Taken from a talk by Dr Tom Greaves.
The word stannary comes from Stanum the Latin for tin. A stannary town is where the coinage of tin takes place. This is where the tin is assessed by an assayer for its quality. They did this by hitting the ingot on the corner and listening for the sound. The tax on the tin was then levied by the town.
Tin was used in mainly for pewter (consisting of 80% tin and 20% lead, unlike modern pewter which only uses 70% tin), which in turn was used for plates, cups and other household items.
It was also used for Church bells, organ pipes, bronze, and solder
The stannary towns also had courts, which met monthly and looked at all cases involving tinners, regardless of the nature of the case.
Plympton as a stannary Town
Prior to 1328, there were only 3 stannary towns in Devon, Chagford, Ashburton and Tavistock.
Tavistock was producing poorly, only 1 ½ tons in 1320, Plympton petitioned the crown to become a stannary town on the basis that it had better access, having its own sea port at the time and therefore was better suited. It was granted in status 1328, but did not replace Tavistock, instead it was an additional town, and governed the district from the erme to its head and in a line from there to Roborough. This comprised part of the Ashburton district, which can be determined by the fact that tinners in the west of this region presented their tin at Ashburton prior to 1328.
However throughout its time as a stannary town Plympton accounted for only 15% or less of all Devon production of tin. However it has the 2nd largest amount of smelting mills that still survive today, as archaeological sites.
Each transaction that took place within the stannary town was recorded, as detailed records for taxation purposes were needed. The records are a very good representation of the time, and are presently kept at the public records office in London.
They record the name of the tinner, the place they were from, the no of pieces, the weight of the tin, and the tax due. The tax rate was 1 1/6 and 3 farthings per hundred weight, (Cornwall had a rate of 4 shillings per hundred weight)
The records produce a good historical record of the time and show that most tinners were men, but occasionally there were some women
One record shows that John Cole of Slade presented 5583 pounds in 1383 at 30 shillings per hundred weight, which considering the average wage was 4d per day for a labourer, was a small fortune.
They also provide other interesting historical data such as the first recording of the church name St Michaels of Ugbourough, when the church wardens presented some tin
It also showed there were many key figures in industry, eg the Strodes of Newnham who didn't appear as much as would be expected as they used a middleman, 1531 has one record of presentation by them
The records show the amount of people presenting tin in the year, with up to 200 in the three other towns, but only 100 in Plympton in June 1523, 50 in Sept 1550 and only 25 in 1595
The stannary system of Government
The Stannary towns meeted out their own justice, and had great power over the lives of the tinners.
There was a meeting place for the towns at Toe Royal Newlake near Fox Tor Mires, however the great court or parliament met at the Crockern, which is where statues were enacted, and the whole of the Devon tin mining was administered. Items such as waste disposal, the system of registering marks were part of the sphere of the court.
1474 was first earliest record, ie had complete list of attendees and statutes passed
The listing of the towns in the attendee records went Chagford, Ashburton, Plympton, Tavistock as that was the route of the government inspectors, when they came to Devon.
Falling foul of the Court
Any tinner who was judged in their local town, would generally be fined for their misdemeanor, however on certain occasions, and when they defaulted on their fines they were jailed in Lydford Castle.
There are several cases of people being interned within Lydford. Richard Strode, who was the MP for Plympton at the time, tried to put a bill through Westminster restricting the activities of the miners along the Plym. He was judged at each Stannary Town, and was fined £40 at each. He wouldnt pay, and was arrested and taken to Lydford gaol. He spent his time in relative comfort there, due to his wealth and ability to bribe the guards, but was let out after three weeks as he was a collector of taxes for the realm, the first recorded case related to parliamentary priveledge. He described the gaol as "the most annoying, detestive and contagious place in his realm".
Richard Foster of ugborough had workings at Holwell Tor Mead near Sheepstor. He fell out with the Thornings who occupied his workings, and whom he described as the most crafty and subtle people in the country. He tried to eject them from his workings, but was interned in Lydford for his trouble. He was stuck on some boards on scaffold, 30 feet above a pit full of nasty liquid, in complete darkness, with no window or fire. He described it as "Odiuos, Filthy and vile".
One man who did not end up in Lydford was a tinner called Ian Walker Langsford of Horrabridge. He had arranged for some accomplices to steal sacks of tin, (called black as it was in its un-smelted state), from workings in Cornwood. They met up at 1am on St Bartholemews Eve, (August 23rd ), at Cadover Bridge. They exchanged the spoils after the password had been exchanged, "Who comes there black?" with "it is here in the sack" as the reply. They were caught and tried in London, but he was found not guilty, a fact borne out by his continuing presentation of tin at Plympton.
After the civil war in 1642, the Stannary towns went into decline, and the industry ceased during the 1700s. However the landscape of the tinners can still be seen on Dartmoor today, with many derelict mills, houses and the mounds of the workings near many river heads, such as the Erme and the Plym.