Widecombe in the Moor, Devon

Mathematical Gazetteer of the British Isles

The late 14C Church of St Pancras, Widecombe(sometimes Widdecombe) in the Moor, has a roof boss of the Tinners' Rabbits. This is the pattern which is the solution of the puzzle: "Draw three rabbits, so that each shall appear to have two ears, while, in fact, they have only three ears between them." The current guide book to the church says it is "a symbol of the Trinity connected with tin-mining." The separate guide book to the roof bosses calls it the "Hunt of Venus" and gives a somewhat tenuous connection: tin is alloyed with copper to make bronze, copper came from Cyprus (the words Cyprus and copper have the same root), Cyprus is the island of Venus or Aphrodite (she was born there), rabbits are symbols of Venus. It mentions that the pattern also occurs at Ashburton. A postcard showing several of the roof bosses, including the Hunt of Venus, is available. Thanks to the Rector, Derek Newport, for information and copies of the guides. I have come across a 1924 guide to the church which says only: "a combination of three rabbits with an ear of each to form a triangle, perhaps a symbol of the Trinity."

There is an anagram and a chronogram on a memorial tablet to Mary Elford on the north wall by the door. The anagram is clearly marked:
The chronogram is in the last three lines which are as follows.

Ao.|tat:}{VIXIt obIIt sVperIs}
MarIa gaLe IohannIs eLforD VXor tertI
(heV) obIIt eX pVerperIo.}{ Erectum fuit.Ao.1650

The chronogram is unusual in that it gives both the age at death, 25, in the first line, and the year, 1641, in the latter two lines.

Tom Greeves [1] gives the most extended discussion of the Tinners' Rabbits that I have yet come across. He says that it is claimed to be the emblem of the medieval tinners, and various connections between tinners and rabbits have been adduced, e.g. it is claimed that the pattern was the medieval alchemical symbol for tin. It is also called the "Hunt of Venus" and/or an emblem of the Trinity. However, the earliest reference to the pattern on Dartmoor is an 1856 description of Widecombe Church which only says that the roof was connected with the tinners and that the pattern had an alchemical connection. Later guides to Dartmoor are still pretty vague, e.g. a 1956 writer connects the symbol with copper, not tin. It is not until 1965 that the symbol is specifically called The Tinners' Rabbits.

There is no particular Dartmoor mythology connected with rabbits, but there is much mythology of hares. Rabbits were introduced to England in 1176 and became common in the thirteenth century, while hares were introduced between 500BCE and 500CE. So it seems likely that the animals are hares. Greeves reproduces and discusses a c1600 picture showing the three rabbits pursued by three hounds as part of a symbol of Venus.

Greeves examined almost all the churches in the area and discovered roof bosses with the pattern in the following 12 churches: Bridford, Broadclyst (8 examples from 1833 said to be careful copies of medieval bosses), Chagford (2 examples), Iddesleigh, Ilsington, North Bovey, Sampford Courtenay (2 examples), South Tawton, Spreyton, Tavistock, Throwleigh, Widecombe. These are all on the east side of Dartmoor or to the north, except Tavistock which is on the west side and Broadclyst which is some 20 miles further east. Bridford, Iddesleigh, Sampford Courtenay and Spreyton have no significant tin-mining connections. No examples are known from the much more important tin-mining area of Cornwall, but Greeves has now found an example at Cotehele, just over the border into Cornwall.

Greeves then discusses the pattern at Long Melford and Paderborn. He then briefly describes the Dunhuang example, citing [2], and then the St Petersburg example. He then notes some modern version: a wooden teapot stand from Scandinavia and a Victorian(?) carving in Holy Trinity, Fareham, Hampshire.

In a letter of 3 June 1997, Greeves says he has located further examples of the three rabbits in Cheriton Bishop and Paignton in Devon, Cotehele in Cornwall and in Wales, Scarborough (North Yorkshire, cf above), France, Germany, Switzerland, Bohemia and modern China, where the pattern is still woven into carpets! He tells me that a student went to Dunhuang recently and the locals told her that the pattern came from 'the West', which denotes India! (continues below)

Paul Hambling [3] gives a short summary of Greeves' work. He adds that a story is that the tinners adopted the rabbit as their emblem in allusion to their common underground mode of life. Tinners are also said to have been responsible for some rabbit warrens, but there were lots of other warrens and they would have been too common to be specifically associated with the tinners. He notes that the symbol of three intertwined fishes was a common Christian symbol.

Another connection is given by the leaflet on the tapestry 'Chagford through the ages' at Chagford church which asserts that a 'rabbit' was a tool used in tin-mining - this seems to be a new story.

References (show)

  1. The Tinners' Rabbits - chasing hares?, Dartmoor Magazine 25 (Winter 1991) 4-6
  2. Whitfield, R. & Farrer, A. Caves of the Thousand Buddhas, British Museum, 1990, esp. pp.12 & 16
  3. Hambling, Paul. The Dartmoor Stannaries, Orchard Publications, Newton Abbott, 1995, pp.38-39

The Mathematical Gazetteer of the British Isles was created by David Singmaster.
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