"The sticky history of treacle mining is clouded," so says the National Union of Treacle Miners based in Dunchideock in Devon. (The locals call them the "NUTS"). This band of treacle miners is probably the smallest trade union in the country.
However, the NUT'S members have written down a history of treacle and their own mining activities near Exeter. Perhaps, not surprisingly, their history is very similar to other treacle mining areas throughout England, but not in Yorkshire.
Just as millions of years ago, forests were compressed and resulted in coal, so wild sugar cane was compressed into a treacle bearing rock. Wild sugar abounded in many areas and in the Kent and Sussex Weald and stretching into other neighbouring areas, great lakes of treacle spread along the lines of strata above oolite and below the chalk.
This all took place in the ancient Weald at the time of the dinosaurs, where vast areas of the Wealden Lake were covered by a plant similar to sugar cane. These plants were the size of giant trees and when the geological changes, over millions of years, compressed these sargo or sorghum plants, treacle was formed.
In other areas of England there is a theory that suggests that when many volcanoes were active, subterranean oolitic sucrite bearing lavas became trapped. Certainly in Lancashire vertical seams of treacle rock have been discovered.
Dr Richard Holder, of Crowborough in Sussex , reported that it was in the colder north that seams of sucritic oolite (following lait lines) reach closer to the surface where the substance had hardened into a rock-like consistency giving rise to the Everton Mint mines and open-cast Kendal Mint Cake quarries.
In the Jarvis Brook area, near Crowborough, you only have to look in the fields where the farmer has been ploughing, to discover a fresh harvest of lumps of treacle rock. Often these lumps of treacle rock are difficult to recognise, the lumps often being plastered with mud. However, a quick wipe over with a handkerchief and a taste of the rock with the tip of the tongue, is a simple test anyone can make.
At Steel Cross in Crowborough, a layer of treacle was found only a few feet below the ground level. A black translucent lump dug out, when heated, formed a thick viscid syrup with the consistency of molasses.
The Town Council was advised by Dr Richard Holder, not to open up a treacle mine at Steel Cross, for he feared there could be a disaster if any drilling was undertaken that could inadvertently release an estimated billion tons of candy floss over Crowborough.
After negotiations with the owner of the land, Peter Isted willingly organised to fill the ghyll area and level the site off at his own expense. In 1998, this exercise was completed and we can all rest and sleep at nights.
However, whist Dr Holder talked about "lait lines" he was not far off the mark. The Jarvis Brook Treacle Miners, using dowsing rods, have found treacle can still be discovered along the "ley line" which runs from Wilmington to Buxted, Hadlow Down, Jarvis Brook, Steel Cross and on to Tonbridge and beyond.
It was in the seventeenth century that treacle mining was at its height. In an old leather account book, found near Exeter, there is an entry which states - "To ye purchasing of five Wadkinnes for Donsedoc Treacle" - those entry clearly refers to the Dunchideock Treacle Mine, where a wadkin of treacle was sent to London for use of "Regina Elizabetha" (a wadkin in the dictionary, is described as being "an ancient measure, usually for treacle, the actual amount varying through the centuries, but always a large quantity". The word "wadkin" which comes from the Anglo Saxon "wodkinne" - was a sticky substance used on the body by ancient Britons to make their woad more permanent" (We are grateful for this information from the NUT's in Dunchideock).
Some historical documents, recorded on beech bark, tells how the Ancient Britons slowed down the advance of the Roman army by pouring wadkinnes of treacle over the roads. In the National Anthem of the Ancient Britons - the song (sung to the tune "Men of Harlech", went something like this, (we'll leave it to you the reader to find the tune.) :-
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