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Shaugh Prior Parish Council

History and the Evolution of the Landscape


Shaugh Prior Parish has an amazing variety of landscapes. Some years ago it was common for local residents to beat the bounds of the parish (Has any one done this recently?) If you have tried this 32 mile hike then the variety of landscapes will have been obvious to you. In the West is the deep wooded gorge of the Plym valley; to the North are the dramatic treeless moorlands of Dartmoor; to the East one finds the magnificent moonscape of the 'china clay country' and as you travel South the rugged landscapes give way to the gentle rolling farmland of the 'in country' of South Hams.

These landscapes have resulted from the action of humans working in the natural environment over thousands of years..... the moorland landscape bears the marks of humans who lived here over 2,000 years ago while the china clay landscape is not more than 150 years old. Each area has its own story to tell and each story is different!

The first visitors

The earliest humans to set eyes on this area were probably Mesolithic hunters over 5,000 years ago. Dartmoor was very cold at the end of the ice ages. Despite this, in the summer months, the hunters who lived near the coast would arrive to chase the abundant game which roamed the area. Some people think they cleared woodland on the edge of the moor for temporary camps. Could there have been a camp near Shaugh? If these hunters did visit this area we have no evidence of their activities.

The early settlers

As time went on we know that particular places on Dartmoor, like the valley slopes of the River Plym, became very popular with settlers. The Bronze Age people were pastoral farmers who arrived in this area over 3,000 years ago. They lived in small round huts built of granite boulders and wood with thatched or turfed roofs. On the Western slopes of Dartmoor many of the settlers grouped together inside large pounds where they could grow a few crops and bring their animals at night for protection.

What attracted these people to this area? The weather was warmer and dryer than it is today (some people claim it was more like the Mediterranean) and this allowed some trees to grow on the slopes of the valleys and even on Dartmoor. However, these trees were not too hard to cut or burn down to clear a place for a settlement. Above the valley slopes was the rich grassland which was needed to feed the animals; below the slopes was the forest which provided timber for building but also posed a threat from wild animals and even other tribes. Small streams and springs dotted along the hillsides provided a good source of water for the settlers. In the eyes of the Bronze Age people, these places were ideal sites to settle. The remains of these settlements are still visible in Shaugh parish near Trowlesworthy Warren and in more remote places such as Hentor and near Plym Steps.

Why did the descendants of these residents abandon the moorland farms? Perhaps the worsening climate (this was a period of global cooling!) meant that it became too cold and wet for comfort; or the excessive grazing of the animals over generations led to poor soils and therefore less grazing land. It is certainly known that the poor peaty soils and the upland bogs of Dartmoor date back to the time when these first settlers decided to abandon the moor. And so, Shaugh Prior parish had experienced its first big population boom. The moorlands were abandoned for nearly 2,000 years but new settlers joined the descendants of the Bronze Age people and together they cleared the forests and settled in the lower areas ....the farmed 'incountry#&39;of the South Hams.....

The clearing of the woodland by farmers

The neatly laid out farms and fields of the southern part of the parish suggest a long history of people at work cultivating the landscape. When did the dense woodlands which once covered the lowland areas get cleared? Who laid out the neat pattern of hedges and walls? Anglo-Saxon settlers arrived in England around 450 AD and gradually pushed West reaching Devon in about 700 AD A few groups settled in the area which is now Shaugh parish. They would have cleared the land by burning and cutting down the forests to make large communal fields. These large open fields were often divided into strips which were allocated to individual families. Some evidence of these strips can still be seen in the shapes of the fields on some of farms. For example, the maps show the fields between Nethershaugh and Purps (grid reference 537626) as long narrow and slightly curved in shape. This is good evidence that these fields were once part of large open plan fields which were later subdivided with hedges. The farmers who had shared ploughs, pooled their oxen and agreed on what to grow in the open fields each year came to see the advantages of controlling their own land . They started to exchange strips and to hedge their fields. This process was usually completed by about 1400 in Devon. On the edge of the moorland independently minded farmers may have 'gone it alone' from the beginning. They cleared tiny fields from the woods, often leaving areas of woodland as thick, high hedges. The Tithe Survey map (1841) shows that some of the fields South of Shaugh Prior and Wotter villages were small, irregular squares which are typical of this type of early clearance.

Where did the people live?

We know that the Domesday Book (1086) recorded a settlement called Escaga (meaning a rough coppice or woodland) and this Old English name gradually got changed over the years into Shaugh. This settlement must have given its name to the parish of Shaugh when it was first established sometime in the 300 years before Domesday.

A small wooden church might have been built here for the scattered residents of the area. There are other small settlements mentioned in the Domesday Book - the manor of Bristn'chesyana (Brixton Barton), Coltreston (Coldstone) and Fernehille (Fernhill). It would appear then, that the Angle Saxons settled in small hamlets scattered across the Southern part of the parish. It is quite possible that a detailed archaeological survey would lead to the discovery of more ancient hamlets which have long disappeared!

Did these mediaeval settlers show any interest in the moorland?

There is one group of farmers who were established on the moor by the 11th century. These were the warreners. Rabbits were brought to England by the Normans and were an important part of the mediaeval economy of this parish. Isolated sites well away from crops and vegetable plots had to be used! Trowlesworthy is the oldest warren recorded in Shaugh parish (the others are at Willings Wall and Hentor). The high walls, pillow mounds and dog kennels associated with these warrens are still clearly visible.

Other mediaeval farmers used the moorland selectively, probably because their right to use the area for farming was severely limited - from 1204 Dartmoor was a royal forest. This did not mean it was wooded. The term 'forest' was a legal term used to describe an area reserved by the king for hunting. However, between 1200 and 1348 the population grew fast in the parish - the search was on for new land to feed the inhabitants. In other parts of England where there was little room for expansion people faced hardship and later starvation. However, in parishes like Shaugh Prior, people once again looked to the moorland for a living. This time it was often as a last desperate choice as the soil was poor and there was still a chance of being fined for living in the forest (although this was relaxed during the 13th century). Perhaps Wotter, which is first referred to as Wodetor( in a survey in 1262) is an example of a hamlet which grew at this time of population pressure.

Finally there was another attraction on the moor. The tin industry which flourished on Dartmoor at this time was important in the Plym valley. Tin was extracted from the streams and rivers. Many of the hummocks we can still see along the banks of the river Plym are the waste tips left by these early miners. It was a very labour intensive activity and many people earned a living as tinners at this time.

The population of the moorland declined dramatically following the Black Death which hit England in 1348. Up to one third of the people in this country died over the next 30 years and many farms in the lowlands were left without tenants. Most surviving moorland farmers took the chance to move onto better land in the lowlands and the second major population boom in this area came to an sudden end........

The farms and villages of the parish emerge

St.Edward's church which is the oldest surviving building in the parish of Shaugh Prior was built in stages mostly between the 14th and 16th century. It surprisingly appears to have been built some distance from the farms where most of the parishioners lived! Some people have suggested that its position is linked to the route ways followed by the monks who travelled to and from Buckfast Abbey.

There were stone crosses marking the routes close to the church and a church house where the monks and other travellers could stay the night. This is one of the oldest buildings in the village and is situated right next to the church. The house and crosses were probably constructed by the monks of Plympton Priory which has a long standing link with the church. It is because of this link that the word 'Prior' was added to the parish name.

Most of our other remaining old buildings were constructed between the 16th and 19th century. Lee Moor, which is first mentioned in 1695 (Leigh Moore), may have been chosen as the site for a small group of farm buildings at this time. Our ancestors often rebuilt or extended their homes and shippens (barns) using stone from older buildings. One of the most important periods for building and rebuilding was the late eighteenth century.

Local landlords were eager to improve their profits by increasing crop yields and by extending the areas used for animal production. Big profits could be made from the improvement of farmland at this time as the population in the towns was expanding rapidly and the demand for food was growing at an unprecedented rate. New tenant farmers were recruited and the dispersed farmsteads of the parish were built to accommodate the farmers and their labourers. Parts of the moorland were enclosed into large regular shaped fields which can still be seen today. Other buildings were constructed to house the people who served the farming community. By the middle of the 19th century there were blacksmiths, millers, shopkeepers, shoemakers and innkeepers recorded in the parish directories.

It seems amazing that only one hundred years ago the villages provided most of the needs of the local community. The opening up of the parish to the outside world by rail (1859) and by bus (1927) meant more people could shop in the nearby towns. From this time on the services disappeared gradually - by the 1930s Shaugh Prior was no longer a self sufficient community.

The expansion of the China Clay Industry

The rapid expansion of industry in this parish in the 19th century sets it apart from many other Devon parishes. While the population of most parishes declined , this parish experienced its third big population boom. Nearly all the growth was in Lee Moor and Wotter which grew into thriving industrial villages. This increase was largely due to the job opportunities in the china day works, the granite quarries and, for a short time (1870-74), in the iron mines in the parish. In 1851 the parish population was 554; by 1906 it had risen to 783 and by 1913 there were 400 residents employed in the clay works at Lee Moor alone! The early clay workings in the parish would have looked very small and insignificant when compared with the massive pits we see today. Small depressions (or sladds) in the ground showed the prospectors that clay was to be found at the surface. John Warrick made one of the earliest finds at Whitehill Tor in 1827.

Cornish clay workers were brought in to extract the clay and these early workers were also part time farmers who cleared small areas of land close to their homes. The industry expanded quickly and goods such as bricks and sanitary ware were produced in the works close to the pits. By 1883 Kelly's Directory records five clay works and manufacturers in the Lee Moor area. The quarries seemed to change owners rather rapidly as fortunes were made and lost in the area. The Phillips family are mentioned in early documents but they disposed of their interest in the Blackalder Brick and Pottery works to the Martin Bros. They expanded the pits, built the adits (channels in which the wet clay is moved ), set up the big refining and settling tanks and the drying kilns. They also built the tramway from Lee Moor used for taking the clay and manufactured goods to Plymouth. The route of this old tramway is clearly visible today. The ECC company was formed as a result of a merger between several companies in 1919 and still owns the pits in Lee Moor. One of the mine captains was Captain Selleck whose son, writing in 1970, describes life in Lee Moor at the turn of the century in great detail: "Lee Moor was a wonderful place... well over 100 children attended the Wesleyan Sunday school and over 60 men could be seen at morning service with often well over 150 people crowded in for evening service. ...Anniversary Monday and 'June Tay' was the great social event of the year. The children paraded through the village; sitting after sitting of people would satisfy their appetites.... many a romance had its beginning in the twilight of the 'Tay'. New developments occurred in the early 20th century at Shaugh Lake (Watts, Blake and Bearne) and at Wotter in 1901 when Captain Selleck reopened the abandoned Wotter pit. There was considerable difficulty in making this pit run at a profit. His son claimed: " They said he was heading for a disaster and they were nearly right." The Sellecks sold out to a new consortium (The Dartmoor China Clay company) which started a major expansion program. This led to a burst of house building in Wotter after 1906. Previously the only houses were Wotter farm, Wotter House and Collard Tor. The new cottages soon turned Wotter into the third big village in the parish. The industries employ relatively few people now and many of them do not live in the villages. There is, however, still the close knit community which carries on some of these early traditions.

The future

The post war period has seen some building in all of our villages. However, the Dartmoor National Park is a restraining influence in the area and so Shaugh Prior parish has not seen the dramatic population growth experienced by many other parishes close to Plymouth. The constant demand for land on the Northern boundary of Plymouth makes the future uncertain. It could be that the next twenty years will prove to be years of even greater change... perhaps the greatest changes since those early days when the Bronze Age settlers arrive to occupy the empty landscape which evolved into the parish of Shaugh Prior.