‘A wind, cutting as a knife, chilling as an icicle, moaned over the moors, Sobbed around masses of rocks, and hissed in the wiry grass and rushes. Fastened to a stout oak beam, that was planted deep in the soil and wedged with stones, was a young man without jerkin, in his course linen shirt, the sleeve of the left arm rolled back to the shoulder, and the left hand attached above his head to the post by a knife, driven through his palm.’, (Baring Gould, 2000, p.1).
The unfortunate young man described above in Baring Gould’s novel was a fictional Dartmoor tinner of the Elizabethan era called ‘Eldad Guavas’. The reason he found himself in such a dire situation was simply because he had broken one of the many stannary laws and was then reaping his ‘just’ deserts. Ah, but that came from a work of fiction didn’t it, yes it did, a very well researched work of fiction by an eminent Dartmoor authority.
Possibly since prehistoric times man has wrested tin ore from the streams and river beds of Dartmoor and as the centuries slowly ticked by this resource became a very valuable commodity. The following lines sum up the worth of the ‘shining ore’:
‘The tin from Dartmoor mines at this time (1238) exceeded in quantity that produced by the whole of Cornwall; and much of the enormous wealth which Richard afterwards (1257) expended in procuring for himself the barren honour of King of the Romans, was the “gathered store” from these Devonshire mines.’, (King, 1866, p.305).
But why so valuable? Basically tin was used in the production of bronze (tin and copper) and pewter (tin and lead) and certainly by the medieval period pewter was used in the manufacture of everyday plates, cups, tankards, jewellery, and ornaments of varying kinds. Since the prehistoric Bronze Age the alloy was used in similar ways and in later years was utilised for casting bells, making cannons and firearms. It did not take long for people to realise that there was money to be made from the Dartmoor tin industry and for the Crown to want a share of it. As most of the land on which the tin ore was found belonged to the Duchy of Cornwall it was felt that the Crown naturally were due some revenue. In 1198 the Crown sent William de Wrotham to Dartmoor in order to reorganise the tin industry with a focus on maximising the Crown’s revenue. One of the first changes Wrotham brought about as Warden of the Stannaries was to increase the tax along with which came a new set of mining laws which were overseen by stannary courts. Previously to his appointment the Dartmoor tinners were overseen in financial and legal matters by the Sheriff and the Forest Courts but these were replaced by the Warden of the Stannaries. In 1201 King John issued a ruling that the Warden of the Stannaries has: ‘over the tinners plenary power to them justice..’. To this end there was a chief stannary court established at Lydford Castle and then under this were 4 district courts held at each of the stannary towns; Chagford, Ashburton, Plympton and Tavistock. The district courts would meet 13 times a year of which there were two law courts held sometime in the spring and autumn. It was at these where all the misdemeanours, administrative matters, etc were heard by a jury of tinners who were overseen by a steward that had been appointed by the Warden of the Stannaries.
Over the following centuries the various taxes, regulations and overseers changed but effectively the tin industry and its tinners were a law unto their selves, responsible directly to the stannaries. If a tinner committed any crime concerning, ‘land, life or limb’ they could be tired by the ordinary courts but the unfortunates had to be kept in custody at the infamous stannary prison at Lydford Castle, In effect, by 1305 the tinners had: ‘become an independent community seperate both from the ordinary systems of local government and law-enforcement, and from the rest of rural society under its manorial lords.’, (Hambling, 1995, p.26).
However, although the tinners were effectively taken out of the national legal system that did not mean they had things easy, granted there were many privileges to be gained from being a tinner such as tax exemptions, immunity from serfdom and the right to extract tin virtually anywhere. However, when these men did transgress their punishments were just as harsh if not harsher than anything handed out by the normal legal system. The worst punishments were for those trying to cheat the tax regulations, selling tin illegally, selling any gold they found whilst tinning (all gold found on Dartmoor was deemed to be the property of the Crown and must be surrendered) or ‘bounding’ (stealing) other tinners claim.
Any tinner caught transgressing would initially be sent to the stannary prison at Lydford Castle where they would come under the now world infamous Lydford Law by which, ‘in the morn they hang and draw, and sit in judgment after‘. This basically meant that due to the long length of time between the courts meeting and to some extent the cost of keeping prisoners it was often the case that a man was presumed guilty so why wait to try him when the outcome was obvious. Conditions in the prison were dire, during the reign of Henry VIII it was been described as, ‘one of the most heinous, contagious and detestable places in the realm.’, (St.Ledger Gordon, 1973: p.113). The ‘cells’ would have been dark, damp, cold and unsanitary, the only drinking water came was collected from the roof run-off which was strictly controlled and heaven knows what the food was like. Well we do know what the food was like, basically there were two choices, if you were rich enough to pay the warders then it was just bread and water and if you weren’t you went hungry, (Walmesley, 1982, p.49).
Once a sentence had been handed out it was then duly carried out, for the smaller offences the defendant would have varying degrees of fines imposed on them or their mining sett confiscated. In later years the severity of these sentences increased insomuch as the cost of the fines rose and not only did the tinner lose his claim but his house and all his possessions along with it. Additionally he was expelled from the tinner’s guild and should anyone later employ the man then they too were at risk of losing their goods as well. Either way it would mean financial burden or total loss of income which in both cases would be a hardship. Another way that a tinner could forfeit his claim was to leave it unworked for a period of 21 days, it would then be sold to another tinner. Stealing tin ore or tin from another tinner was something that didn’t go down too well in a stannary court and for this crime a hefty fine was reserved as with anything it’s never good to steal from your own. It seems that the severity of punishments rose when crimes were committed against the Crown or Duchy as opposed to the ordinary man.
Some may argue that the worst possible outcome would be death by hanging and for this purpose it has been suggested that a gallows site stood just up from the castle. However, some of the ‘lesser’ punishments seem to have been much, much worse than hanging, for instance if a tinner was caught trying to sell impure tin this would have been smelted down and a quantity of the molten metal was then poured down the offenders throat, gives a whole new meaning to the term ‘hot lips’.
Another punishment handed out was that as is described by Baring Gould above, the prisoner would be taken out to the moor where a large stake would be firmly planted in the ground. Depending on whether the prisoner was left or right handed, his dominant hand would be pinned to the stake by means of a knife firmly stuck through his palm. The other hand would then be tied behind their back and there they would be left to make a hard choice. The unfortunate wretch could either stay at the stake and die from starvation or exposure, somehow manage to fee his tied hand and pull the knife out which was highly unlikely or simply drag his hand down the knife blade and cut through his tendons. If he opted for the latter it would mean that his ripped hand would be useless and he would be unable to effectively work again. In the above fictional case the man was caught trying to sell a small quantity of gold he found whilst streaming which should have been surrendered to the Crown. A small aside here, gold was never found in huge quantities on the moor and never in nugget size, but it was the practice for tinners to hide the grains of gold in the quills of goose feathers to avoid detection.
This whole judicial system was a kind of ‘Catch 22’ situation because year after year the taxes imposed on the tinners rose which then gave a greater inducement to evade the system wherever possible which in turn led to more arrests and punishments being doled out, for the Crown and later the Duchy of Cornwall this became a lucrative business.
Baring Gould, S. 2000. Guavas the Tinner, Walterstone: Praxis Books.
Hambling, P. 1995. The Dartmoor Stannaries, Chudleigh: Orchard Publications.
King, R. J. 1866. The Forest of Dartmoor, in The Fortnightly, Vol – VI, Chapman and Hall.
St. Ledger-Gordon, R. 1972 The Witchcraft and Folklore of Dartmoor, Wakefield: EP Publishing.
Walmesley, M. & J. 1982. The Old Men of the Moor, Ilfracombe: A. H. Stockwell Ltd.