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Wheal Chance & Nuns:

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from just £12!

A Napoleonic Venture in the Newleycombe Valley

By Tom Greeves

The Newleycombe Valley, extending more or less west-east from Burrator Reservoir to the Devonport Leat tunnel below Nuns Cross, has some of the most extensive and ancient evidence of tinworking to be found on Dartmoor. At its upper end there is a confluence of two streams, one descending from the north-east from Older Bridge and the other from the east below the Nuns Cross tunnel. A well-preserved stamping mill and dressing floor dating to about 1800, with other structures and features, can be found just above the confluence (SX 595 700), and the hill behind to the east, within living memory, was locally known as Chance Hill.1 This is the site of a little-known Dartmoor tin mine called Wheal Chance that was exploited in the early 1800s.

On 30 August 1968 I made a sketch plan and measured features associated with the stamping mill. I noted that the wheelpit was 22 ft (6.7 m) × 2 ft 7 in (0.8 m). The terraced dressing floor has a well-preserved retaining wall against the hillside some 48 ft (14.6 m) long. A buddle pit close to the wheelpit, measures 11 ft (3.4 m) × 4 ft (1.2 m). Phil Newman described the site in more detail, with a useful plan, in an article in 1987.2

The mine is marked and named on two nineteenth-century maps – the earliest dates to 1840 and is a map prepared for James Rendel by surveyor Nathaniel Beardmore of a proposed trans-Dartmoor railway.3 Here it is shown as ‘WEAL CHANCE MINE’ with a shaft just above the Devonport Leat, described (no.148) in the ‘Book of Reference’ as ‘Old tin mine not worked’. The stamping mill is shown as ‘RUIN’ with a description (no.146) as ‘Old ruin with adit mouths’, all being the property of Sir Ralph Lopes. The second map dates from 1873 and is known as the Plymouth Water Base Map.4 It labels Chance Hill as ‘Nuns Hill Common’ and marks ‘Wheal Chance Mine’ diagrammatically with three east-west tin lodes, with ‘Nuns Cross Mine’ shown some distance to the south, also with three lodes. What this suggests is that Wheal Chance had a close association with a mine known as Nuns Cross Mine or plain Nuns, and some of the documentation of the early 1800s refers to the mine as ‘Wheal Chance and Nuns’.

This is clearly the area of a much older tinwork known as ‘Westernun’ which was working in the late 1500s and early 1600s. A dispute between Peter Woodley of Ashburton and William Stockman of Sheepstor reached the Court of Star Chamber in 1608.5 In the 1590s, Peter Woodley’s father, James Woodley, employed labourers and workmen in the tinwork. William Stockman paid their wages and was reimbursed at every ‘wash or delivery’ of tin at the tinwork, at the rate of one gallon of black tin for every 15 shillings he had paid out. By May 1599 Woodley owed Stockman £46 12s. A witnessed memo-randum agreement was drawn up to confirm this but, later, Peter Woodley’s name was allegedly inserted by John Woolcombe, so that it appeared that both James and Peter Woodley were jointly in debt to Stockman. In March 1608 the jury at an Assize Court in Exeter gave a verdict in favour of Stockman against the Woodleys. Peter Woodley therefore asked Star Chamber to subpoena Stockman and John Woolcombe to appear before them. We do not know the outcome of this case, but hopefully more documentation may yet come to light. A mortarstone from a tin stamping mill of this period is incorporated into the wall of a building (SX 5955 7000) adjoining the dressing floor at Wheal Chance.

In January 1995 I came across several bundles of documents including material relating to Wheal Chance, in the Public Record Office (now The National Archives) at Kew in London.6 They reveal that work took place April to August 1806, throughout the whole of 1807, and January to October 1808, incurring total costs of £1335 12s. 5½d. Further costs of ‘Wheal Chance & Nuns Mines’ are given for June to December 1809 and January to August 1810. More work took place in June, July and August 1812.

The mine was divided into 64 × 1/64 shares under the management of John Webb who published Weekly Prices of Mines in June 1806.7 These listed eleven mines of which four were in Cornwall and the rest on Dartmoor. They included Wheal Chance, a tin mine in the parish of Walkhampton, begun on 1 January 1806, with a price of £22 10s. per 64th share. In 1807 he published in London a Prospectus of Mr Webb’s Plan for Exploring Mines Together With the Original and Present Prices of Mines.8 Among fifteen mines listed in September 1807 is ‘Wheal Chance & Nuns’ begun in April 1806 and stated to be ‘raising Ore’. £150 out of a fund of £800 had been spent. The original share price of £22 10s was by then £31 10s.

Twenty-two shareholders are listed as having acquired the 64 shares as follows (compiled from more than one list):
4/64 John Hunter Esq.
3/64 Thomas Dixon
2/64 Joseph Goddard
4/64 Mr. Wm Gorton
4/64 Mr. G.B. Mainwaring
2/64 Mr. Robt. Nassaw [?] Sutton
1/64 Mr. Iain Hunter
1/64 Mr. Vilott/Vilett
1/64 Mr. James Christie
2/64 Mr. Thomas Rogers
2/64 Mr. John Warner
2/64 Mr. W.H. White
1/64 Mr. Wm Harvey
1/64 Mr. Thomas Forster
1/64 Jarvis Howe
1/64 Miss McDonald
1/64 Mr. Peter De la Pierre
1/64 Mr. Robert Botley
2/64 Mr. James Hibden
8/64 Sir Thomas Clarges
2/64 Mr. Matthew Wilson
18/64 John Webb [this number would appear to include Elizabeth, Caroline and Hariot Webb, each of whom held a 1/64 share according to one list]

Employees 1809-1810

Andrews & Co. supplied rope in November 1809.
James Carpenter of Tavistock was the Mine Captain. He was connected with East Crowndale Mine in March 18119 and may be the Captain Carpenter of Bachelors Hall Mine who, in May 1808, was described by Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt as ‘a man of the most profligate character’.10 He was regularly paid £1 per month for attendance at Wheal Chance.
Mr Davey was paid for surveying and report-ing on the mine in 1810.
Thomas Mayne and partner were sinking a shaft on Deep Adit, and driving on the lode east for 93 fms @ 50s. per fathom in July 1809. They drove the adit end east for 6 fms at 40s. per fathom in August 1809. In September 1809 they drove the adit another 6 fms eastwards @ 36s. per fathom, and also a further 3 fms 4 ft 5 in at 48s. per fathom. They were also ‘Making Leat’, ‘Driving North’ and ‘Loading Tin’ that month. In October 1809 they continued driving the adit (6 fms @ 36s. and 2 fms 2 ft @ 72s.). In November 1809 they drove the adit a further 3 fms @ 72s. and another 6 fms 2 ft 4 in @ £2 12s. 6d. per fathom (the total adit length recorded is 128 fms 4 ft 5 ins or 257 yards/235 m).
William Mean and partner were paid £10 as ‘Cash Advanced on Tin’ in December 1809, £17 6s. for the same in January 1810 and £6 in February 1810.
Thomas Moyle and partner were sinking a shaft and clearing an adit in June 1809.
Daniel Pomery supplied turf in August 1809.
John Reed was paid for Carriage and for Shovel Hilts in October 1809.
Thomas Reed was paid ‘for Carriage’ in August 1809.
Granby Russell was paid £6 8s. 2d. ‘for Timber & Labour’ in February 1810 and was also paid for carpentry work between March and August 1810. He was from Walkhampton and in 1818-1819 he petitioned the Vice-Warden of the Stannaries against the proprietors of Whiteworks Mine who owed him £16 9s. 6d. for work and materials.11
Thomas Teague was providing horse hire each month from June 1809 to August 1810 and was also paid for ‘Attendance & Book keeping’ in December 1809 and from August to December 1810. He also had a payment for ‘Surveying the Mines & giving the report of the same’.

Other Documentation

Tin was sold to ‘St Austle Blowing Ho’ on 22 September 1809 for £27 6s. On 18 June 1810 tin worth £36 16s. 3d. was sold to the same smelter – Thomas Mayne and partners were paid £42 14s. 10d. ‘for Tribute’ on these sales, i.e. they would have struck a bargain to have a proportion of the value of the tin they extracted rather than a wage payment. The cost of taking tin ‘from Dartmoor to Truro’ in 1810 was £4 6s.
Postage and Stamps cost 8s. 9d. in December 1809. Dues of £3 4s. were paid to ‘Bounders’ between March and August 1810.
Total expenses between June 1809 and December 1810 were £304 10s. 7d., with income of £93 0s. 3d., leaving a deficit of £211 10s. 4d.

No paperwork relating to the year 1811 has yet come to light, but 1812 proved to be a significant year. On 25 May 1812 a meeting was held at the Crown & Anchor Tavern ‘of the late and present Adventurers in Wheal Chance and Nuns Tin Mine’ under the chairmanship of Sir Thomas Clarges. Joseph Goddard was represented by his attorney Mr Price and William Henry White by his attorney Mr Ellis. Four others were present – William Gorton, Thomas Dixon, Peter De la Pierre, and John Webb. It was resolved ‘that Mr Gullett be requested to apply to Mrs. Lister for the delivery up of all Books and Papers in her possession relating to this Mine’. Mr De la Pierre relinquished his share in the mine.

It is clear that some work on the mine continued in June and July 1812 as costs are itemised. Richard Browning and partner worked on ‘a bargain in the adit…securing a shaft etc’ and were paid £2 for work extending 10 fms 1 in @ 4s. per fathom. Granby Russell was paid 10s. 6d. for a wheelbarrow. Capt. Peter Coade charged for horse hire for several journeys to the mine and also to Exeter. He also paid the men on the mine. Nicholas Moore was paid for ‘sundry work’, a lock & key were bought for 2s., and a letter was posted for 9½d.
On 26 July 1812 James Carpenter wrote from Tavistock to John Gullett, solicitor of Bedford Circus, Exeter saying,
by the adit being Idle so long a time I fear the adit is greately damaged and the Expence clearing the same is likely to be Much More than the Estimation I gave Mr Webb to give Sir Thos Clarges some time back – as we shall want Timber almost Immediately but the Expences in Clearing the adit cannot be accurately ascertained as yet as no Person can go throw it to see the Damage – you will be Please to send me as soon as you get acquainted with the Intent of the adventurers on the same and give me orders if I shall order for Timber and other such small material as Necessity may Require – the Eigth of august is the day Fixt for Payment of the Men that work in the Mine – if you could send the Balance the other side by that time you will oblige…I think the Estimation I gave Mr Webb for clearing the Nuns adit was something about £20.

The last known documentation for Wheal Chance & Nuns is dated 28 September 1812 in the form of another letter from James Carpenter to John Gullett. It includes a statement of costs totalling £17 8s. 2d. for August 1812. These itemise Richard Browning and John Lary [?] on unspecified (presumably underground) work for four weeks at 20s. each per week. Richard Browning is probably to be identified with the miner of that name from Walkhampton, married to Catherine, who had three children (Maria, Sarah and William) baptised at Walkhampton between 1819 and 1824.12 Candles delivered in July and August cost £2 2s., a new shovel 2s. 8d., and Timber £2.
Carpenter writes:
the Men belonging to the Nuns Mine Left off working at the End of August Last – In consequence of no remittance – I have sent you Two Letters but Recd no answer from Either – I hope you will be so good as to answer this – and Point out which way these Men is to be Paid for there Labour in the Nuns Mine – or what Prospects have you got in future for Paying them. I am limited [?] with them for Money and it must be a great hardship on there Part to be kept without there money as they are Poor men and of Famileys - …If you have any Prospects of the Money being Paid soon Please to give me orders to draw upon you for the amount whereby the Poor Labourers may be paid for such a Conduct is quit [sic] shameful – I do not a Tribute any fault to you but to your Imployers – I suppose if they should send money to you I should have Remittance Ere this – I hope you will use Every Effort to get the thing settled. If I am to draw upon you Please to let me know what date wether or no you will be so good as to write me…

Some fifty years later, in the early 1860s, Nuns Cross Tin Mine had a brief spell of activity13 and may have included some of the workings of Wheal Chance. But it is the rare documentation for the Napoleonic era of the early 1800s that most vividly brings to life the activity of tinners at the head of the Newleycombe Valley.

Notes and References

  1. Hemery, E. (1983) High Dartmoor – Land & People (Robert Hale, London), 137, who is somewhat vague about its location and calls it ‘Chants Hill’; TG Notebook 2.4.1978: conversation with Frank Coaker (born at Swincombe 1906) who referred to a building a short distance below the Devonport Leat (SX 598 699) as ‘Well Chance’ – a remarkable survival of the name some 165 years after the mine’s closure.
  2. Newman, P. (1987) ‘Two Small Mines in the Newleycombe Valley’, Dartmoor Magazine, 8, Autumn 1987, 8-10.
  3. Devon Heritage Centre QS/DP/148.
  4. Plymouth & West Devon Record Office WW17.
  5. The National Archives STAC 8/304/22.
  6. The National Archives C14/115.
  7. Duchy of Cornwall Office, London.
  8. Devon Heritage Centre 1311M/Deeds/4/6.
  9. Royal Cornwall Gazette 23 March 1811.
  10. DuCo London/Bundle – Bachelors Hall Mine 1799-1825/Thos. Tyrwhitt to R. Gray, 5 May 1808.
  11. Greeves, T. (1980) ‘A History of Whiteworks Mine Part One: 1790-1848’, Plymouth Mineral & Mining Club Journal 11 no. 2, September 1980, 11-16.
  12. Walkhampton Parish Registers – supplied by Elisabeth Stanbrook.
  13. Hamilton Jenkin, A.K. (1974) Mines of Devon Volume 1: The Southern Area (David & Charles, Newton Abbot) 90.