A good audience heard Dr John Mather recount the history of the whetstone industry that existed in the hills north of Honiton for several hundred years. The word whetstone is derived from an Old English word meaning “sharp” and they were used for sharpening cutting tools such as scythes, which quickly became blunted when used in the fields. The ideal such stone comes from a fine grained mixture of sandstone and quartz and just the right stone, in an accessible positon, is to be found on the western escarpment of the Blackdown Hills. The village of Blackborough was the centre of the industry with mines being driven into the hillside to get to the stone. The drifts would have been about 4 feet wide and 6 feet high and could be as much as a quarter of a mile long. Once the stone was extracted from the ground, it would be cut into torpedo shaped lumps that could be held in the hand. These would then be polished to produce a saleable item.
John’s research had established that the industry was very much a family business with records showing that the teenage children would have done most of the digging, with the father shaping the stones and the mother polishing them. The villagers kept themselves to themselves but came into local towns such as Wellington and Exeter to sell their wares. The industry was first recorded in 1690 and at its peak had about 24 active pits. By the end of the 19th century, much of the stone was worked out and other sources of sharpening material became available. The last whetstone miner in Blackborough retired in 1929.
John gave an entertaining and informative talk which brought to life a bygone local industry of which few of us had any knowledge. Little remains to be seen on the ground today but be careful if you are walking near Blackborough or Hembury Hill: the ground is still liable to subside where the old mine workings were!