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Maintaining an Edge - Devon's unique whetstone industry PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Al Findlay   
Friday, 10 May 2013 14:35

In January this year Devon lost one of its foremost local historians - Robin Stanes, who died at home in Exeter, aged 90. His long and varied career included wartime service on the notorious Arctic convoys and a 15 year stint as a farmer in south Devon, an experience he never forgot and which coloured his historical work with a profound appreciation of landscape. In this respect he was a very modern historian, using all types of information that helped bring history to life. His "History of Devon" published in 1986 remains a standard work for anyone who wants a thorough but readable history of the county. His efforts to encourage local historians through the Devon History Society - largely an organisation of his own making - continues to bear fruit as the Society enters its 41st year.

maintaing an edgeAs a minor tribute, the following is a brief summary of an exemplary piece of local historical research that Robin did in the early 1990s - a detailed and intriguing account of the history of the east Devon whetstone industry in the Blackdown Hills. Those who want to read the original (highly recommended) will find it in Honiton Library or the Devon Heritage Centre at Sowton ("Devonshire Batts: The Whetstone Mining industry and the community of Blackborough in the Blackdown Hills" in Transactions of the Devonshire Association, Vol 125, 1993. An update of that article is in Devon & Cornwall Notes and Queries 2000 Vol. 96- No. 38. If your interest goes further you might also like to read "Devon’s Non-metal Mines" by Richard Edwards published by Halsgrove, 2011).

Whetstones were available wherever metal working was common, and in modern times the widespread availability of steel edge tools made sure they remain in considerable demand. The Devonshire Batt, as it was called, was widely acknowledged as a very high quality, durable whetstone. The stones from which the batts were carved were mined along a considerable stretch of the Blackdown Hills from Uffculme in the north to Hembury Fort in the south. The white spoil heaps from these mines were so close together on the hillside that they were visible as a near continuous whitish stripe along the face of the hill, easily visible from around Fairmile, north of Ottery (among other places).

The stones were originally picked up by local farmers from the streamheads of the many rills that rise on the flanks of the Blackdowns, but mining and manufacture of the shaped batts for sale seems to have begun in the late 17th century and was certainly well established by the 1750s. The mines themselves were driven horizontally into the hillside for anything up to 400 yards to where seems of the whetstone rocks were discoverable. The tunnels were 5 - 6 ft wide at the entrance, but were widened further inside to allow two men with wheelbarrows to pass each other. Then the whetstone seems were exhausted the mines were simply left to collapse.

Many mine shafts were concentrated at Ponchydown on the scarp face of the hill above Blackborough village. Once the raw material was mined - in lumps the size of a horse's head, it was roughly cut into long blocks by a special hand tool shaped like a small double headed adze, and the rough cut pieces then passed on for final shaping and smoothing, usually by the wives and daughters of the miners' families. The rate of production from the mines as a whole was anything up to 10,000 a week in peak demand, most of it sold on to wholesalers and shipped to distributors in the south and midlands areas of England and Wales throughout the late 18th and most of the 19th century.

The miners and their families could live reasonably well on the profits from sales of their whetstones, earning weekly up to three times the wage of an agricultural labourer. As such, leases on the mines tended to remain with families, who, as far as they were able, would operate a closed shop on access to the mines. In 1841 there were an estimated seventy miners active in Blackborough and Kentisbeare, a figure which alters little until the 1870's when they fall to fifteen (1871) and then six (1881).

Although remunerative, the work was not conducive to good health. Chalk dust inside the tunnels, and the "smeech" or fine dust arising from shaping the stones, made sure that the miners lives were cut short any one of a number of lung diseases - consumption, gangrene of the lungs, tuberculosis prominent among them. Of the 151 miners recorded over five censuses, only four (2.6%) had made it over 60 years of age, and nineteen (12.5%) to over 50 years.

In the 1870s the mines were becoming exhausted and, facing rising competition from manmade carborundum stones, they began to close down. By 1910 there were three mines left. The decline continued until a sole miner, John Rookley, was left in work. He continued until 1929 and with his departure the industry finally ceased.

Descendants of miners' families still exist around the Blackdowns, and the remains of the old pits are also still visible along the footpath running above the village at Blackborough. The industry is outlined for visitors on an AONB interpretation panel sited at the entrance to the churchyard (the church is no longer there). It's well worth a stroll along the front of the mine entrances, reflecting on the hive of activity that would once have surrounded you there.

Chris Wakefield
Ottery Heritage Society

Picture caption:
Peter Orlando Hutchinson visited the mines in September 1854, when he made this watercolour sketch. Picture courtesy of the East Devon AONB and the Devon Heritage Centre