Our History

The following timeline is an indication of where we began, and how the charity has evolved, shaped by its many wins and losses, along with the many different threats to Dartmoor since the 19th Century.

The following list is by no means exhaustive, and  only seeks to capture an image of the huge number of battles hard fought by our committed members, leaders, allies and patrons over the past 140 years and the legacy that we strive to uphold today.

At a meeting in Tavistock Guildhall in 1881, local campaigners sought to address the devastating effect continued industrial scale mining and quarrying was having on the landscape.

There were further threats to the landscape, and to the livelihoods and access rights of the local community. Military encroachment and enclosures were diminishing historic rights to access and farm the land. The DPA was founded in 1883 and immediately sought to extend protected areas around notable landmarks, such as Pew Tor. In the same year as its inception, Robert Burnard, DPA Secretary, persuaded the War Department not to fire on the Okehampton Firing Range on Saturdays, so that some public access to the area may be retained.

The DPA also arose out of a calling to protect the rights of commoners, whose rights to graze the land and earn their livelihood had been steadily eroding due to the Enclosures Acts of the 18th and 19th centuries. Increased industrialisation and use of the land for military purposes since the Industrial Revolution and Napoleonic Wars further encroached on the practice of common farming, pushing more commoners into poverty or forcing them to move into the developing cities.

In 1890, the DPA  published its inaugural work, a brief history focusing on the rights of commoners on Dartmoor and the commons of Devon. 


A significant conflict arose as the Corporation of London sought to acquire Dartmoor entirely, intending to transport water to Paddington via Brunel's recently converted railway.

The DPA emerged as leaders of the resistance, spearheading the revolt against this plan which would have seen all common rights dissolve in favour of the new corporate owner.

After 5 years of campaigning, the protected area around Pew Tor was extended in December 1896.

The DPA embarked on a legal battle in 1897, triumphing in their efforts to challenge the enclosure of a significant portion of Peter Tavy Great Common on behalf of a single farmer. 

William Crossing, on behalf of the DPA conducted a report into damage to ancient monuments, caused by the taking of stone for building and road-mending, and into unlawful enclosures of common land.

Following World War I, the Forestry Commission was established in 1919. During the same year, the Duchy of Cornwall initiated the planting of 800 acres of conifers at Fernworthy. In 1921, Plymouth Corporation also engaged in conifer planting around Burrator Reservoir. 

These post-war mass plantings of non-native trees were met with opposition from the DPA. R. Hansford Worth, a Plymouth engineer, scientist, and antiquarian, vehemently criticized the Duchy of Cornwall as the landowners, arguing encroachment on common rights and the loss of ancient monuments during a lecture delivered at The Plymouth Athenaeum.

Had the Dartmoor and District Hydro-Electric Scheme gone through, a large part of Dartmoor would have been irreversibly altered. The scheme included the planned construction of 8 reservoirs at Taw Marsh, Batworthy Mire, the head of the South Teign, Broadamarsh, Fox Tor Mire, Dartmeet, Fur Tor and Erme Pound, plus 5 power stations. The DPA lead the opposition and attracted support from almost all local authorities.

The risks were complex. Apart from the large-scale disfiguration of Dartmoor that would have a resulted from the project, a large portion of Dartmoor's water (and the land used to gather it) would have passed in to private hands. 

After a fierce year-long campaign, the plans were dropped in 1920.

The enactment of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act in 1949 resulted in the designation of Dartmoor as one of the initial four parks. This designation was officially established through an order issued on August 15, 1951, which was subsequently confirmed on October 30, 1951.

Following this, the DPA made efforts to ensure that the newly formed National Park would be managed by an independent committee rather than the Dartmoor Standing Committee, which was a subcommittee of the Devon County Council Planning Committee.

The committee underwent reformation as the Dartmoor National Park Committee under the Local Government Act of 1972, but it still functioned as a subcommittee of the Devon County Council, thereby lacking the desired independence as perceived by the DPA.

It was not until 1997, a span of forty-four years since the park's creation, that the establishment of an independent Dartmoor National Park Authority was authorized under the Environment Act of 1995. 

In October 1951, the DPA became aware of the BBC's plans to construct a 750-foot television mast on North Hessary Tor, near Princetown, which was later erected in 1955. 

The DPA strongly objected to this proposed threat and took various actions in response. They sought expert opinions, proposed alternative solutions, advocated for a public inquiry, enlisted the help of a lawyer, organised public meetings, distributed informational pamphlets, wrote to the press, and petitioned parliament.

Eventually, a public inquiry was announced. When the decision was made to allow the mast, several conditions were imposed. These included the requirement that the development be constructed near the tor, ensuring its preservation, and that the new access road should remain unfenced.

DPA opposition to inappropriate afforestation on Dartmoor arose again in 1953 in response to yet more post-war plantations of non-native conifers. The DPA wrote a policy on woodlands in the newly designated national park.

The battle against the expansion of the china clay pits do not necessarily begin and end with these dates, as encroachment on Dartmoor of the china clay industry begins as early as 1906, and continues well into the 21st Century. This time period, however, is notable as a time when the DPA built their defence against an exponential growth of the china clay industry in the regions of Heddon Down, Lee and Shaugh Moors and Brisworthy.

When the Dartmoor National Park boundary was fixed, it excluded the already industrialised area south-west of Cadover. In the late 1950s, new proposals crossed the boundary, entering the National Park and indicating areas even further within the area as earmarked as places of interest for companies. 

The DPA strongly opposed expansion and negotiated with companies and bodies to keep working areas below 900ft. Constant scrutiny was kept on all proposals and so were efforts to safeguard the ecology and antiquities of the area. Expansion still occurred over this time, but without the 'watchdog' role of the DPA in this period, the damage would have been far worse, as indicated by the original proposals.

Hawn, Dendles and High House Wastes,  near Cornwood, were designated for tree planting in 1959. Hawns and Dendles Wastes were ploughed in 1960. The DPA strongly opposed the destruction and afforestation of the area.

In 1964, the DPA acquired High House Waste, and in 1965, the neighbouring Dendles was purchased by the Nature Conservancy UK.

The area is still managed by the Charity today (read more here). Presently, the prevailing approach involves replanting the area with an emphasis on native hardwood trees, protection of the (most likely) Medieval monuments of the area and targeting regeneration of native species.

The proposal for the conversion of the WW2 RAF Harrowbeer, Yelverton, into an airport for the Plymouth surroundings was met with great local opposition. Not only would the proposed site be within the National Park boundary, but the disturbance to local residents, commoners and impact on access rights would have been huge. 


The DPA joined with others in petitioning the Bill, which was dropped in 1960 and an alternative site found at Roborough. The publicity attracted by this campaign resulted in the site being properly cleared and reinstated, for the most part, to its pre war appearance.

The DPA has consistently voiced concerns about the military's use of Dartmoor since its establishment. In the early days, Robert Burnard, the DPA Secretary, successfully convinced the War Department to refrain from firing on the Okehampton Firing Range on Saturdays, allowing public access to the area. Lady Sylvia Sayer, a prominent figure in the DPA, strongly criticized the military activities, emphasising their contradiction with Dartmoor's status as a National Park.

In 1963, the DPA published a widely circulated booklet called "Misuse of a National Park," which contained compelling evidence of the issue. The booklet featured photographs showcasing unexploded shells scattered across the moor, dilapidated corrugated iron buildings, large craters, a derelict tank used for target practice, and bullet marks on standing stones. It also detailed a tragic incident in 1958 when a young boy lost his life due to a mortar shell near Cranmere Pool.

The publication aimed to raise awareness and highlight the need for appropriate preservation and respect for Dartmoor's natural and cultural heritage.

Lady Sylvia Sayer, on behalf of the DPA, led the vehement opposition to the flooding of Swincombe Valley for the purpose of another reservoir, and took the case to Parliament. 

The DPA, along with other national and local organisations, joined forces to petition against the proposed development. Devon County Council and the Duchy of Cornwall, as the landowner, also expressed their objections. Each party involved was represented by legal counsel throughout the process.

The bill underwent thorough examination by a parliamentary committee composed of four Members of Parliament, lasting for a total of 17 days. The flooding of Swincombe was decided against in 1970, although the proposition was raised again throughout the 70s and early 80s.

In 1985, the DPA used funds received from a bequest to acquire 50 acres of land in the area where the Swincombe reservoir dam was planned to be constructed and the matter was settled, once and for all.

The DPA was one of many local and national amenity bodies that fought the building of the Meldon Dam. The preservation battle for the Meldon valley was recorded in a DPA publication. 

The DPA offered a viable alternative site, Gorhuish Valley, for various reasons, including the fact that minerals such as arsenic would leach into the water supply if Meldon were selected. Although the battle was unsuccessful, the DPA publication 'The Meldon Story' shares the research and campaigning outcomes of the fight for Meldon.

During World War II, RAF Sharpitor was established on Peek Hill by the Royal Air Force (RAF), consisting of a mast and buildings.

In 1970, Plymouth Corporation sought to utilise the exposed site for housing juvenile offenders, but their proposal was also turned down, leading to an appeal by Plymouth.

In June 1973, Lady Sylvia Sayer represented the DPA in a public inquiry, advocating against the development on the site. As a result, permission for the proposed development was denied.

A few years later, the DPA successfully supported South West Water (SWW) in opposing renewed calls for a new reservoir at Swincombe. To commemorate this victory, Sylvia Sayer approached SWW and requested that the DPA be allowed to purchase the rocky outcrop of Sharpitor. Consequently, in February 1984, the DPA acquired 32 acres of land. (Read more here)

The DPA was a key voice opposing the Okehampton bypass. The DPA had various concerns regarding its impact on the local environment and heritage. One major point of contention was the potential harm to the natural landscapes, particularly Dartmoor National Park, which the bypass was to cut through. The DPA argued that its construction would disrupt the delicate ecological balance and diminish the beauty of the area, and that feasible alternatives were available which would not encroach within the National Park boundary.

Throughout the campaign, DPA representatives, including Sylvia Sayer and Kate Ashbrook, vehemently expressed their worries and objections. They highlighted the potential noise, pollution, and safety issues that could arise from diverting heavy traffic away from the town centre. They argued that alternative solutions, such as traffic management measures or improved public transportation, should be explored instead.

As part of the campaign, a public inquiry was conducted to allow all stakeholders to voice their concerns and present their evidence. This inquiry served as a platform for the opposition to make their case against the bypass project, urging decision-makers to reconsider their plans and prioritise the preservation of the environment and heritage.

Despite impassioned efforts, the decision was ultimately made to proceed with the construction of the bypass. This outcome  served as a poignant reminder of the challenges faced by those advocating for environmental and heritage preservation in the face of infrastructure development.

The Dartmoor Preservation Association has a rich history of advocating for access rights to the commons and has played a crucial role in the passing of the Dartmoor Commons Act 1985. This act enabled the establishment of byelaws governing Dartmoor and the creation of the Commoners' Council, which had the authority to make regulations concerning the management of the commons and the welfare of the livestock.

During the mid-1970s, conflicts arose between the commoners and those seeking increased access rights as Dartmoor gained national park status. Local authorities recognized the need to balance the interests of various stakeholders and initiated consultations on a bill drafted by the Dartmoor National Park Authority (DNPA) and Devon County Council (DCC) in 1977. However, the initial bill faced controversy and was later replaced by a modified version that remained contentious.

The revised bill established a commoners' council with powers to improve up to 25 acres of common per parish each year for livestock husbandry, undertake drainage improvements, plant shelterbelts, and more, without external consent. While some commoners believed this would interfere with their management practices, conservation and access groups were concerned about potential compromises to the natural beauty, ecology, and recreational enjoyment of the moor.

Despite widespread opposition, the DCC and DNPA proceeded, and the bill was presented to parliament in 1978. The DPA, along with other organizations such as the RSPB, the Ramblers' Association, and the British Horse Society, presented their arguments before the House of Lords select committee but made limited impact.

In the following year, the bill reached the House of Commons, where Anthony Steen, a DPA life member and Member of Parliament, strongly opposed it. Steen's connection to the moor, fostered through personal experiences and a heartfelt appreciation, motivated his efforts to undermine the bill. His passionate speech during the bill's second reading in April 1980 condemned urban attempts to harm the moor, leading to its defeat in a subsequent vote.

In 1984, a second reading of a revised Dartmoor Commons Bill was introduced, acknowledging the importance of collaboration between conservationists and commoners in maintaining accessibility and safeguarding the land. With widespread support, including from the government, the revised bill received royal assent in October 1985.

The 1995 Environment Act resulted in the Dartmoor National Park Authority's transformation into the independent body that the DPA had been campaigning for since before its inception in 1951. Rather than acting as a sub-committee of Devon County Council, the DNPA became what we know it as today, an independent guardian of Dartmoor National Park, although still largely dominated by local authorities and government appointees.

In 1999, the DPA launched a renewed campaign against china-clay pit expansion with the release of a booklet. This action was prompted by the potential threats to the Blackabrook Valley, Crownhill Down, and Shaugh Moor, which were located near the popular tourist destination of Cadover Bridge. These areas faced the risk of exploitation or waste dumping.

Fortunately, in 2001, the china clay companies voluntarily withdrew their planning permissions, alleviating the immediate concerns.

In November 2009, the same clay companies, namely Sibelco and Imerys, conducted a report to reassess old mineral permissions under the Environment Act 1995. The purpose was to explore the possibility of connecting two pits, potentially impacting the preservation of three monuments, including the presumed Bronze Age barrow known as Emmets Post.

The DPA actively participated in the process, making their representations twice alongside other organizations. Their efforts were documented in a Devon County Council Development Management Committee Report, highlighting their contributions in safeguarding the future of the three areas for which planning permissions were relinquished in 2001.

The Countryside and Rights of Way (CROW) Act, which came into effect on September 19, 2000, revolutionised the management of open access land in England and Wales. It provided the public with increased access rights to designated areas of open countryside, including mountains, moorlands, heaths, and downs. This expansion of access aimed to promote outdoor recreation and allow more people to appreciate the natural beauty of these landscapes.

The CROW Act introduced a new legal framework that balanced access rights with the responsibilities of landowners and managers. It mandated that landowners take measures to facilitate responsible access, protect sensitive areas, and ensure the preservation of wildlife and the environment. The Act also established the Countryside Agency and the Countryside Council for Wales, which were tasked with designating and managing access areas while offering guidance and support to both landowners and the public.

On November 6, 2008, the DPA and Exmoor Society organized a collaborative reception at the House of Lords, graciously hosted by Baroness Mallalieu. The purpose of this gathering was to engage with members of both Houses of Parliament and relevant Ministers, advocating for the development of effective environmental schemes specifically tailored to the uplands.

To facilitate meaningful discussions and representation, both organizations generously provided funding to invite a select group of upland hill farmers to participate in the event. The goal was to ensure that the environmental schemes being proposed were truly "fit for purpose" and aligned with the unique needs and challenges of the upland areas.

The White Horse Hill excavation, as reported on the provided BBC News webpage, was a significant archaeological project conducted in Devon, England. The excavation took place on Uffington's White Horse Hill, an iconic site known for its prehistoric chalk figure.

The project, led by the Uffington White Horse Restoration Committee and funded by the DPA and public donations, aimed to uncover the origins and history of the ancient monument. The excavation involved a team of archaeologists, volunteers, and specialists who meticulously examined the hillside using modern techniques and equipment.

During the excavation, a range of fascinating discoveries was made. Researchers unearthed various artefacts, including fragments of ancient pottery and tools. These findings provided valuable insights into the activities and lifestyle of people who inhabited the area thousands of years ago.

The White Horse Hill excavation not only shed light on the history of the site but also showcased the collaborative efforts of experts and the local community to preserve and uncover the secrets of this important cultural landmark. The project highlighted the significance of archaeological research in understanding and appreciating our ancient heritage.

In 2021 the DNPA released proposed byelaw reviews for public consultation. The perceived need to revise these byelaws stemmed from increased visitor activity and anti-social behaviour in the region in the wake of the COVID-19 lockdowns. 

The DPA took their scrutiny of the proposed amendments seriously as 'critical friends' of the DNPA and custodians of Dartmoor National Park. The Board concluded that although well intentioned, the proposals were often extreme and a 'knee-jerk' response to a temporary problem. Many rules such as a restriction on group events and number of dogs taken to the area were not only difficult to decipher, but also impossible to enforce. The DPA urged that the amendments would only punish the majority law abiders for the irresponsible few, who would likely not follow the new proposals either.

The DPA strongly recommended the proposal be tabled until a realistic medium could be found.  (Find out more.)

A wealthy landowner took the DNPA to court in December 2022 when it refused to revoke backpack camping privileges on owned land in Dartmoor National Park. The case revolved around the 1985 Commons Act, which ensured access rights even on owned land within the National Park boundaries.

After supporting the DNPA with witness statements, the DPA, partnering with other organisations such as The Stars are for Everyone and Right to Roam, campaigned for an appeal in the wake of the High Court's abysmal ruling in favour of the landowner. 

In what has been deemed a 'David and Goliath' battle between wealthy landowner and a National Park Authority on its knees after £500,000 worth of budget cuts, the DPA Board voted to act as a 'focus for public donations' after the overwhelming public response to the case. The Appeal will take place on July 18th 2023.

DPA Archive: Family trip to Dartmoor c.1938
DPA Archive: Sylvia Sayer's Notes

References and Further Reading


  • Ashbrook, Kate. Campaigner Kate. https://campaignerkate.wordpress.com/
  • Brewer, Dave. Dartmoor Boundary Markers. Halsgrove. Tiverton, Devon, 2002. ISBN 1841141720
  • Crossing, William. Crossing’s Dartmoor Worker. 2nd Edn. Peninsula Press, Newton Abbot, Devon, 1992. ISBN 1872640206
  • Dartmoor Preservation Association. "The Meldon Story". DPA Publication No. 7. Crapstone, Plymouth, 1972. UIN BLL01004145656.
  • Greeves, Tom. Tin Mines and Miners of Dartmoor: A Photographic Record. Devon Books, Kingkerswell, Devon, 1986. ISBN 9780861147663.
  • Greeves, Tom. "Sacred Land – Working Land: the case for the preservation of the Blackabrook Valley, Crownhill Down and Shaugh Moor from the expansion of the china clay industry." Dartmoor Preservation Association, Princetown, 1999. ISBN 095013869X.
  • Harris, Helen. Industrial Archaeology of Dartmoor. David & Charles, Newton Abbot, Devon, 1968. ISBN 0715343025.
  • Hemery, Eric. High Dartmoor. Robert Hale Ltd, London, 1983. ISBN 0709188595
  • Kelly, Matthew. Quartz and Feldspar: Dartmoor - A British Landscape in Modern Times, Jonathan Cape, London, 2015. ISBN 9780224091138
  • Moore, Stuart A. "A short history of the rights of common upon the Forest of Dartmoor and the commons of Devon". Dartmoor Preservation Association, Plymouth, 1890. ISBN 0950138649
  • Newman, Phil. The Dartmoor Tin Industry: A Field Guide. Newton Abbot, Devon, 1968. ISBN 0953270807.
  • Somers Cocks, John. "Exploitation". In Dartmoor: A New Study. Editor Crispin Gill. David & Charles, Newton Abbot Devon, 1970. ISBN 0715350412.
  • Somers Cocks, J. "A Dartmoor Century 1883-1983: One hundred years of the Dartmoor Preservation Association". Dartmoor Preservation Association. Yelverton, Devon, 1983. ISBN 0950138649.
  • Stanbrook, Elisabeth. Dartmoor Forest Farms. Devon Books, Kinkerswell, 1994. ISBN 0861148878
  • Wade, E.A. The Redlake Tramway & China Clay Works. Twelveheads Press, Truro, 2004. ISBN 0906294096.
  • Worth, R. N. (1967). Spooner, G. M.; Russell, F. S. (eds.). Worth's Dartmoor. Newton Abbot: David & Charles. ISBN 0715351486.

Dartmoor Matters

Our magazine is free to members and contains updates from the charity and our conservation team, plus interest pieces and reviews from local organisations across Dartmoor National Park.


If you wish to pitch a submission, or to access our back-catalogue, please contact info@dartmoorpreservation.co.uk.