Whetstone Mining in the Blackdown Hills

Cartoon image of some whetstone mines and miners

By Andrew Westcott

 Introduction To This Project 

The author taking a photo

I have a reasonably healthy interest in industrial archæology and since moving onto the Blackdown Hills in East Devon, the history of whetstone mining in and around Blackborough has caught my attention. As a result of my research, there's a fair bit of information on this page so it's ended up being quite long: an 'infinitely scrolling page' as they say.

To make navigation easier, I have divided the page into sections which can be accessed directly by resting your mouse (or whatever) over the "Index Of Sub-headings On This Page" link above.

If you are viewing this on a phone it'll quickly become tedious, so maybe use something with a larger screen if you have that option as it'll be a far easier read.

My investigations into whetstone mining around the Blackdown Hills has involved a fair bit of investigating, and despite the advancing years and the gout I've also taken the trouble to do the legwork; I've slipped up, got covered in mud, been bruised, cut, scratched and have dragged reluctant companions kicking and screaming through what seemed like miles of brambles and fallen trees, but I've finally succeeded in visiting the main whetstone mining sites.


While trying to take meaningful photographs in the middle of a thicket is painful, technically challenging and generally futile, I have done my best to record some of the remains of the old whetstone mines; the least inept of my photographic attempts appear in the "Investigating The Remains" section further down the page.

Little was recorded about these whetstone mines locally, so most of the information we have about them comes from accounts written by geologists of the time who took advantage of the tunnels to examine the geology and who also collected fossils brought out by the miners.

This information needs a bit of digging to find, so I've brought the main details together here to make life easier for the casual researcher. I've quoted historic texts directly to preserve context, rather than trying to reword them for the sake of it and provided the name of the author and date of publication; links to available texts are listed at the bottom of the page which in most cases go into far more detail than I have provided.

Please drop me an e-mail if you have any comments, or anything to add.

   So what's a whetstone?
A whetstone is the name given to an abrasive stone of suitable composition and shape, used to sharpen or 'whet' bladed tools.

Beneath the western side of the Blackdown Hills there is (or was) a hard, abrasive rock which lent itself superbly to the job of sharpening scythes. Initially, suitable stones would probably have been found in disturbed areas of ground or protruding from the banks of streams high up on the hills, but demand led to attempts to mine the stone directly.

The stone from this area proved to be of exceptional quality and the market for it increased accordingly, creating the economic climate for whetstone mining to flourish here. The finished product was a high quality scythe stone known as a Devonshire Batt, hundreds of thousands of which were manufactured and distributed around the south of England and beyond.

A complete but well-used whetstone

An example of a Devonshire Batt.
With permission: Hemyock Castle

It is generally accepted that whetstone was mined around the western side of the Blackdown Hills from the 1600s onwards, but by the late 1800s most of the mines had been worked out: "The whetstone pits are now nearly exhausted, and only two or three remain open." - Downes (1880). Around this time mechanical reaper-binders were becoming available which were replacing the man & scythe, and in the early 1900s, artificial whetstones made of carborundum started to appear, removing the need to search for further sources of this natural abrasive.

Back to top


 First, A Little Geology 

The Blackdown Hills in Devon is a plateau which rises to around 900 feet above sea level in the west, cut through by streams and rivers which have left many deep valleys. Simply put, the hills consist of a substrate of Triassic mercia mudstone overlain with a layer of Cretaceous upper greensand formation which tends to be between 50 and 100 feet thick or so.

The greensand is itself overlain in most areas with a layer of clay-with-flints of variable thickness which gives the greensand some protection from erosion. The upper greensand layer is responsible for the characteristic flat top of the region, with the edges sometimes exhibiting a steep escarpment; below these often wooded escarpments the ground levels out somewhat and generally gives way to pasture land.

A Blackdown Hills plateau

The brown region (dead bracken) indicating the greensand layer forming the plateau

It's the upper greensand formation that is of particular interest here, as it is within this deposit that siliceous concretions occur, these being a particular type of hard but porous sandstone consisting of fine grains of silicon compounds in a matrix: "The stone is a quartz-muscovite-tourmaline grit" - Moore (1978). Certain layers of rock within the greensand became highly prized for making 'Devonshire Batts', the name given to the finished whetstones from this area.

In 1836, Dr. Fitton published the following observation about the beds to be found within the greensand and the thickness of the deposits:

"The following is a sectional list of the beds in one of the principal sithe-stone pits at Punchey Down, which, I was informed, was a fair representative of the whole:

1. Reddish sand rock, extending upwards to the top of the hill.
2. "Fine vein"; Concretions of firmer consistence; the best for sithe-stones. 0' 2" to 1' 0"
(Shells are found in all the strata here, but abound remarkably in this one, and in the "rock" beneath it.)
3. "Top sand rock"; sand with irregular concretions; of no use . 5' 0" to 4' 0"
4. "Gutters"; concretions of stone in 4 or 5 courses, in the sand. 3' 0" to 5' 0"
This bed is that most commonly used for sithe-stones.
5. "Burrows"; stone and sand of the same kind, but used only for building. 2' 0" to 3' 0"
6. "Bottom stone"; a range of concretions, affording excellent sithe-stones. 0' 2" to 0' 6"
(These concretions sometimes extend downwards, even to 5 feet, in the sand.)
7. "Rock sand"; chiefly sand, with fewer concretions; of no use. 4' 0"
8. "Soft vein"; concretions which afford excellent sithe-stones. 0' 2" to 0' 6"
The strata below are not known to the workmen. The total thickness, therefore, of the strata which furnish the material for sithe-stones, including the rejected sand and rubbish, is from 12 to 18 feet, the whole of which is removed in cutting the drifts or galleries."

  - Fitton (1836)

The Geological Bench

At locations where a steep escarpment is present, an intermediate shelf or 'bench' can sometimes be seen which occurs at a variable height but typically 10 to 30 metres or so below the top of the plateau, which appears to have been created by differences in erosion resistance.

This intermediate flat zone or 'bench' may appear to be a man-made pathway following the contour and indeed, it is often used as such but it is, in most cases, a natural occurrence. Such benches were often bulldozed to improve the pathway for access to the woodlands by forestry companies making their natural origin less obvious, this being the case with the path through Rhododendron Wood, Kentisbeare.

Diagram of the geology of the upper greensand formation

Simplified cross-section of a Blackdown Hills escarpment

Dumping mine waste over the side of such a bench would eventually increase its width, sometimes dramatically as has happened at several locations, creating what the miners called the 'sandbeds'. The spoil heaps in areas devoid of a natural bench tend to occur at varying levels and therefore don't create a single level region; such an area can be seen east of the road at Hembury Fort.

natural bench

Image 1
Geological bench

natural bench

Image 2
Geological bench

The pair of images above show nice virgin geological benches which haven't been molested by whetstone miners or bulldozers. These are in wooded escarpments outside the mining area and sit an estimated 10 - 15 metres below the plateau top with a bench width varying between 2 and 10 metres or so. The bench in image 1 is particularly wide at this point with the escarpment falling away steeply to the left. The bench in image 2 runs around the contour for quite some distance, then as the escarpment turns outwards, the bench turns inwards, disappearing into the hillside as can be seen.

I'm surprised that no mention has been made of these benches by geologists; the whetstone mines were generally driven into the hill from such a bench so it would seem that the presence of one was an indicator to the miners that raw whetstone may be present and at what level to begin digging their tunnels. The flat platform also of course provided a useful pathway to access the mines with the waste material being conveniently dumped over the side of the escarpment.

Samples Collected

Here is a selection of rock samples and fossils I have collected during my expeditions.

Sandstone concretion

Image 3A piece of sanstone concretion about 6 inches across

iron nodule

Image 4Part of an iron-rich nodule

Fossil shells

Image 5A concretion containing many fossil shells

Fossil mullusc shell

Image 6A small fossil shell from a predatory gastropd: a murex calcar

Fossil ammonite shell

Image 7Part of a large ammonite fossil

Fossil bivalve shells

Image 8A collection of small fossil shells I dug from a greensand exposure

Image 3: a piece of sandstone concretion around 6 inches across, illustrating the irregular shape typical of those formed within the greensand. This piece shows the characteristic protrusions often seen and contains part of a fossil shell. Collected from Blackborough.

Image 4: part of an iron-rich nodule, originating from a depth of a couple of feet or so on the top of the western plateau. It is written that nodules like this were extracted from surface digs around the Blackdown Hills in the distant past for smelting to produce iron.

Image 5: a cluster of fossil shells in a piece of concretion, width around 4 inches. Despite the coarse grains, the details of the shells have been well preserved. This was a surface find so the exact level of origin is unknown, although it was above bench level. Collected from the North Hill mining area.

Image 6: a small fossil about 20mm across, of what I believe to be a murex calcar, a predatory gastropod. It was found in the upper greensand, and is attached to what appears to be its last victim, an unidentified bivalve mollusc. The spines on the shell are reminiscent of present-day murex species.

Image 7: part of a fossilised ammonite originating from the upper greensand, and I'd estimate this specimen would have been about a foot across when alive. There appears to be considerable iron staining through the core of this fossil.

Image 8: a collection of small fossil shells, the largest about 30mm across, picked out of an upper greensand exposure near the top of the deposit. Despite looking as if they'd come straight from the beach, the shell material has been completely replaced with silica.

Back to top


 Mining For Whetstone 

A whetstone mining operation would begin by choosing a location and digging a trench or gully with a horizontal floor into the rising ground; once there was enough height at the 'face', the tunneling operation would begin creating what is known in mining parlance as an adit or drift. These entrance gullies are mostly what remains of the mine entrances now, the length of the gully depending on how steeply the ground rose.

sketch of a miner's pick

The mines were dug into greensand, which although not loose like beach sand, was still quite soft: you could dig at it with a pencil, for example. The miners employed basic hand tools to work with, and wooden barrows were used by the 'sand drivers' to wheel the waste sand out of the mine and onto the spoil heaps; there were no trolleys on rails in these mines and considering it was common for a tunnel to be driven into the hill for 300 yards, repeatedly wheeling the sand out must have been exhausting.

Sketch of an antique wooden wheelbarrow

As the tunnel progressed, the sides and roof would have required supporting to prevent them collapsing. The distance between the supporting structures would have depended on how poor the 'ground' was, varying from continuous timbering in loose sandy areas to perhaps every yard or so in firmer ground, and probably also depended on the courage or foolhardiness of the miner. In the one known photograph of the interior of a whetstone mine (Stanes 1993, fig. 6), the timbers seem to be a foot or so apart.

Interior of a whetstone mine tunnel

Image 10
Whetstone mine tunnel
Copyright owner unknown

Although the entrance to these tunnels would be barely big enough for a man and barrow to fit through, the miners would open them out significantly in width and height further in, creating large galleries with multiple tunnel branches and chambers as the miners searched for and extracted the valued rock. The raw whetstone concretions tended to occur in random clumps within a particular layer rather than as a continuous seam, so finding them tended to involve a certain amount of chance and the removal of a lot of sand.

Once a cluster of concretions was found, a chamber would be excavated to allow all the pieces of rock to be extracted. Such chambers could apparently be quite large and must have been hideously unsafe; the only way this could be done would be by leaving many pillars of material intact to support the roof, and it has been said that once the chamber had been worked out, attention then turned to mining the supporting pillars, the destruction of which allowed the chamber to finally collapse.

Some of the pieces of rock were quite large, so if necessary they were reduced in size to something a man could carry; accounts from the time suggest this was about the size of a horse's head, which seems reasonable. Once outside, the chunk of rock would be carefully broken up making use of the stratification lines along which it could be more easily split, into pieces of a suitable size.

The 'cutter' had the job of carving whetstones from the rock brought out to him, and did so using a specialised tool known as a basing hammer. The rock was fairly soft at this stage so it was easy to carve, but later it would harden as compounds within it oxidised in contact with the air.

Sketch of a basing hammer

The cutters would have worked for months or even years in the same spot; at some sites they chose to work at the entrance to the mine tunnel, meaning they needed to regularly shovel the chipped rock and sand resulting from the carving up over the sides of the entrance gully to keep the way clear; this formed a pronounced ridge on the sides of the entrance gully over time, evidence of which still be seen. If a cutter chose to work a little away from the entrance, the waste chipped rock and sand was left where it fell and would eventually form a noticeable mound.

This practice of rough-shaping the stones on-site reduced the weight of material which needed to be taken away from the mine, as the final shaping and dressing of the stones was done elsewhere usually by the women of the families.

It would seem that a number of the mines, presumably the larger operations, employed several people rather than being a one-man operation; typically there'd be a miner working the face, a couple of kids working as 'sand drivers' to wheel out waste sand and rocks and someone somewhat more skilled, the 'cutter,' to cut and shape the stones at or near the mouth of the mine. There were also the women and girls who were involved in the final dressing of the stones.

Whetstone Production

The following text is quoted directly from Dr. Fitton's book published in 1836, and being such a detailed description of whetstone production, it leaves nothing for me to add.

"The strata which afford the whet-stones are about eighty feet below the top of the hill, to which they are parallel. The mines (or 'pits' as they are called) are driven in direct lines into the hill almost horizontally, and in some cases to considerable distances. The stoney masses from which the sithe-stones are cut, are concretions of very irregular figure, imbedded in looser sand, and though very irregular in shape, marks of the stratification of the sand can be traced on their outside.

The masses of which the sithe-stones are made, vary from six to eighteen inches in diameter, and the beds which afford them would form a total thickness of about seven feet, of which about four are fit for that purpose; the looser stone at the top and bottom being employed for building.

Watercolour painting of a whetstone miner, dated 1854

Watercolour painting by Peter Orlando Hutchinson, dated 1854
With permission: South West Heritage Trust & East Devon AONB

The sithe-stone men take from the owners of the soil the privilege of digging for stones, leaving forty yards on each side between the drifts (or 'pits' as they are called). There is no limitation as to depth, and the drifts are commonly pushed to about 300 yards inwards, greater distances not repaying the labour of bringing out the sand.

Sketches of miners' tools drawn by Dr. Fitton in 1836

When first taken out, the stone is greenish and moist, and can be chopped with ease. The tools employed are a sort of axe or adze with a short handle (fig. 2.) called a "basing-hammer" which is ground to a sharp edge. These are made at the adjacent village of Kentisbeare. The other tools are picks without any peculiarity of structure, and "hollowing-shovels" (fig. 1.) for digging the masses of stones out of the sand.

For the purpose of cutting the stones, a vertical post of wood, or 'anvil' is so fixed in the ground as to stand between the knees of the workman, who sits upon a sort of bench built of stone, with some strong pieces of old leather attached as a defence to his left knee.

He first, with the edge of his 'basing-hammer' splits from the blocks upon his knee, long portions approaching to the shape of the sithe-stones; and then cuts or chops them down nearly to the required size, upon the anvil and his knee, just as a carpenter cuts timber with an adze. After thus being rudely shaped, the stones are hewn to the proper dimensions with a large 'hammer', and then rubbed down by women, on a large stone of the same kind; and when dried they are fit for sale.

The stones when finished vary from about ten to twelve inches in length; some have the shape of a portion of an almond, with the ends and sides cut square, and about two inches by one and a half in thickness; others are almost cylindrical, but smaller at each end, with the sides a little curved; the diameter in the middle about two inches.

A good workman can cut out of the blocks about seven dozen of the stones per day. They are sold by the makers chiefly to one merchant at Honiton, who supplies the retail dealers. The prices (in 1825) varied from 2s. per dozen for the finest stones, eleven to twelve inches long, down to 8d. a dozen for the coarsest, ten inches in length."
  - Fitton (1836)

It has been suggested that at the period of peak output of the Blackdown whetstone mines, perhaps as many as 10,000 of the sharpening stones were produced by the mines in a week, but this does seem rather a lot as that amounts to half a million stones a year. (Source: Blackdown Hills National Landscape).

Let's analyse this:
We can read that, "At the height of the trade there were about twenty-four pits in working." - Chalk (1910), so let's assume no-one worked on a Sunday and that the miners worked elsewhere, harvesting perhaps, for around 40 days a year. That would require each mine to produce an average of around 76 scythe stones each working day to reach that half million stones a year. That's a heck of a lot of whetstones and it does seem possible going by the information given by Dr. Fitton earlier, but as Stanes (1993) put it, "even half that figure is considerable." I'm surprised that an industry of this magnitude didn't leave a bigger dent in history.

By the late 1800s most of the readily accessible rock had been mined out despite much reworking of old ground to locate more of the rock. Trying to re-open an old worked-out collapsed mine would have been pretty pointless, so new tunnels were dug a short distance away from the old collapsed tunnels and driven in parallel to or above them, to hopefully find new ground that hadn't been fully exploited.

Evidence of this can be seen in many areas, and in some locations as many as six tunnel entrances can be seen next to each other, indicating that multiple drifts were dug parallel to each other to improve the chances of finding virgin ground. In most cases it seems the re-working operations were fairly unsuccessful, as the spoil heaps associated with the new tunnels tend to be small; this suggests the miners either encountered a lot of open space underground due to cutting across old workings or simply found the operation to be uneconomical.

A Risky Business

The ground the mines were driven into was sandy in nature and although easily dug, it required substantial timbering to prevent the tunnel from collapsing; it seems however that some miners chose to skimp on the cost of the timber and forgo some of the supports to save money. Given this, it may come as no surprise that tunnel collapses and the resultant deaths were common in this industry, although the risk of being crushed or suffocated underground wasn't the miners' only problem.

Whetstone miners were reasonably well paid compared to the local farm workers, earning perhaps triple their income; however, the extra money came at a cost as exposure to silica dust, both while underground and while shaping the extracted rock took its toll and most suffered from silicosis to some degree or another. Although this condition would be debilitating, it alone may not necessarily prove fatal; however, when coupled with an attack of tuberculosis which was common at the time, death would be the likely outcome.

"The censuses show that of 151 miners recorded in 5 censuses only 4 were over 60, 19 were over 50, and 118 were under 49. Few seemed to have reached any great age, although many may have left the mines for healthier work as they grew older."
    - Stanes (1993)

John Rookley - The Last Whetstone Miner

Photo of John Rookley outside his whetstone mine, early 1900s

John Rookley and his mine.
Photo attributed to the late Derrick V. Rugg.

Although whetstone mining in the Blackdown Hills was big business for a good 200 years, by the late 1800s it was in serious decline as the mines had become worked-out with little new stone to be found despite much reworking of old ground.

In the early 1900s the new artificial carborundum stones had mostly replaced Devonshire Batts as the tool of choice for sharpening blades, and considering that the scythe was by now 'old tech', natural scythe-stones had become pretty much obsolete.

Despite this, a solitary miner, John Rookley, kept working in his mine producing natural scythe-stones for those still adhering to the old methods of harvest before finally retiring in 1929 and moving to South Wales.

This photo shows him clearing away the sand and stone chippings after a whetstone carving session at the mouth of his mine with the seat he used being visible just to the right of his shovel; this rare image also nicely illustrates the narrow entrance typical of a Blackdown Hills whetstone mine.

The following is my transcript of a column in the Waverly Dispatch, Volume 34, Number 3, 15 January 1926, which can be seen here: Library Of Virginia.

Old English Industry Now Practically Dead
"The whetstone or scythestone industry, which formerly existed at Blackborough and Sainthill, on the Blackdown range, Devon, England, 800 feet above the sea, is now almost extinct.

Rookley's basing hammer, on display at Exeter museum

Rookley's basing hammer.

Founded nearly two hundred years ago, the industry used to provide employment for large numbers of men, women and youths. Now only one worker remains and his attachment is so strong that, despite the loneliness of his calling and the health-impairing nature of the work, he cannot divorce himself from the "dear old hills".

This solitary whetstone craftsman is John Rookley, who, although more than sixty years old, still burrows under the hills and unearths, shapes and dresses the stones which are regarded as unequaled for the sharpening of steel.

The demand for whetstones has diminished astonishingly of late years. Crops are no longer reaped with the scythe; carborundum from the United States is used extensively, and small Welsh stones are compressed for use as sharpeners."

The photo to the right was kindly supplied by the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter, and shows John Rookley's basing hammer which was donated to the museum by Rev. Edwin S. Chalk of Kentisbeare some time after John finally retired from mining.

Back to top


Associated Finds

me digging for artefacts

It's possible to find various artefacts left behind from the mining activities if you know how and where to look, but do get permission and remember that anything found belongs to the land owner even if there is public access to the area, so ask before you take it home.

This section details the artefacts I've found while examining certain mining areas; at the request of the various landowners, I'll not disclose where the artefacts came from, although all relevant details have been recorded.

It's highly unlikely that any artefacts found around the old mine workings would amount to treasure, but if you find something unusual perhaps contact the Historic Environment Records officer as it could be of interest from a local history perspective.

In the following section, locations of the finds are given as a depth below the 'original sand surface'. In all areas there has been an accumulation of rotting organic matter since the miners left which is of a variable thickness but can amount to several inches in places, so depths of finds have been measured once the variable organic layer has been removed to reveal that original sand surface left from the mining activity, this providing a reliable and meaningful reference level.

Artefacts 01, 02, 03, 08, 10, 11 & 13:
Unfinished Whetstones

Bits of whetstone are the most common artefact to be found around the mining areas and these photos show unfinished whetstones I've recovered, ranging in length from about 15 to 20cm. Whetstone pieces like these look very much like random pieces of sandstone, but their identity can be confirmed by the presence of tool marks.

The cutter's carving operation produced a lot of waste material consisting of sand and pieces of rock, analogous perhaps to the debitage of a Mesolithic flint-knapper. This accumulated pile of waste I'll refer to as a 'cutter's pile', and such piles can be found a short distance from the mine entrance or on the sides of the entrance gully, depending on where that particular cutter chose to work.

Unfinished and broken whetstones left behind by the miners

Artefacts 01, 02, 03, 08, 10 & 13: unfinished whetstones all showing tool marks

Occasionally the cutter would accidentally break one of the soft stones he was carving, and no doubt after a bit of colourful language he'd throw the pieces down with the rest of the debris and begin work on the next. Only unfinished broken stones like this are ever found, in various stages of roughness; complete unbroken stones were of value and were taken away for final dressing, ready for sale.

broken whetstone

Artefact 11: both halves of a broken whetstone

Artefact 11 is unusual in as much that I was able to recover both halves of this broken stone from a cutter's pile; it is uncommon to find both halves as the bits would have been casually thrown onto the waste pile or even down over the spoil heap, usually to end up some distance apart. In this case, the pieces were found around 3 feet apart and buried about 6 inches under the chippings and sand of the pile; when fitted together this unfinished stone is about 28cm long.

A Surviving Basing Axe

Photos 11 & 12 were supplied by Jon Snow of Windy Smithy, and appears to be a design of basing axe, used by the miners to carve whetstone. This particular one is quite large measuring around 10 inches across, and would probably have been intended to initially split the stone before getting to work on it using a smaller tool. This example, although evidently old, appears to be unused: new old stock if you like.

basing hammer head, seen from the top

Image 11
basing axe top view

Basing hammer head, seen from the side

Image 12
basing axe side view

It is unknown to me exactly where this one came from but it came to light in the Blackborough area; judging by the type of rust, this had been kept in a dry shed or barn for a very long time and can now be seen in the display board in Blackborough village.

The basing hammer/axe seems to be a unique development for the whetstone mining around the Blackdown Hills. It's interesting to note that according to Stanes (1993), no specialised tool like this seems to have been developed in other whetstone mining areas around the country.

I have been studying recovered artefacts and the historic texts, which suggest there were several variations on the basing hammer/axe design. Fitton (1836) wrote these comments: "He first, with the edge of his 'basing-hammer' splits from the blocks upon his knee, long portions...". He also wrote in the same paragraph, "...the stones are hewn to the proper dimensions with a large 'hammer'." This account clearly mentions two different tools for carving the whetstones.

We also have this account: "(whetstones) were finally shaped with a strange tool, like a stout hammer with a double head beaten into blades." - Chalk (1910). Evidently there were at least two versions of the basing hammer in use, and of course, the design may have changed over time.

Artefact 09 - Small Basing Hammer

basing hammer head

Artefact 09 top

Basing hammer head

Artefact 09 underside

This tool was found about 6 inches below the original sand surface of a cutter's pile, and what's left of it measures around 14cm at the widest point.

Rookley's basing hammer

Detail of Rookley's basing hammer.

Although badly corroded now, it looks like it may still have been serviceable in its day, but it seems the cutter thought differently and threw it down with the waste rock, eventually burying it in waste material as he continued to carve whetstones, presumably with a replacement hammer.

Note the broad iron wedge protruding from the underside which would have been driven into the wooden handle to secure it. In this case, the remaining wood around the wedge appears to have been replaced with iron compounds, a kind of fossilisation process if you like. There was no evidence of a wooden handle, so it seems this tool was discarded when the handle broke; surprising really, as the head of the tool would have been the most expensive part by far.

As an observation, this tool appears to have been roughly the same design and size as the one Rookley used, pictured on the right.

This basing hammer was carefully treated using electrolytic reduction for 10 days but there is little sound iron left in the blades so it is very fragile; it will probably remain in an anti-rust fluid for the foreseeable future to protect it.

Artefact 12 - Larger basing Hammer

basing hammer head

Artefact 12 top

Basing hammer head

Artefact 12 side

This badly corroded artefact is the head of another basing hammer, of a different design to the previous one; this one is larger in any case and the side view shows the tool is flat, without the slight downward curve usually seen.

This artefact was found at a depth of 13 inches under a heap of dumped sand waste to one side of a mine entrance, with a significant 'halo' of rust-coloured sand surrounding it. It would appear from examining the area that when the mine was first being dug, a few barrow-loads of waste sand were dumped to one side of the entrance before the main spoil heap location was established, and it was in this heap that this axe was found.

This suggests to me that it dates from around the time of the opening of the mine and is of considerable age, the degree of corrosion seemingly confirming this; this basing hammer/axe would therefore seem to be an older design.

This artefact is extremely fragile, and while gently cleaning off the adhering sand and loose rust a piece broke away showing that there is no iron left at all in the blades, they are composed entirely of corrosion products. Gentle magnet tests showed there is some iron remaining in the central part, but that's all. Consequently this artefact isn't suitable for electrolysis treatment and it has been preserved by being impregnated with an anti-rust compound.

Artefact 04 - Pointed Blade of a Miner's Pick

broken miner's pick

Artefact 04: part of a miner's pick

This is half of a miner's pick measuring 26cm in length, and not only has one end broken off, but it's taken half of the handle hole with it. This demonstrates the way the blacksmith formed the tool, by apparently making it in two halves so that the hole for the handle could be formed, then heating and forging the ends together to form a solid blade.

sketch of a miner's pick

Looking at where the iron has broken suggests this had a broad vertical blade on the missing half, as in my little sketch to the left. This design of pick appears to be a commonly used tool in the whetstone mines, as two broken parts have now been recovered.

I saw part of this protruding from a cutter's pile and after careful excavation was able to withdraw it; unfortunately metal detecting the area didn't recover the other half. This item spent just over a week being carefully treated in an electrolysis cell to recover as much of the artefact as possible, with excellent results.

Artefact 07 - Vertical Blade of a Miner's Pick


Artefact 07 from the side


Artefact 07 from the bottom

This is another part of a miner's pick, this time the short broad vertical blade without the spike; unfortunately the missing part of this wasn't found either but it's reasonable to assume it had a pointed pick at the missing end judging by the fracture detail. This part is about 14cm long, and again this tool shows the way the hole for the handle was forged by the blacksmith, the tool being made in two halves.

This artefact was discovered at a depth of around a foot below the original sand surface, on the right-hand bank forming one side of an entrance's access gully, as viewed looking into the tunnel. The tool's location suggests that the miner broke the tool and threw it up over the side, perhaps as he exited the mine and over time it got buried by waste thrown over it as the access gully was being kept clear.

This tool was treated for a week in an electrolysis cell with good success, as it had a lot of metal remaining; the handle cavity was filled with sand, with no trace of wood.

Artefact 06 - Wrought Nail

Wrought nail

Artefact 06

Wrought nail

Artefact 06

Not the most exciting of artefacts perhaps, but this square nail was left behind by the miners and was found around three inches below the sand surface just outside the entrance to one of the mines: the 'sandbed' as the sand-covered access track was called by the miners.

Wrought iron nails like this were made by the local blacksmith and would have been used in most of the wooden structures made by the miners, such as sheds and doors to the mines. It is unknown what this particular one was used for as there was no evidence of wood associated with it, but it was evidently dropped or discarded and ended up embedded in the trackway.

This small artefact was treated in the electrochemical cell for 5 days at a very low current, and cleaned up reasonably well considering how corroded it was.

Artefact 05 - Retaining Latch


Artefact 05


Artefact 05

This iron component was dug out from the flat-topped area of a spoil heap near a mine entrance from a depth of around 6 inches below the original sand surface so was 100% contemporary with the mining activity. Oddly enough, it was buried vertically with the flattened end with the hole upwards; this is probably of no consequence, but I've recorded it anyway.

latch in use

Possible use for this component?

My first thought was that this could have been a field gate latch and nothing to do with the mines, but the flattened end with the hole is in the wrong plane for that, and in any case such a gate latch would usually have been formed by bending the iron around onto itself, forming a loop which would have been stapled to the gate.

Consider this: "Tunnels in use had, latterly, carefully locked doors." - Stanes (1993). These mine doors would have needed a way to keep them open during use, as would the doors of any sheds the miners built, so perhaps this was used to secure them in the open position. The flattened end could have been slipped over a small bent spike driven into a wooden stake near the entrance, and the hook engaging with a loop on the door itself, very similar to the way doors are held open now.

This artefact was treated using electrolysis but didn't respond as well as hoped, as there appeared to be no conversion of the black rust layer in this case; in some areas this layer became detached, exposing the iron core but the original dimensions can still be determined. As with all the recovered iron artefacts here, this will now be kept coated in an anti-rust compound.

Back to top


 Investigating The Remains 

A Bit Of A Warning

Most of the mine collapses happened a long time ago and now appear as depressions in the ground of varying sizes, which in most cases are stable. However, many cavities still exist below ground and some are in the process of collapsing. It's wise to be careful when exploring these areas and to take someone with you because if you were to slip into one of these cavities, you may not be able to get out unaided and no-one would know you were there.

A small hole in the ground with a large cavity below

Image 13
Small hole, big cavity

An area of sunken ground caused by a mine collapse

Image 14
Historic sinkhole

Image 13 shows a hole open to the surface which was around a foot or so across and could pass for a badger hole, but below was a substantial cavity; when I stuck my head down it, the cavity appeared to be large enough to bury a small car, end up. The only reason the cavity wasn't open fully at the surface was because of the network of tree roots, which retained some soil and leaves: a perfect trap for the unwary.

Image 14 shows an area where a large sinkhole has appeared, complete with an old tyre for scale. This sinkhole is probably quite old and reasonably stable but you can't be sure, so areas like this are best avoided.

The General Locality

As far as I know, almost all of the whetstone mining in this area occurred on the western side of the Blackdown hills in an area stretching from Blackborough Common around the hill to as far as the Hembury Fort spur, the approximate areas of mining known to me being marked on the map in red. Looking at the map, it appears that the stones mainly occurred in the far west of the area, and mines situated slightly 'inland' of the western escarpment were generally less productive judging by the size of their spoil heaps and the number of mines.

Locations of Whetstone mines, western side of the Blackdown Hills

Whetstone mine locations

The tunnels cut into the greensand required extensive timbering to prevent them from collapsing but when a mine was abandoned, the timbering (a valuable resource) was removed for re-use and the tunnel allowed to fall into disrepair. This usually left a gully or trench where the mine entrance had been and the early shallow parts of the tunnel had fallen in, and often there would be sunken ground further out where galleries had collapsed.

According to Stanes (1993), local opinion was that the mine entrances were deliberately collapsed once abandoned. This idea could have arisen due to the timbering being removed from abandoned mines for re-use allowing the tunnel to fall in, making the collapse seem intentional although it is possible that the collapsing of the tunnel was hastened to make it safe, preventing accidents befalling curious children, for example.

The spoil heaps are by far the most obvious evidence of whetstone mining to be found now, but in most areas the remains of the collapsed tunnels can still be made out. The poor condition of the tunnel remains isn't surprising really as they could be 200 years old or more and if covered with bracken or brambles, those old entrances become almost invisible. Sometimes the only clue to where a tunnel entrance may have been is by noting the position of the associated spoil heap: the entrance would have been level with the flat top of the spoil heap to ensure the barrows could be wheeled out easily.

It has been reported that mining activity around this region was so intense that the spoil heaps were visible from the Honiton to Cullompton road and the Exeter to Taunton railway as an almost continuous white line along the edge of the hill, and were "suggestive of a railway embankment" - Downes (1880). Looking at the mining locations on the map above, the spoil heaps would certainly have been visible and did, apparently, attract visitors who were keen to find out what was going on.

Area of a spoil heap which has been excavated to show the sand and rocks

Image 15
Spoil heap material

As an observation, the spoil from these mines was never white, although I can accept that the light yellow-brown colour of the sand would, when dry and with the sun shining on it, appear a lot lighter than the surrounding vegetation, and would certainly have stood out on the hillside. These days the spoil heaps are covered with a good layer of dead organic matter, undergrowth, or both, meaning that the material they are composed of cannot readily be seen without a bit of work.

Image 15 shows part of a spoil heap after a bit of dodgy-looking and possibly litigable digging on my part, nicely showing the colour and composition of the waste material for your enjoyment. There are many pieces of sandstone present within the loose sand; some may be pieces discarded because they were too small to be useful or the wrong type of stone and others may be the waste rock resulting from the cutter carving whetstones outside his mine.

About The LiDAR Images Used Here

The following sections use images generated using LiDAR data, gathered by firing a laser at the ground from an aircraft, and measuring the time taken for the light to return from the target to determine the height of the surface at that point. This technology has proved to be invaluable to archaeologists, and has proved useful in my research into these old mines.

LiDAR data © Environment Agency copyright and/or database right 2022. All rights reserved.

Screenshots thanks to Archi UK

Mining Above Blackborough

  Directions & Access
The best way to access the mines in this area is to park by the churchyard in Blackborough at grid reference ST 09426 09233 (what3words: momentous.lawful.stalemate), but be aware that this isn't a car park as such, so park considerately. Go up the track on the opposite side of the road which is a public right of way, then taking the fork to the right to access the mines above the village. If you carry on up the hill instead, forking left near the top at the old wooden fence, this will take you past more workings to the north and east of the common.

LIDAR map of the mines around Blackborough

Image 16

Blackborough is generally accepted as being where whetstone mining began in this area, the miners and their families having lived in the houses in this hamlet once known as Punchy Down. This was a busy mining area and the workings continue on around the common in a clockwise direction from the village for some distance. The distance between the escarpment above Blackborough and the one on the opposite side of the common is less than 300 yards at the thinnest point, so I'd say there was good chance that some tunnels met in the middle somewhere, although I'm not aware of any reports of this happening in this location.

Whetstone mine spoil heap

Image 17
Large spoil heap from a whetstone mine

Whetstone mine adit

Image 18
Single whetstone mine entrance

Image 17 shows a particularly large spoil heap above Blackborough. There are several of this size up here, with the mature beech tree giving some sense of scale; considering all this material was dumped over the side using just a barrow, the amount of work this represents is mind-boggling.

Image 18 shows a single collapsed mine entrance with the sides easily visible, entering the escarpment above the bench.

Mining In Rhododendron Wood

  Directions & Access
The best way to access Rhododendron Wood is probably to park in the small car park (circled red on the map below) at grid reference ST 09550 06861 (what3words: decorate.shirtless.huts), which allows easy access to the bridle path through the woods which goes all the way through to Blackborough. The first half of the woods is owned by the Woodland Trust, the other half is in private ownership.

LIDAR map of the mines around Rhododendron Wood

Image 21

There is good evidence of a geological bench here, but the track has been bulldozed to allow easy access for machinery and now provides a pleasant, level woodland walk, although in some places the track has been cut several feet lower than the original surface, leaving tunnel entrances and spoil heaps sitting quite a bit higher than the more recently cut track. The remains to be seen here are generally in a very overgrown condition so are difficult to examine, although a few good examples of the old tunnel entrances can be seen.

spoil heap

Image 22
large spoil heap

adit entrance

Image 23
Collapsed mine entrance

Image 22 shows one of the spoil heaps, this one being fairly large. Working seemed a bit sporadic along this path, as many of the spoil heaps are fairly small compared to those in other areas, suggesting less of the whetstone rock was to be found here.

Image 23 shows the remains of a single tunnel entrance in reasonable condition, the sides of the trench nicely illustrating the presence of a level bench at this point, with the entrance itself entering the rising escarpment to the rear.

Mining Around North Hill

  Directions & Access
The best way to access this area is to park in the small car park circled in yellow at grid reference ST 09715 06908 (what3words: fishnet.succumbs.dreading), or park in the Rhododendron Wood car park (circled red) and walk a short distance up the road to this car park and take the bridle path going roughly south.

LIDAR map of the mines around North Hill

Image 24

This area of woodland is bisected by the boundary hedge, the first northern section is common land, implying you can go off the path to examine the workings lower down in the wood. The southern half is in private ownership, so stick to the path in this section. The boundary between the two consists of the bridle path gate set in an old hedge bank which can be seen going down the hill through the woods, making the boundary obvious.

The bridle path takes you above the workings in the northern end but several areas of collapsed ground are visible from the path. The path continues on through the boundary gate, finally going down through the mining remains in the southern end where they can be seen without leaving the path. The path finally climbs again and exits the woods onto the airfield of the Devon & Somerset Gliding Club.

This area of woodland is fairly overgrown and it seems no-one has used the old miners' track since the mining ceased; the remains of many tunnels and spoil heaps can be seen here which seem to be generally well-preserved and in general don't appear to have been disturbed since the mining days. Some of the best preserved entrance gullies can be found near the middle of the northern part of the woods, but are difficult to see due to a good crop of bracken which covers them and the spoil heaps.

Throughout this region you can clearly see where the original line of mines and spoil heaps is, but later reworking at the southern end has confused the area somewhat as many of the later mines had been opened above the old, and the spoil heaps from these, although not as big, tend to spill over the older workings. The creation of the bridle path in this area has also destroyed evidence of the higher level entrances.

spoil heap

Image 25
Spoil heap

Remains of a collapsed adit

Image 26
Collapsed adit entrance

Image 25 is of one of the substantial spoil heaps in this area, as usual heavily overgrown.

Image 26 shows one of the many adit entrances. The heap to the left of this entrance appears to have been where a 'cutter' sat carving out his whetstones, leaving this pile of rubble.

Mines Around Hembury Fort

  Directions & Access
For this area, park in the car park at grid reference ST 11262 03528 (what3words: shortage.composts.satin). There is an information board there with a route marked out, and by following this you can see spoil heaps and evidence of collapsed adit entrances, this being to the west of the road. Cross the road and go down through the woods to access the mining area to the east of the road; as far as I know there isn't public access to this part, but people do walk their dogs down there and I haven't heard of anyone getting shot as yet.

LIDAR map of the whetstone mines around the Hembury Fort area

Image 27

Looking at the LiDAR map above, evidence of quite a bit of mining activity can be seen on both sides of the road with a few smaller workings continuing on the western side towards the right of the image.

It has been suggested that this may have been one of the last areas worked for whetstones; it is, after all, quite some distance from Blackborough and when Hutchinson visited Hembury Fort on August 24th 1874 he made a passing reference to the "heaps and inequalities on the western side of the hill" where mines appeared to have been dug into the fort ramparts themselves but he made no mention of other workings.

However, De La Beche, when commenting on the line of spoil heaps visible in 1839, said, "More interrupted lines may also be seen in the escarpment facing Broadhembury, and the continuance of the same concretions may be traced by the refuse heaps in several other places." This presumably refers in part to the workings to the west of the road at Hembury Fort, and suggests many of the mining areas were worked concurrently.

A point of interest is that the width of the hill at the thinnest point, from the mines on one side to the mines on the other is around 200 yards; given that mining tunnels regularly exceeded this, it is reasonable to assume that many of these mines met in the middle or went right the way through, either intentionally or otherwise.

Workings east of the road

This area shows evidence of a considerable number of workings, with many collapsed mine entrances indicating they worked the ground at two levels here; there appears to be no indication of a geological bench at this location and the slope of the ground is far gentler than the escarpment on the other side of the road.

Spoil heaps in the woods

Image 28
A shot through the woods

remains of an adit entrance

Image 29
Collapsed adit

Image 28 shows a shot through the woods, with several spoil heaps in evidence to the left, with the tunnels entering the hill on the right. There is a minimal accumulation of organic material in this area, meaning that in some places the spoil heap material can be seen on the surface, without the need to remove the moss and rotting organic matter first.

Image 29 shows evidence of a collapsed mine entrance, now just a trench in the hillside.

Workings west of the road

This region features a steeper escarpment, and the track shows signs that it may be a naturally occurring geological bench, which was co-opted as access for the mines here. Although the spoil heaps are easy to spot, the entrances are in a rather poorer condition and easily confused with areas here the ground has sunk due to collapses.

Track through the woods showing a soil heap to one side

Image 30
Track with spoil heap

Remains of a collapsed whetstone mne tunnel

Image 31
Collapsed adit entrance

Image 30 shows the track through the woods, with a spoil heap in the middle distance to the left of the track. Mines entered the hill on the right, but the remains are difficult to discern.

Image 31 shows evidence of a substantial tunnel entrance going into the hill, in this case being dug just below the track level. There is minimal ground sinkage above this, suggesting that much of the tunnel may still be intact.

Mines South Of DSGC Buildings

  Directions & Access
This area of woodland has within it some smaller scale workings and is located at grid reference ST 1079 0658. Note that this is on private property, and requires permission to access and certain restrictions must be adhered to if permission is granted.

LiDAR map of the mines south of DSGC buildings

Image 32

The image above shows LiDAR topography with five distinct spoil heaps being visible, each with its own tunnel entering the hill and evidence of collapsed ground further in; there are more workings immediately to the west and east, but these were outside the area I had permission to examine.

A point of interest is that the mines seem to have been worked in sequence, each time moving further west and higher up the hill judging by the way the later spoil heaps spill over the earlier ones; perhaps the miners learnt from the geology and adjusted location accordingly.

spoil heap in the woods

Image 33

One of the collapsed adit entrances

Image 34

Image 33 shows spoil heap 4 as viewed from the flat top of spoil heap 3. Much vegetation is in evidence, making it difficult to examine the contents of the heaps in detail, although the sand and sandstone concretions are typical of that found on other whetstone spoil heaps. The heaps here are relatively small compared to ones in other areas suggesting that the mines weren't particularly productive and were relatively short-lived.

Image 34 shows where the entrance to mine 2 was located, the sides of the gully preceding the tunnel entrance being visible. Other tunnel entrances were less distinct, with evidence of entrances 1 & 5 having been destroyed in more recent times.

Mining in Sheldon Forest, sites A & B

  Directions & Access
These mines are located in Sheldon Forest and can be accessed by parking in the small car park at grid reference ST 1127 0706 (what3words: seagull.contemplate.roost). Go down the track, past the point where it passes the stream at the bottom, then take the path up on the left; one of the spoil heaps of site 'A' will be visible to the left of the path. Site 'B' involves a hike through the undergrowth and is more difficult to get to.

This area of woodland is fully open to the public which implies it's OK to go off the prepared trackway to examine these workings; I didn't see any heads on spikes, which is always a good sign.

LIDAR map of the whetstone mines in Sheldon Forest

Image 35

There is no evidence of collapsed ground above the entrance sites suggesting that these tunnels may be largely intact underground. There is also no evidence of re-working as appears to have happened in other areas.

Site 'A' - grid reference ST 11579 07313

Spoil heap, badly overgrown

Image 36

Remains of an adit entrance

Image 37

Image 36 shows one of the two large spoil heaps at this location, and despite a good covering of trees and brambles, it's still possible to get an idea of its size especially in the higher resolution version of the image. This shows the spoil heap end-on, but both of them are a good 50 yards long or more and so consist of a large amount of waste material.

Image 37 shows where one of the adits was, and it seems that one of the digger blokes many years ago got interested in this bit and dug a fair bit of the entrance out. Whether he found an opening is unknown, but none exists now. There is good evidence of at least two adits for each spoil heap; there may have been more but due to forestry work disturbing the ground I can't be sure.

Site 'B' - grid reference ST 11825 07505

spoil heap amongst the trees

Image 38

Possible adit entrance, but unconfirmed

Image 39

Image 38 shows one of the three large spoil heaps at this location although it proved difficult to get a meaningful photo due to excessive treeage, as you can see. The heaps are covered with a lot of dead organic matter and the only places where the spoil material could be examined was where badgers had dug it out.

Image 39 shows the possible site of an adit; there were several possibilities for adit entrances at this site, but as the ground had been severely disturbed during past forestry work, I couldn't confirm that that's what any of them actually were.

Back to top


 Further Information 


Devon's Non-metal Mines - Richard A. Edwards (2011)
Available on ebay, Amazon etc.

The Devonshire Association Volume 125 (1993), pages 71 - 112:
Devonshire Batts: The Whetstone Mining industry and community of Blackborough, in the Blackdown Hills
- R. G. F. Stanes
Available from The Devonshire Association


Sharpening The Scythe
My transcript of a story published in 1854 about a whetstone miner and the disaster that befell him.

LiDAR Finder

Archi UK LiDAR map

Grid reference finder

what3words locator

Historic aerial photos

Peter Orlando Hutchinson
His diaries and sketches

Historic England Project No. 6634
See pages 119 - 125


  Fitton (1836):
Google Books
'Observations On Some Of The Strata Between The Chalk And Oxford Oolite, In The South-East Of England'
by William Henry Fitton. See pages 235 - 238

  De La Beche (1839):
Google Books
'Report On The Geology Of Cornwall, Devon And West Somerset'
by Henry T. De La Beche. See page 242

  Downes (1880):
Report & Transactions of the Devonshire Association Vol 12 (1880):
by Rev. W. Downes. See pages 420 - 446

  Downes (1882):
Report & Transactions of the Devonshire Association Vol 14 (1882):
'Chert Pits. A Stray Note on Blackdown'
by Rev. W. Downes. See pages 317 - 321

  Woodward (1887):
'The Geology Of England And Wales'
by Horace B. Woodward. See pages 393 - 394

  Chalk (1910):
Report & Transactions of the Devonshire Association Vol 42 (1910):
'The Manor, Parish and Churches of Blackborough'
by Rev. Edwin S. Chalk. See pages 348 - 349

  Taylor, Cleevely, Morris (1983):
Internet Archive:
'Predatory gastropods and their activities in the Blackdown Greensand (Albian) of England'
by J D Taylor; R J Cleevely; N J Morris

Back to top


I can be contacted at this address: