In the general sense the word ‘beehive hut‘ generally refers to the secular ‘beehive’ shaped huts in which the monks of Ireland, Scotland and parts of England lived. The term can also apply to the beehive shaped musgum mud-built huts in which the indigenous people of Cameroon live in. All such structures have taken their name from the fact that they resemble large bee skeps or early hives.
However, as always, Dartmoor can confuse the most intelligent of minds and the beehive huts are no exceptions. Not only do they not refer to monastic cells or native dwellings but they can also come under the name of caches. I suppose the easiest way to distinguish a beehive hut from a cache is that with a struggle you could have sat in a beehive hut whereas a cache there is no chance unless you’re a piskie. The majority of these huts and caches date back to the medieval period as this was busiest time for tin streaming on the moor. There was one dubious suggestion made by Samuel Rowe that they may have an even earlier origin. He deduced this from the fact that similar structures were used as dwellings by the early Phoenicians who supposedly visited Dartmoor to trade for tin. Therefore it was they that introduced the beehive design prior to the medieval period?
If you read William Crossing’s section on Dartmoor terms he gives quite a comprehensive description of the term ‘beehive hut’ despite the fact it comes under the heading of cache. Interestingly he does note that the term cache is one that at the time of his writing (1912) was regarded as a recent term. Presumably this infers that prior to that the term ‘beehive hut’ was commonly used? Either way I will let him explain these small Dartmoor structures:
“Cache, The tiny erections found near stream works., it being supposed that they were intended as places of concealment by the tinners’ They are arched with stone in the manner in which it is thought some of the dwellings were roofed, and which from their domed forms have been called bee-hive huts. Caches were covered with soil and when the grass and heather grew on this, and the low entrance was closed (presumably with stones and turf) presented, as they do now, the appearance of a natural mound. In this tools, or perhaps ingots of tin, could be left with safety.”, p.13.
Today there is only one intact example of a beehive hut on Dartmoor and that can be seen at Haytor’s Holwell Quarry. However, it must be said that it is only intact thanks to some restoration work carried out in 1987. The other strange thing about this beehive hut is its association with a quarry whereas all other examples are near to tin workings. However this one typifies the comment made by Crossing when he said after a while they resemble natural mounds. When approached from above the vegetation covered roof gives no hint that below sits a small shelter and it can easily be passed by if one does not know it’s there. It is when you see how well these structures would have concealed themselves in the landscape that you realise how much more appropriate the term cache is. The definition of the word is; “a place of concealment and safekeeping, as of valuables.” There can be no argument that to the miners or stone cutters their tools would certainly be classed as ‘valuables’. After all, if there are no tools then no work gets done and no wages earned. In the case of tin ingots then these certainly would have held a great value to the tinners and therefore needed somewhere safe to hide them.
The other purpose beehive huts would serve, albeit rather cramped would be that of a shelter from the numerous storms that swept and still sweep across the moor. The numerous streams in which the tinners worked were often remote and exposed and so some form of shelter would have been very welcome at times. It is probably fair to say that the most visited of Dartmoor’s beehive huts is the one that sits just above the East Dart river besides the Ladehill Brook.
There are a few stories about some of the beehive huts being used to store illicit contraband, mainly liquor although other goods had been known to be stashed away. Some authors have suggested that alcohol stills were hidden in the huts which in theory would be plausible. Many of the tin miners would spend days living on the moor and in most cases the nearest inn would be miles away. So if Mohamed wouldn’t go to the mountain then the mountain went to Mohamed. Again, the remoteness and their natural concealment would have made the huts the ideal places to hide the ill-gotten gains from official eyes. Probably Downing’s House, a beehive hut on the Erme is the one most noted for this activity as it’s other name suggests – ‘Smuggler’s Hole’.
Whilst on the subject of caches there are two more types of places that were used for hiding tools and other valuables. The first being simply the deep, dark ‘caves’ which can be found under many large boulders on the moor. Today these often hide letterboxes but back in the tinning days they made perfect places for securing personal property. The second though less common type are the stone-built chests that can be found in the caves lying under large boulders. These are clearly more secure and better hidden than the above open caves. It is estimated that between the beehive huts and other cache types there are about 33 examples to be found on the south moor and 28 on the north moor. For a good resource in locating the various beehive huts and caches on Dartmoor the DTRG have an interactive map – HERE
It was not only the tinners who used caches, the stone cutters who carried out much of their initial work on the various tor sides also used them. I know for a fact that such a cache was found just below Belstone Tor which was once an area where they were busy at work. This particular one was hidden deep under a large flat boulder and contained a number of tare and feathers all wrapped up in a rotting piece of cloth. Which I suppose is logical when one has to make daily treks over the moor to get to your place of work. Who in their right mind would want that journey carrying a load of heavy metal tools, far better to hide them near to where the stone was being cut. This does bear the question as to why they were still there? Did the stone cutter forget where he had hidden them, not very likely. Did he suddenly decide to take a career change never to return, possibly. Or did he die, possibly.