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The History of Dartmoor (History Section)

Mon. 22 March 2021 at 2:00 pm


To be held by Zoom video conferencing

A talk by Paul Rendell exploring the history of Dartmoor from the Bronze Age to the present day.

Paul Rendell, also known as ’Dartmoor Paul’, is a keen local historian, and has written many
articles for newspapers and magazines and wrote his first book, called ‘Exploring the Lower
Walkham Valley’. In 1991 he founded the ‘Dartmoor News’, a bi-monthly magazine which he still
edits today.

Report on the talk

Paul Rendell gave members an interesting illustrated talk on the History of Dartmoor – from the Bronze Age to the present day.

4,000 years ago, Dartmoor was a stunted woodland. Then Bronze Age man came along and cut down the trees and built houses. For his round house, Bronze Age man used local granite and wood with, possibly, turf for the roof. At that time the climate of Devon was much warmer and most of the county was swampy and hot but Dartmoor was more pleasant for humans. They built stone roads and buried the bones of the dead in tombs but about 100BC the climate changed again. Dartmoor became wet and cold and the people left.

During Medieval times Dartmoor was a dangerous place to be so people went around the moor rather than across it. The clapper bridge at Postbridge was built around 1300 so that people could cross the River Dart with ease.

In the sixteenth century Plymouth was becoming important and there was a need for fresh water. Under the Mayor, Francis Drake, money was raised to build a leat from springs on Dartmoor but the original money raised was spent on the Armada in order to defeat the Spanish. Eventually the leat opened in the 1590s to enable fresh water to flow into Plymouth.

Dartmoor has always been economically active. Farming has always been practised, farmers being tenants of the Duchy of Cornwall. The longhouses that the farmers lived in previously are important in the heritage of Dartmoor. Originally the door was in the middle and the family lived on the left of the house and their animals lived on the right. The heat from the cattle kept the house warm and bracken from the moor was used for their bedding.

From the twelfth century tin was important and exported across Europe. Some tin miners became wealthy and built large houses. Mills were built for wool or bread and the Lord of the Manor held his Court at Lustleigh.

By the nineteenth century the Industrial Revolution was beginning and the farmers of Dartmoor were needing tools for their work. Thus Finch Foundry was established, using a water wheel for power, to make tools for the farmers and miners of the moor. It continued in use until the 1960s and is now owned by the National Trust.

Also in the nineteenth century a factory making gunpowder was built near Postbridge, again using a water wheel for power. Built with a flimsy roof so that any explosion went upwards and caused less damage, the factory closed in the 1890s after dynamite was invented. The ruins of the factory are still visible today.

Coming from an idea of the secretary of the Duchy of Cornwall, Dartmoor prison was built to house French prisoners from the Napoleonic wars and opened in 1809. Built to hold 5,000 prisoners, 11,000 Frenchmen were incarcerated there which led to a significant death toll. American prisoners from the War of 1812 were also held there. Consequently there are two war cemeteries, one French and one American and in the American one there is a plaque naming all the American servicemen who died there. Lying empty for many years after peace was made in 1815, the Dartmoor prison opened for convicts in 1850. Its closure is now planned.

Railways came to Dartmoor in the nineteenth century. In 1820 a stone built railway was constructed to move granite to Plymouth and on to London for building and this was converted to a steam railway in 1880. It was a very busy line for both freight and for bringing prisoners to the prison but there were always problems in the winter months when the snow prevented the trains from getting through. The line closed in 1956.

At one time there were 32 railway stations around Dartmoor bringing tourists to the area. Tourism really began in the 1860s and this is when letterboxing also began. Bovey Tracey had a station and it was very popular with visitors from London who could enjoy a day trip to Dartmoor from the capital.

In the 1890s Burrator reservoir was constructed, displacing farmers who lived in the area to be submerged. Not ones to give up, the farmers began offering tours in the area! In the 1920s the dam was raised by 10 feet to supply the increase in water demanded by Plymouth and a suspension bridge had to be built to allow access to Sheepstor. A railway halt was available at the reservoir.

The military came to Dartmoor in the 1870s. First arriving for a training exercise in August 1873, Okehampton camp was built a few years later. During World War II the Americans trained on the moor and the whole area was out of bounds to the public for the duration of the conflict. During that war at least 40 planes crashed on Dartmoor.

Dartmoor became a National Park in 1951 and changes occurred. Industry had ended and now activities on the moor are farming and tourism. In 1962 the railway line to Princetown was closed but the last train timetabled could not leave because of a heavy fall of snow. During the twenty-first century the Tour of Britain cycle race has been a regular attraction that has boosted visitors to the moor even further.

Paul ended his illustrated talk by answering questions.

Paul Rendell’s talk was recorded and is available to DA members on request to Ian Varndell.

Chris Reader
April 2021


Mon. 22 March 2021
2:00 pm
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History Section


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