This is a well-known story on the Devon history/folklore circuit, but I was surprised to run into a rehash of it in the same volume of London Society that serialised Bertha Thomas's second novel, the 1878 Cressida. The anonymous account of the "Savages" was news a decade old: the equivalent of a tabloid scare story that started in the Times in 1869 and spawned a series of morally outraged accounts of the 'North Devon savages': a Nymet Rowland farming family called the Cheritons. More context at the end: but first, here's the story as London Society tells it.
A Monthly Magazine of light and amusing literature for the hours of relaxation.
London, F. V. White and Co.,31 Southampton Street, Strand, W.C.
VOL. XXXIII. NO. CXCVIII, 1878
Devonshire Savages, The, by a Native … 510
THE DEVONSHIRE SAVAGES.
BY A NATIVE.
There are spots on the moon and there are flies in amber. It need not, then, be a matter for great surprise that there are 'savages' in beautiful Devonshire. In fact it might not be difficult to find savages in many other parts of the country, judging by the testimony—the recent testimony unfortunately—of our police, petty sessional, and assize courts. There are young savages and old ones among us. For the former there is some hope whilst School Boards continue to exercise their functions. The old savages are, it is to be feared, irreclaimable, for the reason that they are mostly beyond civilising influences, and society can only look forward to their gradual extinction by the process of natural decay.
The savages who are the subject of this paper are of a peculiar type. They are in fact landed proprietors, living on their own freehold estate, and in a detached residence situated in a picturesque part of the country. It was rather more than six years since that they first brought themselves prominently under general public notice, though they had for some time previously made their influence 'felt' in their own immediate neighbourhood; and they have since done their best from time to time to maintain their reputation. It was about a couple of years after the special occasion to which I have alluded that, being about to pay a visit to Devonshire, it occurred to me that I would endeavour to see the notorious savages of the county. I had, however, forgotten the exact locality in which they lived, and thinking that a lady friend of mine—who I thought was specially ‘well up' in West-country lore, and who had, I believed, specially studied the habits and goings-on of West-country people—might be able to assist me, I wrote to ask her if she had ever heard of' the Devonshire savages,' and could remember their whereabouts. Not knowing, evidently, that I was a 'native,' she informed me that she had no recollection of any particular community of savages in Devonshire, but she believed that the expression ' the Devonshire savages' was applied very generally to the common people of Devon, in order to indicate the roughness of their manners. This was a terrible slander, for which I was totally unprepared; for I will venture to say— 'though I,' as a native, 'say it who shouldn't'—that throughout the British Islands there does not exist a finer, a gentler, and a more simple-hearted race of men than your genuine Devonshire peasants. I am, however, quite free to confess that this character does not apply to the singular family of Devonians of whom I propose to give some account in this place.
One of their not very remote ancestors was, it is averred, a kind of Diogenes. He at any rate, if not a philosopher, was eccentric, and lived in a tub. Common report indeed says that he was a lunatic, and it has been suggested that the tendency of lunacy to become hereditary may account for the strange doings of the existing family of savages. Local opinion, however, inclines to the belief that the noun plural which implies the reverse of honest people would more fittingly explain the peculiarities of this family than any other expression.
I have said that they are landed proprietors, living in their own 'house' on their own freehold. How they came into possession of this property I have never been able to discover. But in spite of their notorious misdoings there they are, and there they appear likely to remain. Their estate consists of some thirty or forty acres of land, which they farm—its value, I have been given to understand, being about 40/. per annum. They have, or recently had, live stock in horses, sheep, pigs, bullocks, ducks, and fowls. The 'estate' consists of eleven fields, besides an orchard, and it has been 'in the family' for about a quarter of a century. There is a cottage-garden attached to the family mansion, in which are grown various vegetables that supply the family with what they cannot easily steal from their neighbours. When, for whom, or under what circumstances the cottage was built I have never been able to discover. Some people say that it was originally an old barn with an extemporised chimney. It might have been at one time a labourer's cottage; but I incline to the belief that it was erected by the savages themselves after an artistic model of their own. The 'oldest inhabitant' of the parish in which it is situated, not a hundred miles from the Lapford station of the North Devon Railway, cannot remember to have seen glass in the 'windows;' and it is very many years since that the apertures, which by courtesy may claim that designation, were known to retain anything like window-shape. Their fine airy and négligée condition in their best days may be seen by the illustration. The savages never appear to have liked the confinement and restraint imposed by glass, and it was only during exceptionally cold or exceptionally rough weather that they cared to fill the apertures in the walls with an unhinged door, an old board, a sack or two, or other temporary makeshifts.
On the occasion of my visit to the hovel, however, it had become such a ruin as to have almost lost the appearance of a dwelling-place. Here it is, just as I saw it. The stones and cob of which the walls consisted were torn and rent in all directions, as if the structure had been subjected to a furious bombardment. Huge gaping apertures were seen on all sides. What had been doorways had become widened, shapeless, and ragged breaches in the walls. The' front' doorway had assumed the shape of a rough irregular archway, the upper part of which was so torn and loose that it had to be supported by a beam placed crosswise, and kept up against the stones and cob by wooden props. The upper parts of the walls were especially ruinous, whilst the thatch was broken and torn in all directions.
The substructure of this miserable ruinous dwelling stood in a hollow or depression in the ground, and was situated at about the centre of a kind of clearing surrounded by a hedge and skirted by tall trees. Admission to this yard or clearing was gained through a gateway which led in from one of the high-roads of the village. The hovel itself consisted of two apartments, one over the other. The lower one, the deepest part of which was something like a hole or pit in the ground, was the den of the savages—drawing-room, dining-room, kitchen, scullery, and bedroom in one. Here the whole family ate, drank, washed, cooked, and slept. Bed or bedstead, as these things are generally understood, there was none. When I saw it the whole room was filled with straw, and here, as I have said, every member of the household slept—father, mother, sons, daughters, and the children of the latter. The family consisted, in fact, of eleven persons when I made their acquaintance. The grandfather of the circle was at that time, I believe, about sixty years of age. His wife as perhaps a few years younger. Their eldest son was somewhere between thirty and forty. The next was a daughter of thirty summers. Then followed two other intereting young ladies, aged respectively, I believe, twenty-five and twenty-three. Next below these came a boy about twelve, one of about eight, another between five and six, and a baby boy of two summers.
The eleven herded together in the manner I have stated; and their character and propensities were just what their mode of life would suggest. No respectably-dressed person could venture to pass their hovel without being assailed with the most horrible epithets, and not unfrequently assaulted brutally with mud, sticks, stones, or in fact anything that came first to hand. They soon became the terror of the whole country-side; and curiously enough the worst of the set were the female members of the family. At one time the latter actually attended the parish church, dresssed in the most gaudy style imaginable, and accompanied occasionally by their brothers. But a feud arose between them and the vicar, who on one occasion was so incensed by the conduct of the eldest of the sons, that he seized him and administered severe castigation. From this time the savages ceased attending church altogether; but they took every opportunity of insulting the parsou whenever he chanced to pass their way, and swore eternal vengeance against this good man in particular, and against his profession in general. The suspiciousness with which they greeted me on the occasion of my visit to them arose, I believe, from their having at first mistaken me for a 'passen,' and they appeared both pleased and relieved on my informing them, in reply to a query to that effect, that I was not of the cloth.
For a certain period they attempted a little farming, and even took their produce to dispose of it to a market which was not very distant from their abode. But after a time they appear to have reflected that it would be easier to purloin their neighbours' goods than to work for themselves; so they pilfered and robbed their neighbours in eveiy possiblo way and on every possible occasion. They made no distinction, robbing the poor cottagers as well as the wealthy farmers in all the country round. They would even steal vegetables from labourers'gardens. One of their favourite amusements—suggested, no doubt, by the desire to combine business with pleasure—was to drive the cattle of neighbouring farmers into their own fields, and then, upon the pretence that these cattle had 'strayed,' demand compensation from the owners. Indeed, one of the most recent of the public appearances of these North Devon savages—at the sessions held at the Castle of Exeter, not many months ago, before the Earl of Devon and other magistrates— was to answer a charge of obtaining money—to wit, the sum of two shillings and sixpence—by false pretences from a farmer in the neighbourhood, whose pigs, the savages declared, had, to the number of six, been ' trespassing' amongst their ricks. The sum was claimed, and, it seems, paid by the farmer in question, who was under the belief that his pigs had in reality committed the damage which was alleged. He was subsequently informed, however, that the savages had themselves driven his pigs amongst their ricks in order to extort money from him. Three of the notorious family were on this particular occasion indicted for cheating the farmer in the manner indicated, but two of them escaped owing to some technical flaw in the indictment, the third being convicted and sentenced to two months' hard labour—a very slight punishment, considering the numerous occasions on which this particular savage—the ringleader of the whole set—had been convicted of similar and worse offences.
It will be supposed from what has been stated that these notorious people were, before the date of the particular prosecution just referred to, no strangers to the processes of the law. Indeed, prior to the year 1873 they had been so frequently 'summoned' before the county magistrates, that a special representation on their account was made to the Home Secretary. Inquiry was then instituted, and a return was ordered of the number of convictions which up to the date of the inquiry had been recorded against the savages. It actually appeared from this return that, for divers offences too numerous to particularise here, they had been between them convicted no less than fifty times. But their repeated incarcerations had produced no beneficial effect upon them, and indeed they only became hardened in their sins and wrong-doings.
It appears that every inducement which has been offered to these people to sell their land has proved unavailing, and hence there is no means of driving them forth from the neighbourhood in which their presence has become an intolerable infliction. The most perfect isolation exists between them and the inhabitants of the parish in which they live. Their hovel has sunk into a most ruinous condition, and it cannot long withstand the assaults of the weather. How the tenants will fare when, on some more than usually stormy night, it is laid in a ruinous heap, it is impossible to say. There is no one in the neighbourhood of the savages who would let them a house, nor could a house be built in a day. They would have to take refuge in one of their own hayricks until they could extemporise other shelter.
Such as these abandoned people have been described they appear likely to remain; for they have resisted every civilising and humanising influence which has been brought to bear upon them with the object of improving them. They are in very truth irreclaimable savages, having, unhappily, no one redeeming quality as a set-off against their viciousness and depravity—savages, in fact, of the utterly bad type which is, alas, still to be found in certain parts of civilised countries.
Public domain material transcribed from Google Books scan of London Society, 1888.
|"The Cottage of the Savages" - by F. Bligh Bond|
Baring-Gould's An Old English Home and Its Dependencies.
Note the sensational extras: pig in doorway, and naked suckling figure.
From the detail of the cart, it seems that both this and the uncredited
image with the London Society piece were based on a photo c.1860
by William Hector. See A Criminal Past, Heard Family History.
For a compilation of contemporary accounts, see the Devon History Society: The North Devon Savages (November 2009 - I wrote it, so forgive any similarity of phrasing).
The short of it is that the story seems to have launched with a Times piece, "Heathenism in Devonshire" (page 9, November 17, 1869), and particularly escalated with an October 1871 Telegraph expose, "A Family of Savages in Devonshire" (syndicated as far afield as the North Otago Times). There was outraged commentary - the London Society piece is pretty mild - such as that of "Tickler" (George Philip Rigney Pulman) in the Devon Weekly Times (reprinted in the 1870 Devonshire Sketches including Pixy Lore as "... some Account of Ancient and Modern Savages in Devon"). This is turn drew probably libellous correspondence alleging further misdeeds such as incest, going near-naked, and the Cheriton women corrupting, and infecting, the local youth ("to which fact medical men in the neighbourhood can bear revolting testimony"). A few decades later, the Cheritons were fast fading into folklore, but they got a mention in books such as Baring-Gould's An Old English Home and its Dependencies (London: Methuen, 1898, Internet Archive oldenglishhomeit00bariuoft) and Sarah Hewett's Nummits and Crummits : Devonshire customs, characteristics, and folk-lore (London: Thomas Burleigh, 1900, Internet Archive nummitscrummitsd00heweuoft). Peter Christie's 1992 paper is the most complete modern reanalysis, and the abstract says it all:
The 'North Devon Savages' were a notorious family living in the small parish of Nymet Rowland in the nineteenth century whose story has entered the realms of folklore. This study explores the truth behind their reputation and suggests that their notoriety, though based to some extent on fact, was deliberately exagggerated by local landed interests in order to force them off their land.Ultimately the story may come down to a land ownership war conducted by slur, in which the underclass Cheritons were less able to play the media than their rich and well-connected opponents.
_ Christie, Peter. 'The true story of the north Devon savages'. Devonshire Association Report and Transactions, 124 (1992), 59-85. ISSN 03097994.