The Moreton Volunteers (a sort of Home Guard) in Napoleonic times were nick-named ‘the potato men’ by other local groups. The Journal of the Royal Agricultural Society explained the reason (Vol 19 1848): ‘The soil around the parish of Moreton Hampstead is decomposed granite, which is peculiarly suited to this root, being free in its nature, and containing a large supply of the alkali potash, which is so necessary for the development of this plant.’
This had also been noted by Bryce’s in his History of Exeter (1802): ‘The American potato has long been the chief food of the poor. None have exceeded the farmers around Moretonhampstead in cultivating this excellent root. During the last century, their furzy grounds have been grubbed up, and tilled with potatoes, which alone make a profitable return, fit the soil for two or three crops of grain, and render it productive of subsequent pasturage. Moretonhampstead supplied all the west of Devon with potatoes about forty years ago. A regular market was held at Two-Bridges, near the middle of Dartmoor.’
The market, marked on Donn’s map of 1765, was where merchants from the growing dockyards of Plymouth came to buy from ‘the people of Morton’, who according to William Marshall, ‘monopolized, and practised as a mystery, the culture of Potatoes’.
The crop (more latterly known locally as ‘teddies’ from the popular King Edward VII variety) was planted between March and June depending on the type or variety. They were either planted in alternate furrows and then covered with dung or in ‘slips’ with narrow ridges of mould earthed up between them to produce ‘lazy beds’. Many farms had ‘potato caves’ – chambers dug into the growan (soft porous decaying granite) where the potatoes (and cider) were stored over winter. Another version was the ‘potato clamp’ which was a pit dug in the ground and lined with straw or rushes then filled up with potatoes and completely covered with soil.
Charles Vancouver writing in 1808 lists the typical costs of planting an acre of potatoes on the east side of Dartmoor: At the time the potato growers of the area would expect to harvest about 140 bags of potatoes per acre, the market price of which was around 2s 6d which would give a gross return of about £17, deduct the transport expenses and in proportion there wasn’t an awful lot left! By then the western areas of the moor had acquired ‘the mystery’ of potato growing and broken the monopoly of Chagford and Moreton. But it remained an important crop and Pound St School log book for April 1887 noted: ‘Boys absent planting potatoes’; and in May 1891 the subject of one of the first new style ‘object lessons’ was ‘the potato’. Perhaps the locals also appreciated other personal benefits of the humble ‘tattie’.
Vancouver remarked on the hardihood of the east Dartmoor villagers, and how they excelled in ‘all manner of athletic exercises’ (Moretonians was renowned for their prowess at Devon wrestling.) He examined the Parish registers and commented on the great ages at which people died. In Moretonhampstead in 1807, of 15 funerals, 7 were of folk aged 80 – 92 years. Was this, he wondered, because ‘the diet of barley bread was supplemented with pickled pork, bacon or mutton fat, a profusion of leeks and onions and an abundance of potatoes’?