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.]

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