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Blackdown Villains

Blackdown Villains

Here’s a tale with something for everyone, it has murder, highway robbery, a manhunt, a love interest and it all happened on and around Blackdown. But first to set the scene, Blackdown consists of about four square kilometres of moorland, with the old main road from Exeter to Plymouth hugging its eastern flank. It also lends it’s name to a small village that sits to the north of Mary Tavy. The southern end of the down was mined for tin and the workings were associated with the nearby Wheal Betsy. The highest point on Blackdown is known as Gibbet Hill or Black Hill (353 metres) which was once, as the name suggests, the site of a gibbet. William Crossing describes the wide ranging vistas from Gibbet Hill thus:

The chief interest of Gibbet Hill is the wonderful picture seen from its summit. Eastward is a wide view of the moor from the Sourton Tors (to the north) to the Dewer Stone (to the south) … Some of the grandest tors of the moor are here visible… Roborough Down and beyond it Mount Edgecumbe with the channel are in view. Across the valley W. by S., is Brent Tor… and further away the Cornish eminences of Kit Hill, Brown Willy and Row Tor… A wide expanse of diversified country is seen. embracing a great part of West and Northwest Devon and much of the country beyond the Tamar.”, Crossing, pp. 159 -160.

The whole area was once a notorious spot where highwaymen ployed their trade, hence the gibbet which acted as a reminder of the consequences of such crimes as highway robbery.

The original story was written in the early 1900s and is told over forty five pages, needless to say this is a shortened version giving the general gist of the tale. As mentioned the whole catalogue of events takes place on or around the locality of Blackdown. So let’s begin at a rambling and dilapidated old Dartmoor longhouse nestled in a hollow on Blackdown, it carries the wonderful name of ‘Goosey Creep’. Straightaway I must divert from fiction and briefly go to fact, in reality ‘Goosey Creep’ is the name of a miner’s gully on Kingsett down near to Wheal Jewel and it is from here the name was taken. OK, back to fiction, the occupants of the house are old  Jabez Drazzlewood, his son Anthony, the old man’s ward Mabel Venlake and her maid Thomasine Towzel, now there’s some names to conjure with. In a few days Mabel was due to marry Anthony Drazzlewood which was a prospect she was none to pleased about and this fact was made perfectly clear to her future husband. I think it would be fair to say that Anthony was not enamoured with the idea, after all who would want to marry a girl who did not show any affection? But it was old man Drazzlewood who was heavily promoting the idea because he knew that Mabel would shortly be coming into a tidy inheritance.

Now it was a damp, drizzly day and the old house reflected the gloom where in a small room Mabel and Thomasine sat huddled around a smouldering peat fire. Although officially a maid over the years she had become more of a friend to Mabel and it was in this capacity that she was doing her best to dissuade the girl from her impending marriage. She could see only too well what a mis-match the couple were and dreaded the thought of the unhappiness that would follow her mistress. Thomasine tried everything in her power to change the girls mind, she begged, she wept, she scolded and all was to no avail. However, she had one card left to play , Clarence Barstone, it was to him that Mabel had once given her heart. Sadly after her father’s death she was sent to Blackdown whilst Clarence remained in Exeter. Normally this would have been no problem as it is not a great distance between the two but unfortunately she was not ever allowed to leave the house unescorted. This was under the pretence of the ‘Moor’ being a dangerous place and best avoided at all costs so in effect she was a virtual prisoner.

Thomasine’s plan was to smuggle Clarence into Goosey Creep in the hope that once Mabel saw him it would rekindle her love for him thus putting an end to the Drazzlewood’s marriage prospects. Now the biggest problem was getting Clarence into the house because at all times the doors were kept locked and all the windows were barred. However, somehow she managed it and successfully reunited the two lovers. After Mabel’s initial shock of seeing Clarence once more she asked the reason for his visit and explained how sad it made her as tomorrow she would be wed to another. Well you can imagine Clarence’s anguish, the girl he loved above everything was to be wed to another. Then he begged, he wept, and scolded all in an effort to persuade Mabel to leave her virtual prison and run away with him. Mabel was resolute, she explained that there was no way she could escape her impending doom for reasons she could not explain. At this point Thomasine ran into the room to warn the couple that Anthony Drazzlewood was on his way. This was the cue for Clarence to make a hasty exit but as he sped through the door his parting words were that he would be back to save her.

Whilst all this was going on another discussion was taking place in the small inn at nearby Horndon, this one concerned the activities of ‘Flyin’ Dick’, a highwayman who plied his trade on Blackdown. Zacky Smart was bemoaning the fact that sooner or later folk would avoid the area for fear of being robbed. Zacky Smart had decided that someone or something must be done to bring Flyin’ Dick to justice. Out of all the assembly in that bar the main contenders to be the hero were Zacky Smart, Jimmy Stephens and Tommy Tancock. At first not a one of them was too keen to offer their services until it was pointed out that old man Drazzlewood had offered a reward of one hundred pounds to anyone who would apprehend the villain. With the matter seemingly unresolved and the evening’s quota of cider being drunk the moormen made there ways home.

As Jimmy Stephen’s wound his way back to his farm the thought of a hundred pounds up for grabs became too tempting an offer. The self same idea also came to Tommy Tancock as he strolled homeward but both men had decided not to tell each other of their plans of catching Flyin’ Dick and claiming the handsome reward. Zacky Smart lived up to his name and decided the cleverest thing to do was not get involved in such a dangerous scheme.

As he meander up the lane Tommy was trying to hatch a plan in his head, he knew there were two vital ingredients to it; he needed plenty of courage and a horse just in case a chase occurred. Well, he had plenty of courage on that night, ten pints of cider made sure of that but what he didn’t have was a sturdy steed. Then another part of the plan came to mind, Jimmy Stephens had a pony that was kept in a nearby field which he could borrow. So off he went to the field, however, there was a hitch, what he didn’t know was that Jimmy Stephens had lent the pony to a neighbour the previous day. After stumbling around the paddock in search of the pony he finally realised it was missing. The best laid plans of mice an men and all that, and initially there was not a plan ‘B’ to fall back on. That was until a loud and very close braying noise scared him half to death at which point, once he had regained his senses, he remembered that Jimmy also owned a donkey. So, not wishing to look a gift horse, or in this case donkey, in the mouth he settled for second best. He managed to catch the said donkey and was soon mounted and trotting off towards Blackdown.

It appears that Jimmy Stephens also had the same plan in mind and remembering that his pony was on loan he had decided to use his donkey. But obviously when he got to the field he found that the beast of burden had done one and left no hint as to its whereabouts. Having decided that he would have to postpone his manhunt Jimmy Stephens made off back down the lane when suddenly a horse and cart appeared out of the darkness. What was unusual was that there was no driver which seemed mighty odd so he grabbed the horse as it passed him by. To his surprise Jimmy saw that in the cart laid John Burn a farming neighbour of his. It did not take long to realise that it was the day for Tavistock market and clearly Mr. Burn had been in attendance and had consumed copious amounts of ‘Glider Fuel’. It was tradition on Dartmoor that under such circumstances anyone in such a stupor was simply loaded into their cart and left to have the horse take them home. As Mr. Burn was snoring like a pig and obviously in a deep alcohol induced slumber Jimmy had a cunning plan. There was no way that his neighbour would be awake until sunrise and so if he unhitched the horse he then could ‘borrow’ it for the night. No sooner had he taken the horse out of its traces than he heard a groaning coming from the back of the cart, swiftly Jimmy took the horse into a nearby field and hid. Poor old Mr. Burn, he had awoken to find himself in the back of a horseless carriage and he could not work out whether he had lost a horse or gained a cart. Totally bemused he fell out of the cart, picked himself up and staggered off down the lane. Once Jimmy was sure he had gone he and the horse came out of hiding and trotted off towards Blackdown – the game was afoot.

Meanwhile on the pinnacle of Blackdown known as Gibbet Hill sat a lone horseman, he was dressed in a long black coat with white ruffles, a white lace cravat and knee length riding boots. His face was hidden by a black mask and two flintlock pistols hung from his wide black belt – it was none other than Flyin’ Dick, the scourge of Blackdown. There are those who said he possessed supernatural powers as on many occasions various pursuers had nearly apprehended him only for him to vanish into thin air. Every time the chase had led down into the workings of Wheal Betsy where after charging up and down the various gullies the highwayman had somehow made his escape.

This was not the only lone watcher on Gibbet Hill that night for further down the hillside stood another motionless horseman, well to be exact it was a donkeyman. Tommy Tancock quietly sat astride his donkey intently watching Flyin’ Dick who was totally oblivious to his presence. Just to add a bit more drama to the scene there was another silent watcher on the hill whose existence was unbeknown to the other two watchers. Yes, you’ve guessed it, Jimmy Stephens had arrived on his carthorse and having spotted the other two riders was under the dreaded impression that he would have to deal with two highwaymen not one. Undaunted he spurred the mighty horse onwards at which point the donkeyman in the guise of Tommy Tancock heard the thunder of the horse’s mighty hooves. Peering into the darkness he could make out the shape of a rider thundering towards him. Thinking that somehow Flyin’ Dick had managed to creep behind him and was now coming to finish him off he steeled himself for battle. However, either his courage deserted him or the effects of the cider had worn off either way he decided discretion was the better form of valour and made a hasty retreat. Now, it’s a know fact that once a donkey gets a head of steam up they get a mind of their own. In this case the animal charged off towards the top of Gibbet Hill where on reaching the summit it screeched to a sudden halt. By now you will know that it’s called Gibbet Hill because at one time there was an actual caged gibbet there. We can’t be sure whether it was the sight of the iron cage swinging in the night breeze or if it was the sound of the decaying bones rattling in the cage that made the donkey stop. But which ever one it was certainly halted the beast in its tracks, a fact which the animal protested loudly with a resounding bray. As you can imagine, what with the prospect of a murderous highwayman fast approaching and the stench of the rotting corpse poor old Tommy was none to pleased.

One hearing the loud braying Jimmy Stephens immediately reorganised the call of his own animal, afterall he had heard it often enough. So not only was Flyin’ Dick a highwayman he was also a donkey rustler to boot.  As he met the thief at full tilt he pulled his cudgel and smacked him around the head, a manoeuvre that any medieval knight would have been proud of. He reigned in the horse, leapt off and ran to the figure which was at sitting holding their head under the gibbet. It was then that he recognised poor Tommy Tancock. Having both explained why they were there and what they were riding the two moormen decided that maybe it would be best to join forces afterall, even if it meant splitting the reward.

Having heard the commotion Flyin’ Dick decided that if he was going to find a victim that night it had better be somewhere else and with that thought in mind he sped off towards Lydford. Just on the edge of Blackdown is a small gully down which ran a small moorland stream. It was here that the highwayman decided to wait for his next victim and that wait wasn’t very long. Coming up from Tavistock was a small carriage and as soon as it reached the hollow he spurred his horse into the road and ordered the driver to ‘stand and deliver’. Having two cocked flintlocks aimed at his head the carriage driver obediently pulled the hoses to a stop. No sooner had the conveyance ground to a halt than an elderly gentleman poked his out out of the back window demanding to know what the hold up was. On discovering that in fact it was an actual hold up he indignantly refused to hand over his valuables. What he did hand over was a lead ball fired from a small pistol concealed in his coat sleeve. Flyin’ Dick saw what was coming and managed to dodge the bullet whilst at the same time firing his pistol at the old man. Dick’s aim was more accurate and the gentleman fell back into the carriage, at the same time the sound of the pistol shots spooked the carriage horses who charged off at an uncontrolled dash along the road.

Just as Flyin’ Dick was about to give chase he heard the sound of two more mounts galloping towards him and their shouts revealed that a posse consisting of Jimmy Stephens and Tommy Tancock would soon be upon him. He wheeled his horse around in order to make his escape but it was too late. Tommy Tancock and the donkey smacked headlong into the highwayman’s horse which being bigger had the effect of bucking Tommy off into the nearby stream. Close behind came Jimmy Stephens who being mounted upon a larger horse was able to pull his cudgel and smack it down on Flyin’ Dicks arm. Unfortunately the blow failed in unseating the highwayman who regained his balance and spurred his horse off into the night.

The chase was on with both riders heading towards the mine workings of Wheal Betsy and then went up and down the deep gullies. Just as Jimmy thought he was gaining on the escapee the highwayman vanished, a case of now you see me now you don’t. At this point Jimmy realised that there needed to be more than one person in a posse but as Tommy was still floundering around in the stream this would not be possible. Then he noticed a light burning in the window of nearby Goosey Creep which meant he might be able to summons assistance there. He marched up to the door and gave an urgent rap which eventually brought old Jabez Drazzlewood to see what was ado. Jimmy explained the night’s events and what his intentions were but old Jabez was not convinced.  But to ensure that there was nothing else to do he summonsed Anthony for his opinion who shortly appeared looking rather sleepy and dressed in his nightgown. Old man Drazzlewood firstly introduced his son who then after giving the matter some thought suggested that the chase be postponed until sunrise. Feeling slightly defeated Jimmy made his apologies for his disturbance and politely shook the old man and his son’s hands before taking his leave.

Now we move to a small inn at the hamlet of Watervale which is situated at the northern top of Blackdown. In the bar was an elderly man called Mr. Birdwell who was slumped by the fire in a huge armchair. Whilst in the window seat was a young man, neither were talking to each other, both having troubles of their own. The landlord appeared with a large beaker of brandy and enquired as to the health of the old man. Birdwell thanked the landlord for his concern and said apart from the slight gunshot wound to his arm he was recovering quite well. He then went on to describe how Flyin’ Dick had held up his carriage and how he refused to hand over his valuables and indeed had managed to fire a shot at him. Which for his troubles he received a reciprocal shot from Flyin’ Dick which hit him on the arm. It was also explained that how after the gunfight the carriage horses had bolted but had  fortuitously decided to stop near the inn. Having heard the old man’s tale the landlord left to attend his nightly chores leaving his two customers to their own thoughts. But the old man continued telling his story to the young man. He expressed his relief that the highway man never managed to get his valuables because amongst them were some important letters. Apparently six months previously a dear friend of Birdwell’s had died and shortly afterwards a murder was committed and the culprit was said to have been a friend of the victim. At this point the young man became very agitated and began to fidget in his seat. The old man continued, although he had never actually met the suspect he knew that the young man had become friendly with a wealthy farmer called Mr. Brandley. One day the farmer and the young man had driven to Tavistock in order to deposit a huge sum of money at the bank which were the proceeds from a large livestock sale. However by the time they arrived at the bank it had closed and so the couple along with the money returned to Brandley’s farm. The very next day Brandley was discovered lying in his bed having been viscously murdered and both his money along with the young man had vanished.

The old man then related how yesterday he had been attending to some business at Plymouth docks when a sailor had the misfortune to fall out of the rigging on a sailing ship. Having seen the accident happen the old man went to give assistance but found the sailor lying on the deck with a broken neck. As the sailor’s life began to ebb away he made a confession which was heard by the ship’s captain, clerk and Birdwell. It seemed that sometime during the night of the murder Brandley’s young friend had received a messenger who told him that his sister had been taken ill and how he must return home  immediately. As it was so late at night the young man decided not to wake Mr. Brandley but instead left a message explaining where he was. It then appears that the sailor and an accomplice having watched the man leave broke into the house and murdered the old farmer and stole his money. They also found the young man’s message which they destroyed thus making him the prime suspect. All of this confession along with a letter from the sailor’s accomplice were the important letters he was glad not to have lost in the attempted robbery.

On hearing this tale the young man sat in the window seat suddenly became very, very agitated, so much so he fainted upon the floor. More brandy was called for which soon revived the man who then seemed a lot calmer and much happier. The landlord then returned with another guest who he introduced and explained that he knew how Flyin’ Dick always managed to escape, his name was Clarence Barstone.

The following day turned out to be a typical miserable Dartmoor day shrouded in dank mist and heavy drizzle it also saw Anthony Drazzlewood and Mabel Venlake stood at the altar of the local church.  The vicar had just reached the ‘if any man know any just cause and impediment why this couple should not be joined in holy matrimony’ bit when the door was flung open.  Down the aisle came marching Clarence Barstone, Mr. Birdwell, Jimmy Stephens, Tommy Towzel and the young man (from the previous night at the Watervale inn) along with Uncle Tom Cobley and all. Upon reaching the altar Birdwell immediately stated why the couple should not be married. He said that there was nobody who had the right to give Mabel away in marriage at which old Jabez protested loudly. Birdwell then went on to explain how a criminal aider and abettor lost all such rights as custodian and Jabez was such a man. He then went to say how the dying sailor’s written confession clearly stated how Drazzlewood was complicit in the murder of  Mr. Brandley but also how he framed his young friend as the offender. Birdwell then called the young man forward and introduced him as the young man falsely accused of the murder whose name turned out to be Herbert Venlake. On hearing that name Mabel let out a faint cry of relief and happiness as rushed forward to hug her brother. It was now her turn for an explanation, the only reason why she had agreed to be kept prisoner at Goosey Creep and to marry Anthony Drazzlewood was that old Jabez had threatened to release some evidence that he had which would prove Herbert’s guilt of Brandley’s murder. It was perfectly clear that no such implicating evidence ever existed and furthermore because of his involvement in the murder Drazzlewood knew only too well the large fortune she would be inheriting. This was based on the fact that Brandley had left all his wealth to her brother who having gone missing would then pass to her.

Next Jimmy Stephens stepped forward to have his say, this time he was confronting Anthony Drazzlewood with the accusation of being Flyin’ Dick. He went on to explain how the previous night he had chased the highwayman into the gullies of Wheal Betsy where he then vanished. Tommy Towzel then joined in declaring that he knew how Flyin’ Dick was able to disappear because after being left behind on the previous night’s chase he made his way over to Wheal Betsy. It was here that he found an old miner’s adit whose tunnel ran from the mine to under the stables at Goosey Creep. This fact was backed up by Clarence Barstone who had also discovered the secret adit. So all became clear how Anthony Drazzlewood had managed to get back to Goosey Creep and be there when Jimmy Stephens called for help. This was the cue for Jimmy to have the last word which was to be the final nail in Drazzlewood’s coffin. He recounted how in his encounter with Flyin’ Dick he had struck him a heavy blow on the arm. Further adding that when last night he called at Goosey Creep he had noticed that when shaking hands with Anthony Drazzlewood he had the self same injury to his arm.

All in all everyone was delighted with the outcome and especially at the sight of Drazzlewood senior and junior being led away in handcuffs. What was also pleasing was the thought that after they had been sentenced for their crimes they would be spending an eternity on Blackdown – swinging in the gibbet cage. The only downer as far as Jimmy Stephens and Tommy Towzel was that they would never get the hundred pounds reward for the capture of Flyin’ Dick as it was old man Drazzlewood who offered it. But then as Clarence Barstone and Mabel Venlake left hand in hand, Barstone went up to the two disgruntled moormen and gave them the good news that he would pay the reward in honour of his new bride to be – Mabel.

Hopefully that will give you the gist of this story, I have left out the bit about Jimmy, the grease barrel and a bucket of feathers as it seemed slightly implausible. I have also omitted the story of Kitts Steps but that can be read on another Legendary Dartmoor page – HERE.

Phew, this story has more twists and turns that the Devil’s Elbow and I would like to say what a pleasure it was to abridge, I would like to but I can’t.

Crossing, W. 1990. Crossing’s Guide to Dartmoor. Newton Abbot: Peninsula Press.

 

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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