The Duchy of Cornwall, created in 1337 by King Edward III for his son Prince Edward, covers 23 counties and over 53,000 hectares within the UK. As expected, in the South West corner of the country, the Duchy covers a sizeable area of Devon and Cornwall, including most of the 27,300 hectares that make up Dartmoor.
During the Great War, the Duchy, like other rural areas, was focused on helping the war effort. At the Duchy's Home Farm, based at Stoke Climsland in the Tamar Valley, close to the Devonshire border, the Prince of Wales's prize-winning herd of pure-bred Shorthorn cattle was looked after by a celebrity under-herdsman, the novelist, Charlotte Matheson. In her day, Matheson was a famous writer with two well-received novels, 'A Generation Between,' (1915) and 'Children of the Desolate' (1916) already under her belt. Nature and the beauty of the countryside are ongoing themes in all her books and so it is unsurprising that she joined the Women's Land Service Corps, a forerunner of the Women's Land Army, and took agricultural work in her stride. The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, always looking for a rural angle on war stories, ran a feature on the farm in 1917 and printed a number of photographs of Miss Matheson feeding the pigs, milking the cows and taking the prize bull for his daily walk. The Times ran a brief piece about her role in November 1916 commenting that she took, 'a share in all kinds of work, heavy and light.' Although famous for its livestock, the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News emphasised the farm's food-producing credentials reporting that out of the four hundred acres of cultivated land, around a quarter was under corn, 'while potatoes are also being exploited in accordance with the Board of Agriculture's plea.'
In February 1918, the farm was visited by the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VIII) during a general tour of South Wales and the West Country where he inspected a coal mine, met tenants and visited the sphagnum moss depot at Princetown on Dartmoor.
Sphagnum moss, known for its antiseptic and absorbent qualities, was found to be an ideal filling for the thousands of surgical dressings that were in great demand during the war. A two ounce dressing could absorb two pounds in weight and it contained iodine, a natural antiseptic. Sphagnum moss dressings were notably cheaper than their cotton wool counterparts, and saved on the dwindling cotton supply in the process. Sphagnum grew abundantly wild on the moors in the area where it was harvested during the summer and brought back to the depot to be dried, treated and stuffed into 10 x 14" bags by a band of forty, mainly female, volunteers led by a Mrs Read. The depot had been entirely financed, equipped and maintained at the Duchy's expense and the Prince, it was reported, took a great interest in each department as the various processes were explained to him, and he, 'keenly sought out information and wrung out moss-dressing saturated in sublimate.' Sphagnum moss was also gathered in Ireland and particularly in the West Highlands of Scotland where there were four depots devoted to treating the moss before it filled muslin bags that were often made elsewhere in order to expedite the process. But at Princetown, the entire process was a self-sufficient microindustry, creating an organic, locally-produced, sustainable and economical type of dressing that the present day Prince of Wales would surely approve of.
Near to the sphagnum moss depot lay Princetown Work Centre, better known as Dartmoor Prison, where a number of the inmates were also employed on war duties of a different kind. The centre was home to around 1000 conscientious objectors during the war who were given work which was deemed of 'national importance' under a new Home Office Scheme introduced in 1917. The Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News published a picture in September that year, showing two objectors ploughing Duchy land on Dartmoor in preparation for food crops the following spring. Whatever the magazine's views on these men who were known as 'conchies' or 'shirkers', and were decried and despised by a large majority of the population, it remained impartial.
As for Dartmoor's moss gatherers, their efforts did not go unrecognised. In 1920, the village of Widecombe was presented with an old Navy shell. Its plaque read:
This 15" Naval Shell was presented by the National War Savings Committee in 1920 to the people of Widecombe in recognition of their efforts during the First World War gathering sphagnum moss for use in the treatment of wounds.
Even in some of Britain's more remote areas, rural communities, were able to 'do their bit' by exploiting the natural resources on their doorstep. Or, at least, on their nearest hillside.