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Worker’s huts

Worker's huts

There is a category of man-made structure in the remoter parts of northern Dartmoor which has received surprisingly little attention from Dartmoor scholars. I refer to the ruined huts and shelters which can be found beside infant rivers or on the wind-blasted ridge tops.’, (Le Messurier, 1979, p.59).

Thirty years later and things have improved somewhat from the above statement insomuch as many of these huts and shelters have been recorded for the archaeological record. But what are they, what was their purpose, how old are they and who built them?

Firstly, if you look at any map of Dartmoor you will see numerous hut circles marked, these were the homes and in some cases shelters of the prehistoric people who inhabited the moor some 4,000 years ago. It can be argued that in essence these were the first ‘huts’ to appear on the moor and have attracted at lot of interest. Then there are the numerous other ‘huts’ that are marked on the map as ‘tinner’s huts‘ and in addition to these are numerous other anonymous huts and shelters that are not marked and simply lie quietly in the landscape. The word ‘hut‘ seems to be a generic Dartmoor term for these structures but then there are some divergences within this classification. In some cases they are known as ‘houses’ which when you consider of what they originally were is a slight misnomer. Today most huts or houses will simply consist of some wall fragments that are usually overgrown with vegetation, in some cases there is evidence of a fireplace and/or a cupboard recess, all of which are easy to miss when walking by. The one thing common to most of them is their location as they occur in the wilder and remoter parts of the moor and can be found in the river and stream valleys or on exposed hilltops.

Le Messurier, (1979, p.61) has classified three basic types of hut, they are: ‘Type A – long, round-ended or round cornered huts with or without external banking; Type B – rectangular huts; and Type C – simple shelters‘. All huts will consist of one room which tends to be about twice as long as they are wide. The walls are made of flat stones and are laid in such a manner as to slope downwards from the interior which means that any rainwater will be carried away from inside the hut. In some cases the stone used to build the hut will have come from nearby prehistoric cairns, reaves and in others a prehistoric hut will have been ‘restored’, both methods would have saved the builders time and effort. Nobody knows exactly what was used to roof the structures, it certainly was not slate as none has ever been found at a hut site so it is safe to assume that like their prehistoric counterparts, a thatch of reed, turf or heather was used. This would have been held up by a timber support frame which would have been about the only material transported to the site. The Type A huts normally have a fireplace at one end and tend to be the largest examples, it is these that are sometimes referred to as ‘houses’. The Type B huts are mainly rectangular in form with or without a fireplace. Type C huts are much smaller and usually consist of a large, natural boulder that has walls built against it and a lean-to roof added. The three classifications of huts range in size from 2 – 6 metres long and 1 – 3 metres wide, all would have had very low doorways which would have involved ducking or crawling to gain entry.

Just to confuse things a trifle, there is another type of hut which on Dartmoor is known as a ‘beehive hut’ these tend to be very small and are built entirely of stone and turf. They resemble a domed bee skep or the monastic cells once built by the early monks, there are three ‘famous’ examples on the moor; Downing’s House (SX 63955 62935), one by the East Dart river (SX 63925 81453)  and another at Haytor Quarry (SX 75102 77771). Although not exactly inconspicuous in the landscape these beehive huts are, from certain directions, very well camouflaged. It has been thought that these would have been purely used for storage and shelter. Another cog in the works is that when the smaller huts are associated with the tinner’s they are also referred to as ‘caches’.

Worker's huts

Leaving the prehistoric hut circles out of the equation, most of the Dartmoor huts date from anything between the early medieval period to the modern era, however it is fair to say that the majority were constructed during the post medieval times (1540 – 1901) with some later examples.

But what was their purpose? As with the blackberries the juiciest ones are always found in the highest and prickliest part of the bush, the same principle works with Dartmoor’s natural resources. Albeit it tin, peat, rushes, or lush grazing, the best sorts are found in the remoter and inaccessible parts of the moor, usually by the upland streams and rivers or on the high hilltops. This then causes two problems for anyone wishing to exploit them; their remoteness and exposure to the Dartmoor weather. Having once found a good source of tin or peat the men had a choice, they could either commute to and from their find on a daily basis, in many cases this would have involved a trek of many miles. The alternative was to leave home on Sunday or Monday for their place of work and then stay there until the following Saturday, this meant they would need somewhere that was warm and dry to stay. This abode took the form of a hut which not only acted as their weekday residence it also served as a shelter during inclement daytime weather and as a storehouse for their tools etc. It would be fair to say that the more remote the tin sett or turf tie was from home the larger and more accommodating the hut would be. Whereas if the workplace was near to home and easily accessible then a daytime shelter rather than an abode was all that was needed.

So who were the type of people to use these huts and shelters? The tinners and peat cutters were by far the most common inhabitants but also the shepherds and cattle graziers would avail themselves of huts. On the side of Willing’s Hill is a prehistoric hut that was utilised by a forester during the medieval period, (Hemery, 1983, p.203), another example of a forester’s house known as the ‘Forester’s House’ can be found near Fur Tor, (Hemery, 1983, p.966). In this sense a forester was a keeper whose job it was to protect the King’s deer whilst calving and to guard them against poachers in the medieval period. In 1301 there were six foresters tending the Dartmoor Forest who all would have been expected to live out on the moor as part of their duties hence the Forester’s Houses, (Hemery, 1983, p.50). Other folks who would have lived and worked out on the open moor would have been the rush cutters who supplied the thatching needs of the moor and men who worked the small, remote quarries. Around the wooded areas of the moorland fringes are the remains of hearths where the colliers or charcoals burners would live, today there is little evidence of their huts and shelters purely because they were built of wood which has now degraded. Another type of shelter was the ones used by the rabbit warreners when they would be keeping an eye out for nightime poachers, who in some cases were the very men who lived in the tinner’s and cutter’s huts. In later years a modern type of ‘hut’ was used by the men who repaired and cleared the miles of leats, two examples can be seen today along the Devonport Leat, the one below Beardown and Drivage Hut, although these were/are used purely for daytime shelter and storage.

So who were the men that built the huts of Dartmoor? In the majority of cases it’s unknown who the builders were as they were not deemed important enough to enter the historical record. However, there are some huts who have clung on to their builders name or at very least the name of a one-time resident. In these cases they are known by the surname of the builder or resident; Gratton, Downing, Garth, Hillson, May, Parr, Stat, and Uncle Ab, all were tinners, peat cutters and in the case of Gratton a quarryman. Below is a list of huts or houses whose names have survived the ravages of time and still remain in the Dartmoor tradition:

NAME OS Grid Ref. Description
Bert Gratton’s Hut SX 6426 9007 Quarryman’s hut
Black Hut SX 6458 6783 Peat cutters hut
Cosdon House SX 6360 9149 Possible shepherd’s shelter
Crane Hill House SX 6069 6835 Tinners hut
Devonport Hut, The SX 61?? 77?? Leat workers hut
Downing’s House SX 6395 6293 Tinners hut
Drivage Hut SX 5991 6993 Leat workers hut
Ducks Pool House SX 6278 6797 Tinners hut
Forester’s House, The SX 5913 8369 Possibly a foresters hut
Fox Tor House SX 6271 6983 Tinners hut
Garth’s House SX 6694 6797 Tinners hut
Hillson’s House SX 6366 6229 Peat cutters hut
Hut, The SX 5435 8784 Tinners hut
Moute’s Inn SX 6177 8527 Peat cutters hut
Old House SX 7145 7865 Possibly a shepherds shelter
Phillpotts’ Hut SX 6850 8276 Temporary shelter
Sam Parr’s House SX 6249 7118 Tinners hut
Scout Hut, The SX 5809 6731 Scout’s Base
Stat’s House SX 6216 8247 Peat cutters hut
Uncle Ab’s House SX 6562 6797 Habitation
Will May’s House SX 6390 8671 Peat cutters hut

There are two modern entries in the above table, the Scout Hut was once known as Ditsworthy Bungalow and was later acquired by a local scout group who used it as a base from which they could access the moor and Phillpott’s Hut which was a temporary shelter used by the author Eden Phillpotts.

Another purpose that some of the Dartmoor huts were put to was the storage of illicit alcohol of which there are three noted examples; Downing’s House (also known as ‘Smuggler’s Hole’), The Hut and as the name suggests Moute’s Inn. By the nature of their remoteness these made ideal hiding places for smuggled spirits and the like.

Just to give but one example of the occurrence of the Dartmoor huts I have taken a 15 square kilometre area of Dartmoor which can be seen on the map opposite. Within this selected area there are no less than 25 recorded huts/shelters to be found with the vast majority being either tinner’s or peat cutter’s huts. This presents a rough idea of how common it was for men to be living and working in these remote areas. The aerial photograph (also opposite) shows exactly how remote this part of the moor is, you will find not a single farmstead, hamlet, village or town anywhere on the picture.

There can be no denying that these men (and possibly women) lived a hard life, they were exposed to all the vagaries of the Dartmoor climate without the comforts of home. The work was hard, not only did they have ply their trades by digging, cutting or tending they then had to get the tin, peat, rushes, livestock etc. back off the moor in order to earn a living. But I think in many ways they had an envious lifestyle despite the hardships, after all if it was that bad why do so many people camp out on the open moor today?

Incidentally if anyone wants to investigate the Dartmoor huts further then go to the Pastscape website and then to advanced search, in the county box type Devon and in the monument type box put ‘hut’ you will then be presented with a list of numerous types, select what you want and you will get your results, albeit you will have to wade through them, Pastscape Record Search – HERE.

Worker's huts

Hemery, E. 1983. High Dartmoor, London: Hale Publishing.

Le Messurier, B. 1979. The Post-Prehistoric Structures of Central North Dartmoor, Transactions of the Devonshire Association.


About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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