal adventurers and those in charge of the operations that, unlike many mining enterprises which went to the wall leaving a trail of massive debts in their wake,
Wheal Friendship left no unsettled bills. Those shareholders who had joined late in the day, after the huge dividend payouts of the 1820s - in just one of those years the company had paid out a massive £23,000+  in dividends! - all lost money, of course, but shareholding was by its very nature a speculative business anyway. The ones to suffer most were the miners themselves, laid off in the middle of another major recession which was tightening its grip across the whole nation, and the grim conditions which the communities of Mary Tavy and Blackdown must have had to endure in the succeeding years can scarcely be imagined.

Although Wheal Friendship did reopen again in later years, and continued in spasmodic operation into the early decades of the following century, these later workings were on a very minor scale when compared to its past glories, and it never regained its former position of supremacy as one of the most important mining operations on the western fringes of high Dartmoor.

The Mining Community of Mary Tavy:
The 1851 Census
Mike Brown, Dartmoor Press

The little hamlet of Horndon (grid reference SX521801) is a peaceful enough spot today, but a century and a half ago there were dozens of mining families living here, and the narrow gravel tracks and winding lanes leading to and from the hamlet would have rung to the sound of miners' hob-nailed boots every morning and evening, the hillsides roundabout resounding all day to the sounds of machinery working in the valleys below. The vast scale of the mining operations in this part of Dartmoor in the middle of the nineteenth century is not only amply demonstrated by the extensive remains which are to be seen in the immediate district, but also by the fact that the 1851 Mary Tavy Census records that a total of 285 miners were then living in the parish, as many as three or four families a time crammed into the little cotts in Mary Tavy village, and in the hamlets of Blackdown, Lanehead and Horndon. Many of the men who described themselves simply as 'labourers' in the Census of that year were also surface workers at the various mines, performing general labouring tasks, and the overall total was further increased by the large number of women and girls who worked in some capacity at the mines. The total population in 1851 was 1,367, nearly a thousand more than it had been in 1801, and nearly double that of half a century later.

The age range of those who in the 1851 Census described themselves as 'miners' ranged from William Castle, a young lad only 10 years old, to 71 year old Digory Harris. Harris was born in Illogan, and many of the other Mary Tavy mining families had a Cornish ancestry, although by the 1850s many of them had been working in the district since the early 1800s, so the majority of the younger members of the workforce had in fact been born somewhere in the neighbourhood, first-generation Devon miners of Cornish extraction. Another of the miners of  '51 with countless generations of Cornish mining blood in his veins was Zach Williams, born in Crowan just before the turn of the century - he was still a mine captain at Wheal Friendship when it went into liquidation in 1875.

The Dartmoor Path
Mike Brown

The wide well-trodden track which accompanies the upper reaches of the Rattlebrook, on the south side, is a section of the long Dartmoor Path, which leads from the Rattlebrook Valley to Black Down, from whence numerous paths and tracks branch off to the little hamlets and villages on the Dartmoor borderlands. The route must have seen considerable traffic during certain periods of its long history.

Probably originating as a peat track, in its earliest days it would have been at its busiest during the turf-cutting season, when heavily-laden pack ponies would have been frequently met with at intervals along its course, although at other times of the year it probably would have been used only occasionally, by the moormen and other farmers of the district tending their flocks on the high moorland pastures around Amicombe Hill.

In later centuries it probably saw more regular use, when it would have been much frequented by tinners throughout most of the year - the 'old men', as they were called by later generations of tin miners - going to and from the streamworks in the Rattlebrook Valley where they toiled daily in search of the precious ore. By and by, the hillsides in the valley fell silent again, as the last of the early tinners deserted the scenes of their ancestors' labours, and the regular heavy clump of their boots along what had by then become a well-worn way was replaced again by the less frequently heard clip-clop of ponies straining under their heavy burdens of peat turves.

But soon the silent hillsides were to ring out again to the noises of a new industrial age, the shrill ring of the hammering of the 'old men' to be replaced by the reverberations of the heavy
machinery of a new generation of tinners. It was during this period that the Dartmoor Path probably saw its most regular use, by large gangs of miners making their way daily to and from the works, rather than the small groups of tinners of an earlier era. For the latter day miners worked to the clock, for 'the company', whereas many of the tinners of yesteryear were probably more independent and kept their own time -although they, too, would have had the same starkly simple choice that members of the working class of every generation have always faced - they either worked regularly or starved!

But this new age was relatively short-lived, and it was not very many years before all the miners trudged homebound along the rutted track for the last time, leaving the route to the pack ponies again, who had continued to use it annually throughout countless centuries. Now, of course, they have gone, too. And it is illuminating to pause and reflect that, in this modern age of high mobility, and notwithstanding the fact that more people than ever before visit the Dartmoor region every year, the Dartmoor Path itself is today probably less frequently used than at any other time in its long history.

Kent House
Description from "Dept of the Environment List of
Buildings of Special Architectural & Historical Importance"
transcribed by
Mike Brown, Dartmoor Press

Grade II Listed Building. Mine captain's house, now house. Early C19 with some later alterations. Rubble, slate-hung front and rear, above ground floor level, rendered below, slate roof, cement-washed to rear, rubble and brick gable stacks.

Double depth plan with narrow service room to rear; to front, 2 principal rooms, heated by gable end stacks, one right and left of central/stair hall with stair to rear, forming lobby entrance. Extended to left by smaller heated service room with gable end stack. Rear rooms unheated. 2 storeys and 3 windows, all 12-pane sashes with 4-pane sidelights in exposed boxes except first floor central 12-pane sash, central panelled and glazed door with triangular hood on wooden posts, buttress to right. Set back to left, lower 1½ storey addition built against stepped external stack with oven projection to side, 4-pane light to front and summer house attached, small brick gable stack. Raer of addition has door, gable end of main range has half-glazed door level also slate-hung, at first floor 4-pane sash and 12-pane sash in exposed box, 4-pane casement and 2-light 6-pane horizontal sliding sash, ground floor has single light and 2-light casement and single light, external brick stack to right. Interior not inspected. Name after the mine captian, Kent.

St Mary's Church & Zoar Down Chapel
Mike Brown, Dartmoor Press

William Crossing is the most �famous� occupant of the graveyard - to Dartmoor enthusiasts, at least - although his headstone does not make any mention of his extraordinary contribution to Dartmoor writing. Affixed to the southeast corner of the outside wall of the church is an interesting slate tombstone to John Hawkins, Blacksmith, son of Thomas, the first lines of his epitaph reading - "Here buried were some years before, His two wives and five children more, One, Thomas nam'd, whose fate was such, To lose his life by wrestling much". An unusual feature of the stone which other writers appear to have completely ignored - perhaps because they could not explain it?! - is the fact that it also depicts a coat of arms; one which, however, does not belong to the family name of the persons whom the epitaph commemorates. The shield displays the arms of the Company of Blacksmiths, founded in London in 1490. The principal family names on the other headstones are Ball, Cole, Dawe, Floyd, Friend, Martin, Maunder, Richards, and Stephens.

Not unexpectedly, there are also a number of headstones to �foreign� names, to members of families with generations of Cornish mining blood in their veins, who descended on Mary Tavy in the late C18th and early-mid C19th. Later members of these families, of course, were born and bred in the parish, the first generation of Devonians of Cornish descent. Following the collapse of the mining industry in the late C19th, many of these families moved on again, hence there being relatively few of their members commemorated at Mary Tavy. As researchers who have mining ancestors will doubtless have discovered, it is often difficult to keep track of their movements!

Back with St Mary�s itself, the interior is far less spartan than many of the little moorland churches, possibly due to the relatively rich mining communities in the district in former times, yet still contains very few memorials, and no major tombs. Of particular note, however, is the magnificent rood screen, carved by two Plymouth ladies, the Pinwell sisters.

Near Horndon is the little Methodist Chapel of Zoar Down. This has around a hundred MIs in its small graveyard. During a visit to the spot some years ago, in order to conduct the MI survey, I happened to be there when someone arrived to open the building, and had an opportunity to have a quick look around inside. Like most of the modern independent chapels, it is quite spartan within, with few fixtures and fittings to really grab the attention, and no memorials. But the woodwork on the original pews and wall panels was of ultra high quality. My informant told me that at the time (c1995) there were just six people in the congregation!

Mary Tavy Parish Registers
data provided by
Mike Brown, Dartmoor Press

These begin in 1560. Mary Tavy is one of only four Parishes in the West Devon region whose very existence is recognised by the IGI!

There are 1,793 Mary Tavy entries on the Dartmoor & West Devon Genealogy Index (DGI) a surname search service from which is available from Dartmoor Press.

1851 Census Placename Corrections
data provided by
Mike Brown, Dartmoor Press

Most researchers will, of course, be aware of the fact that they will have to check numerous early  spelling variants when searching for placenames in any old records - comments which apply similarly to personal names. Unfortunately, the original 1851 census returns for the majority of the Dartmoor parishes were transcribed by persons who did not have the remotest clue about the placenames (or surnames) of the districts, and so did not know what badly handwritten entries were supposed to represent. Many weird and wonderful names have therefore been invented! Their presence can seriously lead researchers astray and, most especially now that the 1851 CD-ROM is in widespread use, lead them to overlook whole households and even large chunks of entire villages by using the search facility which the CD-ROM provides (which, of course, only recognises "as spelt" entries). The following are the pure mistranscriptions and entirely fictional property names which appear in the 1851 census for Walkhampton, which researchers will need to be aware of, together with their correct names (note that spelling variants which were correctly used, of which there are of course very many examples, and 'authentic' misspellings which appear in the originals, are not included in this list) -

Hornden = Horndon; Lawertown = Lowertown; Zoor = Zoar

The Miracle of Deliverance
Mike Brown, Dartmoor Press

Most members of my own and older generations will at once know what this phrase signifies. For those of younger generations, all will be explained...

The aftermath of Dunkirk in 1940 prompted one of Churchill's many 'rallying cry' war speeches in the House of Commons, although he was also careful not to hail what he described as the "miracle of deliverance" as a victory, as had been the case when the survivors were brought off the beaches of Gallipoli a generation earlier: "We must be careful not to assign to this deliverance the attribution of a victory. Wars are not won by evacuations".

And the months after Dunkirk prompted some of his most famous utterances. "If the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will say, 'This was their finest hour'", he told the nation on 18th June. And he broadcast to the world on 14th July, after the fall of France, that "Now it has come to us to stand alone in the breach". Culminating in probably his most famous remark of all, in a speech delivered to the House on 20th August: "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few".

The fighter pilots who fought in the skies above Britain in the summer of 1940 have ever since been known simply as "The Few". Similarly, the evacuation of Dunkirk has now gone down in written history as the "Miracle of Deliverance".

But just a few months earlier, to once again use Churchill's words, he feared that he would have to report on the "worst military disaster in the nation's history", as the entire Allied strategy in Europe collapsed in the face of the German Blitzkreig, and the net closed in around Dunkirk. The enemy had swept almost unchecked through the entire area which had immobilised whole armies a generation earlier, overwhelming Mons to the east, Cambrai and Arras to the south and south east, and also Ypres, right on the edge of the ever-shrinking Dunkirk pocket. By mid-May it was becoming obvious that the position of the British Expeditionary Force was untenable, and Operation Dynamo, the plan to bring the men off the beaches, finally got underway at 6.57pm on Sunday 26th May.

So began the story of the 'little ships' of Dunkirk, the armada of small private craft of all shapes and sizes which went in time and time again to get the stranded men off the beaches, under constant bombardment from the onshore batteries between Calais and Ostend, and bombed and strafed from the skies by the Luftwaffe. Royal Navy vessels kept up a counter-bombardment from around a mile or two offshore, and the RAF provided air cover, flying around 300 sorties every day over the area, in an attempt to keep the German Panzers at bay. Rearguard battalions fought desperate holding actions so that others had a chance of being rescued from their plight, whilst some units had no option but to burn all of their equipment and stores to stop them falling into the hands of the enemy.

Back on the water, even the sight of the hundreds of burning vessels around the approaches to Dunkirk did not deter the rescuers, the thought of the thousands of stranded men crammed onto the beaches spurring them on, and they were aided on two days of the evacuation by dead calm seas and heavy overcast skies which inhibited flying operations, allowing them to crowd as many soldiers as possible into every available space on their little boats. An inhabitant of Broadstairs later spoke of the armada of small craft which "stretched from the Thames Estuary around the coast for as far as the eye could see" day after day, and she also recalled the huge pall of black smoke which stretched across the horizon some 25 miles to the east.

And it certainly was a "miracle of deliverance", and an entire army was rescued to fight another day - between 27th May and 4th June 338,226 men were brought out of Dunkirk. For many thousands, of course, Operation Dynamo did not bring deliverance, and a memorial to just one of these men is to be seen in the tiny graveyard at Zoar Down, within which the little chapel had been erected just a generation earlier to serve the needs of the local mining community. It is the only Dunkirk memorial in the entire Dartmoor region, which commemorates -

Col L K G Stephens RA
Devoted son of C & B Stephens
Killed in Action May 27th 1940
At Dunkirk Aged 26 Years
Too Good in Life
To be Forgotten in Death
Worthy of Everlasting

Mary Tavy Publications
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