There is an ancient Dartmoor saying which is meant to act as a warning to anyone who exploits it’s natural resources – “if you scratch my back I’ll tear out your pockets.” There also appears in Psalms 37 -“Trust in the lord and he will give you the desires of your heart.” In the early 1880s there was a colourful Dartmoor character who blatantly ignored the former words and when it suited him believed in the latter, he was Captain John Palk also known as ‘Quaker Palk’. He was a miner by trade and to use another adage proved that “from little acorns mighty oaks grow.” achieved “by fair means or foul.”
In 1808 the Vitifer Mine was purchased by the Davey Brothers from Redruth in Cornwall. Unfortunately at this time the tin prices were disastrously low and returns from the mine meagre to say the least. The brothers then decided to work on the nearby Birch Tor Mine to increase their output of tin. There was a distant relative of theirs called John Palk who was already working the Birch Tor Mine on his own ‘hook’ (account) so they took him into their partnership. John Palk was described as being a “sturdy, thick-set man with a shrewd face, sharp keen eyes, and hair short cut and turning grey.” p.296. Palk’s small claim at the Birch Tor Mine initially proved to be very productive with good deposits of tin. However, to expand on his workings he desperately needed an injection of capital so he approached the Davy brothers. By this time he had become the mine’s manager (Captain) and persuaded them to invest some capital into the mine, which they duly did. It soon became clear that following their initial injection of capital more would be needed to turn a decent profit. On several occasions Palk approached the Davys for more capital which as before they laid out more money. However, despite all the extra funding in the mine the brothers were seeing no return and it could be said that the mine was hemorrhaging money at a rapid rate. Eventually enough was enough for the brothers and they just wanted to be rid of their burden so they offered it to Palk. It is said that in a fit of anger Richard Davey said; “Hang it, Palk, I wish you would take the confounded business off our hands, and make what of it you can,” and suggested a ridiculously low price. After some careful consideration Palk replied: “Friend, I am a poor man, and cannot raise so much, but by the blessing of the Lord I would like to try to earn a bit of bread from it to put into my mouth. Will thee not bate the price to the level of my means?” p.298. After some further negotiation Palk ended up buying the rights to both the Birch Tor Mine and the Vitifer mine.
In general it could be said that Quakers were very shrewd business men and despite their religious followings not adverse to some dubious dealings – ‘Quaker Palk’ was a prime example of such men. All the time he had been working Birch Tor Mine he had only been following the poor veins of tin whilst deliberately avoiding the tin rich lodes. This then had the desired effect of convincing the Davey brothers the mine was ‘knacked out’. As soon as Palk became the sole owner of the mine he began working the veins and lodes which he knew would return a good profit. Amongst one of his lucrative workings was that of Chaw Gully which was one of the ‘old men’s workings’. “It extends about half a mile. In places it is some forty feet deep, and two or three hundred feet wide. In the bottom are several circular shafts, lined with stones dry-laid, which communicate with a dip formerly used for drainage purposes. There are no “jumper” marks on the rocks in Chaw Gully. In following the shallow lode of tin the old adventurers must have torn out the rock with wedges. Sometimes fire was applied to the rock and then water was dashed on it to crack it; as softened by the heat it was more easily worked. Another system of splitting the granite was to cut a groove on the surface of the rock, fill that with quicklime, and then throw on water. The swelling of the lime rent the rock.” pp. 301 – 302.”
It has been estimated that Palk made returns of between £60,000 and £80,000 from the mines during his lifetime. He also secured rights in Drake Walls, where he owned a smelting house as well as in Crown Dale, below Tavistock on the Tavy. Property is usually a sound investment, especially of the agricultural kind so Palk not only erected houses in Tavistock he purchased Baggator farm near Peter Tavy and Narrator at Sheepstor. As already mentioned Palk was a staunch Quaker and would often attend their meetings in Devon and Cornwall and was not adverse to lecturing on the subject. At one such event the issue of “vain sports” came up and a new convert nervously asked what they were. Without hesitation ‘Quaker John’ replied; “Now, Do’ee reckon that kissing the mydens in the hye be a vain sport?—vor my part I can’t see it.” p.300. It also appears that ‘Quaker John’ was only a follower of their beliefs when it suited him. Quakers were meant to be avoid the temptations of the Demon drink and Palk was said to have been a staunch teetotaller. So much so that he was known to appear on a platform at Tavistock Station and preach on total abstinence Well, apart from the occasions when he would ‘drop’ in on Mr. Warne’s Warren House Inn which was near to his mines. Here he would partake in “a stiff glass of grog”. “On one occasion he had taken out with him Mr. John Pearce of Tavistock, and they entered the tavern. Pearce noticed that Captain Palk, in helping himself to brandy, put his hand round the glass, to hide the quantity he poured in, but when the brown liquid rose above his palm, Mr. Pearce stared and uttered an exclamation. “Ah, John Pearce,” said Palk, “I tell thee that the Warren Inn is the highest public-house in all England, and one must live up to one’s elevation.” p.299. The sixth commandment that all Christians should adhere to is “Thou shall not steal” but as far as Palk was concerned it was permissible to avail oneself of stolen goods. It was known that he was partial to some ‘jugged hare’ and one of his workers, Jacob German, would often give him one. On one occasion a conversation between the two went; “Oh, Jacob I hope thou hast not been poaching.” To which the reply was; “Poaching, Lord sir, if a hare runs across the road, I may knock ‘un on the head, I reckon, and no one say nort.” Palk then asked; “I should like to know just where it was as a study in natural history.” The reply came back; “Well, if you must know, Cap’n, it were in Buckland-on-the-Moor, Squire Bastard’s woods.” Then as if to excuse the crime of poaching ‘Quaker Palk’ remarked; “I dare say friend, it will be all the fatter and better. I’ve had Squire Bastard’s larch wood and obliged him. The trees grew too thick. Hares there too thick it’s a favour to him to thin them out for me. One hand washes the other.” p. 300.Captain John was certainly no believer in equal rights for women. It is said that on the night of his wedding he flung a pair of his breeches at his new bride and demanded she put them on. Totally bemused she said; “Why, John, be thou mazed?” to which he replied; “I tell thee, thou hast sworn to obey. Put them on this moment.” Reluctantly she eventually donned his breeches and Palk said; “How dost thou think they fit thee, Molly?” She answered; “Why, John, not at all.” Without hesitation Palk exclaimed; “Then, Molly, never thee try to wear ’em, as long as we are together. The breeches pertain to me, and to me only.” p.299.
Captain Palk died suddenly on the 9th of February 1853 at the age of 59. Tradition has it that two old people were returning from his funeral when the following conversation was heard. “Sure, and he was a very charitable man.” To which the reply was; “I reckon he were. He always had three eggs boiled for his breakfast, and gave away the broth!”
In 1838 Birch Tor was regarded as the only mine of any significance working on Dartmoor. The workforce consisted of 117 people of which 87 were men along with 30 men and children. Many of the miners were petty criminals who had fled from other districts one local vicar described the place as being “the Botany Bay for Miners.”. Conditions at the mine were harsh to say the least especially in the brutal Dartmoor winters. Clearly those working outside were exposed to the freezing temperatures but also due to the porous nature of the granite those toiling below were labouring under stream of ice cold water. There was very little accommodation to be had and what there was could be described as wretched hovels. Quite often the beds were fully occupied and as one person left for work another would immediately jump into the vacant bed. (Hamilton Jenkin, 2005, Mines of Devon, p.55.) Living and working under such conditions it should come as no surprise that what little money the miners had was spent at the nearby Warren House Inn. At the time and by the nature of its clients the inn soon got the reputation of being a ‘rough house’. Fights and brawls were common occurrences and one actually resulted in the death of a miner.
Baring-Gould, S. 1926. Devonshire Characters & Strange Events – Second Series. London: The Botley Head Ltd.