Book review. Mining in a Medieval Landscape – The Royal Silver Mines of the Tamar Valley

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Author(s): Greeves. Tom; Year published: 2010; Origin: DA Transactions; Pages: 432–434
Topic(s): history and mining; Location(s): Tamar Valley

Stephen Rippon, Peter Claughton and Chris Smart, Mining in a Medieval Landscape – The Royal Silver Mines of the Tamar Valley (University of Exeter Press, 2009), xiii + 207 pages, numerous b & w illustrations including maps and tables. ISBN 9780859898270 (hardback) and 9780859898270 (softback). £60. 00 (hardback) or £20. 00 (softback).

In the far west of Devon is a distinctive and seemingly isolated peninsula, 7 x 5 km, formed by the confluence of the rivers Tamar and Tavy, which was the focus of well-documented and large-scale mining and smelting of silver-bearing lead ores from the late-thirteenth century until the mid-fourteenth century, under direct royal control, with a workforce of several hundred employees. The mines were subsequently leased until closure in the mid-16th century, followed by a revival in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The riverside community of Bere Ferrers and the sizeable town of Bere Alston are the only major settlements among a scatter of farms.

This book is a very welcome study of the medieval activity and its county, national and landscape context. The first two chapters provide useful summary information on the exploitation of copper, gold, iron, lead, silver and tin in medieval Devon. Others explore silver production in more detail, techniques of exploiting, processing and smelting the ores, fuel sources, and the wider mining community. The latter discussion intriguingly suggests that the relatively small sizes of the burgage plots in Bere Alston are a consequence of sub-letting to miners who, in effect, created ‘the first specialist mining town in Britain’.

The mines at Bere Ferrers were located along a narrow north-south lode only 2 km long and about 30–100m wide (see: Fig. 4. 3). The cosmopolitan nature of the enterprise with German miners, the Frescobaldi family of Florence and lessees from Venice, Genoa and Utrecht all playing their part, besides the recruitment of scores of miners from the Derbyshire Peak District and Wales, provides a fascinating glimpse into a sophisticated and interconnected north European world where silver bullion was always in demand. In 1296–7 fifteen per cent of all silver going to the London mint came from Bere Ferrers – it travelled with an armed escort on a return journey of 14–20 days.

The medieval period is extraordinarily well documented with many named miners (including some women) and detailed accounts revealing expenditure on equipment including timber (using local woods, but also drawing on wood from the Plympton area for pumps), charcoal, rope (sometimes from Bridport), tallow, boats, leather buckets, blacksmithing etc. Good use is made by the authors of eighteenth and nineteenth century maps and oral information too.

Smelting was originally in wind-blown ‘boles’, some of which were moveable, and three of them were located on the east side of the River Tavy, but water-powered bellows are documented at Maristow in the 1290s and a ‘fynyng [i.e. refining] myll’ is mentioned in 1480. The cupellation hearth for extracting silver metal from the lead oxide (litharge) required a layer of ash from oak bark which was a by-product of the tanning industry.

In 1298 more than 300 miners were at work with, apparently, 100 tinners employed in digging adits etc for drainage – the latter was potentially deep and dangerous work that hardly justifies the statement (p. 54) that underground work was ‘outside the capabilities of the local tin miners’.

Physical evidence of the medieval mines and smelting sites is still largely elusive, but one of the hydrological wonders of medieval Devon still exists in the form of the 16 km Lumburn leat which took water over the Tavy/Tamar watershed, and through tunnels, to power pumping equipment at the mines in the mid-late 15th century, probably on the initiative of Sir John Fogge. The authors state that the scale of this leat ‘appears to be unique in medieval England’.

With its 17 pages of notes and 20-page bibliography this is a most useful monograph. There are a very few minor errors – ‘Monochorum’ is a consistent misspelling; ‘deforestation’ (p. 33) should be ‘disafforestation’, and ‘moor coal’ (p. 108) is carbonised peat not the peat itself. A few of the maps and photographs have been printed rather too dark, and the index is rather meagre. More surprising is what has been left out – for example, no mention is made of the tenth/eleventh century silver mint at Lydford nor of John Allan’s paper on the topic in these Transactions in 2002. Nor is there discussion of west Dartmoor argentiferous lead (e. g. Mary Tavy; Lydford) as a possible source of medieval silver. This reviewer is not totally convinced by the assertion that the mining remains cut across a pre-existing enclosed landscape – the eighteenth-century map reproduced (Fig. 6.16) in fact suggests that the layout of the field boundaries respects the main mining zone.

In due course, a more substantial book could be written, with even more details drawn from the medieval accounts, including lists of all named personnel, and perhaps reviewing comprehensively all lead mining and smelting activity up to the nineteenth century, as well as data derived from further archaeological field survey and excavation. But the present authors are to be commended on the accessibility, freshness and detail of what they have presented here which should be a terrific stimulus to further study.

Tom Greeves
(First published in Transactions 2010)