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‘Just William’ on Dartmoor

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As a boy I loved the ‘Just William’ books which were written by Richmal Crompton, William was my hero, always into mischief but ever the lovable rogue. In many ways he somewhat reflected my childhood spending his days roaming his village and countryside on his various adventures and misadventures. Recently I came across a true story which was published in the August of 1896 which told of a boys adventure on Dartmoor. This story could well have come straight out of one of Richmal Crompton’s books except this ‘William’ was no fictional character.

It was a warm summer’s day when the members of North Tawton’s Sunday School were being taken on their annual ‘treat’, a day that the youngsters had been eagerly waiting for with great excitement. This particular year the ‘treat’ was to be a visit to Belstone where the party could all partake of the fresh moorland air with the added attraction of a sumptuous tea.  A convoy of wagons and wagonettes had been laid on to take the merry throng on the six odd mile journey through the leafy Devon lanes to Belstone. It was about 3.00.pm. when the group arrived at what was, until their arrival, a sleepy little village. Hoards of children soon spilled out of the wagons and began to explore their new surroundings, most heading off to the old stocks which sat nearby to punish those brave enough or unfortunate to sit in them. Having sufficiently delved into every nook and cranny of the village the children reassembled to partake of the sumptuous tea that awaited them on the village green. There was every sort of fancy cakes, jellies, junkets and sandwiches a hungry child could ever wish for and none of them had to be asked twice to dive in, afterall this was their annual ‘treat’.

At about 4.30 pm. the supervisors herded the group together for roll call before returning back to North Tawton. For anyone who has ever taken a party of youngsters on a day trip this is the most harrowing time of the day, there is always the dreaded anticipation that one of them will be missing. On this particular occasion their worse fears were realised, despite several recounts one of the party was missing, it was a young  eight year old boy called Harry. Urgent enquiries were made amongst the rest of the children as to whether any of them knew of his whereabouts, one young lad said that they had both gone up to the moor and that the last he saw of Harry he was up to his knees in mud. However, another boy was adamant that he had seen Harry eyeing up an apple laden tree in somebodies garden further down the village. This posed something of a problem to the supervisors as the garden was in the opposite direction to the moor and left them in a quandary as where to begin the search. So two teams of searchers were dispatched, a posse of the older boys was sent out in the direction of Cosdon Beacon whilst another party was sent off around the village. The lads who went up to Cosdon divided themselves into groups of twos and threes and began combing the area. It was the party who scoured the village that returned first minus young Harry. A while later the Cosdon boys returned again without Harry. By this time the Sunday School teachers were frantic and sent another party out to search around the Belstone Tors and Okehampton Camp area. Somewhere along the route they came across a party of whortleberry pickers and were told by some women that they thought  they had seen a lone boy trundling around Cosdon.

By around 7.00 pm. things were getting desperate as it would soon be dimpsy time and the light would begin to fade so reinforcements were enlisted to continue the search. This assistance came in the form of several ‘moormen’ who knew the moors better than their own faces. Some riding their ponies and some on foot accompanied by their dogs the intrepid band set out across the moor. By this time the other concern that the supervisors had was the rest of their charges who were by now getting impatient and wanting to return home. So the Sunday School Superintendent made the decision to load up the wagons and set off back to North Tawton. Meanwhile two of the teachers volunteered to stay at Belstone to await any news of young Harry.

Between 9 and 10 pm. the news had reached North Tawton that one of there own was missing and alone somewhere on the moor. In order to cover all angles of the search old Mr. Pierce had jumped on his bicycle and ridden through the villages of Sticklepath, South Tawton and South Zeal to see if anyone there had spotted young Harry. Whilst cycling on his way back through a narrow lane at Tongue End he met three stray horses and having slowed down managed to get by two of them. Unfortunately he must somehow have spooked the third horse who kicked out and knocked him clean off his bike resulting in  a nasty gash to his forehead. Undeterred Mr. Pierce remounted his somewhat mangled bike and charged off back to North Tawton. It was about 11.00 pm. when he reached the village and found waiting for him a group of anxious villagers eager for any news of the boy. Somebody had heard that Harry had been spotted on Hangingstone Rock and so a party of North Tawton men had set off there in the hope of finding him. Now if by Hangingstone Rock the report meant Hangingstone Hill this meant these men would have a journey of well over 10 miles and that is as the crow flies to get there.

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By the next morning the party who went down to Hangingstone Rock had returned to North Tawton with the dire news that Harry was not there and they had been led on a false goose-chase.  This again got all the villagers in a stir as to the small boy’s safety. He had been lost somewhere on the moor all night and concerns for his safety were becoming grave. At 2.00 pm. old Mr. pierce came wobbling into the village on his mangled bike all of a dither. To everyone’s delight he announced with a great deal of pomp and circumstance that Harry had been found alive and well  some six miles from Belstone. It transpired that one of the moormen’s dog had found the lad sound asleep on a comfy bed of heather sheltered under a large overhanging rock. Unaware of the panic and strife he had caused everyone the boy simply could not understand what the fuss was about. Yes he had spent the night alone on the moor but he had dined on a feast of Whortleberries as the mauve stains on his face and hands testified. He had found a rock to shelter under and made himself a very snug bed of heather thank you very much and basically very much enjoyed his night under the stars. After being taken back to Belstone he was given a hearty breakfast by one of the villagers and was very much the celebrity of the day, especially when a photographer turned up and took a photograph of himself, his father and the rescue dog who had found him. Harry later revealed that his intention was to visit a Volunteer Camp who at the time was located at Lustleigh and got lost. This is not a startling revelation as to get to Lustleigh the young eight year old boy would have had to walk a good twenty or so miles. Harry also confessed that he had actually heard the cries of the search party but chose to ignore them but as to why he gave no explanation. Possibly he was afraid to go back and face the music that surely was waiting for him or that he didn’t want to lose face by not getting to Lustleigh nobody ever knew. What he was made well aware of was how he had managed to spoil the Sunday School ‘treat’ for all concerned, how he had nearly got old Mr. Pierce killed, the great deal of anguish he had caused his family and the North Tawton villagers and finally the time and effort put in by the Belstone folk who went in search of him.

As noted above, this was a true happening and hopefully for anyone who knows the exploits of ‘Just William’ will agree that this tale would admirably suit one of his adventures. Maybe in his defence ‘Just William’ would have simply said; “Dunno wat all the fuss waz about, I waz fine an’ I never asked for all them people to come lookin’ for me. An it weren’t my fault ole Mr. Pierce got kicked of his bike, twas the silly ole horses fault.” In Harry’s defence I think for an eight year old who evidently did not know that part of the moor he showed a great deal of resolve and initiative in lasting the night in comparative comfort.

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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One comment

  1. I, too, used to love reading the “Just William” books when I was a boy. And for a time my own life mimicked that of William, although quite unwittingly. Wewere in a “gang”, all armed with bows and arrows, made camps and built fires on which we would roast apples purloined from the local orchard. In those days we romped all day in the school holidays, “hunting” wild animals and dangerous pirates, and those holidays seemed to be filled with endless sunny days.
    In this particular story of “Just William” on Dartmoor, I expect that his sister “Ethel” and her boyfriend Robert (if I have that right) would have nagged him unmercifully for his escapade !

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