Guavas the Tinner, Sabine Baring-Gould

Guavas the Tinner, Sabine Baring-Gould#

Hot on the heels of the controversy of early 1896, antiquarian, folk tale and folk song collector Sabine Baring-Gould published the first installment of his tale Guavas the Tinner in The Queen, dated Saturday, July 4th, 1896, p31. Further installments appeared in the following issues, and the book was then published as a standalone work, Guavas the Tinner, in Spring, 1897.

One of the first reviews provides a summary of the book:

Review, St. James’s Gazette

St James’s Gazette - Wednesday 17 March 1897, p5


Mr. Baring-Gould has again made good use of his passionate love of exploring old traditions and unearthing from historic spots the secrets of their past ; and in burrowing among the old tin-workings of Dartmoor, as he frequently burrows among the old folk-songs of the West, he has on this occasion found material for a somewhat wild and fantastic tale which he is pleased to place in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, though probably the tale would gain in probability by being put back least a century or so. Guavas the Tinner is a Cornish miner who, working among Dartmoor folk with better skill and luck than the natives, incurs the envy of all, and still more the hatred of Dickon Rawle, a mean fellow whose rival is for the affections of Isolt, the daughter of the Bailiff of the Stannaries. This lady is of the ravenhaired, wild, and wicked order ; and being herself in love with Guavas and fearing that his affections have strayed to a little moorland maiden called Lemonday (the names are all quaint enough), connives at her hero being nailed by the hand to a post for a breach pf the stannary laws in order that she may release him under oath of perpetual constancy to her. But human hearts are not chained in this way, and a series of cleverly wrought incidents bind Guavas to the purer love of the moorland maid. It will be guessed that excitement and incident are not wanting before the successful ending of the tale is reached when say that, besides the transfixion of Guavas on Dartmoor, there is fearfully realistic right between a man and a wolf, the burying alive of the hero in a disused mine, the shooting of the wicked Isolt with a silver bullet by the bungling Dickon Rawle, and the disappearance of this inefficient villain in a bog. The narrative is interspersed with those charming little touches of folk-lore which come so trippingly to the pen of the writer ; among others may be mentioned a very curious wake and pretty monkish legend about Joseph of Arimathea’s connection with the West of England tin trade. The invocation to Joseph used at the smelting of the tin, and quoted as prevalent in Devonshire in Elizabethan times, is, oddly enough, used to this day at a factory in London where tin is the metal employed. This piece of knowledge, accidentally acquired, we venture to present to Mr. Baring-Gould in return for a few hours’ pleasant reading. Guavas the Tinner. By S. Baring-Gould. With Illustrations Frank Dadd (Methuen and Co.)

Further reviews appeared in other periodicals over the following weeks.

Guavas the Tinner, Extracts#

The story begins with a description of a man, illuminated by moonlight, semi-crucified, being observed by a wolf, (p4):

But who was this man crucified to a post in mid moor, and wherefore did he thus suffer ?

The man was Eldad Guavas, a tinner, and he suffered by sentence of the Bargmaster of the Stannaries, because he had found gold and had appropriated it; whereas gold was due to the Crown.

His crime is explained at p5-6:

In the reign of Edward I., in 1288, a series of Stannary Laws were promulgated. Over the Duchy a bailiff, or Bargmaster, was appointed, and every miner was allowed two “meeres” of land in which to work. Each meere consisted of ninety-six square feet. But along with this portion went another meere, which belonged to the Crown, and of all the ore raised a thirteenth portion was due to the King. A miner who left his claim unworked for three weeks lost his right to it. One who was convicted of theft of ore from a neighbour’s claim was mulcted in money. If he was again convicted he underwent a heavier sentence, but for a third he was condemned to have his hand affixed to a post at his workings by a knife thrust through the palm, and he was to be left thus affixed to die of hunger, unless he chose to tear himself loose ; but this could be done only by cutting through the tendons of his hand, and rendering it for ever useless.

The King claimed one-thirteenth of all tin raised, and demanded the whole of the gold that was found along with the tin, and, as the crime of stealing from the Crown was three times as grave as stealing from an ordinary miner, such a crime could only be expiated by fastening the hand by means of a knife to the post, with the consequence of death or mutilation.


He is helped by a young woman, Isolt.

In Chapter VI, “Soul Cakes”, p58-64:

Chapter VI, “Soul Cakes”

At once a door was opened, and a woman’s voice was heard calling : ” Who comes at night ? Be still, Guy.” The dog was ill disposed to obey, but reiterated commands forced him to leap down and go to his mistress’s side in the house door.

When Eldad Guavas came to the door, and looked in, a strange sight met his eyes — a scene of death.

In the chamber lay a corpse, with the feet towards the door, and two candles at the head and one at the feet. It lay in a board coffin, with a plate of salt and a loaf on the breast. Many old women were in the apartment, wailing, singing, declaiming, and the hubbub was only arrested by the appearance of the miner, with his wolf, in the doorway.

” Come in ! ” said the woman who had restrained her dog. ” But first tie up that creature of thine or he and mine will fight, and that ill beseems a house of mourning. My good man is dead, and will be carried forth on the morrow.”

Eldad hesitated.

“I need,” he said, “but direction; give me that and I will go on.”

” Nay,” answered the woman, ” that were to bring ill luck to the house, and no rest to my man, not to enter and eat of the soul-cake, and drink a draught of aqua vitae. God hath brought thee hither, and here thou must tarry awhile.”

Eldad consented. On such an occasion it would have caused offence not to partake of the general meal. He chained up the wolf in an out- house and entered the room.

This was small, close, and crowded.

An old woman stood up, and, bending over the coffin said in the ear of the corpse : ” They have made thee a rare good chamber out to Widicombe Churchyard, and no thought o’ cost in it. I reckon thou’lt be rarely comfortable there, and as volks goeth by o’ Sundays, they’ll say, ‘Deary life ! who lieth there ? What ! old Captain Ford 1 He’s well and vittily laid sure enough, and above his station. I reckon any man would be proud o’ such a bed as he’s gotten, and take good care he will not quit it lest some other ghost clip in and occupy it while he be wandering elsewhere.”

Then up stood another old woman, and exclaimed : ” You needn’t trouble and worrit about the widow and the orphan. Captain Ford. There’s a cow and a pig and half a score o’ ewes, and they’ll be very comfortable, and none occasion at all for you to fret yourself and come back out o’ glory, and see after they. Thanks be that you have provided for them. I reckon they’ll manage bravely for themselves, and you lie aisy and don’t fash your head about the consarns o’ this mortal life no more. I’m sure you’re goin’ to a better place, where there’ll be figgy puddin’ better than ever was biled in this here vale o’ tears.”

” And what a thing it be to be buried respectable ! ” exclaimed a third, ” and nothin’ spared to make all pleasant all round. A little drop o’ aqua vitae to drink a suant voyage to the departed, and that he may enjoy hisself just as us does here I and no figs spared in his soul-cake, and spice and ginger, my dear blood ! I’d be proud to die if I wor to be buried and gie’ so much pleasure all round at my buryin’.”

” An’ what a gude man he wor — the Cap’n ; so gude to the poor,” said another. ” I mind when her (he) gi’ed me as much rishes (rushes) cut by hisself as iver I wanted for my datchin, and he wor that charitable when her killed a sheep, her sent me the pluck. May he be received into glory — and bide there.”

“And,” threw in the first, “well he may be given to glory, when everything as he cu’d wish for in heaven and airth is provided reg’lar. Here be a strange man come in as’ll take all his sins away as might ha’ made a bit o’ a difficulty wi’ the porter to Heaven’s gates. Will ye now just stand there ? ” she asked, signing to Guavas.

The miner, unwilling to object to anything that might be asked of him, answered : ” I will do what is required, but I demand first that I may be directed on my way to Yealm Steps. I have a long stretch of moor to make this night.”

” Well,” said the same woman in reply, ‘’ us’ll take care for that. For sure certain the little maid can guide’y to Childe’s Cross, and from there you can get along o’ your self. But first you must eat the soul-cake, and so tak’ the dead man’s sins on ye. ‘Taint a terrible lot — he were a main gude man.” The woman took up a broad saffron cake that lay on the dead man’s breast, broke it, and passed it across the coffin to Guavas.

He received the portion and ate some mouthfuls, whilst all the company looked on in silence. Then the same woman passed to him a bowl of spirits across the coffin, and Guavas gratefully drank it. When he had done, all present raised a cry, and threw at him sticks, cinders, whatever they could lay hold of, and he was hustled on all sides and thrust out of the door.

” He has taken on him the sins o’ the dead ! Cast’n out ! ” was the general cry. [The custom of " sin-eating " was still practised in Aubrey's time in Herefordshire and Shropshire, and was only then expir- ing in Wales where it had been universal. The " Soul-cakes " remained in use elsewhere, after their significance had been lost There is no direct evidence that "sin-eating" was practised in Devon, but certain indications point in that direction, and as the race occupying Cornwall and a part of Devon was identical with that in Wales, it is probable that this singular custom was atone time common there likewise. I have ventured to suppose that it was lingering on at the period of the reign of Queen Elizabeth, in such a remote and isolated region as Dartmoor. For an account of the custom, see Aubrey, " Remains of Gentilisme and Judaisme" (Folk Lore Society, 1881) ; also Leland's "Collectanea," quoted by Brand, " Popular Antiquities," ii. 246, Bohn's Edition.]



ELDAD stood outside the door, astonished and angry. The custom of “sin-eating” was not one about which Guavas understood anything. It was pursued here and there only, where old women were allowed to have the management of the death-chamber and the conduct of a funeral, in those portions of the land most removed from civilisation and where old pagan practices lingered unaltered by Catholicism or undissolved by Protestantism. On Dartmoor, a vast tract of moorland nominally in the parish of Lydford many miles distant, where the church was accessible by one track only carried betwixt unsoundable bogs, the natives had lived for centuries entirely untouched by religious influences, following traditional usages that dated back to the first occupation of Britain by the rude stone monument builders and handed on by them to their Celtic conquerors.

To eat of the funeral feast was a duty. To refuse it was to proclaim a feud that was deadly and unpardonable. Guavas had readily complied with the request or demand of the woman who acted as stewardess of the ceremonies to partake of the soul-cake, but he was unprepared to accept the consequences and be regarded and treated as a sort of scapegoat taking on him the sins of the deceased.

He was not a superstitious man ; nevertheless, there was something disquieting in the thought that he had unwittingly incurred responsibilities he had not desired, or at all events had taken a prominent part in a rite that had no sanction in Christianity, Catholic or Reformed, and which savoured of something much opposed to its principles.

p94-5 … “… I take it kindly that thou hast thought of us and come hither. And, indeed, we owe thee a duty, for thou didst eat my father’s sins. God help him I he was a good man and never did harm to any. So thou hast had no heavy burden to bear, if thou didst carry them away.”

” Lemonday, that is a fond and foolish custom, if it be not a curst one. There is but One who can take away sin, and that is not a poor erring man such as I.”

” I trow you speak right,” said the girl, gravely. ” But it is an old usage.”

” Our forefathers did this because they knew no better and lived in superstition and the shadow of ignorance.”

” That may be ; nay, for very surety it is so. But I prithee eat a curd and drink.” ” I drink to thee in the innocent sweet milk,” he said.


” What is’t cousin ? ” asked the newcomer.

” See, Aaron, here’s a man has thrown himself on me as is a runagate and a felon. See his hand. What am I to do — I, a lone woman — ^wi’ the like o’ him ? ” She extended the wounded member, and held the candle that Master Gaunter might see and judge for himself.

” This is Eldad Guavas,” he answered. ” I have heard of him. He has been knifed against all law and right. I know very well such things were done in times gone by, but not for many years. I’ve heard tell of this. The sound has gone round the country, and, if he choose, he may make some folks smart for having sentenced him. Whether he were right or wrong condemned I know naught. He’s a decent conducted man, though a foreigner. You cannot turn him out. What brought him here ? “

” Nay, how can I tell ? ” was the widow’s answer. “He came to this house the night of my Elias’s lyin’ out, and he ate his sin away. I sent Lemonday to show him the track to Child’s Grave, and by Foxtor mires. Whether anything passed that has made him fancy her, or she him I cannot say, but the only word he has said since he came in was her name, and she’s been mighty hot on housin’ him.”

“You must rid yourself of him as soon as he be well enough to leave.”


” I am not ungrateful for what you have done for me,” answered Guavas. ” I was a stranger and ye took me in. I was sick and ye ministered to me. I shall never do other than what is for your profit. The tin is yours, and I will account to you for every ounce. I will work as your man, and you shall pay me wage, if you will, till this entire accumulation is smelted up. All I ask is that you will suffer me to do — what I have a right to do — range the country and seek out the place whence your husband got all these pieces. The place at Yealm Steps is lost to me. I have too many enemies there to seek the same grounds again, and moreover it will all have been spoiled. I must find fresh quarters.”

Joan Ford was uneasy and disconcerted.

” Let us consider that another time,” she said. ‘’ Now think only of the blowing house.”

“That will not be a hard matter,” said he. ” You have one already below you, at the sweep of the river —”

” What, Lower Swancombe ? “

” I do not know its name, but there are very ancient workings there, and among them the ruins of a blowing house, small, but sufficient ; and I shall have to restore the furnace, and roof the building, and with small trouble I can put up a wheel and have a blast.’

” You will not be false to us/’ said the widow, nervous, mistrustful, hesitating.

Guavas smiled. ” Mistress,” answered he, ” you cast on me the sins of your husband, and who can say but that all the pains, the injustice, the persecution, the robbery, to which I have been subjected since that night, that these, which have left me maimed and impoverished, may be the expiation of some of the sins, the sufferings that ever follow on sin ? If I have borne these, then let me bear some of the obligations, the privileges of the dead man, and work for you — his widow, and for his daughter.”

” I must e’en trust thee,” said Joan Ford, ” for I cannot help myself.”

” You may trust him because he is true,” said Lemonday, with beaming eyes.

The tinner smiled.


Joan Ford took Guavas by the hand and led him forth out of the house, and seated herself on a stone where she might be overheard of none.

” Eldad,” said she, with agitation in her voice and manner, ” I must even now speak a word with thee, or ever thou proceedest further in this matter. Dost thou recall that night when first thou didst come to my door ? “

” Very well indeed, mother.”

” It was afore my good man was taken to his burial. I was troubled about laying him in the ground laden as he was with his sins till one had come and taken them off. Then thou didst enter at my door, and to thee was given the soul-cake, dipped in salt from off his breast, and with the eating thereof thou didst burden thyself with his transgressions.”

” It is an idle fancy,” said Eldad, with jest in his voice.

” It is no idle fancy, and thou hast no occasion to mock,” retorted Joan Ford ; ” of that thou mayst judge for thyself, for on thee has fallen the consequence of his sin.”

” What consequence ? “

“What has been on thee ever since that night save the enmity of Dickon Rawle ? Wherefore has that come ?”

“That is easily answered. I quarrelled with him at Crockern Stannary Hall, and for that reason and through envy at my fancied success, and the gall of malice that lies in the grounds of his mean heart, he stirred up a false charge against me of having defrauded the Queen, and obtained my punishment by the overbearing might of the bailiff, Rodda, and then “

” Aye, and then — thou didst set thy wolf at his throat.”

“I appealed to the judgment of God against the lawless judgment of men.”

” Twice has Dickon Rawle sought thy life, and twice hast thou been delivered. But let me tell thee that deep under all fancied wrongs, such as revenge stirred by a brawl and envy of thy success, lies a real wrong. I must e’en speak the truth to thee ; as thou hast stepped in ankle deep, thou must go further over knee and know all. Dickon must follow thee, and seek thy life, not for that he covets thy tin but for that his brother Roger was killed and his blood is unavenged.”

” I had naught to do therewith.”

” Nay, that is certain, but my man Elias had. And on thee has come the guilt, for that thou didst eat the soul-cake and carry away his sin.”

Eldad was startled and shocked.

” Mother Joan,” he said in a low tone, ” every man must bear his own burden. As a man soweth even so must he reap.”

“If thou wilt quote Scripture I can do the same. One doth sow and another doth reap. My man did that which was against God’s law and took the life of Roger Rawle, lest he should come to know whence he got the spalls of pure tin.”

” Then it was in the Roman mine,” exclaimed Eldad exultantly.

” I know nothing further — save only that he was the occasion of Rawle’s death. That weighed heavily on his soul, and the consciousness of sin I verily believe was the cause of his sickness and death. After having committed that evil deed he never held up his head ; and to me alone he spake of it, and he revealed what he had done only when Death knocked at the door. Then he said that he could never enter into God’s grace and rest in his grave, but must walk, unless his sin were taken away. And I, knowing that, sought to lay it on another. By heaven’s favour thou wast sent to my door at my desire, and thou didst freely take on thee the sin and didst eat the cake. Therefore is it that the wrath of Rawle is kindled and flameth against thee. He knoweth not that his brother was foully done away with, but his brother’s blood in him rebels and rises against and pursues the man on whom the guilt of that death lieth.”

Eldad had a mind in advance of his time ; he regarded the practice of sin-eating, then almost fallen in desuetude, as a monstrous superstition, but he was startled at the coincidence of the implacable hostility of Rawle following him, dogging his every step almost from the moment when, according to the popular idea, the guilt of the murder had been transferred to him from the dead man.

“Now,” said Joan Ford, “I beseech thee — follow my advice. I cannot forbid thee to seek the hidden lode in the haunted mine ; thou must do so if thou art so disposed, but beware lest evil come on thee there. The sin there done is not extinguished, and its consequences may light on thee even at the place where the crime was committed.”

” Mother,” said Guavas, ” thou knowest little of the Scriptures and nothing of the Christian religion, but clingest strangely to Popery, if thou holdest that sin can be carried from one to an- other, as I said once afore to Lemonday, by the eating of a cake dipped in salt. There is but One on whom sin can be laid, and who can bear the transgressions of man. Turn to Him and ask Him to bear the trespass of thy dead man, and I will join with thee and Lemonday, and it is written — Where two or three are united together as touching anything they shall ask, it shall be given them. All else is foolishness and fleshly ignorance, and against God’s law and the Christian religion. I am sorry now that I did such a thing on the eve of Elias Ford’s burial. Not that I apprehend the consequences, God forbid I But that I cockered thee up in a wanton and heathenish superstition. Now, fare thee well for the day. Thou shalt have my hearty prayers for Elias. As to the pixie lode, I feel that in me which urgeth me on towards it, and at all risks I must seek till I find it. Strive not therefore to dissuade me — for it availeth not.”

Then Eldad moved in the direction of the blowing house. It was his intention to go there and look whether the tin were sufficiently cooled to be turned out of the mould, and whether he should fire the kiln anew. He stood still, after having gone some distance, hesitating. He was within sight of the blowing house. Within was Dickon Rawle, holding the pistol. Rawle peered through the small window, and saw the Cornishman. He observed him approach, then halt, bite his thumb, and fall into a musing fit.

At that moment a hare ran athwart the path in front of Eldad.

Man is inconsistent. It was perhaps not strange that at such a period Guavas should be guilty of the inconsistency of arguing against superstition, and yet yield himself to it. He was a religious man, and because of that he saw that the superstition of Joan Ford was against the Christian faith, whereas that of attending a warning was not so of necessity — nay, it might be in accordance with religion to obey a warning, for were not tokens sent from above ? Now the crossing of his path by a hare when leaving the house the first thing in the morning is notoriously a warning to turn back. Guavas at once obeyed. He did not took upon his so doing as a superstitious act, but as a recognition of the hand of God. He turned aside at right angles with altered purpose. At the same moment, with an oath, Rawie lowered his pistol, and withdrew from the window. Eldad for the nonce had escaped him. The hare had delivered the Cornishman from the silver bullet.

Guavas now purposed to go direct to the head of the Webburn, and examine the Roman mine in Chaw Gully. He had inquired of Roger Gale where it was, and had received directions, by means of which he believed it would not be possible for him to miss it.

But it would little avail him to find old work- ings, shafts, and heaps of refuse, unless he could also descend into the bowels of the earth and dis- cover the lode itself where it had been worked by Elias Ford. For this purpose he needed a stout cord. He had learned from the old hind that there were ruins near the stream head, where he could probably obtain a beam to which to fasten the cord.

Without saying anything about his intention to Joan Ford, he went into an outhouse where implements and lumber were kept, and thence took a cord, very strong and new, about twenty yards in length.

He was not afraid of goblins. He was too pious a man for that. He held that he had in him sufficient Christian faith to rout them, should they oppose his descent into their stronghold. As to the danger of going down a shaft, of that he had no dread. He had been a miner all his days, sometimes working surface tin, but sometimes engaged in mining underground.