For many years, Horrabridge suffered from a general warning that houses here had been known to fall down sudden holes.


There was something in it and there are still corners of little woods where dogs can disappear and children are warned never to go, although their grandads used to.


During the 19th century, the valley had at least five competing mines and was honeycombed with shafts which dropped down up to 160 fathoms – a thousand feet – and tunnels leading off them and stairways connecting them and ditches carrying water to drive pumps at the surface. They even dug under the river and up the other side, according to local legend.


There is a record of a Victorian gent up towards Plasterdown opening his pantry door and finding a hole 300 feet deep. Most useful for dropping things down, he noted at the time. And the same has occurred to people since. Word is there is one hole, the old Sortridge Consols main shaft we think, which is filled with upended Cortinas disposed of by joyriders in the 1960s. No doubt somebody got a few quid for taking no notice.


Others were plugged with upended trees. A few remain deep and dark inside the remnants of barbed wire fences in thickets on land nobody is going to build on anyway.

The old spoil heaps were largely cleared away during wartime, for construction of RAF Harrowbeer, and later for landscaping of the riverside through the village park and playing fields.


There was a scare in the 1980s when Copperfields, on the edge of the village towards the old Wheal Franco mine site, was just built and a pit opened up under one house. Eventually, the matter was settled financially and the house was saved, although with a slight stain on its name for a while. Otherwise, there has been nothing much for some time to remind the village of its rooting tooting frontier past.

In 1865, Horrabridge was reported to be a village of 1233 souls, mainly living off mining and manufacture. That is several hundred bigger than it was after the mining closed down. Many of the miners were travelling men. They were paid an allowance for living away from home and there must have been a lot of lodging, but some just slept in the pubs when they had finished drinking. The miners tramped paths all over South West Dartmoor, moving from job to job, and the paths got lined with pubs. Some landlords would rig ropes they could lay their heads on for a penny a night.


They were all gone by 1910, done in by competition from the likes of Malaya and Australia.


The local mining tradition goes back 3,000 years, to the discovery that if you mixed copper and tin, you got bronze, which was hard enough to sharpen into a tool for getting out of the stone age. Devon and Cornwall had copper and tin and the expertise to smelt it. The 18th and 19th century deep mines around here produced some of both but in the old days the trade was mostly in tin, which could be found on or near the surface around Dartmoor waterways, where the ground is what miners call “quick”, meaning moving very slowly and bringing things with it.

Lead and arsenic are often found with copper and tin and there was a market for those too. Most of the local mines produced some of all these metals. Arsenic appears to have been widely used as a wood preservative as well as an insecticide – effecrive but dangerous as hell, and not good for the local water supply. There must have been a lot of unrecognised poisoning going oninHorrabridge, from leakage from the mines into the water wells.


Amy Mobbs, a local teacher and historian who wrote the last serious Horrabridge history book, has the following notes on the early tinners …

“At first the tin was probably lying on the surface when streams and rivers, swollen by rain, cut deep gullies and exposed the tin-stone pebbles and gravel. Tinners would have obtained their ore by streaming” – that is, by working their way up valleys such as the Walkham, getting heavy black stones containing ore. They heated these stones in a hole in the ground for the first smelting. The second more refined smelting took place at an authorised town, which for this district was Tavistock.

“In Horrabridge there has been found circumstantial evidence of an improved method of smelting which was introduced in the Middle Ages. This was ‘blowing houses’ built of granite with a roof of thatch. The ruins of a blowing house can be seen on the R. Walkham above Merrivale Bridge, where there is a pit which once contained a water wheel. This wheel would have worked a large pair of bellows to blow a strong blast through the furnace inside the blowing house, where the prepared ore was changed into molten metal. This was ladled into granite moulds and cast into blocks weighing one or two hundredweights.”


Miss Mobbs credits Mr W Taylor for the following notes:

“When stream tin was exhausted the next step was to find an underground lode of tin. A shaft was sunk, 5 or 6 feet long, 2 or 3 fet broad and 7 or 8 feet deep. If a lode was not found, another attempt was made, usuallty to the west of the first attempt, for the tinners thought that the flood moved in that direction.”

Taylor said the miners learnt by experience how the “quick” ground bearing the tin ore moved into the water courses and how to trace it back up the hillsides. Sometimes they also used diviners. But huge amounts of shovel work were required.


Miss Mobbs also found a traveller’s diary of a visit to a mine near St Ives in 1780, which must have been quite typical, judging by Morwellham and other remains:

“We had to descend by ladders, perpendicularly mounted, which in many cases had some staves wanting. Having descended about 30 fathoms, we quitted the ladders and walked, or rather crawled, through an adit of some length, but before we had the power of reaching the end of it, we heard the vessel ascending which is drawn up filled with water from the bottom of the mine and which emptied itself into the passage where we were … pouring in a torrent against us and wetting us nearly to our middle. It seems the people above did not know we were there and had resumed work after their dinner hour. Our guide flew up over the ladders and succeeded in stopping them.

“We descended to another landing place, on the verge of a dark deep gulph, over which was placed a single plank only about a foot wide and 15 long. With my candle in one hand and the side of the plank held fast by the other, I slowly ventured over on my knees. Onward we went, climbing up and down, just as the miners found it most easy to dig, till at last we arrived at the body of tin which they were then working, about 70 or 80 fathoms below the surface.

“On our arrival at the top, I found myself wet through, in the dirtiest state imaginable, and in a most profuse perspiration.”


There were several bad accidents, not much commemorated. Thanks again to Miss Mobbs for this extract from the Western Morning News of the 14th of May 1866:

“On Saturday at noon a dreadul accident occurred at Furzehill Wood Mine, about a half mile from Horrabridge Station on the Plymouth to Tavistock Railway on land chiefly belonging to Sir Massey Lopes (Baronet), in which 7 miners and one boy lost their lives. Close to the mine which is now being worked for tin are old workings of the same mine which have never been worked in the memory of the oldest inhabitant and althuogh deep excavations are known to exist their exact direction or situation were unknown.

On Saturday morning at 6 o’clock the deceased descended the shaft and engaged themselves in driving the 40-fathom level in an easterly direction when, it seems, they infortunately tapped the old workings, in which an immense body of water had accumulated, and no sooner did they break through than the water overtook them and instantly caused their deaths.

The names of the deceased are Henry John Fox, 45, John Fox his son, 15, William Elford, 39, Michael Yeo, 27, of Buckland Milton, Thomas Wootton, 26, of Buckland Monachorum, Silas Pike, 22, H. Thomas, 20, and Benjamin Gorman.”

(These  essays are draft  chapters in a proposed new Book of Horrabridge – please chip in)


It seems fair to say that Horrabridge for long had a reputation as a fighting town, especially in the 19th century, when it was the drinking arena for hundreds of travelling miners. But at the same time, for many of the same reasons, it was a hothouse for fundamentalist Christianity. Here’s an amateur historian’s attempt to look back through the wrong end of a telescope …

The chapel movement, a ferment of ideas and passion about what God really wanted, has roots going back to before the Reformation. In the 16th century, Henry VIII took advantage of a bubbling revolt against the establishment Church, as designed by Rome and the kings and queens who believed they were blessed by Papal authority. But the Church of England was not enough of a change to stop the questioning which had been unleashed by new translations, and publications, of the Bible.

The idea that any man, not only a trained priest, could find the truth in it and argue about its meaning, was an intoxicating one, especially for the poor, looking for a hope that they might by their own efforts change their lives, change what they had always been told was Destiny – mysteriously random, unquestionable and unstoppable.

In the 17th century, Oliver Cromwell and his Puritans turned this working-class rebellion into a revolution. But their brutality and intolerance swung the English back to an arrangement they at least understood – a king in charge of a national church and a bit of tolerance for dissent.

That was far from the end of the matter, however.

While the Catholics and the high-church Protestants continued their see-saw tussles for power in the monarchies and aristocracies, the people continued to seek something new. The Protestants found their own protesters rising against them: the Puritans, the Baptists, the Quakers, the Calvinists, the Lutherans, the Congregationalists, the Arminians , the Moravians …

Religious rebellion became associated with political rebellion. The big churches were still seen as agents of the landed gentry. And the dissenters began to hold their money back for their own champions. Why should they pay for a big baffling church, still run by a Latin-reading elite, when they could hear a service they understood in their own houses and dispense their own charity to their own families and neighbours?

Methodism started as an attempt to make the Anglican Church more sympathetic to the masses – less about ritual and hierarchy and more about morality and debate. One of its fathers, John Wesley, remained a Church of England minister all his life although he laid the foundations for the new church.

After visiting Tavistock in 1789, he wrote afterwards: “A poor man asked me to preach and I began in a quarter of an hour, the preaching house being full directly, but with so poor a congregation as I have not seen before for twice seven years.”

And he had just come up from Cornwall.

If it was that desperate in Tavistock, imagine what it was like in Horrabridge. And in Horrabridge the Church of England was barely present. In 1438, Buckland Abbey licensed a site for a church where St John’s Church stands today and the monks apparently had a small outpost chapel there for a while. But in 1566 Henry VIII forced the sale of all their lands and either then or earlier, the Horrabridge property was developed for housing and left that way. The faithful had to walk to Sampford Spiney or Buckland or Tavistock. Meanwhile, radical preachers were arriving all the time, from the port city of Plymouth, from the proto-socialist valleys of Wales, from the historically awkward wilds of Cornwall and from the reading and talking classes of the village itself.

Many of the old cottages became makeshift chapels and schools and Sunday schools. And differences of emphasis in their teachings became splits over the path to salvation. Baptism was one major point of difference. Old Anglicans were still inclined to think a bit of blessed water on the forehead of a baby was enough of a recruitment ceremony. Many chapels insisted it was a transformation which a soul had to prepare for and demanded total faith and total immersion.

On baptism and other matters, obscure references in the Old Testament were argued up into hard rules. Long-lost prophets became cults. And charismatic preachers made their own interpretations of what the Bible actually said.

The author Patrick O’Brian, writing 1969-1999, told stories of the era of Napoleon through the eyes of Jack Aubrey of the Royal Navy, hero of the film Master & Commander. Although fictional, the Aubrey books were based on deep research into the memoirs, ship’s logs and other chronicles of the time. Several stories touch on the difficulties of dealing with crewmen from a fictitious Cornish village called Shelmerston, brought up on the superstitions of The Sethians. For Shelmerston it seems O’Brian probably had Appledore in North Devon in mind, which he knew a little.

There was actually a sect called The Sethians, which still survives here and there, tracing its line of true prophets back through Jesus to the third son of Adam and Eve. And North Devon did have a place in the spread, from Cornwall, of another Methodist strand known as The Bible Christians, distinguished originally by their commitment to vegetarianism, equality for women (who were encouraged as preachers) and missionary work as far around the world as they could reach with the aid of pennies from the poor.

They were also hard against alcohol and gambling, but that was common to all of the Methodists. What were the problems of mankind? Staring you in the face.

In 1880, it was recorded that Horrabridge had seven pubs and a reputation for street brawls. In 1952, an old villager recalled seeing a policeman thrown in the river, when he was a boy, for interfering in a miners’ fight.

But along with the drinkers came thinkers. In 1802, a miner from St Austell was holding Baptist meetings in Horrabridge. There was a Quaker community with links to Tavistock. In 1815, the Bible Christians broke from the Wesleyans in Cornwall and they became a presence in the village too, as they evangelised their way up the country.

But it was the more mainstream Wesleyans who built the first non-conformist chapel in the village in 1832 – on Chapel Lane, where a small cemetery remains to mark the spot. It was from that congregation that a village carpenter, Isaac Foot, emerged as a preacher and leader of men, moved to Plymouth and got involved in radical politics. One of his sons, also Isaac, became a Liberal Party MP and so did a grandson, Sir Dingle. And one of Dingle’s brothers, Michael Foot, was leader of the Labour Party in opposition from 1980 to 1983. Other Foots were also influential, and Horrabridge still remembers its connection with them with some pride.

The Bible Christians opened their own purpose-built headquarters just a couple of years after the Wesleyans – in the building which is now Horrabridge Village Hall, opposite the London Inn.

A government survey of places of worship on Sunday March 31 1851 was told that 45 people attended the Bible Christians’ morning service and 110 the evening service. For some reason, there is no record in that census of the Wesleyan performance. For some other reason, presumably financial, the hall was sold in 1866 to the Church of England, which took it over as a mission centre for visiting clergy. The Bible Christians took the money and went to work on their Ebenezer Chapel, which opened in 1878 – now a private dwelling with unusual windows, on the right hand side of the Whitchurch Road out of the village. Ebenezer was a common name for various kinds of Methodist chapel, probably referring to a stone rallying point built by the Israelites during a battle with the Philistines in Old Testament history.

The Bible Christians are still around in some places today and they were still big enough in Horrabridge in the first half of last century to rebuild the Ebenezer in 1909 and run it until 1959. Nobody local can now remember what their doctrinal difference was all about. In living memory, the Ebenezer was just another place to go to Sunday School.

Theoretically, most of the non-conformist factions had ironed out most of their differences and since an agreement in 1907 had been working together as the United Methodist Church. But there must have been some residual sense of separateness among the Ebenezers.

The rest of the chapel community, however, led by the Wesleyans, decided their Chapel Lane meeting house was no longer good enough and raised the money for a new inclusive and grander chapel, started in 1909, and still standing on Station Road, a block up the hill from the London Inn.

Meanwhile, in 1893, the Anglicans opened the existing St John’s Church, incorporating some remnants of the long-lost 15th-century chapel found amongst the stones on the site. Their most recent chapel – the parish hall – was deconsecrated and its wooden font moved to Buckland Monachorum, where it can still be seen.

For the next hundred years, the Anglicans and the Methodists split the worship and the weddings and the christenings and the Sunday schooling between them. But in 2008, the Methodists gave up the struggle and did a deal to share St John’s. It looked like the end for their lovely old chapel, which lost more slates and took in more damp every year and was widely expected to become either one grand private house or a small nest of social housing flats.

But at the beginning of the year 2020, the Tavistock Methodist Circuit has just unveiled detailed plans to rescue it and renovate it and turn it into a mission centre and community facility including 80-seat auditorium, cafe space, play area and worship rooms. It looks like an investment of at least £250,000, on top of the appointment of a Methodist outreach worker who has been building a network of talk and worship groups for three years.

In February 2020, the Horrabridge Times reported:

Asked what had changed since the chapel closed, about 12 years ago, one of the village hall team said: “Everything changes all the time. Sometimes a tree dies but a seed falls into the ground. We have faith that this seed is ready to mature.”

looking forward to your comments and corrections …

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Editor of The Horrabridge Times.

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