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Donaghy Mystery, The


Dartmoor harbours numerous mysterious events that have occurred down through the centuries and pretty near the top of the list is the tragic mystery of William Donaghy. His story is befitting of any mystery story with more twists than a corkscrew along with some weird coincidences and a big question at the end. For the story one needs to travel back in time to the February of 1914 when two farmers were rabbit hunting under Hartland Tor when they came across the dead body of a man. Please bear in mind the information below comes from various editions of local newspapers and in some cases the reports differ slightly, hence any ambiguity.

On Saturday the 21st of February two local farmers were rabbit hunting on the lower western slops of Hartland Tor when at some point a rabbit took off and ran into a gorse clump. The hunters gave chase and on rounding the gorse clump they discovered the body of a man. He was of average height and slim build, the body was dressed in a wet knickerbocker suit, socks, a light cap, black boots and a heavy dark overcoat. A different report in the Western Times gave a fuller report of his clothing saying; “that he had long black hair, blue eyes and was clean shaven but with three or four days’ growth of beard. He was well dressed, wearing a light blue cap, dark heavy overcoat, grey jacket, double breasted waistcoat, brown breeches, brown stockings and black leather boots that had recently been re-soled… He was wearing a rubber collar which had been loosened and a blue tie with spots.”

The corpse was laying face down on a waterproof sheet amongst some gorse. One of the farmer’s, Mr. George French of nearby Hartland Farm ,described the location being in an enclosed newtake which lay about half a mile from the road near to the East Dart river. It was sheltered from both the east and north winds which at the time were the prevailing directions. For the whole of the previous week the weather conditions were a mixture of frosts, strong winds and heavy rain which meant certain death to anyone remaining in such an exposed spot. Mr. French immediately returned back to Postbridge and sent a telegraph to the local police at Princetown..

On the 24th of February 1914 the inquest of William Donaghy was held at Princetown where Mr. H. C. Brown was the coroner. The first witness to appear was James Donaghy who was William’s brother who resided at 99, Roslyn Street, St. Michael’s, Liverpool. He stated that his brother William Donaghy was 33 years old and was a science master at Warrington Technical School, he also noted that William resided with his two sisters at the address in Aigburth. He said that the last time he had seen his brother was on November 16th 1913 and that on the following Friday he had received in the post a brief note saying; “Dear Jim, – Please settle my affairs as best you can. I am going away, – Will.” Having read the contents James immediately dashed around to William’s house only to find William had left at an early hour saying nothing but “Good Morning,” to his sisters. It appeared that after attending to his morning lessons Donaghy failed to return after the shcool’s midday break. After rummaging through William’s papers his brother found nothing to explain his brother’s absence apart from the fact that the previous Wednesday he had withdrawn £50 from his bank account.

James was also able to identify that the handwriting on the scrap of paper from the guide book was his brothers. Further evidence given by James was that the headmaster of the technical school where Donaghy taught said he had no idea why he had disappeared. But the school’s caretaker was a bit more forthcoming. He said that he recalled that for some time previously; “something had come over him,” and that he did not seem to be his usual self and looked very ill. He also noted that on the Saturday morning before he vanished Donaghy was found with his head held in his hands. but apparently said he was OK and nothing was wrong. The doctor who had been treating Donaghy told James how he had been treating the deceased for over exertion and that he had warned him that his condition may result in a “subsequent condition of morbid melancholy.” He also advised his patient that he might find a quiet place in the hope of recuperation. James Donaghy further added that in his opinion William had no mental problems and neither had he over-worked himself and additionally as far as he knew his brother had no financial problems. Although at the time William was a bachelor he had become engaged to a woman the previous winter and that to the best of his knowledge the relationship was still ongoing.

P.C. Weeks described how a preliminary search of the body found; a razor and shaving materials, a comb and a purse contacting £20 in gold coin and a small amount of silver coin along with a Dartmoor guide book. The corpse was then carried off the moor and taken to a small mortuary in Princetown where a more thorough examination of the body took place. This revealed further items in the man’s clothing one being a page torn from the guide book on which was scrawled in pencil; “W. Donaghy, Aigburth, Liverpool,” and “J. Donaghy Rosslyn Street, St. Michael’s Liverpool.” In addition there was a cloakroom ticket issued at Exeter on the 4th of February 1914 for the London and South Western Railway. Also a sheet of notepaper upon which was written a route that ran from St. Thomas’ in Exeter to Dunsford then on to Moretonhampstead, the River Dart at Postbridge, Two Bridges and ending in Plymouth. A list of football clubs which were playing in the second round of the English Cup Competition and a ticket in the name of Jones for a room at a restaurant. Police enquiries later learned that ‘Jones’ was also the name given by Donaghy to a cloakroom attendant at Queen Street in Exeter where he had left a bag containing other items of his property. Amongst these was a watch and chain, a mourning ring inscribed 1817, a knife and a revolver along with 19 cartridges. If he was planning a walk on Dartmoor the the knife would be understandable but it’s a trifle odd why he should have been carrying a revolver and so much ammunition? Police enquiries were unable to trace his movements from when he left Exeter but they did find a butcher at Moretonhampstead who said that he had seen a gentleman answering Donaghy’s appearance carry a roll of something on his back walking through the town the previous week. On the 27th of February the body of William Donaghy was interred at St. James’s Cemetery in Liverpool after a service had been held at Aigburth Wesleyan Chapel of which he was once a member.

Dr. Brodrick fro Tavistock presented the findings of his post-mortem in which he stated that the deceased was apparently a healthy man albeit somewhat on the this side. He further added that most of the organs were normal apart from the liver which was enlarged. There were no traces of poison in the body neither were there any signs of violence and basically there was nothing to explain the cause of death apart from exposure to the wet and cold. In conclusion the jury returned  a verdict of death due to; “syncope (temporary loss of consciousness caused by a fall in blood pressure) following upon exposure to intense cold and wet.” As can be seen below, the Ancestry Probate Calendar for William Donaghy shows that his effects amounted to £221 14s 5d and my thanks to Paul Buck for providing this information.


One slight aside to this story is that at the end of the inquest Dr. Brodrick commented on  the building he had used as a mortuary, saying it was an absolute disgrace. He further added that; “he had made post-mortem examinations in many places, but this one was positively the limit. It was a little tin-covered place with no window, and with the door wide open to the public thoroughfare, where gazers came in to see the post-mortem being done. There was no place to hang a coat or to wash one’s hands; and there was no slab…The coroner further added that it was a scandal that a doctor should be expected to carry out an examination under the gaze of the public in a place that was little better than a linhay (barn) if as good. This does seem a bit odd considering there must have been medical facilities at Princetown’s prison?

So apart from establishing the cause of William Donaghy’s death there are far more questions than answers to this story. Why did he leave Liverpool? Possibly he took his doctors advice and went in search of some solitude to get over his depression and where better than Dartmoor. Why did he have a revolver and such a large amount of ammunition in his possession? Could it have been that maybe his troubles went deeper than overwork and he felt he needed protection from some danger? Having simply vanished and then used an alias it was clear he did not want people to know where he was so why at the end did he write his and his brothers names and addresses? If this was a case of suicide in which Donaghy decided he would die from exposure why did he bother lying on a waterproof sheet, he was going to get wet anyway? What happened to the pencil he wrote his final notes on? Was it overlooked in the initial search or was the note written at another location and the pencil lost there? Considering the post-mortem was carried out in basically a tin shack with no window could Doctor Brodrick have overlooked a vital piece of evidence? Why was his liver enlarged? There are several causes for an enlarged liver –  excess alcohol, Hepatitis or cancer being some of the more common ones, was he drinking heavily or did he know he had cancer etc? Was it Donaghy the Moretonhamstead butcher saw and what was he carrying on his back? At today’s date the value of £50 in 1914 would be roughly £4,033 so why did he withdraw such a large amount from his bank account. More importantly if he only had £20 on him when found what happened to the other £30 or (£2,400 equivalent) between going missing in November and being found in February? Another question that springs to mind is if he had a razor and shaving equipment on his person but had three to four days beard growth why had he not shaved? Was he in such a depressed state that he just couldn’t be bothered or was he on the moor for this period and unable to find any hot water with which to shave?

Another weird story recounted in Trevor Jame’s book – ‘Bodies on the Moor’ by Simon Dell concerns the blue spotted tie that Donaghy was wearing and possibly a Swiss watch (although none of the newspaper reports I have read mention the watch). Some 20 years later a body of a man was found called Walton Howard on nearby Rowter Marsh, he too was a teacher at Warrington School and was also wearing a spotted tie and Swiss watch ( for more about Walton Howard – Bodies on the moor pp. 8 – 24). Sometime later another man was found at the base of Beachy Head, he too was a teacher from Warrington and also was wearing a spotted tie and Swiss watch., pp. 61 – 63.

The memorial stone is for many the final mystery associated with William Donaghy as thanks to the proliferation of gorse it can be very hard to find. It sits about 90 metres from the river and is opposite the bottom end of an unfinished newtake wall below Broadun Ring. The boulder is approximately 3 metres wide and 2 metres tall and as mentioned above normally surrounded by gorse bushes. But again moor mysteries, I cannot find out when the memorial was established or by whom. Additionally there is some question as to whether or not it has been placed at the exact location the body was found.  Some versions of the story claim that the deceased body was leaning against the stone when it was found which may explain the writing on the memorial which reads; “IN MEMORY OF – WILLIAM DONAGHY – OF LIVERPOOL – WHO DIED BESIDE THIS STONE – FEBRUARY 1914.”. However, the newspaper report of the time makes no mention of a rock, it simply states the body was found amongst some gorse bushes. The Rev. Hugh Breton wrote; “On opposite side of the  valley is a large flat rock bearing an inscription. A schoolmaster from the north was found dead here a few years ago. He had lost his way – and his reason.”, p.38, again no mention of an upright rock. Surely if the body had been found near or beside such a prominent rock then there should have been mention of it at the time? So could it be that this particular prominent stone was used as it was the nearest to where the man died, afterall you can’t place a lasting and visible memorial in a gorse bush?


If you really want to get spooky then there is a rock formation on Hartland Tor above the memorial known as ‘The Devil’s Punchbowl’?

Breton, H. 1926. The Heart of Dartmoor. Plymouth: Hoyten & Cole.

James, T. 2004. Bodies on the Moor. Chudleigh: Orchard Publications.

Sugg, B. 1986. The William Donaghy Memorial – The Dartmoor Magazine No.5. Brixham: Quay Publications.

Online Source – The British Newspaper Archive, 2016. Various Newspapers.


About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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