Back in the late eighteenth century, 1790 some say, an orphaned baby was taken into the Poor House at Newton Abbot. The little girl was named, as was the custom, with a surname beginning with whatever letter the Poor House had progressed to, in this case ‘J’. As many of the commoner names had been taken the baby girl ended up with ‘Jay’. In those days the word ‘Jay’ was also a slang term for a prostitute so the Christian name of Mary was added.
Mary Jay remained at the Wolborough Poor House until her teens where she supervised the younger children. Then she was sent to Canna farm which was located outside Manaton. Here she was to be employed as an ‘apprentice’ which meant she would work both in the house and on the fields. This was to be a hard life as the task load was heavy, the days long and the rewards few. A decent meal and warm clothing were luxuries that many of these ‘apprentices’ learned to live without. It may have been at this farm that Mary Jay got her more famous name of ‘Kitty’.
Not long after she had been at the farm she started to receive the attentions of the farmers son which at the time may have seemed a way of obtaining some security and a sense of worth. Sadly, as in many similar cases she fell pregnant and soon discovered that her meaning of worth was very different to that of the farmer and his wife. Clearly the girl had ‘thrown’ herself at their son and with the name of Jay, no wonder.
The end result was that she was thrown out of the farm and left with a reputation as a ‘slut’. Kitty knew only too well that once word got around she would never find employment in the area and that only left the prospect of returning in disgrace to the Poor House. Tragically Kitty Jay took the only other option and was found hanging in one of the barns at Canna.
The custom of the day was that any suicide could not be buried in consecrated ground as so they were interred at a crossroads, some times with a stake driven through their hearts. This was to ensure that the restless soul of the departed could not return to haunt god fearing mortals.
This was the fate of Kitty Jay, she was buried at the intersection of a road and a moorland track. The grave soon became known as ‘Jay’s Grave’ and it did not take long for strange events to start taking place. On certain moonlit nights a dark figure could be seen kneeling beside the sad little mound with bowed head and its face buried in its hands. Nobody has ever been able to say if the spectral figure was male or female because it was always wrapped in a thick, black cloak. There are two schools of thought as to who the ghostly apparition is, some say it is the spirit of one of those responsible for driving Kitty from the farm and others say that it is the soul of the faithless farmer’s son who as punishment has been sent to stand vigil over the grave of his victim and his unborn child.
The other phenomenon associated with the Kitty’s resting place is the daily appearance of fresh flowers on the grave, nobody is ever seen leaving them but no matter what time of year there are always flowers, posies or greenery sat on the lonely mound. Tradition says that the flowers are the work of the piskies who out of sympathy tend the grave throughout eternity. However, as the photograph below shows on this visit there were no fresh flowers on the grave, maybe the piskies were having a lay in.
Of all the Dartmoor legends this has to be the most popular and has found its way into almost every guide book, holiday tour and Dartmoor tome. The grave has become a ‘must do’ for Dartmoor visits, it has recently also become a place of pilgrimage. The photograph below was taken in January 2007 and there was a queue waiting to take pictures. On the grave were flowers, holly, pebbles, candles, coins, plastic flowers and shells – votive offerings that show how the place has become a modern day ‘shrine’.
A few years after the grave appeared local tradition said that the bones in the grave were animal bones and that there was no human inhumation. William Crossing, 1990, p.295, and subsequent Dartmoor writers quoting him, note that sometime in the mid to late eighteenth century a local farmer called James Bryant from Hedge Barton opened the grave and found a human skull and bones. A local writer in the 1901 Devonshire Notes and Queries publication (p.252) of states that is was Bryant’s son-in-law who being a doctor examined the bones. His name was J. W. Sparrow, M.R.C.V.S and he later declared that the skull was that of a female. The farmer had the bones placed in a box and re-interred on the spot where they were discovered. He then built a mound over the grave and set up the headstone.
In the 1970’s the Dartmoor National Park Authority placed kerb stones around the grave for protection against damage from cattle and sheep. So, most writers agree that this is a grave of a young woman, what nobody knows is whether it belongs to Kitty or Mary Jay or some other unfortunate person.
Halliday, 1997, states that before the Victorian period, suicides were judged guilty of `self murder’, which was punishable by withholding normal burial rites. A case reported by The Gentleman’s Magazine of 1784 shows how a suicide’s spirit could be feared. Thomas Williams of Aberystwyth had been poisoned by a woman who shared his house, who then took poison herself and was buried on the sea shore. The coroner suggested burying her at a crossroads with a stake through her heart, but the seashore was considered a safer option. Crossroad burials for criminals or suicides are documented as early as 1510, when Robert Browner, the superior of Butley Priory in Suffolk, hanged himself after mismanaging monastery finances and was buried at a crossroads. Excavations in Cambridgeshire suggest the practice may have begun at least as long ago as Anglo- Saxon times. On the old course of the Anglo-Saxon Bran Ditch at Fowlmere, about 60 skeletons were found in the 1920s buried carelessly in shallow, irregular graves at a crossing called Gallows Gate. Some skeletons, dated as Anglo-Saxon by associated finds, were decapitated, while others had distended necks, perhaps from execution at the gallows. The practice of crossroad burials was abolished in 1823 by an Act of Parliament and suicides were allowed to be buried in churchyards although the internment must take place between 9 and 12 at night and there was to be no service. So clearly this practice could give some credence to the story as the grave is definitely sited at the intersection of an old moorland miners track that leads Eastwards to Manaton and Westwards to the mines around Birch tor and the Ashburton to Chagford road.
With regards to the recent tradition of fresh flowers appearing on a daily basis, this practice has been attributed to Beatrice Chase who lived nearby. She was a prolific Dartmoor writer and eccentric who was well known for walking the moors. However she died in 1955 so who continued placing flowers after her? Probably the only period when flowers were not to be seen on the grave was during the Foot and Mouth outbreak of 2001. At this time the moor was virtually closed and so visitors were a rare sight.
As mentioned above, today the innocent practice of placing a small bunch of flowers has spiralled into the realms of votive offerings of all kinds, how long will it be before miracle cures are effected at the grave?
This April (2008) I was walking along the bridleway to ‘The Giant’s Chair’ and paid my annual visit to the grave where I was amazed to see the plethora of offerings placed around the headstone. It seems that despite the ‘credit crunch’ Kitty’s last resting place has turned into some kind of dry wishing well as can be seen from the photograph below. I have no idea how long this hoard has taken to accumulate but I am amazed that nobody has lifted it. By the way the big, shiny, gold doubloon looking coin is a chocolate one or else it might not have been there much longer. Also, it appears that the fresh flowers have stopped arriving, those below are all silk.
Jay’s Grave was also the inspiration for a story by John Galsworthy called ‘The Apple Tree’ which was written in 1916. The story starts with some visitors to the moor:
“…It was she who had stopped the car where the common rose steeply to the
left, and a narrow strip of larch and beech, with here and there a pine,
stretched out towards the valley between the road and the first long high
hill of the full moor. She was looking for a place where they might
lunch, for Ashurst never looked for anything; and this, between the
golden furze and the feathery green larches smelling of lemons in the
last sun of April–this, with a view into the deep valley and up to the
long moor heights, seemed fitting to the decisive nature of one who
sketched in water-colours, and loved romantic spots. Grasping her paint
box, she got out.
“Won’t this do, Frank?”
Ashurst, rather like a bearded Schiller, grey in the wings, tall,
long-legged, with large remote grey eyes which sometimes filled with
meaning and became almost beautiful, with nose a little to one side, and
bearded lips just open–Ashurst, forty-eight, and silent, grasped the
luncheon basket, and got out too.
“Oh! Look, Frank! A grave!”
By the side of the road, where the track from the top of the common
crossed it at right angles and ran through a gate past the narrow wood,
was a thin mound of turf, six feet by one, with a moorstone to the west,
and on it someone had thrown a blackthorn spray and a handful of
bluebells. Ashurst looked, and the poet in him moved. At cross-roads–a
suicide’s grave! Poor mortals with their superstitions! Whoever lay
there, though, had the best of it, no clammy sepulchre among other
hideous graves carved with futilities–just a rough stone, the wide sky,
and wayside blessings!…”
The full story can be found here: The Apple Tree.
I recently had an e-mail from the Chairman of Manaton Parish Council asking if I knew anything about a book called ‘Angel from Your Door‘ written by Lois Deacon in 1973. Although a novel about Kitty Jay the story is said to be, “created from the known facts of the life and death of Kitty Jay.” Having not actually read the book I dug it out from the ‘must read sometime’ shelf of my library. In the book, a sailor called Ned Perrott returns home after fighting in the battle of Trafalgar, this was in February when they brought back Nelson’s body. The story then unfolds and by late September chapter 20 describes Kitty’s death and then goes on to describe the flowers withering on her grave in Winter. Yes, so what? Well, the reason for the original enquiry was that if the story was woven around the true facts of Kitty’s death it would mean that as the sailor returned home the February after Nelson’s death it would place the year to 1806. Logically this means that as Kitty died in the late September of this year it would make 2006 the 200th anniversary of her death. This is what the Chairman of the Parish Council wanted clarifying. So, many thanks Mr Chairman for suggesting this idea because without the enquiry ‘An Angel from Your Door’ would still be sat gathering dust in the ‘must read sometime’ shelf.
The only problem with this theory is that the book does not separate fact from fiction or give any references as to where any known information was sourced. This is the only publication to suggest an actual year for the sad death of Kitty Jay but I suppose ’tis better ‘n nought.
For anybody that is interested in Folk Music there have been several songs with connections to the tale of Kitty Jay, in 1974 Wishbone Ash released a song called ‘Lady Jay’ which can be heard – HERE In 2004 a local artist called Seth Lakeman released an album of Dartmoor inspired songs amongst which is a ballad called ‘Kitty Jay’, in fact that is also the title of the album and is highly recommended, it can be heard – HERE. In fact since writing this Seth Lakeman has now released numerous other albums. Seth Lakeman Website
In 2013 MTA (Student Productions) staged a musical called ‘The Ballad of Kitty Jay’, in which the story of Kitty Jay is haunting a modern story. The production was staged at The Bridewell Theatre, London in the September of that year – part of it can be seen – HERE.
Crossing, W. 1990, Crossing’s Guide to Dartmoor, Peninsula Press, Newton Abbot.
Deacon, L. 1973 An Angel from Your Door, United Writers Pub. Cornwall.
Halliday, R. 1997, Criminal Graves and Rural Crossroads, British Archaeology Vol. 25, C.B.A.