Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Ropes of sand: a Teignmouth penance

One of those historical snippets that will probably never be elucidated. I just found this Notes & Queries snippet about Sir Warwick Hele Tonkin, a Teignmouth worthy who, for some unknown reason, acquired a ghostly penance in the late 1800s.

Sir Warwick Tonkin of Teignmouth, died about 1860. Connected with the shipping business, a magistrate, friend of Louis Napoleon and built a theatre for the town "before 1823". Within thirty years of his death he was said to be making ropes of sand on the beach (Parry: History of Teignmouth, 1910). 
- Devon & Cornwall Notes & Queries - Volumes 24-25 - Page 214, 1951 
This doesn't track back very easily; the specific Parry reference isn't findable, and Hubert Parry's 1914 Notes on Old Teignmouth doesn't mention this story. It does, however, appear in a 1901 source:
The beach is also haunted by Sir Warwick Tonkin, who, the old people will tell you, frequents the shore making ropes of sand. Why this poor gentleman is thus employed I cannot say. He was a resident in the town during the "forties and fifties," a gentleman of fashion, a friend of Louis Napoleon, who interested himself in many schemes for the benefit of the place; and if he suffered from a good deal of unnecessary vanity, did not deserve the fate that is meted out for Tregeagle on the Cornish coast.
- Teignmouth, Its Past History and Present Interests, Beatrix F. Cresswell - 1901
As Ms Cresswell says, there's no indication in the story what exactly Tonkin did to attract this story about his penance / purgatory. His obituary doesn't suggest anything controversial:
Death of Sir Warwick Hele Tonkin
This gentleman died on Friday evening at the advanced age of 86. The deceased was the son of the late Mr. Warwick Hele Tonkin, of Exeter, and married the only daughter of the late Mr. Thomas Mitchell, M.D., formerly of Chudleigh, who died about five years ago without issue. Sir Warwick was a major in the army, but never, we believe, saw much active service. Subsequently, he was a barrack-master at Exeter for a number of years. In 1826 he received a gold medal of the 1st class, from Charles X. of France, for aid in a case of shipwreck, and for similar services in 181 he was in 1838 nominated Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. He was a magistrate and deputy-lieutenant of the county of Devon. In politics the deceased was a Whig, and a warm supporter of the late lord-lieutenant of the county. He was also Lieutenant-Colonel of the 1st Devon Brigade of Volunteer Artillery, and took a very warm interest in the volunteer movement. The flags of the vessels in the harbour and at different parts of the town were hung at half-mast, out of respect for the deceased knight, who was of a kind and genial disposition, which had endeared him to a large circle of friends. He had lived at Teignmouth for about 40 years.
- Western Morning News
- The Morning Post (London, England), Tuesday, September 15, 1863; pg. 5; Issue 28001. 19th Century British Library Newspapers: Part II.
There's a much more detailed obituary in Robert Bigsby's 1869 Memoir of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem (pages 198-200) - perhaps his crime was being too much of a polymath. He appears to have been an accomplished linguist and musician; and his "Warwick Clavichord" looks an interesting invention. Published in 1830 as Invented by Sir Warwick Hele Tonkin : the Warwick Clavichord, Or Musical Chart, it was what we'd now call a multimedia music learning aid; it mapped notes of the scale to colours of the spectrum in aid of "impressing them more sensibly on the scholar's memory" (there's a review in an 1830 issue of Belle Assemblée magazine, page 128). Of further interest - the 19th century Devon literary circuit was a very small world - Lord and Lady Tonkin were good friends of the well-known Brays of Tavistock, and Anna Eliza Bray dedicated the 1846 edition of her novel Courtenay of Walreddon to Lady Tonkin. Sir Warwick was also an acquaintance of the Sidmouth antiquarian Peter Orlando Hutchinson (see POH's diary for August 3 1859) and the Keats brothers.

There are a few rather more explicable examples of sand-weaving penances: for instance, Tregeagle is the legendary magistrate Jan Tregeagle, who has been called a Cornish Faust, sentenced to various posthumous activities including weaving ropes of sand at Gwennor Cove (see The Demon Tregeagle in Robert Hunt's Popular Romances of the West of England, Volume 1). The 1951 Notes & Queries mentions ...
178. Spinners of Sand. — Among the ghosts of the English countryside is to be found a species which has not, as far as I know, received adequate attention. These are the spirits who are condemned by popular opinion to engage in the performing of endless tasks, e.g. spinning ropes of sand or emptying pools with a perforated shell, etc.
William de Tracey, one of the murderers of St. Thomas a Becket in 1170. After the crime, he fled to his manor at Woolacombe Tracy. Now he rides furiously up and down the beach at Woolacombe, wailing, or he wanders there and around Braunton Burrows, making a rope of sand. “But whenever the rope is nearly woven, there comes a black dog, with a ball of fire in his mouth, and breaks it; so the penance is never at an end.” (Devon … , Lady Rosalind Northcote, p. 222).
... as well as  the North Devon ghost of a sinister beach man ...
Whit-Hat: A real man who lived in the last century; as a ghost he haunts the sand dunes of Braunton Burrows, wearing a great white hat, and spins ropes of sand. (Mr Vernon C. Boyle, Transactions, Devonshire Association, Vol. LXXXIV, p. 296
The full Boyle citation is this:
White-hat. Written by Vernon C. Boyle, in 1949 : — " My father, Vernon Boyle, b. 1859, used to speak of a mythical character, Old White-hat, who ranged the beach along the Northside, calling for a passage to Appledore. He wore a great white hat. This was always at night. He seemed to have been doomed to make ropes of sand in among the dunes. Capt. J. R. Pile, aged 61 in 1949, has the following version: ' Jack the Whit-hat was about the Crow by night. He wore a white hat with a lantern lashed to it. He seemed to be looking for something. When he hailed an Appledore boat, “Hoy!”, people would never wait, but hurry away, for they believed that anyone who went ashore to Whit-hat would never get away alive. There is a woman in Bideford today who is the grand-daughter of Jack the Whit-hat, and possibly she can throw light on the story.’
- LEGENDS AND TRADITIONS, page 296, Report and Transactions of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science, Literature and Art, Volumes 84-86, 1952
As an exercise in futility, weaving a rope of sand is a regular folklore motif (it's not always a punishment, and in some stories it's used to outwit the Devil by setting him an impossible task). William F. Hansen's Ariadne's Thread: A Guide to International Tales Found in Classical Literature (Cornell University Press, 2002) tracks it as a metaphor right back to classical antiquity (see pp 256-257).

A pertinent and very nice artwork: Rope of Sand, by Kate Robinson, Intermedia Gallery, Glasgow, 1998.

- Ray

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