Histories and Mysteries: Concealed ferrets and shredded trousers – Some unusual Devon crimes Part 1

Mark Norman
Mark Norman
Chapel of St Clare at Livery Dole – Copyright Richard Dorrell

Although generally a peaceful place, Devon has – like everywhere else in the country – its share of crime. Thankfully only a small percentage of recorded crimes are especially dangerous or a threat to life.

Looking back through history, many crimes in Devon have more unusual aspects. Consider the title of this column. Those were two examples of the more bizarre nature of some Devon crimes.

Both were taken from the Moretonhampstead Petty Sessions. In January 1886 a man was summoned after having been apprehended near the Moreton Turnpike House by a policeman.

When the policeman asked what he had in his pockets, the man remarked that there was nothing at all. But on closer inspection, there were in fact eight nets and a live ferret. The man was charged under the Poaching Prevention Act.

And then the following year, in June of 1887, a travelling tinker was charged with assaulting a police officer in Chagford. Whilst he was in the cells awaiting his case being heard, the man ripped up his trousers and ended up being judged whilst wearing a sack that reached below his knees. He was found guilty and sentenced to three months’ hard labour, before being sent to Exeter Gaol still wearing his sack.

These are both Petty cases, but when thinking about notorious crimes or characters in history in this part of the country, the case of ‘The Man They Could Not Hang’ is often one of those which is brought to mind first. Sentenced to death in February 1855 for allegedly setting fire to The Glen in Babbacombe, Torquay, 20 year-old groundsman John Lee had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment by the Home Secretary after the gallows mechanism failed three times while the executioner tried to despatch him. Lee, interestingly, claimed that he had had a prophetic dream on the night before his execution that the bolt would fail three times.

What happened to John Lee later in life is uncertain. He was released in December 1907 after serving 20 years or more and two years later married and had a son. In 1911 he left them and went to New York, but after this is not definite because records have been confused with those of other people with the same name. He probably settled in Milwaukee and died in March 1945 after having a heart attack.

But there are other more obscure and unusual characters within the crime history of Devon. And some less standard crimes too. Over the course of my next two Histories and Mysteries columns, I’ll talk about some of those which have come to light while trawling through the historical records.

Whilst this is designed to be a light-hearted and (hopefully) entertaining look at Devon’s shadier past, it is worth remembering that in every crime there is at least one victim and some of these stories are actually quite tragic as well.

The Gregg family preyed on residents of Clovelly and the surrounding areas of North Devon in the 17th Century. Although probably never venturing into the town itself, John Gregg and around 50 members of his family were reputed to live in caves in the area.

Over a 25 year period they are said to have murdered and cannibalised around a thousand people. They were finally hanged in Exeter, without a trial, after a mob of around 400 stormed the caves and captured them.
How much of the stories which remain are factually accurate and how much are exaggeration or fiction is difficult to say for certain.

In a similar fashion, in the 16th Century a family of savages called Gubbins lived near Lydford, again in the wild. Some suggest that the Gorge was where their lair was to be found. They lived by stealing sheep from the moors and by robbing travellers.

Their leader, Roger Rowle, was known by some as ‘the Robin Hood of Dartmoor’ although I’m not sure that too much was given to the poor outside of the Gubbins family. They were known for murdering, but not for eating their victims like the Greggs. (I assume that the bakery does not come down from this line of the family.) The Gubbins eventually died out, probably through a combination of excessive interbreeding and conversion to Christianity.

The mysterious Princess Caraboo appeared in 1817 in the village of Almondsbury in Gloucestershire. She was dressed in exotic clothes and carried a few essentials with her.

Knocking on the door of the local cobbler she spoke in a language which nobody could understand, but mimed that she needed food and shelter. They gave her some bread and milk but would not let her stay and referred her to the Overseer of the Poor, Mr Hill.
He took her to the local magistrate Samuel Worrall who, with the assistance of his wife, gave Princess Caraboo hospitality.

They arranged for the girl to stay at the local inn, The Bowl. Whilst there the Princess saw a botanical print of a pineapple on the wall, which she called ‘Nanas’. The witnesses to this all assumed that the pineapple was a native fruit to her and that she probably came from Asia.

After 10 days or so, Caraboo was introduced to a Portuguese sailor called Manuel Eynesso who said that he understood the language and told her story. She was from Javasu, an island in the Indian Ocean, and had been kidnapped by pirates from whom she escaped in the Bristol Channel by jumping overboard. She had then swum to shore.

For the next ten weeks the girl performed exotic dances, demonstrated archery and fencing, prayed to her god ‘Allah-Talla’ and even had a ball held in her honour. A Dr Wilkinson vouched for her authenticity and identified her language and writing using a book by Edmund Fry called ‘Pantographia’.

And then, the landlady of a boarding house in Bristol recognised the description of Princess Caraboo as that of a girl who had lodged with her six months previously.

When confronted, three months after mysteriously arriving out of nowhere, Princess Caraboo confirmed in perfect English that she was actually Mary Willcocks from Witheridge, the daughter of a cobbler. She had taken on the character in an effort to be more interesting.

Rather than being prosecuted, the magistrate’s wife Mrs Worrall paid for Mary to travel to Philadelphia with a chaperone, as Mary had said that she wanted to visit the country. She eventually returned to Bristol and after one last performance as Princess Caraboo in London as an attraction, she married Robert Baker and set up a business importing and selling leeches, which their daughter continued.

21st August 1694 saw the execution of one of Devon’s worst ever multiple murderers, Thomas Austin, who came from a wealthy farming family in Cullompton. After his parents died, Austin inherited their property and married a girl who brought an £800 dowry with her. They held lavish parties, but Austin neglected the property which he had to mortgage after he had spent all of his wife’s money.

To replace the money, Thomas Austin turned to crime. He started by defrauding his neighbours and then tried highway robbery, killing Sir Zachary Wilmot on the road and stealing 46 guineas.

He later visited his uncle, who was not at home, and killed his aunt with an axe in front of their five young children, whose throats he then cut. He found £60 in the house to steal. On returning home, his wife asked him why he was covered in blood. His response was to slit her throat and then cut up their small children.

Austin was caught when his uncle arrived at the house unexpectedly before he had been able to remove the bodies. He knocked Austin out and took him to the local magistrate, with his execution following on soon after.

This isn’t the only case of highway robbery in the area of course. On 19th October 1792 a post boy was stopped near Chudleigh and robbed at gunpoint. The highwayman took the bags destined for Exeter and made his escape, but was caught later in his bed at Moretonhampstead. He had two loaded pistols with him, and around £600 under the pillow.

About a hundred items of regular mail were picked up from where they had been dropped within a radius of a couple of miles from his house. The man gave no identifying information other than his name was Martin. He later tried to stab himself in custody but was unsuccessful.

Some things in life never change, and as we still find now sometimes the most respectable people make the worst criminals too. On 30th December 1408, John Hawley of Dartmouth died aged 55. Hawley was mayor 14 times between 1374 and 1401 and was also a local MP and collector of customs.

But he was also a ruthless pirate whose plundering of foreign ships could eventually no longer be overlooked by the sovereign who had once tasked him to ‘keep the seas’. He was confined to the Tower in 1407 on King Henry IV’s orders. On his death, he was buried with the two wives that he had outlived in the chancel of St Saviour’s church in Dartmouth. He had founded the church himself in life.

The last execution to take place in Devon for an offence which was not murder was on 11 June, 1830. The man in question in this case was William Bissett Cornish, aged approximately 65. The newspapers who reported on Cornish described him as ‘an unhappy and miserably degraded man’.

The offence for which he was executed was recorded as to take a dog and ‘feloniously, wickedly, diabolically and against the order of nature (have) a certain venereal and carnal intercourse’ with it, and then afterwards also with a bitch.

Six witnesses testified to this fact at the trial. After being found guilty, Cornish was executed in front of a gathering of around 2,000 people.

Cornish’s wife, Elizabeth, was not a much nicer character. The year before these events took place, she had been transported for life after having been found guilty along with two other people of causing the death of a farmer. Elizabeth Cornish had been the keeper of a brothel where the farmer had been found. He had been robbed and had died of apoplexy after having been dragged out into the street. It is possible that he had also been plied with drugs or alcohol before the robbery.

James and Louisa Churchward of Plymouth were also charged for keeping a house of ill repute in 1861. Mr Cox, for the prosecution, said that the house ‘was a common nuisance on the grounds of its tendency to the corruption of public morals, as well as to the endangering of public peace, by drawing together persons of immoral habits and dissolute lives’.

He also noted that the practice of having women sitting in the windows beckoning to passers-by, ‘materially depreciated the value of property in the immediate neighbourhood’.

John Risdon, who lived next door to the house, complained that the properties were only separated by a lath and plaster partition and that he could hear everything that happened on the other side.

He also said that the Churchward’s two daughters, both adults themselves, were contributing to the business through their own prostitution. Some of the scenes, he noted, had been so revolting that he had taken to standing in his doorway with a bullseye lantern, illuminating the men going in and out in an effort to shame them.

In his defence, James Churchward said that he was always in bed around 8pm and that he knew nothing of his daughters’ behaviour.

He said that if he discovered that they had been guilty of acting improperly, he would thrash them soundly.

Presumably, this is what had essentially been going on there in the first place! His wife accused the witnesses for the prosecution of telling lies against them, even though she had initially pleaded in court that she was suffering from deafness. All told, the jury took just five minutes to find the couple guilty, and they were sentenced to nine months’ hard labour.

In my next Histories and Mysteries column, I’ll continue to explore more of the county’s seedier and more unusual past.