Those who have encountered Dartmoor have interpreted it in numerous different ways; as a source of grazing, a dangerous wilderness or a place of tranquility and recreation. However, until relatively recently it was also seen as a place to be exploited for its other resources, a view which has left a rich legacy of industrial archaeology.
Tin extraction is the best known Dartmoor industry. Although probably dating back millennia, surviving documents tell us it reached its peak during the later medieval period, the industry being administered in four ‘stannaries’ based at Tavistock, Plympton, Ashburton and Chagford.
Initially, extraction focussed on the easily accessible weathered ore deposits concentrated in stream valleys, using water to wash and sort the ore. By the 15th century, these deposits were becoming exhausted and the tinners began mining the tin deposits directly, either by digging huge opencast cuts along the line of the lodes, or by sinking shafts along the lode. Underground mining for tin continued into the 20th century. As a result of this long history large areas of Dartmoor are covered by entire landscapes composed of a variety of features associated with tin exploitation at different stages of its development.
A range of other mineral deposits were also mined on Dartmoor, especially from the 18th century onwards. Prominent are those of copper and silver-lead, both of which were worked in the long-lived mining district around Mary Tavy on the western edge of Dartmoor into the 20th century. More unusual commodities were also mined in the region, such as specular hematite in the Wray Valley, and barytes at Bridford.
The granite forming the bedrock of the moor has been exploited for centuries, initially simply by taking the weathered stone lying on the surface. However, as the suitability of granite as a building stone became more widely appreciated, industrial quarrying began from the late 18th century. These endeavours also resulted in the construction of transport infrastructure in the shape of a tramway linking the Princetown quarries with Plymouth which later developed into a formal railway and the famous Haytor granite tramway.
A product of intensive weathering of granite is China Clay, deposits of which occur on the south-western fringes of the moor and have been exploited in large open-cast pits since the early 19th century.
Finally, a series of rather more esoteric ventures have also been undertaken on Dartmoor during recent centuries. Peat has been exploited for centuries on Dartmoor, but during the 19th centuries attempts were made at production on an industrial scale in several locations. Gunpowder manufacture has also left distinctive and remains in the form of a factory near Postbridge which operated between c.1846 and 1897. Finally, perhaps the most unusual industrial endeavour to have been attempted on Dartmoor was the manufacture of ice in a facility consisting mostly of a series of ponds which operated on the slopes of Sourton Tor between 1875 and 1886.
Find out more about human history on Dartmoor