Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The high cost of scythe stones

A tragic story published in 1854, the same year the above drawing was sketched.


In the heart of a high table-land that overlooks
many square leagues of the rich scenery of
Devonshire, the best scythe-stone is found. The
whole face of the enormous cliff in which it is
contained is honeycombed with minute quarries;
half-way down there is a wagon road, entirely
formed of the sand cast out from them. To walk
along that vast soft terrace on a July evening is
to enjoy one of the most delightful scenes in
England. Forests of fir rise overhead like cloud
on cloud; through openings of these there peeps
the purple moorland stretching far southward to
the Roman Camp, and barrows from which
spears and skulls are dug continually. What-
ever may be underground, it is all soft and bright
above, with heath and wild flowers, about which
a breeze will linger in the hottest noon. Down
to the sand road the breeze does not come; there
we may walk in calm, and only see that it is
quivering among the topmost trees. From the
camp the Atlantic can be seen, but from the sand
road the view is more limited, though many a
bay and headland far beneath show where the
ocean of a past age rolled. Fossils and shells
are almost as plentiful within the cliff as the
scythe-stone itself, and wondrous bones of
extinct animals are often brought to light.

All day long, summer and winter, in the sombre
fir-groves may be heard the stroke of the
spade and the click of the hammer; a hundred
men are at work like bees upon the cliff, each in
his own cell of the great honeycomb, his private
passage. The right to dig in his own burrow
each of these men has purchased for a trifling
sum, and he toils in it daily. Though it is a
narrow space, in which he is not able to stand
upright, and can scarcely turn — though the air
in it that he breathes is damp and deadly — though
the color in his cheek is commonly the hectic of
consumption, and he has a cough that never
leaves him night or day — though he will himself
remark that he does not know among his neighbors
one old man — and though, all marrying
early, few ever see a father with his grown-up
son, yet, for all this, the scythe-stone cutter
works in his accustomed way, and lives his short
life merrily, that is to say, he drinks down any
sense or care that he might have. These poor
men are almost without exception sickly drunkards.
The women of this community are not
much healthier. It is their task to cut and shape
the rough-hewn stone into those pieces wherewith
"the mower whets his scythe." The thin
particles of dust that escape during this process
are very pernicious to the lungs; but, as usual,
it is found impossible to help the ignorant sufferers
by any thing in the form of an idea from without;
a number of masks and respirators have been more
than once provided for them by the charity of the
neighboring gentry, but scarcely one woman has
given them her countenance.

The short life of the scythe-stone cutter is also
always liable to be abruptly ended. Safety re-
quires that fir-poles from the neighboring wood
should be driven in one by one on either side of
him, and a third flat stake be laid across to make
the walls and roof safe, as the digger pushes his
long burrow forward. Cheap as these fir-poles
are, they are too often dispensed with. There is
scarcely one of the hundred mined entrances of
disused caverns here to be seen, through which
some crushed or suffocated workman has not
been brought out dead. The case is common.
A man can not pay the trifle that is necessary
to buy fir-poles for the support of his cell walls;
the consequence is, that sooner or later, it must
almost inevitably happen that one stroke of the
pickax shall produce a fall of sand behind him,
and set an impassable barrier between him and
the world without. It will then be to little purpose
that another may be working near him,
prompt to give the alarm and get assistance;
tons upon tons of heavy sand divide the victim
from the rescuers, and they must prop and roof
their way at every step, lest they too perish.
Such accidents are therefore mostly fatal; if the
man was not at once crushed by a fall of sand
upon him, he has been cut oft from the outer air,
and suffocated in his narrow worm-hole.

Whiteknights is a small village at the foot of this cliff,
inhabited almost entirely by persons following
this scythe-stone trade. The few agricultural
laborers there to be met with may be distinguished
at a glance from their brethren of the pits; the
bronzed cheeks from the hectic, the muscular
frames from the bodies which disease has weakened, 
and which dissipation helps to a more swift
decay. The cottages are not ill-built, and generally
stand detached in a small garden; their
little porches may be seen of an evening thronged
with dirty pretty children, helping father outside
his cavern by carrying the stone away in little
baskets, as he brings it out to them.

Beside the Luta rivulet, which has pleasanter
nooks, more flowery banks, and falls more musical
than any stream in Devon ; beside this brook,
and parted by a little wood of beeches and wild
laurel from the village, is a very pearl of cottages.
Honeysuckle, red-rose, and sweet-briar hold it
entangled in a fragrant net-work ; they fall over
the little windows, making twilight at midnoon,
yet nobody has ever thought of cutting them
away or tying up a single tendril. Grandfather
Markham and his daughter Alice, with John
Drewit, her husband and master of the house,
used to live there, and they had three little chidlren,
Jane, Henry, and Joe.

A little room over the porch was especially
neat. It was the best room in the cottage, and
therein was lodged old Markham, who had, so
far as the means of his children went, the best
of board as well. He was not a very old man,
but looked ten years older than he was, and his
hand shook through an infirmity more grievous
than age. He was a gin-drinker. John Drewit
had to work very hard to keep not only his own
household in food and clothing, but also his poor
old father-in-law in drink.

John was a hale young man when first I knew
him, but he soon began to alter. As soon as it
was light he was away to the sand-cliff by a
pleasant winding path through the beechwood
and up the steps which his own spade had cut.
One or two of them he had made broader than
the rest, at intervals, where one might willingly
sit down to survey the glory spread beneath; the
low, white, straw-thatched farms gleaming like
light among the pasture-lands, the little towns
each with its shining river, and the great old city
in the hazy distance; the high beacon hills, the
woods, and far as eye could see, the mist that
hung over the immense Atlantic. This resting
on the upward path, at first a pleasure, became
soon a matter of necessity, and that, too, long
before the cough had settled down upon him;
few men in Whiteknights have their lungs so
whole that they can climb up to their pits without
a halt or two.

The old man helped his son-in-law sometimes;
he was a good sort of man by nature, and
not a bit more selfish than a drunkard always
must be. He ground the rough stones into shape 
at home, minded the children in his daughter's
absence, and even used the pick himself when he
was sober. John, too, was for his wife's sake
tolerant of the old man's infirmity, though half
his little earnings went to gratify the old man's
appetite. At last necessity compelled him to be,
as he thought, undutiful. Print after print vanished
from the cottage walls, every little ornament,
not actually necessary furniture, was sold:
absolute want threatened the household, when
John at last stated firmly, though tenderly, that
giandfather must give up the gin-bottle or find
some other dwelling. Alice was overcome with
tears, but when appealed to by the old man,
pointed to her dear husband, and bowed her head
to his wise words.

For two months after this time, there were no
more drunken words nor angry tongues to be
heard within Johns pleasant cottage. Nothing
was said by daughter or by son-in-law of the long
score at the public-house that was being paid off
by instalments; the daughter looked no longer
at her father with reproachful eyes, and the
children never again had to be taken to bed
before their time— hurried away from the sight
of their grandfather*s shame. At last, however,
on one Sunday evening in July, the ruling passion
had again the mastery; Markham came home in
a worse state than ever; and in addition to the
usual debasement, it was evident that he was
possessed also by some maudlin terror, that he
had no power to express.

Leaving him on his bed in a lethargic sleep,
John sallied forth as usual at dawn; his boys,
Harry and Joe, carrying up for him his miner's
spade and basket. Heavy-hearted as he was, he
could not help being gladdened by the wonderful
beauty of the landscape. His daughter told me
that she never saw him stand so long looking at
the country — he seemed unwillingly to leave the
sunlight for his dark, far-winding burrow. His
burrow he had no reason to dread. Poverty never
had pressed so hard upon John Drewit as to induce
him to sell away the fir props that assured
the safety of his life. Often and often had his
voice been loud against those men, who, knowing
of the mortal danger to which they exposed their
neighbors, gave drink or money in exchange for
them to the foolhardy and vicious. Great, therefore,
was his horror when be went into his cave
that morning, and found that his own props had
been removed. They had not been taken from
the entrance, where a passer-by might have 
observed their absence ; all was right for the first
twenty yards, but beyond that distance down to
the end of his long toil-worn labyrinth every pole
was stripped away. Surely he knew at once
that it was not an enemy who had done this; he
knew that the wretched old man who lay stupefied
at home, had stolen and sold his life defense for
drink. All that the poor fellow told his boys
was that they should keep within the safe part
of the digging while he himself worked on into
the rock as usual. Three or four times he brought
out a heap of scythe-stones in his basket, and
then he was seen alive no more.

Harry, his eldest son, was nearest to the
unpropped passage when the sand cliff fell. When
he heard his father call out suddenly, he ran at
once eagerly, running toward the candle by which
the miner worked, but on a sudden all was dark;
there was no light from candle or from sun —
before and behind was utter blackness, and there
was a noise like thunder in his ears. The whole
hill seemed to have fallen upon them both, and
many tons of earth parted the father from his
child. The sand about the boy did not press on
him closely. A heavy piece of cliff that held 
together was supported by the narrow walls of the
passage, and his fate was undetermined. He
attended only to the muffled sounds within the
rook, from which he knew that his father, though
they might be the sounds of his death struggle,
still lived.

To the people outside the alarm had instantly
been given by the other child, and in an incredibly
short space of time the laborers from field and
cave came hurrying up to the rescue. Two only
could dig together, two more propped the way
behind them foot by foot; relays eagerly waited
at the entrance; and not an instant was lost in
replacing the exhausted workmen. Every thing
was done as quickly, and, at the same time, as
judiciously as possible, the surgeon had at the
first been ridden for, at full speed, to the neigh-
boring town; brandy and other stimulants, a rude
lancet — with which many of the men were but
too well practiced operators — bandages and blankets
were all placed ready at hand: for the disaster
was so common at Whiteknights that every
man at once knew what was proper to be done.
Those who were not actively engaged about the
cave, were busy in the construction of a litter  —
perhaps a bier — for the unhappy victims.

How this could have happened? was the whispered
wonder. John was known to be far too
prudent a man to have been working without
props, and yet fresh ones had to be supplied to
the rescuers, for they found none as they
advanced. The poor widow  — every moment made
more sure of her bereavement — stood a little way
aside; having begged for a spade and been refused,
she stood with her two children hanging
to her apron, staring fixedly at the pit's mouth.

Down at the cottage there was an old man
invoking Heaven's vengeance on his own gray
head and reproaching himself fiercely with the
consequences of his brutal vice; he had stolen
the poles from his son's pit on the previous morning,
to provide himself with drink; and on that
very day, even before he was quite recovered from
his yesterday's debauch, he was to see the victim
of his recklessness brought home a lifeless heap.
He saw John so brought in, but with the eyes of
a madman; his brain, weakened by drunkenness,
never recovered from that shock.

Basket and barrow had been brought full out
of the pit a hundred times; and it was almost
noon before, from the bowels of the very mountain
as it seemed, there cam up a low moaning
cry. "My child, my child," murmured the
mother: and the digging became straightaway
even yet more earnest, almost frantic in its speed
and violence. Presently into the arms of Alice
little Harry was delivered, pale and corpse-like,
but alive; and then a shout as of an army was
set up by all the men.

They dug on until after sunset — long after
they had lost all hope of finding John alive. His
body was at last found. It was placed upon the
litter, and taken, under the soft evening sky,
down through the beech wood home. Alice
walked by its side, holding its hand in hers,
speechless, and with dry eyes. She never knew
until after her father's death, how her dear John
was murdered. She used to wonder why the
old man shrank from her when she visited him,
as she often did, in his confinement. The poor
widow is living now, though she has suffered
grief and want. Her daughter Jane has married
a field laborer, and her sons, by whom she is now
well supported, have never set foot in a pit since
they lost their father.


Picture is from the Ottery Gazette article Maintaining an Edge - Devon's unique whetstone industry, with the caption: "Peter Orlando Hutchinson visited the mines in September 1854, when he made this watercolour sketch. Picture courtesy of the East Devon AONB and the Devon Heritage Centre". The Ottery Gazette article (written by Al Findlay, and Chris Wakefield, Ottery Heritage Society) is highly recommended.

The story Sharpening the Scythe appears in
Harper's New Monthly Magazine,Vol. IX, No. XLIX, June 1854, p. 73-76 
after originally appearing in the weekly magazine edited by Charles Dickens,
Household Words, 1 April 1854, No. 210, p. 150-152.
(The story was republished later in 
The Churchman's Monthly Magazine, Vol. 1, No. 10, October 1854, p. 598.)

According to the Dickens Journals Online, Sharpening the Scythe was written by the novelist James Payn (1830-1898), and was "a prose variant of Payn's 'The Scythe-Stone Cutter' in Stories from Boccaccio and Other Poems" (1852).


Some related information can be found at the University of Southampton's "Stone in Archaeology Database" entries for Honiton Scythe Stones, including the following details:

Main Details
...The best stone was about 80 feet beneath the surface and four beds were favoured by the miners. They were locally known as 'fine vein', 'gutters' (most commonly used for scythe stones) 'bottom stone' and 'soft vein' (Fitton 1836: 236- 238)...The Blackdown Greensand was extensively exploited for siliceous concretions in the vicinity of Blackborough Common. This was an irregularly cemented micaceous sandstone containing glauconite and sponge spicules and rare silicified shells, with traces of ripple marks and horizontal and vertical burrows (Devon County Council n.d.). These concretions were of "just the right lightweight porous composition and abrasive surface" to provide material for whetstones (Stanes 1993). Geologically this stone is described as a quartz-muscovite-tourmaline grit...
These whetstones were often known as 'Devonshire batts'.

...Quarrying began in the 18th and 19th centuries on Blackborough Common, working extended along to Ponchydown and perhaps as far south as North Hill. A thriving industry was developed which provided whetstones of a very high quality to a huge market. The stone was soft when first dug and could be shaped, but later it hardened on exposure to air (Edmonds 1975: 70). Unfortunately by 1900 most of the stone was worked out and only three mines remained, and by 1910 the invention of carborundum meant the end of the whetstone industry (Rugg 1999). The mines were driven horizontally into the hill for up to 400 metres and today the remains of the mines can just about be discerned as hollows on the surface (ibid.)

...This stone was primarily used for the manufacture of whetstones, these were stones used for sharpening the edges of implements, such as scythes and sickles etc. The ones made at Blackborough were more or less rectangular in shape with bevelled corners and tapered at the ends, and approximately 31x4x3cm (Moore: 1978: 62).


Edmonds, E.A, McKeown, M.C. & Williams, M. (1975)
British Regional Geology: South-West England.

Fitton, W. H. (1836)
Observations on some of the Strata between the Chalk and the Oxford Oolite in the South-East of England.
Journal: Transactions of the Geological Society of London, 2nd series. 4. pp. 103 - 388.
Moore, D. T. (1978)
The Petrology and Archaeology of English Honestones.
Journal: Journal of Archaeological Science. 5, pp. 61-73.
Stanes, R. G. F. (1993)
Devonshire Batts, The Whetstone Mining Industry and Community of Blackborough in the Blackdown Hills
Journal: Report and Transactions of the Devonshire Association. Vol. 125, pp. 71 - 112.