Devon Perspectives

Spinster's Rock

Devon's ancient dolmen

Spinster's Rock
In a field due north of Chagford off a minor road leading to the village of Drewsteignton there stands an unusual structure consisting of a large stone slab or capstone supported by three upright stones. This is Spinster's Rock, the best surviving example in Devon of a neolithic burial chamber known as a dolmen or cromlech. Three stones are necessary and sufficient to support the capstone of a dolmen, though instances of these megalithic antiquities with more than three supports exist.
Spinster's Rock, showing all three supporting stones
Now, as a general rule under such circumstances, three points of support, and three only, will be found to be effective; hence any of the enclosing stones can be removed, provided that three are left so placed that the centre of gravity of the capstone falls within the triangle formed by their points of contact with it. [R Hansford Worth, p468]
The word dolmen is derived from the Celtic words daul, a table, and maen, a stone. Typically dolmens were covered with earth or smaller stones to form a barrow which in this case has weathered away, leaving only the stones of the burial mound intact. When first mapped by archaeologists Spinster's Rock was surrounded by a number of other stones arranged in circles and rows which may have been added after the dolmen was erected, but these have now disappeared.
plaque describing Spinster's Rock

The dolmen's name derives from the legend that three spinster's had time to kill one morning before breakfast while waiting for the jobber to call and collect the woollen cloth they had spun. These indefatigable wool-spinners, who were not spinsters in the unmarried sense, decided to while away the time by artfully balancing a few large stones in an upright position.

The first written account of this legend referring to Spinster's Rock was by William Chapple who in 1778 interrupted his work on the preparation of a "correct" version of Tristram Risdon's Survey of Devon to write a book about this antiquity. Unfortunately he died the following year before either book was published, though the manuscript concerning the cromlech was already in the hands of a printer. They produced an advertisement to promote this book that referred to the supposed Druidical significance of the dolmen; the italicised part is the book's full title:

The Description and Exegesis of a very remarkable Cromlech, hitherto preserved entire, on Shilston Farm, in the parish of Drewsteignton, Devon: Demonstrating the surprising accuracy of its geometric and astronomic construction; ascertaining its antiquity and primary use; and examining how far it might become accidentally subservient to the superstition of the Druids, and to what purposes afterwards applied by the Romans, or by some Romanized Britons and Pagan Saxons.

There is more about Tristram Risdon and William Chapple on the Early Devon Topographers page.

the journals of the Reverend John Swete

1792 watercolour of Spinster's Rock by Revd. John Swete

Born in Ashburton in 1752, the son of surgeon Nicholas Tripe, John inherited a large fortune on condition he changed his name to Swete. This allowed him to indulge his passion for the countryside of his native Devon, and over the years between 1789 and 1800 he made a series of tours across the county, writing up what he saw in 20 journals which he called Picturesque Sketches of Devon. These were lavishly illustrated with watercolours painted by his own hand in the style of his contemporary, the Plymouth landscape painter William Payne.

The tour covered by the first journal took Swete along the eastern edge of Dartmoor, giving him the opportunity for a detailed examination of the Drewsteignton antiquities including Spinster's Rock. As in many of his paintings, his depiction of the dolmen included an image of himself wearing a distinctive hat. There are no known paintings of Swete by other artists, so this may not be a true likeness, but from his description of the cromlech he was surely behatted at the time.
We now remounted, and after a return of half a mile, we left Drewsteignton towards the east, and rejoined the public road we had quitted near the bridge - a ride of about two miles brought us in sight of the famous cromlêk, which is certainly one of the most perfect in the world - it stands in a field belonging to a farm called, (perhaps from this curious monument) Shel-stone. The covering stone or quoit hath three supporters - it rests on the pointed tops of the southern and western one, but that on the north side upholds it on its inclining surface somewhat below the top; its exterior side rising several inches higher that the inner part on which the superimpendent stone is laid: this latter supporter is 7 feet high; indeed they are all of them of such an altitude, that I had not the least difficulty in passing under the covering stone, erect, and with my hat on. [10, p16]
Swete expressed caution in ascribing any Druidical significance to the monument while concurring with the Cornish antiquarian William Borlase that this dolmen was likely to have been erected above a burial chamber, as in other instances bones have been found in the vicinity.
That these monuments have been erected by the Britons there can be no doubt - how true the conjecture may be that they were Druid altars, and of old applied to sacrificial uses, at this remote period of time can never be well ascertained. Borlase and others who have treated on this subject judge them to have been sepulchral monuments; and there is reason for the supposition, inasmuch as they are often found on burrows - indeed, in Ireland, the matter hath been sufficiently elucidated - for there (though Borlase failed in his search in Cornwall) bones were absolutely found in the area, which some of them enclosed - it rests therefore on probability that, to whatever other purposes it might have been applied, the use and intent of the cromlêk - that is crooked stone, was primarily to distinguish and to do honour to the dead... [10, p17]

This was a period when it was fashionable to interpret the standing stone antiquities of Dartmoor as Druid monuments: Samuel Rowe in his much admired 1848 work A Perambulation of Dartmoor gives a thorough account of the various ideas put forward on the possible Druidical significance of the Drewsteignton cromlech by earlier writers such as Borlase, Chapple, and Polwhele, among others [Rowe, p39-43]. Rowe accepted that its primary function was of a sepulchral nature, but was open to the possibility of it being a Druid altar where sacrificial offerings were made.

By the end of the 19th century, mainstream thinking had turned against the Druidical view, and Samuel's nephew J. Brooking Rowe inserted this disclaimer in the preface to his expanded edition of the Perambulations published in 1896:
I have made many alterations and some additions, but, although entirely disagreeing with them, I did not feel at liberty to eliminate altogether the Druidical theories of the author with which the first edition of the book was saturated.

learned friends fall out over cromlech

Richard Polwhele

Richard Polwhele [6, Vol 1, p150] gives this description of the stone rows and circles that were once seen in the vicinity of the dolmen but have now vanished. The beginning of this account has a striking similarity to one given earlier by Swete, who is credited in a Devon & Cornwall Notes & Queries article as being the first to document these latterly despoiled antiquities [8, p88-93]:

Towards the west of the cromlech I remarked several conical pillars about four foot high. On the fourth side there are three, standing in a direct line from east to west. With respect to columns erected on a circular plan, the number of stones erect are various. The distance of the pillars from each other is different in different circles, but is the same, or nearly so, in one and the same circle.
Swete's account begins:
In an adjoining field towards the west I remarked several conical pillars about four foot high - on the southern side there are three standing in a direct line from east to west - the distance from the more western one, to the middle one was 212 paces...
Swete and Polwhele were near neighbours and the two men of letters established a rewarding friendship based on mutual respect; Polwhele acknowledged Swete's help in preparing the chapter on "The Indigenous Plants of Devonshire" in his History[6]. However, by 1796 their relationship had turned sour, ending in a public spat in the pages of the Gentleman's Magazine, each accusing the other of plagiarism in their writings on the Drewsteignton antiquities.
The argument became acrimonious and public through the Gentleman's Magazine and European Magazine with Polwhele's suggestion that Swete had misappropriated his research. Swete later wrote several letters to the editor of the Gentleman's Magazine (e.g. The Gentleman's Magazine and Historical Chronicle for the year 1796, volume LXVI part 2, p896), reproaching him for printing the comments and argued that Polwhele's claim of plagiarism was baseless given that Polwhele's information was derived from his own volumes. In 1797 Polwhele was still complaining of 'Mr Swete's unhandsome interference with my Druidical researches'. His particular objections were to Swete writing on the Drewsteignton cromlech and the Logan Stones [in the River Teign nearby]. note1
The eventually patched up their differences, but the relationship remained frosty.

collapse, restoration, and despoilment

Visiting Spinster's Rock, one is struck by the incongruity of such an imposing antiquity standing in an otherwise unremarkable meadow. In the past it was arable land, and the Victorian photographer Falcon, commenting on the location of the dolmen, dryly noted that:

...this, the only Devonian standing cromlech, reigns in a potato field, or haply over turnips and mangolds. Its dignity somehow survives the contest with those strenuous vegetables; but many must needs think congruity more important than locality, and regret the domesticity of its setting. [Falcon, p x]
the collapsed dolmen

After an exceptionally wet year during which the field containing it had been furrowed by ploughing, the dolmen collapsed in January 1862. Fortunately no-one was around at the time as the capstone is said to weigh 16 tons! Some ingenious locals were able to reinstate it using tools of Archemedian simplicity for which they were handsomely rewarded. The adjacent image was produced from a photograph of the fallen cromlech taken on February 21st, 1862[11].

Here stands, on a farm called Shilstone, the only cromlech left in Devon, which once formed the central feature of a group of stone circles and avenues. It fell in January, 1862, and was 'restored' in the same year. Though the 'quoit' is two feet thick, fifteen in length, and ten in breadth, a builder and a carpenter of Chagford, by the aid of pulleys and a screw-jack, replaced it at a cost of £20 note 2; and thus very much reduced the vague wonder that commonly attaches to the erection of such structures. [R.N.Worth, p324]
raising the quoit

The re-erection of the fallen stones was possibly at the instigation of a local antiquarian and geologist, George Wareing Ormerod, who observed the reconstruction and made this sketch showing the wooden frame used to aid the raising of the capstone[11]. In her History of Chagford, Jane Hayter-Hames writes of his preoccupation with the antiquities of the parish of Chagford:

By profession a solicitor, this enthusiastic gentleman began [to take] an interest in Spinster's Rock, in stone circles, stone rows and other pre-Roman remains, that helped to attract the attention of visitors. ..... When the cromlech of Spinster's Rock collapsed in January 1862 he helped to have it raised to its original position. Indeed, he was very disappointed that only days previously he had been unable to photograph it due to bad weather conditions. [Hayter-Hames, p110]
camera lucida sketches of Spinster's Rock by G W Ormerod

Ormerod's satisfaction at the timely restoration of the dolmen was tempered by the realisation that the supporting stones were not in their original positions after all. Though unable to photograph the dolmen, he had made a number of camera lucida sketches in 1858 which provided the template for the restoration work. Three of these sketches are shown alongside note3.

The dolmen was restored in November of 1862, but the restoration does not fully reproduce the original form; the eastern stone has been placed almost at right angles to its original position, and the capstone, instead of resting on the top of the northern support, rests in a notch cut in its bevelled slope. [R Hansford Worth, p468]
There had been some suggestion that the fall of the dolmen resulted from foul play, but a meticulous examination of the surroundings afterwards convinced Ormerod that this was not the case. He regarded the inconsistencies in the reconstruction of the dolmen as a minor irritant. Much more serious in his eyes was the removal at an earlier date of the nearby stone circles and rows by the Shilstone tenant farmer. Ormerod's sketch of the dolmen after its re-erection is shown in the next image[11].
Spinster's Rock after its restoration
A mistake has been made in the restoration of the north-easterly support, but it is not of much importance. Although, as I consider, the then tenant of Shilston Farm was free from blame as regards [the collapse of] the cromlech, yet he has been guilty of an act which every antiquary will regard as one of great atrocity. Polwhele mentions certain rude stones as there existing, but though I have carefully examined the fields in the neighbourhood of the cromlech, I could not find a trace of them. Early in 1872 I received the following extract from the journal of my late friend, the Rev. W. Grey: " Wednesday, 4th July, 1838. Visited from Moreton the Druidical circles above the cromlech. The cromlech lies in a field about 110 yards to the east. There are two concentric circles of stones, the inner circle having entrances facing the cardinal points, that to the north being sixty-five paces in length and five broad. The outer circle, besides these, has avenues diverging towards north-east, south-east, south-west, and north-west. A smaller circle seems to intersect the larger, of which the avenue eastwards is very evident." I examined the field on March 22, 1872, when the field had been recently ploughed, and not a trace remained. The circles and via sacra had given place to the plough. On making inquiries, I found that the stones had been removed prior to 1832; and that though the via sacra remained in 1848, the circles had been removed [by then] note4.
Rev. W. Grey provided Ormerod with this plan depicting the layout of the stone circles and rows described above. The cromlech is marked to the east of the circles while Bradford Pool is shown to their north-east. note5
Spinster's Rock

Soon after the fall of the dolmen Ormerod visited the scene and noted that the upright stones had been sunk no more than eighteen to twenty-four inches into the ground which was of light granite gravel that had become sodden by recent heavy rain. He was also present during the reconstruction and witnessed the steps taken to reduce the likelihood of another collapse.

In the course of the re-erection, the ground on which the cromlech stood was excavated, and a pavement made of large blocks of granite which fixed the uprights firmly in their places, and to make them more secure a hole was cut horizontally through each of the uprights, in which a thick bar of iron was placed resting on the granite pavement, and the whole foundation was covered with earth. note6

notes

1.
From Todd Gray's introduction to volume 1 of Swete's Travels in Georgian Devon[10].
2.
There seems to be some uncertainty as to who actually footed the £20 bill: according to the sources quoted on the Spinster's Rock page on legendarydartmoor.co.uk, the cost of replacing the capstone was met by either the Reverend William Ponsford, or by a certain Mrs Bragg.
meeting of the Devonshire Association at Spinster's Rock, 1946. © Dartmoor Archive

Backing for Ponsford as the benefactor is to be found in the The Modern Antiquarian which quotes a letter stating that the work was done "by Messrs. W. Stone & Ball, builders at Chagford, at the expense of the Rev. W. Ponsford, the Rector of Drewsteignton." However the scholarly Victoria History of Devon says the dolmen "was replaced by the late Mrs Bragg, of Furlong" [7, p348].

When in doubt, who better to turn to than that respected authority on Dartmoor, William Crossing. His Guide to Dartmoor points out the division of responsibility with characteristic precision:
The expense of this was borne by the late Mrs. Bragg, of Furlong, the owner of Shilston, and it was superintended by the rector, the Rev. William Ponsford. [Crossing, p274]
3.
G Wareing Ormerod published these findings and the camera lucida sketches in a paper to the Journal of the Royal Archaeological Society, vol.29, 1872. The three sketches shown were reproduced in Worth's Dartmoor [5, p181].
4.
Taken from an article entitled "Drewsteignton Cromlech" by G Wareing Ormerod that appeared in The Antiquary, Vol. 3, 1880.
According to J Brooking Rowe, the last stones of these vanished antiquities disappeared in 1865 when the few then remaining were used in the building of a farmhouse in the neighbourhood. [Rowe, p118]
5.
Hansford Worth scanned the literature looking in vain for corroboration of Grey's findings. Noting Swete's late 18th century description[8] of these supposedly Druidical remains, he remarks that Ormerod's plan of Grey's "discovery" shows 105 stones, far exceeding the number in Swete's earlier account. To uphold the good name of archaeological endeavour Worth exhorts us to dismiss Grey's elaborate but illusory schema as the product of a fertile imagination:
It has long seemed to me that the time was overdue for someone in the interests of archaeology, to deal in an even more summary manner with Rev. W. Grey's "discovery". There is no evidence that prior to 9:30am on Wednesday, 4th July 1838, any person other than Grey or his brother ever saw, or imagined that he saw, the remains which the pair conceived that they then surveyed. And it is certain that no independent observer has since reported having seen these remains; while it is, or should be, common knowledge that uninformed enthusiasm can gravely over-stimulate the imagination. [Hansford Worth, p470]
An interesting in-depth review and analysis of the evidence for the existence and nature of these remains is given in Prehistoric Dartmoor Walks.
6.
Quoted from "The fall and restoration of the Cromlech of Drewsteignton in the county of Devon, 1862" by G Wareing Ormerod, Transactions of the Devonshire Association, Vol. 4 part2, p409-411, 1871.

bibliography

1.
A History of Devonshire by R.N. Worth, Elliot Stock, London, 1895.
2.
Devon by W.G. Hoskins, Collins, 1954; new ed., Phillimore, 2003.
3.
History of Chagford by Jane Hayter-Hames, Phillimore, 1981.
4.
The Witchcraft and Folklore of Dartmoor by Ruth St.Leger-Gordon, Peninsula Press, 1994.
5.
Worth's Dartmoor by R Hansford Worth, David & Charles, 1967. Hansford Worth was the son of RN Worth cited in 1.
6.
A History of Devonshire in 3 volumes by Richard Polwhele, London, 1793-1806; facsimile reprint Kohler & Coombes, Dorking, 1977.
7.
The Victoria History of the County of Devon volume 1, edited by William Page, London, 1906.
8.
A Tour Across Dartmoor into North Devon by Revd. John Swete, 1789. Devon & Cornwall Notes & Queries volume 1, p93-94, 1901.
9.
Guide to Dartmoor by William Crossing, 3rd edition, Exeter, 1914.
10.
Travels in Georgian Devon: The Illustrated Journals of the Reverend John Swete, 1789-1800 in four volumes, edited by Todd Gray and Margery Rowe, Devon Books, 1997. Swete's commentary on Spinster's Rock and the nearby antiquities cited in [8] is found in volume 1 of this magnificent set on pages 16-19.
11.
Archaeological Memoirs relating to the East of Dartmoor, Exeter, 1876. This is a collection of previously published papers by G. Wareing Ormerod including Notice of the fall and restoration of the Spinster's Rock or Cromlech in the County of Devon. The three images showing the dolmen after its collapse, during its restoration, and after re-erection are reproduced from this paper.
12.
Dartmoor Illustrated by T A Falcon, Exeter, 1900.
13.
A Perambulation of the Ancient and Royal Forest of Dartmoor by Samuel Rowe, 3rd edition revised and corrected by J Brooking Rowe, Exeter, 1896.

acknowledgements

The 1792 watercolour 'Crom-lek at Drewsteignton' by Revd. John Swete is reproduced from Volume 1 of Travels in Georgian Devon [10, p17] by kind permission of the copyright holders Halsgrove Publishing, the publishers of the Devon Books imprint.
The photograph showing the Devonshire Association meeting at Spinster's Rock in 1946 is reproduced by kind permission of the Dartmoor Archive who own the copyright of this image. It comes from the Taylor collection held in that archive. Information about this image and its copyright can be seen on the Dartmoor Archive website.
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