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Stories & Scripts

Source: Adults

Author: Barry Gee

Title: A Short History of Tamberton Treacle Mine.

It rained constantly for three days and three nights but on the morning of the 7th July, 1876 the rain stopped, the skies cleared and a hot, welcome sun arrived to dry the sodden village. The men went off to work in the mine whistling summer-like tunes and smiling at anything that moved. The women cleared up the breakfast dishes and looked cheerfully forward to washing mounds of muddy clothes and hanging them on the lines. Laundry was a pleasure on such a beautiful day. The children became infected with a 'joy of being alive' feeling and siblings, for once, played happily and unselfishly together. Birds swooped through the air and sang their hearts out. It was glorious weather.

Just after 9 a.m. the ground shivered like a fevered body and all the houses shook like dogs after a swim. Crockery fell to the floor and pictures came off the walls. Down in the mine, wooden supports snapped, great waves appeared on the surface of the treacle and the men became afraid.

A few minutes later, the ground began to tremble like a drunk with delirium tremens and it grew in intensity. The mothers had just enough time to gather their children to them before the earth exploded in one great spasm of death agony. The ground gaped open like the mouth of a man undergoing unspeakable torture and the village of Tamberton, just two rows of houses and buildings, crunched down in the subterranean caverns like teeth into a meringue and was swallowed whole.

Nobody survived.

One man, Sidney 'Six-fingers Smith', a very talented lute player, hung on for six agonising days, breathing with just a fifth of one lung and wishing he had died with the others. He had been submerged in a lake of treacle for several minutes but, after breathing molasses for some time, he was caught in one of the huge air bubbles that rose, at intervals, from the depths of the lake and was carried to the surface. He struggled ashore and crawled, on his hands and knees, coughing up syrup from his saturated lungs, a mile and a half across ploughed fields to my grandfather's house. My grandparents boiled water, washed him and put him to bed. My father, a child of nine at the time, spent many hours by Smith's side listening to him relate, very slowly and very painfully, the series of events that lead up to the catastrophe.

Smith explained how 200 years of intense treacle mining had honeycombed the ground under the village and three days of torrential rain had weakened the surface of the earth. The weight of a hundred houses became too much for the fragile crust and the village crashed down like a boot on a bird's egg.

When treacle was discovered during the mid 1600s, there was no village; the area was desolate moor land. Where great forests had once stood smugly, feeling omnipotent, there was only scrub, gorse and bare ground. The trees had been sacrificed in the name of progress. Great ships plied the oceans on the backs of Dartmoor forest. When there were no more trees the wind was free to rampage, like a marauding army, across the land and laid it to waste. The scant grass provided barely enough food for the scattered wild ponies and hardy sheep that inhabited the moor. Paths and tracks criss-crossed the land, leading from one farm to another or one village to the next. It was wise to stick to the trodden paths as treacherous bogs waited ravenously, like hungry spiders in their webs, for any unsuspecting man or beast to become trapped in their desperated grasp.

Tom Burton, a cobbler from Plymouth, was taking a short cut across the moor in order to reach Tavistock before night-fall. He had business to conduct and, because time was money, he tried to save it by ignoring the rules of safety and prudence. The regular paths twisted and turned back on themselves and added an extra mile of two to the journey.

Tom rode his dappled mare, Rosie, as directly as the crow flies, keeping his eyes on the distant spire in the way a farmer focuses on a far point when he ploughs a straight furrow in a field. They were making good time and Tom was happy.

Without warning, Rosie's hind legs sank through the ground, breaking their progress with the suddenness of a head-on collision. Tom was thrown forward but managed to hang on to the horse's neck. The fore-legs sank. By now, Tom was up to his thighs in the earth and still sinking. He tried to wrestle himself free but he was caught firmly like a coin in a miser's hand. Realising the futility of struggle he sat back and spent what he thought were his last moments on earth in prayer. He reflected on his life and had few regrets.

Suddenly, the ground gave way and horse and rider fell through and landed, just feet below the surface, in a pond of thick, sticky liquid. This was not how Tom had imagined a bog to be. By standing on the horse's saddle he was able to reach up, grab the roots of a gorse bush, and pull himself free. He stood on solid ground and gazed in amazement down into the hole where his horse was swiftly sinking in a golden, viscous liquid. There was some on his trouser legs and he bent down and scooped off a little with his finger. He raised it to his nose and the smell told him, even before he had tasted it, that he had found a deposit of natural treacle.

Local folklore told of vast treacle reserves, an El Dorado of syrup, somewhere on the moor but only a few cranks actually believed it and not many of them actively looked for it. As his horse sank beneath the surface, Tom Burton, at first, bemoaned the loss of an expensive animal but quickly realised that he had found something that would buy him a thousand horses.

He ran and walked swiftly back to Plymouth and, although he could barely contain his excitement, he said nothing to anybody.

Early the next morning, after a sleepless night, he went to the Mayor's house and made a claim for the mining rights on that part of the moor. He paid one shilling and a penny and signed an agreement that he would give ten per cent of any profit to Lord Marley, a local aristocrat. It was not Lord Marley's land but, by an old statute, he was entitled to 10% of anything he said he was entitled to.

Tom spent two days at his claim trying to estimate the extent of his find. Every hole he drilled within a half a mile of where his horse was buried produced treacle and there was no knowing how far the vein would go. He knew for sure that he was standing on a fortune.

He returned to Plymouth, sold his cobbling business, set his affairs in order, bought a horse and wagon and moved onto the moor. Within a week he had constructed a crude hut to live in until he had time and money to build a house. At the local monestery he bought six wine barrels and was ready to go into production. Eight months later, demand for the treacle forced him to hire men to help him mine it. He was blessed with a ready work-force of peasant labour who were disgruntled with the conditions of working for Lord Marley who, by clever accounting, kept them constantly in his debt. They left the land, built huts and became full-time treacle miners.

Within a year there were more than twenty dwellings lining the track that led from the first strike to the carraige road to Plymouth. By 1680, with a boom in the world market for treacle, the mine was operating twenty four hours a day. A wandering parson stopped to rest at the two rows of houses, recognised it as a growing community, identified the need for religious guidance and persuaded the miners to build a church. He also convinced them to provide him with a house and an income. In return he would minister to their spiritual needs.

When the first child was born, the people realised that they were now part of the land and needed a name for their community in order to say where they came from. It had always been known as Tom Burton's mine so they adoped it officially. In time, the possessive 's was dropped and the local dialect changed Tom to Tam and made it into one word - Tamburton or Tamberton as it was spelled when literacy arrived in the village in the 1800s. Spoken quickly, the 'b' almost disappears and it was often mistaken for the village of Tamerton, some miles away. This misapprehension is still common today.

Treacle is only molten on the surface. Deep down, and treacle has been found at a depth of 6000 feet, the immense pressure forces it into solid strata like gigantic layers of amber. By the 1700s, the miners were chipping out slabs of pure treacle more than half a mile underground. These were brought to the surface and smelted down over great open fires. The air would be thick with the sticky fumes of hot, molten treacle which, when the wind was in a westerly direction, could be both smelled and felt as far away as the Scilly Isles. On the days when the smelting took place, over great swathes of Devon and Cornwall, no washing was hung out because it became tacky to the touch and smelled sickly sweet. The children loved those days because they could stick out their tongues and lick the air and it was like having an endless supply of toffee apples without the apple.

Living in Tamberton was like inhabiting a Velcro world while wearing an all-over velcro suit. The miners and their families stuck to everything like magnets to metal. Even walking demanded great effort as the ground clung to their shoes like a mother to her threatened children. It needed great muscular power in the legs to break free of the treacle's grip and, because of this, children did not start walking until they were about five or six years old. They could stand up at three but remained immobile, on the spot, until wrenched from the floor by an adult and placed in another position. The parents always knew where their young children were. They were where they had been left or within a foot or two of the spot.

Normal games were impossible but there was one sport that was peculiar to Tamberton and that was wall-jumping. A flat wall, about twenty feet high, was constructed and the surface, on one side, covered with blankets and sheets. After a day's smelting it would be as sticky as fresh fly-paper. On appointed days, the men would go straight from work, mark out a twenty yard run-up to the wall and clean a six foot wide path. The men, in turn, would run as fast as they could, in their clean, bare feet, and a couple of yards from the wall, leap as high as they could while throwing themselves forward. If they hit the wall hard enough they stuck fast. This position had to be retained for the count of five in order to be classified as a legal jump. The one who leapt the highest was the winner.

The sport was outlawed for more than forty years during the early part of the 18th century because of the number of brain injuries that were suffered. It was revived for the centenary celebrations of the mine but in a much sanitised form. The padding on the wall had to be at least five inches thick and both body-armour and a protective helmet had to be worn. For the last fifty years of Tamberton's existence it was only played as a spectacle for the tourists who were starting to arrive in ever increasing numbers. They came to buy treacle and treacle products, such as sculptures, as well as to visit the place where it was mined.

There was a fiery spirit, Gortreaky, that was distilled from only the purest, unsmelted treacle and flavoured with gorse from the moor. At first it was drunk only in Tamberton and on the surrounding farms but its reputation spread quickly and, within twenty years, three quarters of the women and some of the old men were employed in the distillery. In spite of it being made from treacle it was not a sweet drink and can best be compared with rum. The effect of a couple glasses of Gortreaky was very special. The imbibers would feel their bodies grow light and they would have the sensation of floating several inches in the air. For the people of Tamberton, where gravity was aided and abetted by the treacle, this was a great relief. At the same time, all aches and pains disappeared, sounds became muted and the world became pastel coloured. The experience was often described as ' what it must feel like to be in the womb of a contented woman'. Gortreaky was banned during war-time as it was blamed for diminishing the fighting spirit of the young men.

Treacle miners were short, squat fellows with abnormally large leg muscles, extraordinary lung capacity, and extremely wide nostrils. This can partly be explained by the nature of the work but it was also due to intermarriage as outsiders considered them positively ugly. Obviously, no photographs exist of the Tambertonians but two charcoal drawings, purported to be of one 'Old Man Gurney' have been preserved in Plymouth City Museum. This is the only visual record we have of a treacle miner. It was executed when Gurney was about forty years old. By our modern standards he was hideous, mal-formed and frightening. His eye-lids were the size of a new-born baby's fists yet had the rippling musculator of a prize-fighter's biceps. Twenty five years of working down the mine, where, due to the adhesive nature of the treacle, the blink of an eye could take two or three seconds, had produced this aberration. In the drawing he is completely bald but this was in a society where hair on the head after the age of twenty was considered an abnormality in both men and women. His nostrils seem almost to touch his ears and his tongue appears to be too big for his mouth and a good two inches thrusts out from between his bulbous lips. Teeth, in adulthood, were considered unnatural so there was no barrier to stop the tongue protruding. In our 20th century eyes he seems to be a monster yet Thomas Burton VI describes Gurney in rapturous terms and wrote that he was 'Uncommon hansom with fine feetures and an intelligent countenance'.

Thomas Burton VI left a series of diaries written in Tamberton between 1840 and 1860 but the majority of them were destroyed in an incendiary attack on Plymouth during the war. In one of the two that remain, we learn that Old Man Gurney was a legend in Tamberton. Born at the beginning of the 19th century, by the age of fifteen he had the physique of a man who had worked down the mine for more than twenty years. His strength and stamina, coupled with the energy of youth, made him a formidable worker and his record of having mined over a ton of treacle ore in a twelve hour shift still stood when Tamberton was engulfed. Gurney died of old age. He was fifty one. This was incredibly old for a treacle miner, hence the sobriquet 'Old Man' before his name.

The average life span in Tamberton was 38 for a man and more than sixty for a woman. This discrepancy was due to the different life-styles. On many days, when they weren't smelting, the people above ground breathed fresh moorland air but six days a week, the miners down below inhaled concentrated treacle fumes, with no respite, for twelve hours at a stretch. Most miners, by the age of 25, after ten years down the mine, had contracted Molassesossis or Pudding Lung as it was more commonly known. Depending on how quickly the disease developed the miner knew he had, at best, ten years of mining before he would retire to the surface where he would painfully wheeze out the last few years of his life. Molassesossis caused the lungs to collapse. Slowly and gradually the effort required to draw breath into a treacle-saturated chest weakened the heart until it could barely produce energy to inflate a tenth of the lungs' capacity. The caverns in the lungs contained tiny lakes of treacle which solidified when air was no longer being inhaled. The lungs of the miners resembled treacle mines in miniature.

Until the beginning of the 20th century there was talk of re-opening the mine but when vast reserves of treacle were discovered in Ecuador, where it could be mined more cheaply, the bottom fell out of the market and Tamberton's treacle became commercially not viable. Maybe one day, when other sources are exhausted, the Tamberton mine will be revived and the air filled once again with happy laughter and the sticky fumes of freshly smelted treacle.

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