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University of Exeter Press
Mining in a Medieval Landscape: The Royal Silver Mines of the Tamar Valley / Edition 2

Mining in a Medieval Landscape: The Royal Silver Mines of the Tamar Valley / Edition 2


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This book explores an industry that was of profound importance both in terms of the local economy and the history of mining nationally, but is long forgotten: the late medieval royal silver mines at Bere Ferrers in the Tamar Valley.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780859898270
Publisher: University of Exeter Press
Publication date: 07/30/2009
Edition description: 2nd ed.
Pages: 222
Product dimensions: 6.73(w) x 9.69(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Stephen Rippon is Professor of Landscape Archaeology at the University of Exeter. Peter Claughton is Conservation Officer of the National Association of Mining History Organizations and an active member of the international industrial heritage committee. Chris Smart was responsible for field survey and historic landscape analysis on the Berre Ferres project and discovered and directed excavations at the Roman fort at Calstock; he is a Project Archaeologist with Exeter Archaeology.

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Mining in a Medieval Landscape

The Royal Silver Mines of the Tamar Valley

By Stephen Rippon, Peter Claughton, Chris Smart

University of Exeter Press

Copyright © 2009 Stephen Rippon, Peter Claughton and Chris Smart
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-85989-827-0



The impact of industry on the medieval landscape

The landscape we live in – whether it be urban or rural – forms a crucial part of our sense of place and identity. We are rightly proud of the role that Britain played in the industrial revolution, but equally cherish our open countryside. Indeed, there is a common perception on the part of the non-specialist that these two aspects of our landscape – the industrial and the rural – are quite separate, with industry belonging very much to the townscape. Many would also draw a contrast between ever-changing urban landscapes, with their hectic lifestyles and constant regeneration, and the slower pace of life within a peaceful and relatively unchanging rural countryside. In places, this may have been the case, and the pattern of fields, roads, and settlements across most of the lowlands in the south-west of England do indeed date back to before the Norman Conquest, forming an apparently peaceful and unchanging countryside (Figure 1.1). In the far west of Cornwall – the area known as West Penwith – the landscape is even older, having its origins in the late prehistoric period, and this now rural region could not be more different in character to the nearby bustling conurbation of Camborne and Redruth. This was the centre of the Cornish copper and tin industry for many centuries and, although fallen on hard times in recent years, could yet undergo a revival in its fortunes if mining were to resume as global prices for tin rise.

Appearances can, however, be deceptive, and in many regions research into the history of our countryside is revealing the extent to which change has been a major theme – even in rural areas. The South West is a fine example, for within the predominantly rural landscape there are occasional reminders of what was once a more strongly industrial past: the chimneys and engine houses that lie above long-abandoned mines but which still characterise the landscape in some upland and coastal districts (Figure 1.1). One example of a now peaceful rural landscape that has a hidden industrial past is the Bere Ferrers peninsula, between the Tamar and Tavy valleys on the Devon–Cornwall border. Despite its close proximity to Plymouth, today this is an area of quiet rural countryside with a scatter of isolated farmsteads and just a single small town at Bere Alston. It is difficult to believe that this was once the centre of England's medieval silver mining industry, but using the exceptionally rich documentary sources that have survived, and relating these documents to physical evidence on the ground, the story of this nationally important industry, and the impact that it had on the local area, will be explored for the first time.

The impact of mining on the landscape

In the post-medieval period mining was to develop primarily as a large-scale activity with, in some cases, associated urbanisation. This was particularly the case in the coal industry where the opening up of concealed coalfields in the second half of the nineteenth century demanded the provision of dedicated housing in support of its long-term development. The majority of non-coal mining sites, notably the non-ferrous metal mines, were rural in location, but from the mid-eighteenth century onwards the smelting of the ores was increasingly carried out away from the mines and close to the coalfields which were the source of fuel or close to suitable transport nodes. The result of this was that industry became a largely urban activity concentrated into a relatively small number of locations.

In the medieval period, in contrast, the scale of industrial production, and the demands that it placed upon the landscape were on an altogether different scale: the more limited demand for labour meant that there was no requirement for major settlements, and as woodland (producing charcoal) and water (for milling) were the major sources of fuel, it was the countryside that accommodated most industry. Historians have suggested that the medieval mining industry – both the extraction of metal ores from the ground and the processing and smelting of these ores in order to produce metal – was carried out by communities who were engaged in both farming and mining (a system known as dual-occupancy). Various suggestions have been made as to how this might have worked including mining being a small-scale operation carried out on a seasonal basis in between the demands of ploughing and lambing in the spring and harvesting in the late summer. Even those historians who suggest that miners would not have been able to produce all their own food see them as living in essentially agricultural communities (this is discussed further in Chapter 2).

These models of part-time mining would have had relatively little impact on the wider landscape. There is, however, one particular industry that stands out as potentially different. In the increasingly commercialised economy of twelfth- and thirteenth-century England, the Crown needed silver in order to mint coins (discussed further in Chapter 3). Silver-bearing ores were found in various parts of the kingdom, including the Mendip Hills in Somerset, around which there was a particular concentration of late Anglo-Saxon mints. By the twelfth century there was significant production from the north Pennines, but by the early thirteenth century it appears that little or no silver was being mined in England and it was continental European silver, drawn into England through an expanding export trade, which provided for the significant increase in the volume of coin in circulation. This reliance on continental sources stimulated the search for new deposits in England, and prospecting on behalf of the Crown in the mid-thirteenth century identified, but failed to realise production from, silver-bearing deposits in Devon. In 1292, however, the Crown opened up new mines (Minera regis de Birlaund et de Combe martin) in an otherwise obscure Devon manor of 'Birland', now known as Bere Ferrers in the south of the county, and at Combe Martin in the north.

The opening of these mines marked a significant change in the way that mining was carried out in England. In the past, mineral resources had been exploited by local communities whose work was controlled through customary practices, whereas in these new Devon enterprises the Crown chose to operate in a different way, by directly managing the mines and employing its own miners who were overseen by salaried royal officials. Although the Combe Martin enterprise closed in 1296, the Bere Ferrers mines remained under direct royal control until at least 1349, whereafter they were leased out until they closed in the mid-sixteenth century. It was not, however, just the way in which the Bere Ferrers mines were managed that singled them out as being different: it was also the scale of the operation. There was no tradition of deep mining in Devon, as its most famous industry at that time – tin – was based on working surface deposits. The silver-bearing ores at Bere Ferrers, in contrast, had to be mined underground and so men experienced in hard-rock mining had to be brought in from areas such as the Peak District and north-east Wales. In 1298, for example, over three hundred miners were employed at Bere Ferrers, with a further hundred men engaged in drainage works. There was also a distinct difference in the spatial context within which this industry developed. Until the development of the Bere Ferrers mines, most mineral resources exploited in the medieval period occurred extensively across relatively wide areas: four hundred men employed across the surface tin deposits of Devon and Cornwall could easily have been accommodated within what were otherwise landscapes of agriculture and upland grazing. What was different at Bere Ferrers was the strongly focused nature of the mining operation: the silver-bearing deposits were located along a discrete section of a single lode where the richest mineralisation outcrops at surface in a line just two kilometres long. This will have led to a far more concentrated mining operation than had previously been the case elsewhere, and it is the impact that this had on the landscape which will be a major theme of this study.

The landscape of Bere Ferrers

The parish of Bere Ferrers is almost wholly defined by the rivers Tamar, on its western side, and Tavy on its eastern side, with the former marking the boundary between the counties of Devon and Cornwall. It lies some ten kilometres to the south-west of Tavistock, on the western fringes of Dartmoor, and nine kilometres north of Plymouth Sound and the English Channel. These two rivers define the peninsula of Bere Ferrers, which is seven kilometres long and up to five kilometres wide (Figure 1.2). The peninsula is topographically isolated, being connected with the remainder of Devon by a narrow neck of high ground, rising to 180 m at Morwell Down, and which is at most one and a half kilometres wide. The peninsula comprises a gently undulating plateau rising from around 80–100 m OD in the west to 150 m OD in the east. The eastern side of the peninsula is marked by steep slopes that fall away to the river Tavy, which today are heavily wooded, as they have been since at least the early eighteenth century when the parish was first mapped. Two steep-sided narrow valleys, Liphill Lake in the west and Hallowell Lake in the east, divide the southern part of the peninsula into three. The manor house and adjacent parish church of Bere Ferrers are located on the banks of the river Tavy in the far south of the peninsula, next to an area of lower, gently undulating land that was once occupied by a medieval deer park (see Chapter 6).

The peninsula is underlain by slaty mudstones, shales, and sandstones of the Upper Devonian and Lower Carboniferous Tavy Formation, with soils belonging to the Denbigh 1 Association (well-drained, fine loamy and fine silty soils with some slight seasonal waterlogging). Silver-bearing lead ores, associated with fluorite, occur within a number of north-south oriented mineralised cross-courses or lodes with a steep easterly dip, which are cut and displaced by south dipping fracture zones. Only one of those lodes, often referred to as the 'eastern cross-course' and running through the western part of the peninsula where the rich mineralisation outcrops at surface for some two kilometres between Lockridge Hill in the north and Cleave, close to the river Tamar, in the south, was worked in the medieval period.

When first mapped in the eighteenth century, the character of the fields, roads, settlements and commons varied significantly across the peninsula (this is discussed in more detail in Chapter 6). Most of the plateau was covered in medium-sized, roughly rectilinear fields arranged around a series of long, sinuous, and often broadly parallel boundaries, some of which were followed by roads. Dotted across the landscape, but usually set back from the main roads, were a series of isolated farmsteads, with two exceptions to this otherwise dispersed settlement pattern being the hamlet of Bere Ferrers itself – which in the nineteenth century comprised the medieval parish church, the manor house (Bere Barton), and a small cluster of cottages – and a larger settlement at Bere Alston which included a church, inn, school, three non-conformist chapels, terraced housing along four streets, and a small cluster of farms and cottages. When mapped in the nineteenth century some of the higher areas of the plateau, notably in the north and east of Bere Alston, had a distinctive pattern of larger and more rectilinear fields laid out between long, straight roads and were either devoid of settlement (e.g. Morwell Down) or had place-names indicative of relatively late origins (such as 'Newhouse' east of the Hallowell Lake). This was clearly an area of relatively late enclosure of what had been common pasture, in between the steep slopes of the Tavy and Hallowell Lake valleys.

The Bere Ferrers Project: an interdisciplinary approach to studying mining landscapes

This book outlines the results of a two-year study of the Bere Ferrers landscape, funded by the Leverhulme Trust and the University of Exeter, and carried out between 2006 and 2008. It represents a collaboration between an economic historian (Peter Claughton) and two landscape archaeologists (Stephen Rippon and Chris Smart), and reflects the desire of all three authors to move beyond traditional studies of industrial archaeology and mining history towards a more integrated understanding of the landscape. Despite its economic and social importance, the study of early industry has not always received the attention that it deserves within archaeology and history, which in part reflects the wider fragmentation in scholarship that is all too common for the medieval period. Many specialist groups have interests that focus on aspects of landscape and industry, although few have attempted to study both those subjects during the medieval period (two exceptions being the European Union funded Landmarks programme and the work of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales). Specialist groups are not in themselves a bad thing – it is always useful for those interested in a particular field of study to get together and discuss their common interests – but it becomes a problem if the results of this research struggle to permeate beyond the membership of that specialist group. One, albeit crude, way of assessing the impact of a particular discipline on the wider field of scholarship is to review its inclusion in major journals, and for the study of industry this makes somewhat depressing reading. In the sixteen volumes of Landscapes, published between 2000 and 2008, just two out of the ninety-five papers relate directly to industry. In the journals Landscape History and Medieval Archaeology the study of industry is also under-represented compared to work on agriculture, rural settlement, towns, and elite landscapes such as castles and parks. What is also striking is that journals that specialise in the study of industry, such as Historical Metallurgy and Industrial Archaeology Review, similarly have relatively little to say with regard to the impact that industry had on the wider landscape: the former is dominated by the study of technology and analysis of artefacts, while the latter is, by definition, concerned with the processes of the industrial revolution and more recent times. Medieval historians generally steer clear of industry, but when the period is studied from the perspective of its economic history, industrial production does receive greater attention, although primarily in terms of urban organisation rather than its impact on rural society. Industrial archaeologists have largely concentrated on individual sites, but there is an increasing move to consider their relationship within the landscape, and that has been defined as an essential element of the discipline. Newell and Walker, for example, have explored in depth the medieval origins of industry on Tameside, through its social structure – linked to lordship and landscape – developing the so-called 'Manchester Methodology', but that work is not widely known and its universal application has been questioned. Mining has its fair share of coverage in both the academic and specialist historical journals, particularly for the post-medieval period, although few authors appear to consider themselves capable of addressing the medieval period or its landscape impact.

In this study of medieval mining, however, a different approach – more interdisciplinary and landscape-focused in its philosophy – has been adopted. Using Devon, a county rich in mineral resources, as a case-study, the aim has been to contrast the traditional small-scale mining activity of the medieval period with the unprecedented operations at Bere Ferrers. Devon is an area in which the mining of tin and, to a lesser extent, copper in the post-medieval period are well known, and the importance of those industries is reflected in the recent designation of the 'Cornwall and West Devon Mining Landscape' as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In contrast, the exploitation of Devon's other metal resources such as gold, iron, and lead, has been largely neglected and so the early exploitation of all these metals is reviewed in Chapter 2 in order to characterise the background of traditional medieval mining in the region and the impact that it had on the landscape.

In common with the non-tin industries, the silver mines at Bere Ferrers, while touched upon in works of general mining history and industrial archaeology had, until recently, been neglected by archaeologists and historians alike, even though the documentary sources are remarkably rich. These archives include the Exchequer Accounts (E101) and other enrolled records of the state held in the National Archives, along with various transcripts in the British Library and those held locally in the Calstock Parish archive. An additional document that has proved particularly valuable is a list of settlements in Bere Ferrers parish now held in the Exeter Cathedral archives. A variety of later sources also sheds light on the medieval landscape, including a survey of 1649–50 which lists the woodland at this period, and various other manorial and estate papers from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries including an estate map of the manor of Bere Ferrers drawn up in 1737 for Lord Hobart. The Tithe map of 1845 provides the first comprehensive mapping of land holding and occupancy for the whole parish. Various archives relating to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century mining in the area have also been important in providing information on the extent of the medieval workings when they were abandoned.


Excerpted from Mining in a Medieval Landscape by Stephen Rippon, Peter Claughton, Chris Smart. Copyright © 2009 Stephen Rippon, Peter Claughton and Chris Smart. Excerpted by permission of University of Exeter Press.
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Table of Contents





1 Introduction: the impact of industry on the medieval landscape

2 Earth’s riches: metal resources in medieval Devon

3 Silver production in medieval England and the Devon mines

4 The extraction and processing of silver-bearing ores

5 Fuelling the industry: the management of water and woodland

6 The mining community and its impact on the wider landscape

7 Discussion and conclusions


Sources and bibliography


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