The Victorian era witnessed great changes in the way in which Dartmoor was viewed both by those who lived there and further afield. Before this time the region was seen as a forbidding wilderness or a place from which to wrest a living through farming, industry or a combination of both. By the early years of the twentieth century new perspectives had emerged which valued Dartmoor for the beauty of its landscapes, its antiquities and even its health benefits.
These developments have their roots in the emergence in the late 18th and early 19th centuries of a new appreciation of the aesthetic qualities of landscapes. The result on Dartmoor by the start of the Victorian era was a series of publications extolling its natural beauty and the quality of its antiquities. This was followed by the arrival of the railways in the South West from the 1840s which enabled travellers to access the region and appreciate its qualities for themselves. Ultimately, the result was the development of Dartmoor as a tourist destination. The now disused railways of the Wrey Valley and the Princetown line bear testament to these developments as do the many smart Victorian villas which sprang up in settlements like Chagford, Lustleigh and Yelverton, which are still lived in today.
Such changes created a tension between the ways in which Dartmoor was valued by the different groups who used it as new perspectives clashed with old and in 1883 the Dartmoor Preservation Association was founded with the objective of preserving Dartmoor’s unique qualities against what was seen as the ravages of military use, of industry and of uncaring landowners and farmers. Ultimately, one of the consequences of this growth in the conservation movement on Dartmoor was the acknowledgement of the special and valuable nature of the region in its confirmation as a National Park in 1951.
This new Victorian appreciation for Dartmoor also encompassed its archaeological remains. The late 19th century saw the birth of modern archaeology as a discipline so it is unsurprising that Dartmoor’s rich archaeology attracted attention. In 1893 the Dartmoor Exploration Committee was founded by a group, including members of the Dartmoor Preservation Association. The DEC went on to excavate numerous sites across Dartmoor and are responsible for much of our current knowledge of the region’s past.
The changes of the Victorian era on Dartmoor had a lasting legacy in the form a new layer of archaeological and built evidence for the growth of tourism. However, it also saw the emergence of new values and attitudes which lead to the growth of the conservation movement and a recognition of the importance of Dartmoor’s archaeology. These, in combination with older ideas of the region as an agricultural resource, still form the basis of the way in which the National Park is managed today.
Visit the Dartmoor Archive to see early images of Dartmoor.
Find out more about human history on Dartmoor