History Hunters: Discovering Tin


Driving across the moor to Tavistock for a six day conference on tin-working, I wondered what I was letting myself in for. I need not have worried.

The conference covered all aspects of tin working and was an inclusive and fascinating event for all participants, whether involved in tin research, geology or archaeology. I attended as a volunteer for Natural England with my History Hunter hat on and found it very interesting. It was very well organised by Tom Greeves and Barry Gamble of the Dartmoor Tinworking Research Group (DTRG).

Talks on the tin working landscape of Dartmoor and Europe, prehistory to the twentieth century, began after a meal in the town hall on Friday evening. Everyone was soon up for various conversations with both experts and fellow delegates. Saturday was a full day of lectures, followed by a visit to Morwellham for a trip down one of their mines. Sunday was another full day of talks with speakers from France, Germany and the Czech Republic. The evening was free, so I walked along the riverside and explored Tavistock, not having been there before. I discovered a good mix of ancient buildings, traditional local shops and vibrant way of life.

Monday was our first minibus outing to see evidence of the tinning we had been talking about over the weekend. Our field trip took us from Burrator reservoir to Bal Mine, Outcome, Combeshead mills and Ailsborough Mine. Later that evening, we went to Lydford Castle, once a stannary prison, for a look at its history, before dinner at the Castle Inn.

Tuesday’s excursion was Beckamoor Combe, Roos Tor Pits and Upper Merrivale Mine. Then after lunch at the Warren House Inn, we walked down to Vitifer and Golden Dagger Mines, the first in North Bovey Parish, the second in Manaton Parish.

Wednesday’s final visit was Hexworthy Mine, Deep Swincombe and Gobbett Mill in the morning, then a picnic lunch before heading later to Crockerntor, with a final dinner at Two Bridges Hotel. The rain that had been threatening us for 3 days finally caught us, with a drenching deluge some way before we arrived at the minibuses. It did not look like letting up, and since I was soaked, I took the decision to thank Tom Greeves and head home, dripping!

Reflecting on the event and reading the conference notes I found that the tin industry was brought alive by Tom’s walks and descriptions and could imagine the people who would have lived and worked in it. Discussions between delegates were very good and made me feel part of something worthwhile.

Given my other interests as a Natural England volunteer, I also found it fascinating to see so many cladonia lichens on exposed granite, with Usnea articulata dangling from trees. I heard a cuckoo on all 3 days out, plus we were serenaded by skylarks.

At the end of the conference we were given a medallion, made from tin recovered from two shipwrecks in 1863 and 1885, crafted by a jeweller in Penzance. It is a lovely keepsake to remember an excellent event.

For me, the only thing missing was no sign of otter spraint on the rivers – but you can’t have it all!


Janet Ritchie

Tavistock Tin Conference, 6-11 May 2016

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