The distribution and relative size of settlements in Bere Ferrers parish, Devon, in the late 15th century.

The mines and labour.

Overall production of silver from the mines of England and Wales in the late medieval period may have been tiny in comparison with that from the central European mines, and have contributed only a small fraction of the precious metal minted during that period, but the organisational changes which took place in the 13th century laid the foundation for an entrepreneurial system which put silver mining in the vanguard of the move towards industrialisation in the 18th century.

Direct working by the Crown of the Devon silver mines at Bere Ferrers and, briefly, those at Combe Martin in the period 1292 to 1350 set the pattern for centralised, capital intensive, deep working which characterised the operations of all major non-ferrous metal producers by the end of the early modern period. (Claughton 1998) Investment in the Bere Ferrers mines focussed on the need to drain the deep workings. First, by the introduction of free drainage to surface through adits and, later, by the introduction of innovative new pumping technology.

The labour demands of the Bere Ferrers mines are evident from their early peak years in the late 13th / early 14th century when upwards of 300 miners were required, many impressed in the lead mining fields of north-east Wales, Mendip and Derbyshire, and even with declining productivity in the mid 15th century from 120 to 140 men remained employed in the mines. (BL Add Mss 24770; Blanchard 1995, Table A1-5) A significant proportion of that labour was required for the drainage of the mines, either in driving adits or the manual haulage of water using leather buckets and hemp ropes. The reliance on labour intensive manual haulage was very pronounced in advance of the penetration of drainage adits into the workings in the early decades of the 14th century. As the mines were worked increasingly deeper than the shallow valleys cutting the productive lode, longer cross-cutting adits were required. By the mid 15th century, in the high labour cost environment which prevailed with demographic decline, the time/cost penalties of deep drainage were becoming prohibitive and there was again increased reliance on manual haulage of water. In an 18 week period in 1460 the cost of water haulage in one section of the mines reached 120 (Skinner 1992, p. 61, quoting Wilts. Record Office 366/1) However, with the introduction of water powered suction-lift pumps in 1480, involving the cutting of a leat from Ogbear, to the west of Tavistock, 16 kilometres to the shaft-head at Lockridge Hill over a nine year period, the demands of manual water haulage were reduced to only seven men working from 21 to 59 days each in the year. (Claughton 1994 and 1996)

The evidence for the 15th century settlement pattern.

Against this background of reduced labour demand through mechanisation in the late 15th century it is interesting that new evidence should emerged providing an indication of the impact the mines had on the settlement pattern of Bere Ferrers at that time.

Professor Avril Henry, of the School of English at the University of Exeter, has recently identified an intinerary of the parish of Bere Ferrers, entered on the verso of the last leaf in Exeter Dean and Chapter MS 3522 and dating from the late 15th century. The interary details the settlements to be visited by a priest taking confessions in the course of a 14 day tour of the parish. This itinerary, and its purpose, are unique and are dealt with elsewhere (Henry 2001, forthcoming) It does however provide us with information on which to identify the distribution, and make a crude calculation as to the relative size, of the settlements in the parish.

Calculation of the relative size of the settlements is necessarily tentative as the information available is limited to the distance travelled and the number of settlements visited each day (Table 1.) At least one whole day was devoted to hearing confessions in Bere Alston and not surprisingly, as it had been granted borough status by at least 1305, it can be seen to be the largest settlement in close proximity to the mines, as indicated by the largest circle drawn on Figure 1. Bere Alston is taken as the control against which the size for the circles indicating the location of the other settlements is measured. There must be some doubt as to the relative size for three of the settlements visited. That for Woolacombe and Battens appears inordinately large and there is the possibility that the priest spent some time in Bere Alston on the morning of the 11th day before departing for Woolacombe. In addition a nominal circle is entered for Hallowell the size of which should be disregarded as the priest probably cut short the 14th day, returning early to his residence at or near Bere Ferrers village. It should also be born in mind that the village of Bere Ferrers itself and the adjoining manorial demesne are not included in the itinerary

Table One

Day Settlements No. visited Distance (km) Size Factor (Note 1)
1. Wallers, Stone, Ley, Tuckham 4 2.00 4.16
2. Liphill, Clamoak, Peche's, Thos. Bradnere's 4 2.66 3.23
3. Over and Nyddere (Birch?), Furshill 3 0.66 16.66
4. Hewton, Hole's Hole, Hooe 3 2.00 5.55
5. Whitsam, Lockridge(s) 2 2.00 8.33
6. Peters', Collins, Braunder, Pounder, Helston 5 1.33 5.00
7. South Ward, North Ward, Butson, Ezonridge 4 3.00 2.77
8. Ashen, Rumleigh, Slimeford, Gawton, Filleigh 5 4.00 1.63
9. Anderton, Leigh, Frogstreet 3 5.00 2.22
10. Alston 1 0.33 100
11. Woolacombe, Battens 2 1.33 12.5 (Note 2)
12. Well, Down, Leeches, Hole, Woolscombe, Norton 6 4.00 1.38
13. Collytown, Gnatham 2 2.00 8.33
14. Hallowell 1 0.66 50 (?)

Given the qualifications entered above, it is still clearly evident that the bulk of the population, outside the manorial centre, at Bere Ferrers in the late 15th century lived in close proximity to the mines - the majority in the settlement at Bere Alston. This suggests that there was an element of permanent urbanisation associated with the working of silver-bearing ores and, with the requirements for labour in draining the deep workings, the mines had a considerable impact on the settlement pattern of the parish.



  1. Alston (only settlement visited on day 10) = 100. Size factor = 100 / No. of settlements visited during day / distance factor (distance factor = distance travelled during day / distance travelled during day 10). The size factors for the settlements visited on the first and last days of the itinerary (1 and 14, particularly the latter) are suspect as we are unsure of the time devoted to travelling.
  2. The Size Factor for the settlements visited on day 11 appears exceptionally high, given their location and argicultural nature. It is possible that people dwelling on the eastern fringes of Alston were accomodated in the early part of that day.


Peter Claughton / SHiPSS
Last modified 1 March 2002