Medieaval Mining by the Old Men - Dartmoor, Devon.

Mining by the Old Men

Dartmoor Tin mining -
Streaming for tin, Stannary and Parliament.

This is a section on local mining history.
© Copyright is waived for those who wish to reproduce these pages for educational use.
G.Sargent 1996.

Tin - the "white gold" of Devon and Cornwall

The Old men
The original way of finding tin ores was to pick it up off the surface as "shode" or heavy tin-bearing rocks. It was when this source was exhausted that the Old Men started to search the beds of streams and rivers.
It was here that they discovered the places where veins or "lodes" of ore had been exposed by the action of water.
It was then a simple matter of digging at the banks to expose the lode even further.
The water was also harnessed to provide rudimentary power to work "stamps" to crush the stone into small fragments and a means of separating the heavy mineral ores from the waste, unproductive ores.
The mineral ores were heavier than the waste and therefore were settled out, the lighter waste being washed away down stream.

The Old Men always search from West to East believing that the Great Flood had deposited the minerals on the surface and that the Flood flowed from East to West.
The mineral-bearing ores being heavier, would have been dropped by the Flood before the lighter materials. Therefore the richest materials (by their reckoning) must lie to the East of where they found it! Quite a sound idea if the Flood story were correct!

The minerals were placed in furnaces know as "jews houses" (derivation unknown) or "blowing houses" which they build for the purpose quite close to where the mineral was found.
The mineral was layered with peat and when the furnace was fully loaded the fires were lit. The "runoff" of molten metal was poured into crude granite mould stones and allowed to cool into ingots of "white" tin. "Black" tin was the crushed ore before it had been smelted.
The "blowing" houses were roofed with crude thatch of turves and periodically the roofs themselves would be tore off and burned to salvage any particles of tin which may have been blown into the roof during smelting!
Waste not, want not! It must have been worthwhile or it would not have been done!

The resulting "white" tin was loaded on to pack horses and had to be taken for assaying to ascertain its purity. This was a matter of strict law and the penalties for adulteration were severe in the extreme.

The King set up "stannary" towns, locations to which the mineral had to be presented for assaying before being sent to the smelters proper to be turned into pewter etc:.

The technique involved cutting a piece off the corner of an ingot for assaying its tin content. The corner or "coign" is where we get the word in the English language - "coinage".
The assay signified that the coign was pure and by association that the "coinage" of the realm was also "pure". Not all coins in all realms have been "pure"!

Stannary towns were very important places. Near to Mary Tavy are the ancient stannaries of Tavistock and Lydford - just some three and a half miles away!

The tinners themselves were so important to the King and his Treasury that he allowed them to have their own Parliament which had the power to ignore some of the rulings of the Parliament in London and Stannary Law took precedence over Common Law.
These rights of the "Stannary Parliament" were very powerful and were a cause of great dissatisfaction to the people in general, especially the landowning classes.
Civil or Common Law could easily be over-ridden by Stannary Law - and more often than not it was! The rule was - "Don't upset the tinners"!

The Tinners' Parliament used to meet once a year on one of the Dartmoor tors. The tor in question was Crockern Tor. Each district was expected to send a tinner to be a representative for his area.
For once the landed gentry did not have the upper hand.
Once power was gained by the tinners they were unwilling to reliquish it. They even refused to pay common taxes - and got away with it quite frequently.

Tinners' Rights have been claimed as recently as the late 1980s in an attempt not to pay the "poll tax" introduced by the Thatcher Government! It was to no avail as the rights of tinners had fallen into disregard.
Even so, I understand that tinners' rights have never actually been removed from the Statute Books!