Time Periods

Victorian Views

In the 18th and 19th centuries the moor was still largely an industrial and farming landscape. Tin mining was joined by granite and china clay extraction. The marks of these processes are still very visible today. New methods of agriculture were trialled; many of which were not successful. To these were added the first large-scale use of the moor by the military, the building of Dartmoor Prison and a new group of visitor, tourists. Trains started to run to Dartmoor during the first part of the 19th century, which opened up easier communication routes to the rest of the world.

Tin mining and industry grows on the moor

Tin mining technology changed from open cast extraction to shaft mining in order to exploit deeper deposits of cassiterite (a tin ore). The workings may not have been as extensive as the medieval ones, but they left a very prominent mark on the landscape. There were large spoil heaps, areas for processing ore, and distinctive buildings such as windlasses for getting the ore-bearing rock to the surface. Mills for crushing the rock to help extract the ore and other mills for smelting the ore.

Other industrial activities carried out on the moor included copper, zinc, tungsten and iron extraction. Large quantities of granite were quarried and transported off Dartmoor to supply building projects, both locally in Plymouth and also much further afield. The china clay industry, which is still active today, was started in the mid-19th century. White clay is found on Dartmoor, which is suitable for making porcelain type ceramics; although early efforts were not terribly successful. William Cookworthy started the porcelain business in England nearby in Cornwall, but his efforts were not very robust, with most of them breaking soon after, or during, manufacture. His factory in Plymouth closed after only two years in business. Nevertheless, china clay was a valuable resource later on, once the process of porcelain manufacture had been developed, as it meant fine thin white cups and plates could be made instead of the coarser earthenware previously used.

Farming and prisoners of war

There was a brief farming boom in the Victorian period. Large areas of rough land were enclosed into fields and ploughed using huge steam ploughs. By the 1870s the boom had ended and many of these areas were returned to rough grazing.

Dartmoor Prison in Princetown housed its first prisoners in 1809. It took advantage of Dartmoor’s isolation to house thousands of prisoners-of-war from the Napoleonic Wars and the American Wars of 1812. At its peak the prison population numbered some 6,000 souls, many of whom died and were buried on the moor. Their remains were later exhumed and reburied in the prison cemeteries. After the prisoners-of-war were repatriated, from about 1815, the buildings lay empty and fell into disrepair. In 1851 the prison was rebuilt, and used for criminal convicts including some of the most dangerous inmates in Britain. Towards the end of the First World War conscientious objectors, those men who refused to fight on moral grounds, were held prisoner here. Over the years there have been many records of escapes, some more successful than others. A collection can be read on the Legendary Dartmoor website  

Sherlock Holmes encounters an escaped convict from Dartmoor prison in The Hound of the Baskervilles, who falls and breaks his neck on the treacherous rocks. Conan Doyle’s story was inspired by the tale of Squire Robert Cabell, whose ghost (legend tells us) was accompanied by a spectral pack of hounds. His eerie tomb can be visited at the ruined Holy Trinity Church near Buckfastleigh.

The military and artists move onto the moor

Military use of the moor started in the early 1800s and intensified during the century. The use of Dartmoor increased in 1854-6, the time of the Boer War in Southern Africa. Some of the camps in the 1850s to 1880s were large enough for many thousands of men. Coupled with the large number of convicts, this period saw Dartmoor become renowned for mysterious and violent inhabitants.

The ‘wild rocks’ and ‘blasted trees’ of Dartmoor drew artists, photographers, poets and novelist to the moor. They were inspired by what they saw as a romantic and picturesque landscape, a raw untamed wildness that contrasted with the increasingly mechanised world of mankind. These depictions of Dartmoor in turn drew others to visit who longed for direct experience of Nature; this period can be seen as the start of the Dartmoor tourist industry.

Image from Brett Sutherland [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons