It was a dark and stormy night as the Abbot of Tavistock lay in his bed listening to the wind blasting huge hailstones against his window. The large candle’s flame was flickering in the corner of his cell. For some strange reason he could not sleep, he tossed and turned for ages until he almost gave up the idea of getting any sleep before the matutin service at 2.00am. Suddenly his eyes closed and he was transported off to a tiny, dark cave, he was carrying a small candle that dimly shone through the blackness. In the corner the light seemed to be illuminating a large heap, hues of varying colours were glowing from it, there were reds, blues, mauves and greens all blending to create a magnificent halo. It was only as he moved over to investigate that he realised exactly how small the cave was, the stabbing pain from his head clearly demonstrated that the roof was very low. On hands and knees the Abbot crawled over to where the light was emanating from, his eyes widened in disbelief as he saw was was before him. For there was a hoard of sparkling gems stones, he plunged his hands into it and pulled out sapphires, rubies, garnets, opals, diamonds and some stones the likes of which he had never seen. They must be worth a kings ransom, he had never seen such fabulous wealth. Immediately he knew he was now a rich man and greedily he started filling a large sack that somehow appeared before him. It took ages to get the sack out of the cave as the entrance was so small, but eventually he managed to drag the sack through the entrance. Once he got out he realised that he was in small mine. Far up to his left he could see a beam of light and so he gambled that this was the exit out of the cold, black, musty mine. Again it an age to haul his sack up the slope but eventually the source of light grew stronger and stronger until he was standing at the adit entrance. He looked around to try to identify where he was, below there was a river, above him a huge rock face and opposite a large wood. A small muddy track wound itself down from above. This he decided would lead to some settlement and he would be able to establish where he was. Luckily this assumption was correct and on the common he met a shepherd that told him he was near to Roborough and that he had just come from the Virtuous Lady mine.
The next thing he knew the matutin bell was clanging across the cloister and he was back in his small cell. It took an age to gather his wits but when he did he crossed to the abbey to lead his monks in their early morning prayers. All through the service he couldn’t think of anything but his dream and the treasure, it was so real and therefore must be a sign from God, all he could see was that sparking hoard of gems and he knew that in the morning he must go to the mine, where ever it was.
As luck would have it there was an sick old tin miner in the infirmary and so the Abbot went to see him. It did not take long to get the directions to the Virtuous Lady mine and so remembering how heavy the gems were he took a colt, pony pack and sack from the stables then headed off down to the river Tavy as directed by the old miner. Having followed the river downstream he eventually got to Double waters, the point where the river Tavy is joined by the river Walkham. Here he found a shallow spot and forded the river. There infront of him was the huge rock face and at the bottom he could see the small adit. So far the dream was coming true. He tied the colt to a tree, grabbed his sack and candle and scrambled down into the dark depths of the earth. Once inside he lit his candle and headed down into the deep depths of the mine. It took a while but eventually he found a small cave entrance, it did not look like the one in his dream but he decided to investigate. It was a very tight squeeze but he managed to get his head and shoulders through the gap and there sure enough in the corner were the gemstones. The cave really was smaller that he remembered in his dream and he could just about sit up, with great excitement he started to fill his sack. Having done so he was pleasantly surprised to see that there were still some gems left and so he then started stuffing his pockets, belt pouch, and habit hood until at last he had gathered the entire hoard. Because of his extended bulk he found it very difficult to get out of the cave but his greed would not let him lighten his load and so for a good hour he struggled and squeezed until he finally got out. Once in the adit he noticed that he was now standing knee deep in cold water, the Abbot was sure that wasn’t there when he first came down the mine but in his eagerness to get out thought no no more of the matter. It was wet and hard work to get out of the mine but again he persisted and eventually both Abbot and his sack were stood in daylight. His hands, arms and legs were scratched to pieces, all a result from scrabbling around in the cave but the pain was nothing compared to the luxury he could now look forward to.
The sack was dragged across to the small pony and after a great struggle was secured to the crooks of the pony pack. The poor animal nearly buckled under the weight but that was of no concern to the Abbot for he too was carrying a heavy load of gems about his person.
The Abbot decided that he would not return to the abbey because that would mean he would have to give all his new found wealth to the order, no he and the colt would go to Plymouth and then on to a life of luxury.
Man and pony slowly trudged their way back up to the ford at Double Waters where once across they could head to Morwellham Quay here they could sail down to Plymouth. Having reached the confluence the Abbot was dismayed to find that the little ford had vanished under a deluge of foaming waters. He then recalled the cold water in the mine and realised that whilst he had been underground there clearly must have been a mighty storm up on the moors and now the river was in full spate. Any clear minded person would have realised that to attempt to cross the angry river was pointless not to mention dangerous, the Abbot however was driven by greed and so foolishly stepped into the rushing waters. The strong currents soon began to drag him and his pony down into its swirling depths. Luckily for the colt the pony pack came undone and the river washed it and its valuable cargo downstream. Having been relieved of its heavy load the pony was able to struggle back to the bank and scramble to safety. The Abbot however was still in difficulty, the current was sucking at his legs and slowly dragging him down. The Abbot knew that the only chance he had was to abandon his gemstones to the river and then try to swim to the bank. Having seen the majority of his new found wealth lost in the swirling torrent, greed dictated that there was no way he was going to lose the rest and so bravely he struggled on through the water. He did not see the tree trunk that was being washed downstream until it knocked him sideways into the foaming, peaty waters, immediately the Abbot was sucked under and the weight of his gems held him down. The last thing he saw were blue, red, mauve and green gems being scattered over the river bed.
There was an Abbey at Tavistock and so this would have had various Abbots. It is unknown which one could be recalled in this story.
The Virtuous Lady mine exists and was a working copper and tin mine it was supposedly named in honour of Queen Elizabeth I. Harris, 1986, p.60 notes how the mine was first opened in 1558 and continued working until 1807. It was then re-opened in 1830 and worked on and off up to the 1870’s when it was finally closed. In its latter years the mine went to a depth of 20 fathoms (approx. 120ft) and employed 43 people. Production records for the middle of 19th century state that around 4,000 tons of ore were produced. Today the mine stands on private property but the old mine captains house is still lived in. Local tradition has it that a trap door leads from the captain’s house to the mine below. Hamilton Jenkins 1974 pp 46-9 goes into further detail saying that the ore occurs in beds bearing east – west and varies in depth from a few inches to 30ft. In 1724 the mine owner was a man called Dean and the lessees were the Bristol Copper Mining Company. At this production was around 9 – 10 tons of ‘clean ore’ in 3 months. The miners were receiving £3 10s a ton but had to provide their own tools. Throughout its history the mine had proven to be a profitable concern. In 1849 a Captain Williams held a large interest in the mine is said to have “realised a fortune in a few years”.
An old postcard of the Virtuous Lady mine
In December 1857 at a depth of 15 fathoms (approx. 90ft) various ‘vugs’ or ‘vughs’ were discovered. These are small natural hollows that are lined with colourful crystals or crystal caverns. In 1835 a local mineralologist described them as varying in colour and “… when turned about under the rays from the sun reflect a different colour from every different angle of incidence…”
In the later years of the mine it was worked almost solely for the extraction of these specimens, the men laying on trusses of straw on the floor of the vughs to prevent any damage as they were being detached from the rock. Hamilton Jenkins concludes by saying “… although many of the caverns which inspired the Victorian sightseer with ‘fearsome awe’ are no longer accessible today.”
An early postcard of the mine
As I write this page I have on my desk several beautiful crystal clusters taken from a vugh in the Virtuous Lady mine. Several years ago some friends and I had a spell of exploring many of the deserted Dartmoor mines and the Virtuous Lady was one of them. To this day, I can clearly remember the excitement as we set off down the adit. It was about 9.00am on a Saturday morning when we entered and about 4.00pm when we came out. You may ask what took so long, well a couple of my mates had been down previously and discovered an untouched ‘crystal cavern’ and so kindly invited me along to see it. Sadly we had a fourth member with us who as it turns out would have been better kept in the ‘dark’ regarding the discovery. Having spent an hour or so exploring the mine and rummaging through spoil heaps were we found some huge Iron Pyrites crystals we had lunch and set off for the cavern. I will never ever forget the thrill as I somehow managed to squeeze through that small entrance because the first sight you are met with is a cavern literally lined from ceiling to floor with crystals of varying sizes . The only light we had was that of our head torches and this was reflecting colours of the most amazing variety. We all just sat crammed into this tiny space absolutely dumbfounded it was so beautiful, as that Victorian mineralologist said “fearsome awe”. It was agreed to take a few specimens each for our collections which is what we carefully did. I recall that it took ages to extract ourselves from the cavern but when we eventually did we all agreed there and then not to disclose its location because there are rock hunters who would strip the lot for profit. What we didn’t realise that the fourth member of our team was one of them. The next visit revealed the whole chamber completely bare and it transpired the specimens had been sold to various rock and gem shops in Plymouth.
Iron Pyrite and Crystal specimens from the Virtuous Lady mine
I have no idea when the legend of the Abbot began but as the mine was opened in 1558 it clearly was after then. However could it have been that someone had discovered a vugh and having seen the crystals likened them to a treasure hoard thus giving birth to the story?
Hamilton Jenkin, A.K. 1974 Mines of Devon Volume 1, David & Charles, Newton Abbot.
Harris, H. 1986 The Industrial Archaeology of Dartmoor, Peninsula Press, Newton Abbot.