Devonshire Characters and Strange Events/Captain John Palk

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IN the forties and fifties no man was better known as a character in Tavistock and on the Moor than Captain Palk, or, as he was usually designated, Quaker Palk. He was a sturdy, thick-set man with a shrewd face, sharp keen eyes, and hair short cut and turning grey.

He began life as a miner on his own account at Birch Tor and Vitifer, between the Warren Inn and Moreton Hampstead. To any man travelling over Dartmoor along the main road to the latter town, crossing that portion of the Moor where rise the headwaters of the West Webburn, the aspect of the valley and hillsides must appear strange, welted as they are with old Streamworks and mine-heaps. Just beyond the inn are the remains of the King's Oven; this was the ancient Furnum Regis, the tin-smelting place, which tin was the royal due. Here there is a large pound, in one portion of the arc of which are the remains of a circle of upright stones, enclosing a cairn and the relics of a kistvaen; a beautiful flint scraper has been found wedged between the stones of the kistvaen. The oven itself has been destroyed, and the stones carried off for the construction of the buildings of Bush Down Mine, which are hard by, but are now in ruins. On the highest bit of the down is a rude ancient cross called Bennett's Cross, with W.B. on the face, carved in modern letters, to indicate that it forms one of the boundaries of Headland Warren. It is also a boundary mark of the parish of North Bovey, and of the ground over which the rights belonging to Vitifer Mine extended. The mine works are of many ages, some very ancient, overgrown with heather and gorse bushes; others are more recent and show raw and white against the turf and heather. Above the sources of the Webburn rises Birch Tor, crowned by a grey cairn, its flanks dense with whortle bushes, that supply richer and larger purple berries than almost any Moor slope. Birch Tor is connected with Challacombe Common, a swelling hill to the south, by a neck of land that has been cut through by miners, thereby destroying the first portion of a remarkable series of stone rows leading to a menhîr. The cuttings of the searchers after tin to the west are deep, and here nest ravens to this day. The slender stream that trickles down the depression feeds the Webburn. From the neck of land can be discerned to the east the remarkable enclosure of Grimspound, pertaining to the Early Bronze period.

As already said, John Palk worked as a miner "on his own hook" at Birch Tor, and found a good deal of tin. Finding that he needed capital he induced the Davys of Cornwall, who were his kinsmen, to enter into partnership with him. Richard Davy was subsequently M.P. for Cornwall. The Davys became then possessors of the mines of Vitifer and Birch Tor. Call after call was made on them for money to develop the mines, and the returns were insignificant. They became impatient, and considered the venture unprofitable. On one occasion, when their patience was exhausted, Palk visited them, and showed as usual an unsatisfactory balance sheet, and made a demand for more money.

Richard Davy was angry, and exclaimed, "Hang it, Palk, I wish you would take the confounded business off our hands, and make what you can of it," and they offered it to him for a ridiculously small sum.

Quaker Palk hummed and hah'd, said, "Friend, I am a poor man, and cannot raise so much, but by the blessing of the Lord I would like to try to earn a bit of bread from it to put into my mouth. Will thee not bate the price to the level of my means?"

Eventually he bought the whole rights over Vitifer and Birch Tor. This was precisely what he had been aiming at. He knew that there was plenty of tin there, but he had hitherto avoided following out the "keenly" lodes, and exploited only the poor veins.

No sooner was the right his own than the complexion of the mine altered, and he is computed to have made from £60,000 to £80,000 out of it, and he retained Vitifer and Birch Tor mines to his death. He also secured rights in Drake Walls, and he had a smelting house there and also in Crown Dale, below Tavistock on the Tavy.

Being flush of money, he erected Palk's Buildings in Tavistock as well as several other houses, and he bought Baggator farm in Petertavy, and Narrator in Sheepstor parish.

Quaker Palk was a sturdy teetotaller, and a lecturer on the subject, but when he came out to Vitifer, he would call in at the Warren Inn, then kept by a man named Warne, himself an interesting character, and mix himself a stiff glass of grog. On one occasion he had taken out with him Mr. John Pearce of Tavistock, and they entered the tavern. Pearce noticed that Captain Palk, in helping himself to brandy, put his hand round the glass, to hide the quantity he poured in, but when the brown liquid rose above his palm, Mr. Pearce stared and uttered an exclamation.

"Ah, John Pearce," said Palk, "I tell thee that the Warren Inn is the highest public-house in all England, and one must live up to one's elevation."

On his return to Tavistock he would as likely as not appear on a platform and harangue on total abstinence.

The story is told, I believe, of Captain Palk, that on his marriage he opened a drawer, drew out a pair of breeches, flung them to his wife with, "Molly, put them breeches on."

"Why, John, be thou mazed?"

"I tell thee, thou hast sworn to obey. Put them on this moment."

After some further remonstrance and hesitation, the wife complied.

"How dost thou think they fit thee, Molly?"

"Why, John, not at all."

"Then, Molly, never thee try to wear 'em, as long as we are together. The breeches pertain to me, and to me only."

In driving to Vitifer one winter's day, the snow came on, and on mounting Merripit Hill he and his horse were exhausted, and could no longer face the snow-laden blast, and he drew aside into a sand-pit that opened on to the road. The snow accumulated, a drift was formed, and they would have been buried, had not some miners passing come to the rescue and extricated him and his trap and horse.

He had some stout Moor men working under him. Joe Hamlyn had mined at Birch Tor for seventy-five years in 1864. Jacob German had been on the same works for sixty years, and had left them only once, and that for a single month to do navvy's work on the line to Moreton from Newton Abbot.

Palk liked a hare, when he could get one, and Jacob could generally provide him with one.

"Oh, Jacob," Palk would say, "I hope thou hast not been poaching."

"Poaching!" Jacob would exclaim; "Lord, sir, if a hare runs across the road, I may knock un on the head, I reckon, and no one say nort."

"I should like to know just where it was—as a study in nat'ral history."

"Well, if you must know, Cap'n, it were in Buckland-on-the-Moor, Squire Bastard's woods."

"I dare say, friend, it will be all the fatter and better eating."

In these Buckland Woods larch grew finer than almost anywhere else in England, and the timber was obtained thence for Vitifer and Birch Tor mines. Some forty years ago, as much as a hundred and twenty feet of timber was got out of a single tree.

"Well," said Palk, "I've had Squire Bastard's larch wood and obliged him. The trees grew too thick. Hares there too thick. It's a favour to him to thin them out for me. One hand washes the other."

Palk was an assiduous attendant at the Quakers' Annual Meetings, both in Devon and in Cornwall. That of Cornwall was held at S. Austell, and it fell at the time when the hay was cut, and that was frequently wet, so that a rhyme was commonly repeated to caution the farmers:—

Now varmer, now varmer,
Take care ov your hye.
For 'tes the Quakkers' gurt meetin' to-dye.

At one of these gatherings, when the monthly advices to the members were being read out, and there was one specially enjoining forbearance from "vain sports," up rose a lately-joined member, and with an anxious voice inquired what these vain sports embraced. "Now," said he, "Do'ee reckon that kissing the mydens (maidens) in the hye (hay) be a vain sport?—vor my part I can't see it."

There was unquestionably a vast amount of roguery in the mining business in Devon and Cornwall. Salting a mine, so as to induce capitalists to embark their money in one, was by no means an uncommon practice. But occasionally a specialist was too sharp to be taken in. "Ah!" said one, handling the ore that professed to have been raised in a new mine on Dartmoor, "Carnbrea tin. How the dickens did that find its way up here?"

Originally the tin was worked by a small company of adventurers with very simple machinery, and the adventurers shared the profits among themselves. The tin lodes on Dartmoor are thin, and in my opinion and in that of those who know best, will never pay for expensive working with costly plant. But little men, working for themselves, have made mining pay there. The abandoned engine-houses, huge wheels, and stamping pans show where large ventures have everywhere proved to be failures.

Chaw Gully, that runs up between Birch Tor and Challacombe Down, is one of the most interesting examples of "old men's workings" that there are upon Dartmoor. It extends about half a mile. In places it is some forty feet deep, and two or three hundred feet wide. In the bottom are several circular shafts, lined with stones dry-laid, which communicate with a dip formerly used for drainage purposes. There are no "jumper" marks on the rocks in Chaw Gully. In following the shallow lode of tin the old adventurers must have torn out the rock with wedges. Sometimes fire was applied to the rock and then water was dashed on it to crack it; as softened by the heat it was more easily worked. Another system of splitting the granite was to cut a groove on the surface of the rock, fill that with quicklime, and then throw on water. The swelling of the lime rent the rock.

The old works in Chaw Gully were taken in hand by Captain Palk, who deepened and successfully worked a shaft there. A good deal of money was made, but "the eyes of the mine were picked out," and it is now, like nearly all the Dartmoor mines, a "knacked bal," a picture of desolation, and the ravens now build in the chasm, on a ledge of the rock.[1]

Palk was intimate with Jonas Coaker, the "Poet of the Moor," as he styled himself. His poetry was, however, only rhyme, and that often bad.

"What's the difference between poetry and blank verse?" asked one miner of another.

"Why, the difference be this," was the reply. "Ef you say,

He went up to the mill-dam
And failed down slam,

that, I reckon, be poetry. But ef you say instead,

He went up to the mill-dam
And failed down wop,

that's blank verse. Knaw now, do 'ee?"

This was Jonas Coaker's conception of poetry. He was born at Hartland, Post Bridge, on 23 February, 1801, as he sang:—

I drew my breath first on this moor;
   There my forefathers dwell'd.
Its hills and dales I've traversed o'er,
   Its desert parts beheld.

As a young man he worked on the Moor building new-take walls, and he esteemed himself almost as highly in this capacity as in knocking out verse. Later he became taverner of the Warren Inn, that at that time stood on the opposite side of the road to its present position. The miners frequented it, and they were rough customers, drinking hard, fighting and dancing. On one occasion they broke out into mutiny against Jonas, because he would serve out no more drink; they drove him from the house, and he was compelled to "hidey-peep," as he termed it, on the Moor, whilst they emptied his barrels. On another occasion two miners fought in the tavern, with a fatal result for one of them, but the survivor was let off with three weeks' imprisonment, mainly on Jonas's evidence, for he was able to establish gross provocation.

In an evil hour for himself, Jonas pulled down the old inn and built, at his own cost, the new Warren Inn on the opposite side of the road. Now it happened that the old inn had been on common land of the parish of North Bovey, but where he had built the new inn was on Duchy property. Down on him came the agent for the Duchy, but not till the house was complete, and the last slate nailed on, and said to him, "Now you are on Duchy land you shall pay rent for the inn you have built on our land, without our gracious permission."

Towards the end of his life Jonas became very infirm and blind; his memory began to fail, and he accounted for this by saying that as he had always possessed a genius for poetry, he supposed he had overwhelmed his brain with too much study. He died on 12 February, 1890, and is buried at Widdecombe. I say no more of him here, as I gave his life and stories about him in my Dartmoor Idylls, 1896. There is as well a memoir with his portrait in Mr. Burnard's Pictorial Records, already quoted.

After having made such success with his mines about the Upper Webburn, Quaker Palk became reckless in his speculations, and was soon heavily involved. He was kept on his feet by Mr. Bailey, of Plymouth, and Joe Matthews, who bought Palk's holding of Birch Tor Mine. He died suddenly 9 February, 1853, aged fifty-nine years.

I think, but cannot be sure, that it was of John Palk that the story was told of two old folks, returning from the funeral, when one said to the other, "Sure and he was a very charitable man."

"I reckon he were," replied the other. "He always had three eggs boiled to his breakfast, and gave away the broth."

His wife survived him thirty-one years, and died in Plymouth 24 May, 1884, aged eighty-five years.