Thursday , June 20 2024


With the numerous farms and hamlets scattered across Dartmoor one of the essential services was that provided by the ‘Roundsman’. These men would bring vital supplies to people’s door, often saving their customers an arduous journey to the local towns or villages. The roundsmen delivered every sort of  commodity from food to lamp oil but not only did they provide the basic needs they also carried news to the remoter areas. It is said that what goes around comes around and it is interesting to see how the big supermarkets have resorted to home deliveries. I vividly remember at the age of about 10, working on the the ‘grocery van’ which was basically an old converted bus that travelled around the remote farms and hamlets. It was stocked with everything a normal shop would have and through all weathers that old bus would rattle around the lanes going from house to house. The only difference from the grocery van to the old roundsman was that ours was powered by an engine and theirs by horsepower. Oh, and we had the benefit of a roof, heating and a radio (of sorts).

Whilst trolling through some old Times newspapers I found the following article from nearly fifty years ago:

The Dartmoor cottager and farmer on the southern slopes of the moor, some 40 years ago, looked for his household supplies to the itinerant roundsman who came out once a month from Ashburton or Buckfastleigh loaded up with oil, candles, soap, pots and pans. The one I adventured with as a schoolboy had a lone, open four-wheeled wagon packed with his stock hidden beneath an old tarpaulin. Built into the back of the wagon was a big square oil drum with a large tap, and to work the tap you needed a special spanner-screw which the roundsman kept secretively in his oily jacket pocket. Everything smelt of oil. Even though oil was only a penny a pint it was a profitable business, and made the long trek on the moor worth while.

The wagon was a heavy load for Bob the horse, but he knew the roads as well as the roundsman and took to the hills with professional slowness and certainty. On the long pull up towards Poundsgate and Holne I used to walk behind the wagon ready to slip the iron shoe under one of the back wheels to give Bob a rest. He knew exactly where to stop, and then once had to be quick with the shoe, and with a brick under the other wheel.

Roads were thick with powdery dust and so were the hedges. But, once you got to the gates and the open moor, the world was clean with a sharp smell of heather on the wind, and, on a summer morning, an expansive gleam of the young bracken in the sunlight. Bob noticed it too. When the moor gate was passed he stepped out for a trot. The saucepans and the frying pans rattled, but the heavy ballast of the oil drum kept us safely on the road.

The roundsman was a heavy solid man with but of a limp. He knew all the trackways leading off the road to Dartmeet and would dart into the heather with a can of oil to an unseen cottage always carrying his pint measuring can. Most cottages had on big lamp on a table in the middle which was never lit until it was really dark, and in summer, everybody saved on oil by sitting “in the dimpsey” – the long Dartmoor twilight which never seemed to fade in summer. But the roundsman was happy to sell in penny pints and never grumbled at having to walk half a mile to make the sale. Not everybody paid on the nail. He had lots of credit customers who paid what they could each month in a sort of primitive pay-as-you-use system. He carried a fat, oily book for entering up the debits and credits in a series of secret ticks and crosses, and I never heard him complain about the debts. There was a simple trust between him and his customers. They looked for his coming. It was an event in the long loneliness of moor life, and sometimes he carried momentous news far ahead of the weekly paper as on the warm August day in 1914, when every pint of oil went with news of war.

We always stopped a long time in the villages under the moor like Leusdon and Scorriton. The roundsman had a lot of customers in the two villages, and Bob knew just where the shade was for the long wait. Most of the people here gave orders for household goods, some of which had to be specially ordered from Plymouth. There was a sort of holy wonder about Plymouth orders,” and, when they were unpacked, the village gathered round to see what would appear from underneath the magic tarpaulin swathed in masses of straw packing. It was the day of massive toilet sets for the bedrooms – especially the front bedroom, and the villagers liked the ones with gorgeous flower decorations, everything matching. The women came out in their aprons to see their neighbour’s new treasure, and the roundsman was always sure of new orders. But he was no slick salesman.

He never pressed people to buy, but the big, oily pocket book helped to make it easy, for, with “Plymouth orders,” he accepted advanced payments of 6d a week, until there was enough for the toilet set or new lino. Rolls and rolls of linoleum decorated with roses and lilies went into those Dartmoor cottages. The lino’s pungent smell of linseed oil and glue filled the cottage when we dumped the roll inside the door. We sold soap by the yard. It was coarse red and yellow stuff. Only occasionally would a cottager break out into a tablet of the new fancy toilet soap to go with the soap dish in the toilet set. Soda was shovelled out of a sack into a brown stone jar which every cottage had in the back of the kitchen. The day of brightly packaged detergents was still a long way off.

Down to Dartmeet the road was yellow=brown and very gritty, but as there was no other traffic Bob took the centre of the road and the wagon wheels eased along its ruts. Up in front on the shiny bit of board which was the driving seat we had a fine view of the moor, and, at Dartmeet Bob knew exactly what to do. He pulled in off the road on to the turf close to the river where the grass was succulent, for Dartmeet was usually a turning point in the day’s round. There were a number of scattered cottages in the area on the slopes of Yar Tor and Corndon Tor and the roundsman must have walked miles to sell his oil and get his orders.

For some reason the deeper you went into the moor the further linoleum abdicated in favour of coconut matting. No doubt it was warmer in winter, and round Dartmeet it always sold well. He carried a roll of it under each arm up through the heathery track, and was often lost to view for a couple of hours over the shoulder of the hill. I had Dartmeet to myself even on days in high summer save for an occasional wagonette party which had struggled out for the day from far away Newton Abbot.

Candles were another permanent stock in trade, and you could get a twopenny candlestick made of tin, Night lights were popular too because they burned very slowly and there were small ones for a halfpenny. The Dartmoor purchaser had to watch his farthings and ha’pennies against the day when perhaps a new kettle was needed which might run to two shillings.

The roundsman’s kettles were famous – made with vast double-block tin bottoms capable of riding the most mountainous wood fire, or enduring the heat of a whole winter of peat firing. In fact the roundsman’s whole day on the mor was concerned with maintaining warmth and cleanliness. Going home the wagon-wheel shoe was used as an extra brake on the steep hills down into Ashburton, and that too got boiling hot ad did one’s face after a day in the Dartmoor sun and air.”

A Correspondent, 03/01/1958 The Times Newspaper, p.10, issue 54039; col. F.

This article brings back memories of the early 1990’s when I was working as an insurance agent covering the Ashburton/Buckfastleigh area. Part of the job entailed making monthly visits to collect the policy payments. Because it was a regular round many of the customers new exactly what time you were due and the kettle and freshly baked cakes were steaming by the time I arrived. A fair few of the customers had what was known as ‘penny policies’ which when they were taken out in the early 1900’s provided a sum of life cover for a penny a week. There was one miserable old woman who lived way up on the moor and it meant driving an extra 9 miles to collect 10p a month.  Most people with these policies would pay the whole year’s premiums in one go which then only meant an annual visit, but this woman insisted that I call every month. I soon came to the conclusion that as I had to pay for my own petrol it would be cheaper for me to actually pay £1.20 a year out of my own pocket thus saving time and money which I duely did. A couple of months later I got called into the managers office to explain why I had not been collecting the woman’s monthly premium, apparently she had been on the phone bemoaning the fact. I tried to explain the economics but he was having none of it as apparently it was/is illegal for an unrelated person to pay anybody else’s insurance premium. So I was told in no uncertain terms I must start visiting again on a monthly basis. This was the final straw that broke the donkey’s back and so the manager was told in no uncertain terms where he could shove his poxy job – end of my insurance agent’s career. But I had to make one final visit to the old woman during my period of notice and I was determined to let her have both barrels. With great enjoyment I told her that I was no longer going to call and was about to explain why when she interrupted. I was then asked how long it would be before the replacement started because the highlight of her month was having the chance to talk to someone.

It also takes me back to about the age of 12 when on Saturdays and school holidays I used to work on the local travelling grocery van. Well, I say van it was an old converted bus which used to visit the remoter villages and hamlets and I say visit, that was if it hadn’t broken down on the way. I can vividly recall rattling along the narrow country lanes and on sharp corners the odd can of beans ricocheting around the bus having fallen from the shelf. Christmas was a good time when we would be loaded down with seasonal goodies and were often told to keep the change for a Christmas tip.


About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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