17 March 2024

In defence of the "Savages of North Devon"

The first of several letters to the Editor of the North Devon Journal from Rev. T. J. Leslie, Appledore, published Thursday, 23 November 1871. The "Special Commissioner" was James Greenwood who later published an expanded account.


The "So-Called Savages of North Devon"

Upcott, photographed about 1860 by William Hector
Dear Sir,

Will you kindly publish the following facts in reference to the above subject?

On the 23rd October the Daily Telegraph published a report of a visit made by their "Special Commissioner" to the house of Mr. C. Cheriton, of Nymet Rowland. The report being greatly exaggerated and highly sensational, and having been reprinted by many of the daily and weekly newspapers throughout the country, I wrote to the Editor of the Daily Telegraph, not as an apologist for Cheriton or for his ill-deeds, but simply to place a few facts, which had come under my own notice, before the readers of the said report, so that they might have more correct account of poor Cheriton and his family. But to my astonishment the editor has not published my letter. Such conduct, to say the least about it, is mean in the extreme. It unjust to the poor man and his family; and it unjust to North Devon.

Many my friends, knowing that I knew the neighbourhood of Nymet Rowland, have asked me for my opinion about the report of the "Special Commissioner;" and my reply has been—It is greatly exaggerated. It contains some of the most unjust charges and abominable insinuations that it is possible for a corrupt mind to think of; and if the "Special Commissioner" be the author of them, I fervently pray that he may never again visit the North of Devon. I will not repeat the abominable and vile insinuations which the report contains, but will point out to you a few things connected with the family, which may be of interest to readers of your paper, and secure for the Cheritons that justice which is their due.

It is not a difficult matter for a few rich farmers to invite a reporter to come down to "interview" a poor family, who may be disagreeable neighbours—give him good fare for the day, and frank his expenses. Many of their prosecutions of the Cheritons have savoured much of the spirit of persecution. The "Special Commissioner" in his report says, "Thus saith rumour." Allow me to tell him that rumour also saith, "The rich farmers would like to rid the parish of the Cheritons." I would suggest to him, and through him to them, that would be more Christlike, if, instead of persecuting them, they would try a little kindness and respectful forbearance. 

The "Special Commissioner" speaks of "a mud floor, walls as black as soot, and full of chinks." He says "There was no fire place; but a ruddy glow smouldered from a hole in the floor of earth, and over it, by an "iron chain, a cooking pot was suspended." If he had examined other houses in the neighbourhood, he would have found that nearly the whole of them are built of "cob," the floors made of what he calls "mud," (lime and sand, or paved with small stones,) and very few would have fire-grates, the fire being on the hearth, with an open chimney place, and the pot or kettle hung over it by a chain fastened to a cross-bar in the chimney. Wood and not coal is mostly burned in the neighbourhood. 

A person coming down from London would conclude at once that such houses were not fit for human beings live in: but the natives like to live in houses built of cob, and to have good fire of wood upon the hearth. I admit that poor Cheriton's house is in a very dilapidated condition; it needs much repairs; but I very much question whether any of his detractors in Nymet Rowland would let him have a few bundles of reed to repair the roof with. 

Much of the cottage property of North Devon is far below what it ought to be; but such reports as the one written by the "Special Commissioner of the Daily Telegraph" will not tend to improve it. The landlords themselves are aware of the fact, and many of them are improving the cottages of their workmen. The "Special Commissioner" makes much of the fact that there was a little mud between the gate and the house through which he had to pass. I could take him to respectable farm houses where he would experience some difficulty in getting from the gate to the house in wet weather without dirting his boots.

This "Special Commissioner" tells us that he came down to interview this poor family because "a clergyman had this time spread the amazing intelligence." I am sorry to hear it. It is a great pity that a clergyman, who is paid by the State to instruct the poor, should have nothing better to employ his time than write to the Times against one of his own parishioners, who could not reply to his letter. I would suggest to the "Special Commissioner" that the next time he makes a visit to North Devon he should enquire into the conduct of some of the clergymen who have lived in the neighbourhood of Nymet Rowland; and I am sure he will be able to write a report far more sensational than the one he wrote about the so-called savages of North Devon. 

There are several state-paid clergymen living within the radius of a few miles of Cheriton's house. What, I ask, have they done to save this poor family from a life of sin and misery? They cannot plead a lack of time, for some of them have time enough to go fox-hunting. They need not fear being molested, for I have passed the house both by day and night without fear or harm. Let the clergy of the county do their duty, as before the Lord, (which I am thankful to say many of them are endeavouring to do,) and there will soon be no (so-called) savages of North Devon to write the newspapers about.

I admit they are in bad repute in the neighbourhood, but, speaking from what I used to see of them, I am bold to say that they do not deserve the treatment which they have received. When I was pastor of the Independent Church in Lapford I frequently saw them at the chapel. At other times I have seen them going to the church. I conducted religious services in a cottage at Nymet Rowland, and I have seen some members of the family there. I have also seen them at the meeting at Chenson, and they always behaved themselves in proper manner. 

Having spoken of them as I knew them a few years ago, let me now speak of them as they are at present. My wife went with a lady to see them last Thursday. They drove up to the gate, and one of them alighted and went into the house. A young woman came out, and took charge of the horse and trap, and then gave the horse some hay. When they entered the house they found a young woman sitting near the fire, who was evidently very ill, with the baby on her knee (of whom the "Special Commissioner" gives such a graphic description). They spoke kindly to her (she was very weak and faint), and looked at the baby, which they found to be sickly, but not in the state as described by the "Special Commissioner." 

The other young woman then entered the house, and said that her mother had gone to the shop at Lapford to buy some things, but added—"She will back soon." Three little boys came and looked in two or three times: at length one of the little fellows ventured in, and sat down beside his mother. The old man was out working on the farm, but a message having been sent to him, he came to the house, and seemed to very pleased to see his visitors. He rubbed his hands, smiled, and said—"I am glad to see ye, I be; but I be afeard ye will not be comfortable here. Will ye mind going to the Public, and I will pay for a glass each for ye." 

They thanked him for his kindness, and said they had brought some provisions with them and they were going to take tea with him. He thanked them much, and appeared to be somewhat confused. Tea was provided, and they were all enjoying the social cup when the old woman returned. She looked as if she was taken aback, but, recovering herself, soon made herself at home, and began to tell them how they were persecuted and annoyed. 

She complained very bitterly of the infamous report of the "Special Commissioner." She says that he called and them if they would give him a drink of water, and, thinking that he was an honest man, she told her daughter to give him a drink of milk; at the same time saying, she knew gentlemen liked cider, but that they were quite out of it. She declares he is a bad man, or he would never have drank the milk, which she gave to him, and afterwards and write lot of lies about them. 

Before leaving my wife said they had brought two New Testaments with them, and they intended to read a chapter and pray together before they left. Cheriton said he should be pleased if they would do so. But as she was beginning to read Matthew, xxv. chapter, a voice was heard outside, "Is your father at home?" Cheriton went to the place where the door once stood, and the voice was heard again, "I have come to speak to you as the head of the house about your family insulting my servants." 

The daughter went to the door, and the voice was heard again, "You women are the worst." They replied, "Your servants, and a brother of one of them, were here last night stoning us for an hour and half: they won't let us alone." The voice was heard again, "I am going now, and if you do not behave yourselves I will get a summons for you." The old woman called out, "It is you who put the letters in the papers." The voice was again heard, "I know nothing about that, I have come now to talk to you about your conduct." That voice was the Parson's

The above facts will speak for themselves. During the last few weeks they have received several letters, some of which are full of silly questions, such as—"Can you read?" "Can you say the Lord's prayer? If you cannot, then go to the clergyman and he will teach you." Several persons have called, but they have no confidence in these "special" visitors, and they have refused to have any conversation with them. 

My wife did not see the eldest son. She enquired where he was, and they said, "He had gone to help the daughter's husband with little work he had to do. 

Cannot something be done to help this poor family? It would not cost much money to repair the house, and provide a little clothing for them. Things have gone from bad to worse, and members of the family have been fined at various times by the magistrates, so that they are not able to repair the house, although they may desire to do so. 

A christian lady has kindly promised to give me ten shillings if a subscription list is opened on their behalf. I shall be willing to receive other sums toward the relief of the so-called savages of North Devon. Subscriptions will be acknowledged through your paper.

I am, Dear Sir, yours truly, 

T. J. LESLIE, Independent Minister. 

Appledore, North Devon, November 18th, 1871.


[We readily make use of our correspondent's letter. All will admire the audi alteram partem ["listen to the other side"] spirit which prompted him to say what he knew that was favourable to, or extenuating of, the Cheritons. All will do justice to the kindness of the ladies who visited them. Still, there can be no denying that, under how much provocation soever, they have been guilty of many indefensible breaches of the law, and that their mode of living is an outrage on the proprieties of civilization, the more inexcusable because it is idle to say that a family occupying their own freehold of forty acres have not the means of living in decency. 

One can't much wonder if the rich farmers in the neighbourhood do wish to be rid of such neighbours. We hope they will bethink themselves that there is a better thing to be aimed at than even to be rid of them. If they would but try what the "law of kindness" can do, it might astonish them by its results. It has wrought greater wonders than it would be even to convert these "savages" into a family and household restored to the pale of civilization, "clothed and in their right mind." Doing full justice to the kindness which only can have suggested our reverend correspondent's appeal for pecuniary help, does he think the case a man living in his own freehold is one for which eleemosynary assistance can be fairly asked, or that, if rendered, it could be expected to do real and lasting good? 

Injustice is always to be condemned; but is there not danger in leading persons who are unquestionably wrong doers to conceive themselves martyrs He knows the case better than we do, and he has, no doubt, weighed the matter. If, indeed, they have been wronged and soured by persecution, possibly that might be means by which society might make a sweetening and purifying compensation.—Ed.]


A Daily Telegraph reporter visits a Devon farming family

From In Strange Company: Being the Experiences of a Roving Correspondent, by James Greenwood (London: Henry S. King, 1873)

Some facts

James Greenwood (1832-1929) was a reporter working for the Daily Telegraph. In 1871 he travelled to Nymet Rowland and wrote a sensational and widely-syndicated article about the family.

Christopher Cheriton, of whom Greenwood writes, was a real person, son of John and Frances Cheriton and baptised in Down St Mary, Devon, on 18 September 1803. In the census taken take two years Greenwood published his book, he was living at Upcott in Nymet Rowland, farming 30 acres and employing one labourer. The cottage at Upcott was demolished in the 1880s and the current Nymet House built on the site, immediately bringing into question the accuracy of Briggs's drawing below. Christopher died at Ash in the parish of Sandford on 29 October 1884, leaving an estate of £174. His executor was his brother Hermon Cheriton of Western Road, Crediton. He was buried at Crediton on 4 November 1884.



The North Devon Savages

Upcott, photographed about 1860 by William Hector
STRANGEST of all strange company was that which, in my journalistic peregrinations, it was my lot to fall in with in North Devon. At first the vague rumours of a veritable savage tribe existing at a remote place called Nymet Rowland was received by the British public with incredulity. At the nick of time, however, I received from the good minister of the parish such information as decided me to make the journey, and if possible glean, as an eye-witness, some particulars of the manners, habits, and customs of these modem barbarians who were scandalizing the land. Without daring to breathe a word of my intention to anxious friends or family, I made the first step towards invading the barbarian stronghold by taking a North Devon ticket at Waterloo Railway station. 

Nymet Rowland, approaching it across country, is about a mile from Lapford station, on the North Devon line. The village is not numerously inhabited, but it contains several substantial farm-holdings, a sprinkling of the handsome residences of gentlemen farmers, and a venerable and goodly-sized church. Almost within the shadow of its ivy-clad square tower is to be found the kraal of the savage tribe of Cheriton. Hut, hovel, stye, or whatever else it should be termed, it is in every respect inferior to anything in the way of house architecture that can be met with in the most barbarous regions on the earth. 

A mandan of the Indian prairies would laugh to scorn such an effect at hut-building; a man-eating Fijian would regard as a wanton insult the suggestion that the hideous structure at Nymet Rowland might serve as a pattern useful to be followed in his construction of a dwelling-place. Carved and painted warrior as he is, he has at least some notions of decency and domestic life, and of home comfort for those dependent on him. He will take care that his house is shut in from the inquisitive gaze of neighbours by a wattle wall or latticed fence; and, with no other material at his command than rough-hewn timber, grass, and reeds, he constructs a clean and commodious habitation, not uncommonly 
with some attempt at ornamentation in its exterior. 

Within the hut of the Fijian will be found a fire-place, even though it be nothing more than a slab of stone edged about with a curving of iron-wood; he recognises the utility of doors and windows, and weaves mats for the floor. Even the benighted Esquimaux, who has nothing besides snow to serve in the place of bricks and mortar and timber, somehow contrives a house of which he has no reason to be ashamed. He provides a window of thin fresh-water ice in the wall of his snow-hut; and he has raised seats for his family and guests, covered first with a layer of whalebone, then with sealskins or deer pelts; and all within is made as snug as possible. 

But the barbarian tribe of Nymet Rowland, squatting amid the model dairy farms and mellow apple orchards of Devonshire, are less fastidious in their domestic economy. They care no more for the house they inhabit than the pig does. The pig indeed! I can imagine with what disgust and scorn a daily-scrubbed, milk-and-bran-fed, white prize Windsor pig would curl his dainty snout were he condemned to pass a single night in the crazy, breezy hovel in which the individuals who have earned for themselves such unenviable notoriety are born, are bred, and pass their lives. To be sure, the premises in question give shelter to pigs as well as people; but they are pigs of a bad sort—unhappy animals which have had constantly before their eyes the villainous example their owners and fellow-lodgers have set; and therefore it cannot be expected that they should be so delicate in their tastes as pigs more fortunately circumstanced. 

The savages of North Devon are by no means shy. The threshold of their abode, although not exactly on the highway path, is not so far removed therefrom that it would not be quite easy for the passer-by to pitch a penny piece into any one of the yawning holes in the wall or roof, partly mended with wisps of filthy straw. The building is not large, and it is difficult to decide whether it was originally a farm-house, a granary, or merely a cow-house. It is perhaps forty feet long by twenty-five feet wide; its walls are apparently a mixture of lime, mud, and pebbles, and very thick; and the thatched roof is surmounted by a wide-mouthed chimney partly blown down. The front of the hovel may be made out with tolerable distinctness from the road. There are several apertures, designed and accidental; but the main opening, which I suppose is designated by a window, is a jagged hole about seven feet high and five wide, 
into which, by way of window blind, ragged bundles of straw are piled. 

This was the inviting domicile for which I was bound; and the closer I approached, the more vividly rose to my mind the current stories of its redoubtable inhabitants—of the eldest son, the lawless villain with a gun who, on the smallest provocation, or none at all, would let fly at a peaceful neighbour; of the shock-headed amazons, who, from concealed parts of the premises, hurled bricks and other unpleasant missiles at strangers. I thought, too, of the offensive farmer who, guilty of no crime more grave than that of looking over the fence behind which these savages dwelt, was set on and so terribly cut and mauled, that, in the words of the local guide book, "he bears the marks of his barbarous treatment to this day." 

There was a gate—a five-barred gate—with its posts rotten and sunk all aslant in the ground; and between it and the "house" such a quagmire of black mud, that it looked more like a pitfall for the inquisitive and incautious than a path to be trodden by visitors. Besides this, it was a gate with a curious crook for a fastening; and, one way and another, I deemed it advisable to make my presence known before I proceeded any farther. I shook the gate and rattled on it with my stick; and from amid the bundles of straw I have mentioned as piled in the great jagged hole at the front of the premises was protruded what, in consequence of the hair growing over the eyes, could be recognised as a human head only by the open mouth and remarkably white teeth. The eyes in the head having from behind its covert of thick hair, contemplated me for some little time, the head was withdrawn, and one of a larger size filled its place—a female head this time, with a face tolerably clean, and a pair of cheeks rosy as any Devonshire milkmaids; a "devil" of a face all the same, with high cheekbones and a retreating forehead, and eyes deeply set in their orbits. 

Like the first inquisitor, this one had, as I believe most savages have, a splendid set of teeth, but, oh! the voice that proceeded from between them. 

"Well, what is it?" It was the voice of a full chested "navvy", grown hoarse through long toil in tunnels and deep railway cuttings. 

"Well, what is it?" 

"Have you got a drink of water to give to a thirsty man?" 

She did not say she had not, nor did she say that she had. She appeared undecided on the matter; and I thought it a good opportunity for unhitching the gate-fastening, and walking in—slush, plash—through twenty yards of mud that covered my boot-tops. Then I had a fair view of the savage interior through the opening before-mentioned. 

A mud floor, walls black as soot, and full of chinks as a child's dissecting puzzle with the bits wrongly placed together; and overhead the roof, through which protruded faggot-sticks and smoke-dried blades of straw that had dropped through holes in the rotten ceiling above. The depth of the place might have equalled that of an ordinary dwelling-house; and through a great gap at the farther end, partly curtained with a piece of frowsy red baize, came a breeze that bore on its wings a strong odour of pigs and their favourite food. The porkers, however, were not yet in sight. The visible living creatures within the shanty, besides half-a-dozen cocks and hens and a duck or two, were seven human beings—an old woman, three young women, a girl of about twelve, a boy of about fourteen, and a baby. 

There was not a single article of what could be called furniture to be seen—neither chair, nor stool, nor table. Ranged against the wall to the right was a long rough-hewn bench, and above it was slung a shelf on which were stacked a few odd bits of crockery, five or six yellow quart basins, and an old earthenware foot-bath patched and tied round with string, which, since a ladle reposed in it, and the idea of feet-washing among such a community was simply ridiculous, I presume was the family soup tureen. On the bench were a pile of onions, a monstrous loaf or two of hearth-baked bread, a battered tin pail three parts filled with milk, a ragged old saddle, and some jars and bottles containing apparently medicine for cattle. 

There was no fire-place; but a ruddy glow smouldered from a hole in the floor of the earth, and over it, by an iron chain, a cooking pot was suspended. Round about the fiery pit hole, squatted on their hams, were two of the young women and the younger girl ; while the fourteen-year-old lad was prone on his belly among the ashes, with his hideously dirty face resting on his infinitely dirtier hands, and his keen eyes twinkling through his matted hair. They all wore clothes of a sort, and the young women had shining eardrops hanging from their ears. I renewed my application for a drink of water, and, emboldened by the fact that no savage of mankind appeared, accompanied the request with a second—"Might I get a light for my pipe at the fire?" 

A general stare, and a rumble of masculine laughter on the part of the damsels by the fire-hole, were the only immediate response; so, seeing no other way in, I stepped round to the back of the hovel, and putting aside the red baize curtain, walked in. The pigs were a sight obstruction. An enormous black sow, with monstrous flapping ears and an iron ring through her snout, was sprawling in what, from its recognised relation to the rest of the building, might be designated the back parlour ; while nine or ten little piglings, as fierce-looking as herself were eagerly besetting her for natural nutriment. This impediment overcome there was nothing to bar my way to the fire. 

Bad as they may be, these North Devon barbarians—bestial, filthy, and inexpressibly vicious—they at least exhibited towards me, a chance visitor and complete stranger, an amount of hospitality that smote my conscience hard when I reflected how little I deserved it. A damsel of the tribe, aged apparently about twenty, with thick clouted boots on her feet like those of a maltster, and a white rag bound about her muscular jaws, caught up an antique pot or piggin of red clay, capable of holding, I should say, a  couple of gallons. This she took out, and brought it back full. Then she got a little jug and half filled it with water out of another vessel, filled it up with milk, and presented it to me with the polite observation that " she wished as how it was cider, but they were quite out of it." 

"You're a stranger? " said she, interrogatively. 

I nodded. 

"Don't know the passen (parson), or any of them in these parts?"

"No; shouldn't know them if I saw them."

"There, I told thee so," said she, turning to the others; whereon, as though it was the constant recreation of their lives, and my entry had interrupted it, there arose a family chorus of the foulest abuse and cursing, directed against "passen" and all his friends, that might have made my blood run cold, only that I was stooping over the red-hot chumps and sticks to get a light for my pipe. 

"Parson a bad sort?" I ventured to enquire. 

"A reg'ler old ——," spoke the young gentleman in the ashes, deftly picking up a stick with his toes, and thrusting it into the fire; "that's what I'd like to do wi' passen," a sentiment which was highly applauded by the rest, one of the girls adding, in far more idiomatic language than I dare use, that she would like to perform upon the gentleman in question the operation of disemboweling.

"He don't come here very often, I'll wager," I remarked, wickedly joining in the hideous laughter. This crowned the joke. Come there! "Passen" come here! The little villain in the ashes was so tickled that he almost stood on his head, his mahogany-coloured legs writhing convulsively in the air; while a comely squaw of thirty, who as she sat in the dirt was engaged in patching an old pair of corduroy trousers with some twine and a carpet needle, flung aside her work to grasp her sides, they ached so with laughter. 

"You're a droll 'un," exclaimed the old woman, grinning till she showed her toothless gums. "Passen come here! ho! ho! Gi' he some more milk, Lisa." 

"I suppose the old fellow is too wide awake to chance it," was my next irreverent remark, for which I humbly beseech the clergyman's forgiveness. 

"He ain't old, him; he's young enough to take a young wife," returned the female savage, named Lisa. "He got married a bit ago, and come up with his—(it was a mercy that the villainous epithet she applied to the bride did not sear her heathen throat)—and we all of us went to the gate to gi' 'em a warmin'. Ha! ha! ho! ho! She won't forget us more'n passen will. It'll make him hotter agin us than ever, —— his carcase!"

I wanted to prolong my stay a little, so looked about for an excuse; and at that very moment the baby which the old woman was nursing thrust its little face forward, and presented a convenient, though at the same time an appalling, pretext for talk. It was a ghastly contrast, that between the nurse and the child. The former was a creature wrinkled gray, and hideously dirty, but still with some tigerish light in her deep-set eyes, which, combined with her flat, backward-slanting forehead, and her hard-set thin lips, betokened the constitutional inclination to vice that tempted her to the dreadful path she had entered forty years ago, and which still sustained her in that path unashamed and dauntless. This was the female founder of the savage tribe by which she was now surrounded, and her arms held the last fruit of the inhuman stock—a five months old, as I was informed; but there were more than as many years of suffering in its poor little yellow, pinched face, its weak watery eyes that blinked shyly at the light, its frothed lips, and the sickening sores that disfigured it.

"Does the doctor come and see it?" I asked.

"He don't come here, he'd be afear'd; nobody comes here;" the old hag replied, with an ugly grin. "I takes it to the doctor, but he don't do it any good; and I ain't goin' to stand his humbuggin' any longer. It's been like it ever since it was born; the biles come up on it, and they break and leave sores. Look here." As she spoke, she turned the helpless infant savage over, and showed me its neck and shoulders; and glad indeed was I to escape from the sight on pretence that my pipe had gone out again, giving me an excuse for turning towards the fire. There was another baby somewhere—I had learned that previously—and some allusion was made to it by a member of the family; but I could not see it anywhere, and I did not care to appear too curious. I did not like even to ask to which of the three strapping wenches present the poor little horror belonged.

And here I have to touch on the most repulsive and scandalous feature that distinguishes the North Devon haunt of savagery and its occupants. The facts are simply these: Here is a man Cheriton by name —who takes a woman as his mate; and the pair agree to defy decency and goodness in any shape for the remainder of their lives, and "to do as they like." The den they inhabit at the present time is that in which more than forty years ago they first took residence. They can afford to keep aloof from their neighbours, their homestead being surrounded by about forty acres of good land, their own freehold. In the natural course of events, they have children; their daughters grow up and have children, and the latter in turn grow up and become mothers; but no one ever yet heard of a marriage in that awful family, or ever knew any male stranger to be on visiting terms with it. The only adults of the masculine sex ever heard of in relationship with the Cheritons are the old man, Christopher; his eldest son Willie, aged thirty-five or so; and the fourteen-year-old youth I have already mentioned. 

They decline communication with the world outside the boundary hedges of their estate. Accidental encounters with civilized beings are invariably accompanied by conflict, physical or verbal. No one knows when a child is about to be born in this mysterious settlement, for they dispense with the service of a doctor and nurse each other. No one knows to whom a child belongs when it is born, nor are the neighbours usually aware of the fact until by chance some one gets a glimpse of the infant two or three months afterwards. Supposing the members of this awful tribe to be so inclined, they might dispose of their infant dead and nobody would be the wiser. The horrible suspicion is, that they herd together like brutes of the field, and breed like them. 

Thus saith rumour; and my personal observation enabled me to gather what may be regarded as corroborative evidence in support of much of it. The ground-floor of the hovel is at once the living-place, the cooking-place, the pig-stye, and the sleeping-place. As I have mentioned, not a single 
article of furniture is contained within it; there is not even a bedstead. The family bed, on which repose savage old Christopher, Willie his middle-aged son, the old woman, the three strapping daughters, the big boy and the big girl, and the smaller fry, including the horrifying baby or babies, consists of an accumulation of foul straw, enclosed within rough-hewn posts driven into the earth. 

It has been said that the tribe sleep in a pit;. but if so, the pit has become filled in with fresh "layers" till now it is raised nearly two feet above the level of the ground. The bed space is about that of the floor of a country waggon, and in or about it not a vestige of sheet, or rug, or blanket was visible, thus there seems no choice but to suppose that they burrow in the straw like rats or ferrets, and so keep themselves warm. 

That they are more decent in their behaviour than they used to be, is allowed by very good authority in Nymet Rowland. I was informed by a gentleman whose extensive estate joins that of the savages, that not more than two years since, it was quite common to see dreadful old Christopher sunning himself at noon, with nothing but a wisp of dirty rag slung round his waist, his body being otherwise perfectly naked, except for the dirt that begrimed it; while the daughters, grown women and mothers, thought nothing of attending to their daily farm duties, clad airily in a single garment of calico. 

The most incomprehensible part of the business is, that the Devon authorities, who have effected a partial reform, are not strong enough entirely to wipe the disgrace from their country. If the horrors proved, and the dreadful suspicions whispered, came to civilised ears concerning some benighted tribe at the Gaboon or Tierra del Fuego, every community of Christians, with missionary power at its disposal, would be roused to immediate action, and the whole religious world thrown into a state of commotion, until the happy day when it was announced that the barbarians had been brought to acknowledge the iniquity of their ways, and had given substantial security against longer continuance in them. But Nymet Rowland is not in a savage land. It is in the heart of fruitful Devon. You may take a railway ticket at Waterloo Station at noon, and arrive at Nymet Rowland in time to see grandmamma savage slinging the iron pot over the fire-hole to brew tea for the evening meal. 

Whoever sets about the task of converting the savages of North Devon should, however, be thoroughly surprised of the attending difficulties. He should be a man accustomed to barbarians in grain, to their manners and customs—a Moffat, a Livingstone, or a Williams. Savagery is in the blood of the Cheritons. It is a fact that a brother of the present old Christopher Cheriton, Elias by name, was even more strongly tainted than the latter with the family malady; but by some merciful dispensation of Providence, he lived and died a bachelor. Elias Cheriton resided at Whitsone [Whitestone], which is not very many miles from Nymet Rowland. Like Christopher, Elias was freeholder of land to some extent; but unlike him he had not a house or a hut to live in. He lived in a cask, with a few rags and some straw, just like a make-shift mastiff-kennel. The cask was placed under a hedge that skirted one of his own broad meadows: and it was his serious declaration that there was nothing on earth so handy as a tub to live in because one could shift it about according to the quarter, from which the wind blew.

Elias, however, though he neglected his land, was famous for rearing poultry—making caves and breeding-places for them in the earth all round about the spot where his gipsy kettle was slung, and where he sometimes cooked the meat he ate; and when he died, which is no more than two years back, 
he was able to leave to his dear brother Christopher between three and four hundred pounds. Of the five-and-thirty or forty acres owned by the Cheriton savages, not a fifth part is under cultivation; it being their practice to grow no more than suffices for their personal consumption, and that only in the way of potatoes and cabbages, and a little wheat which they dry and grind for themselves. They breed a few sheep—a mere dozen or so. They hire no labourers, the whole family engaging in the necessary field-work; the females helping at the plough, assisted by an old horse and a bull. 

The animal I have just mentioned was out of work when I saw him, and taking his ease in a field; but, as though determined that all their belongings should be in keeping with their savage selves—the horned brute has the reputation of being the most vicious and dangerous bull in the county. The only way of getting him to work yoked with the old horse is to envelop his head and shoulders in a sack; and even then he needs to be pretty sharply watched, lest in his blind malice he should wickedly prod his equine comrade through his sackcloth hood. They are proud of their bull, those wild Devonians. He has never slept under cover since his calfhood, one of the damsels informed me; and she showed me out in the open the tree to which the creature was tethered at nights, all withered and barren in consequence 
of the bull's fierce assaults on its bark, which was gored and torn all away. 

"They'll be home with him presently," said old grandmother savage, who sat rocking the awful baby that was squeaking like a snared rabbit.

"Who will be home with him?" I asked.

"My old man and Willie," she replied.

Willie was the young fellow who had nearly smashed the unoffending farmer; so, inwardly thanking her for the timely hint, I bade the interesting family good-morning, made for the five-barred gate that grew out of the black mud, and sought the sweet highway.


Further reading

A Family of Savages in Devonshire. Reprinted from the Daily Telegraph by the North Otago Times, 26 January 1872. James Greenwood's original article.

Baring-Gould, Sabine. An Old English Home and its dependencies. London, Methuen, 1898.

Christie, Peter. The True Story of the North Devon Savages. Transactions of the Devonshire Association, Vol. 124 p.59-85. Exeter: Devonshire Association, 1992.

Girvan, Ray. The North Devon Savages. JSBlog - Journal of a Southern Bookreader, 2009 [online]

The North Devon Savages. Devon Perspectives, n.d. [online]

Heard, Nick. The Story of Ellen Wright. A Criminal Past, 2018. References to the photographs of Upcott.



14 February 2024

A Nurse's Terrible Journey in Serbia

 From the Luton Times and Advertiser - Friday 28 January 1916

A Nurse's Terrible Journey in Serbia

Leighton Lady’s Experiences


Edith Dickinson outside her tent in Belgium, 1915
Miss Edith Dickinson, a daughter of Mrs. Dickinson, of Heath-road, Leighton Buzzard, was one of the party of British doctors and nurses which accompanied the Serbian Army in its retreat, and her dreadful experiences form a long story of terrible hardships.

Miss Dickinson arrived in England few days ago, and, being blest with a good constitution, the rest that she intends to take should leave her little the worse for what she has been through, but the horrors that daily accompanied the retreat are indelibly engraved upon her memory.

Miss Hilda May Dickinson (a sister) who is now engaged in Belgian Relief work in London, was with her sister doing Red Cross work in Belgium when the invasion was at its height.

From Miss Dickinson's story in the Leighton Observer, we gather that the fall of Belgrade marked the opening of what proved to several days terrible hardships. After reciting a vain attempt to leave by railway for Salonika, the line having been torn up, she says:

After proceeding some distance farther by motor car this also had to left and the journey continued on foot. Waggons drawn by oxen and containing stores also had to be abandoned until the party had nothing beyond what they carried and what clothing they stood up in. The Austro-German army was then only a few miles away, and their big guns were action.

The route that was eventually decided upon was an uneven, muddy track, and along this trudged groups of many thousands of grief-stricken refugees, and the remains of the Serbian army. On the way the party had to pass numerous dead horses and cattle which had figured in the earlier stages of the retreat, and been abandoned by the refugees. The dead bodies of human beings also lay by the roadside half-covered by snow.

With these sights an all too frequent occurrence the sorrowful procession wended its way over the mountains for ten days. Piercing blizzards and rain storms beat down upon the party unmercifully, and the wonder is that the toll of death and disease numbered so few among its victims.

At one stage in the journey the strain proved too much for Miss Holland (a nurse associated with Miss Dickinson), and she undoubtedly owed her life to that lady who, although herself weak, was able to support her companion over a great stretch the journey.

At night tents were pitched in the snow, and into these the exhausted refugees flung themselves to sleep. Sometimes rest houses—small wooden buildings—were used, and into these the people flocked, glad of the opportunity to lie on the floor.

The track was altogether too dangerous go along night, for in some places the "road" was little more than a narrow ledge on the mountain side, and on more than one occasion vehicles were precipitated over the edge, and fell a distance of many feet throwing out and either killing or injuring those who happened to inside. The toll of death in this way included one of the nurses, a Scottish lady.

The food supply was very limited and rations had served out gradually diminishing quantities. The prisoners who accompanied the party received food as far possible. On many occasions these prisoners, who were Bulgarians and Austrians, had nothing to eat, and many died of sheer starvation. Miss Dickinson saw officers high rank in the Austrian army pick cabbage stalks that had been dropped by the others, and bite at them ravenously.

In the matter of food, the hospital party itself was better off than the great bulk the refugees, although the only bread they had was black bread and maize bread. The party had fortunately retained some of the hospital stores, of which Bovril and condensed milk came in very handy. For some days, however, they had nothing to eat but a little bread and some Bovril, and when a nurse discovered a tin of margarine and divided it, everyone who was fortunate enough to share it said it was delicious.

The cold grew intense as the party got high up into the mountains. In many places they had to wade through streams owing to the bridges being broken, and there was no chance drying the clothes, which froze on the wearers and became stiff as boards. In this respect some of the lady nurses came off worse than others, as they were attired in light summer dresses, and were wearing shoes totally unfit for such a journey. Miss Dickinson had the good fortune to be provided with breeches and top boots, for which she was very thankful. The track was frequently knee deep in mud and slush, and hard and slippery with a temperature of nearly 40 degrees of frost.

Two of the mountains the party had to ascend were 8,400 and 7,600 feet high respectively. Upon descending on the Adriatic side the atmosphere became warmer, however, and relieved the sufferings some what.

The hospital party sailed across the lake of Scutari, and a farther tramp of two days enabled them to reach San Giovanni di Medua [Sh├źngjin]. Their dangers had not ceased here, for they were told that the Austrian Army was on the move, and that unless they embarked on a small Italian vessel which had arrived with food for the Serbian Army, for Brindisi, they might have to remain. It was decided to risk the journey, and 300 people were packed into the vessel, which had to combat heavy seas, and many of the voyagers fell ill.

The party presented a sorrowful spectacle arrival at Brindisi, and there was difficulty in getting sufficiently into the authorities’ good books to be allowed to land. "In fact," says Miss Dickinson, "we looked simply wretched. Most of were ragged, muddy and dirty, not having been in a bath for weeks. On top of this they were distressingly thin, and our feet were showing through our boots."

The party entrained at Brindisi for Paris, and thence Havre and England.