But thou, O God, shalt bring them down into the pit of destruction: bloody and deceitful men shall not live out half their days; but I will trust in thee – Psalm 55:23
I recently received an email asking for some information regarding ‘Turpin’s Pit’ which is a topic that thus far has been neglected on this website. So, that being the impetus for this webpage – what is a Dartmoor Pit?
The ‘Pits’ of Dartmoor, probably an over-dramatic title for this page as it may conjure up visions of the fiery portals which lead down into the dark depths of Hades where lost souls spend eternity. In all reality a Dartmoor pit or pits are far less sinister although perhaps some of those who actually toiled in them would possibly disagree. According to Eric Hemery they are: ‘Excavations made by late or post-medieval tinners in search of mineral lodes in hillsides.”, p.74.
As Hemery observed, this practice of locating tin lodes dates back to late or post medieval times and became a common practice once the value of tin made lode working an economic proposal in the 15th century. The basic principle was to locate a viable lode and then dig down to extract the ore which compared to the previous method of streamworking was a lot harder work. However, to accomplish this feat it was first necessary to locate the ore and this was done by digging a line three or four small test pits into where the lode was thought to run. In the late 1600s these test pits were know rather prosaically as ‘essay hatches’, (Newman, 2011, p.152.) a much nicer term I think.
The first sign that things were looking hopeful would have been the discovery of small chunks of vein material which due to the actions of weathering had become detached from the mother lode. If the quantity of these increased as a greater depth was reached then it would have been a good sign that the main lode was not far away. After having exposed the main lode this would then be followed and extracted until it became too deep to bring out or it expired. This process had the effect of erasing any sign of the original test pit and producing a wide, openworks, (often referred to as a ‘beam’ or ‘gert’) if the lode was rich enough. Should the initial test pits show no sign of vein material then other pits would be dug further up the hillside. If these proved fruitless then the whole exercise would be abandoned and the process began at a more hopeful location. It is these ‘barren’ pits that can be seen in the landscape of today, usually fairly shallow pits (anything up to 3m in diameter) filled with reeds, water and muck. There will also be a spoil heap located on the downhill slope of the hill, Newman, 1998. pp. 20 – 24.
The above is a very brief outline of how the ‘Pits of Dartmoor’ came about but it fairly safe to say that when the term ‘pit/pits’ is found in a Dartmoor context the location will tend to be where the actual ore was successfully found. This means that all traces of the original essay hatches will have been swallowed up by the openworks.
However, the aspect of this which really ‘floats my boat’ here are the actual place-names as opposed to the rather wooden details of mining procedures. Below is a table showing some of the ‘pits’ that I have in my Dartmoor database, these have come from Mike Brown’s gazetteer, various books, articles and maps. By no mean is it comprehensive as many of the old place-names have been lost in time. Luckily some of them have been resurrected thanks to a few letterboxers as can be seen from the Turpin’s Pits stamp below. Some are marked on the current Ordnance survey maps and others have been omitted. You can see that there are some name elements that have derived from personal names such as Hall’s, Hill’s Jackman’s etc. Others have can be regarded as descriptive in landscape terms as in features and/or locations; Kenlake, Langmarsh, Deadlake, etc. It can also be noted that there are inclusions in the table which I have called AKAs or ”Also Known As’, these are ones that have alternative names which have been variously used or mutated down through time.
|NAME – (M. Brown – Dartmoor Gazetteer)||OS GRID REF.||ALSO KNOWN AS|
|ARMED PIT||SX 623 668||AKA Erme Pits|
|ASSHOLE PITS||SX 5960 6367||AKA I can think of a few that belong here!|
|BOURNE’S PIT||SX 6619 6920||AKA Burn’s Pit|
|BURN’S PIT||SX 6619 6920||AKA Bourne’s Pit|
|BURRATOR PITS||SX 5550 6763|
|BUSH PITS||SX 654 659|
|CROCKER’S PITS||SX 561 893|
|DEAD LAKE PITS||SX 5658 7820|
|DICK’S WELL PITS||SX 547 859|
|ERME PITS||SX 623 668||AKA Armed Pit.|
|GIBBET’S HILL PITS||SX 502 808|
|HALL’S PIT||SX 659 648||AKA Hill’s Pits and Petre’s Pits.|
|HANGMAN’S PIT||SX 6729 7150|
|HILL’S PITS||SX 659 648||AKA Hall’s Pits and Petre’s Pits.|
|JACKMAN’S PITS||SX 593 863|
|JOB’S PIT||SX 733 910|
|KENLAKE PITS||SX ??? ???|
|LANGAMARSH PIT||SX 684 719||Jan Coo’s death place & a pixie haunt.|
|LIVATON PITS||SX 6455 9235||AKA London Pits.|
|LONDON PIT||SX 640 888||AKA Proctor’s Gully.|
|LONDON PITS||SX 6455 9235||AKA Livaton Pits.|
|LONG ASH PITS||SX 557 745|
|LOVATON PITS||SX 6161 9281|
|NAKERS PITS||SX 639 696||AKA Niggers Pits.|
|NIGGERS PITS||SX 639 696||AKA Nakers Pits.|
|PECK PITS||SX 764 832|
|PETRE’S PITS||SX 659 648||AKA Hall’s Pits and Hill’s Pits.|
|PIXIES PITS||SX 764 761|
|REDOUBT PITS||SX 596 897|
|REEDAPITT||SX 570 701||AKA Riddy Pit.|
|REWE LAKE PIT||SX 639 887|
|RIDDY PIT||SX 570 701||AKA Reedapitt|
|RITHY PITS||SX 607 907|
|ROOS TOR PITS||SX 537 766|
|RUE LAKE PITS||SX 639 887|
|TIN PITS||SX 5235 8225|
|TIN PITS||SX 710 787|
|TURPIN’S PITS||SX 620 848|
|VAG HILL PITS||SX 676 723||AKA Warren House Pits|
|WARREN HOUSE PITS||SX 676 723||AKA Vag Hill Pits|
|WHITE PITS||SX 629 898|
|WHITEHILL YEO PITS||SX ??? ???|
|WOOD HOLE PIT||SX 639 860|
|WOOD PITS||SX 712 794|
In my library I have numbered all my books, magazines, articles and maps, then in the Dartmoor Database I have listed the corresponding book number where each place-name was found along with its page number. This is because I can later refer back to the name’s original source if needs be. I am wittering on about this for one reason, I really and truly did come across ‘Asshole Pits’ and on the database its number is 328/15 or book 328, page 15. The only problem in me not confirming this name is that a few years ago after a computer crash (and yes, I had not backed things up) I lost the book list and now I have no idea in which publication anything was found. So without trawling through hundreds of books etc you will have to believe me that somewhere out there it is in print. Also, before I get accused of using racists terms, there is a ‘Nigger’s Pits’ but this is a dialect mutation from Naker’s Pits’ which when heard in the Dartmoor vernacular can easily be mistaken for the former.
One last thing, as with everything to do with Dartmoor, nothing is straight forward, there are ‘pit’ place names which do not refer to tin mining locations. Some refer to places where sand was extracted and for example you sometimes come across the likes of ‘Sand Pit’
By the way, having said there is nothing sinister about ‘The Pits of Dartmoor’ that is not exactly true. The infamous ‘Hangman’s Pit‘ is said to be haunted by the restless ghost of a supposed suicide. In addition Langamarsh Pit is well known as a haunt of the Piskies and indeed is where they lured Jan Coo to his death.
Brown, M. 1995. The Gazetteer of Dartmoor Names. Liverton: Forest Publishing.
Hemery, E. 1983. High Dartmoor. London: Robert Hale.
Newman, P. 2011. The Field Archaeology of Dartmoor. Swindon: English Heritage.
Newman, P. 1998. The Dartmoor Tin Industry – A Field Guide. Newton Abbot: The Chercombe Press.