‘I ofte have heard of Lidford Law,
How in the Morn they hang & draw,
And sit in judgement after…’
To say that the above lines have become synonymous with the village of Lydford would be no exaggeration, they are taken from a poem entitled, ‘Lydford Journey’ and were written by a Tavistock poet – William Browne. His book was actually published in 1644 and so his observations of Lydford would have been made before that date. Since penning the verse various lines from it have appeared in numerous books about Lydford, probably the most famous being Kingsley’s Westward Ho! – Let Lydfor’ men mind Lydfor’ roogs, and by Lydfor’ law if they will, hang first and try after.
In Anglo Saxon times Lydford was a burgh and therefore an important centre for both defence and trade but over the centuries the town declined in favour of neighbouring places such as Okehampton and Tavistock which may have led to some kind of deep seated resentment between the settlement. One could suggest that in the eyes of Tavistock folk, Lydford was regarded as something of a failure. Certainly by Browne’s time Lydford was but a shell of what it once was, in 1660, Miller described the place as, ‘a mean, miserable village consisting of about 20 houses‘. It could be suggested that ‘Lidford Journey’ was a ‘twist of the knife’ by a Tavistock man on a vastly declined and resented neighbour.
‘The ballad entitled ‘Lydford Journey’ is thoroughly local, and parts of it were at one time locally proverbial. The fame given to it by old travellers and fiddling minstrels is now perpetuated by the guide-books, which rarely fail to quote it when they deal with Lydford…Something or other had given this Dartmoor town a bad name, which the neighbouring folk were slow in forgetting. Lydford, doubtless, had all the customary pride of a decayed place, having once been the second town in Devon, its vast parish embracing the whole of Dartmoor forest ; and places, like persons, that live upon past traditions are apt to make themselves insufferable. There was clearly little love lost between Tavistock and Lydford, and Browne’s ballad is one long piece of satire. He touches point after point on which the Lydfordians prided themselves.’, (Salmon, 1906, pp.57 – 58).
There can be no question that at the core of Lydford’s bad reputation was the old castle that served as a jail, this place represented injustice and cruelty due to its harsh laws and practices which became known as ‘Lydford Law‘. This term later became common terminology to describe malpractice and injustice and Browne was not using poetic licence when he wrote the lines – ‘How in the Morn they hang & draw, And sit in judgement after.’
Another problem that once troubled Lydford was a band of rogues who lived down in Lydford Gorge called the ‘Gubbins‘ who were supposedly led by a man named Roger Rowle. It is this band of thieves that Browne is referring to.
William Browne has never been noted for his spelling, punctuation or poetic skills and the version of his Lidford Journey below has been extensively changed as far as spelling goes to allow for easy reading.
I ofte have heard of Lidford Law,
How in the Morn they hang & draw,
And sit in judgement after :
At first I wondered at it much ;
But now I find their reason such,
That it deserves no laughter.
They have a Castle on a hill ;
I took it for an old Windmill,
The Vanes blown off by weather ;
Then lie therin one night, ’tis guessed,
‘Tis better to be ston’d or press’d,
Or hang’d, now chuse you whether.
Ten men less room within this Cave,
Then five Mice in a Landthorne* have,
The Keepers they are sly ones :
If any could devise by Art,
To get it up into a Cart,
T’were fit to carry Lions.
When I beheld it, Lord ! thought I,
What Justice & what Clemency
Hath Lidford, when I spy all !
They know none there would gladly stay,
But rather hang out of the way,
Then tarry for the trial.
The Prince a hundred pounds hath sent,
To mend the leads & planchings rent,
Within this living Tomb :
Some forty five pounds more have paid
The debts of all that shall be laid
There ’till the day of Doom.
One lies there for a seame* of Malt,
Another for three pecks of salt,
Two Sureties for a Noble ;
If this be true, or else false newes
You may go ask of Mr Crewes²,
John Vaughan or John Doble³.
* a seam was a packhorse load, a seam of grain weighed 8 bushels.
² The Steward
³ Attorneys of the Court
Near to the men that lie in lurch,
There is a bridge, there is a Church,
Seven Ashes, & an Oak ;
Three houses standing, and ten down ;
They say the Parson hath a Gown,
But I saw nere a Cloak.
Whereby you may consider well,
That plain Simplicity doth dwell
At Lidford without bravery ;
For in that town, both young & grave
Do love the Naked truth, and have
No Cloaks to hide their knavery.
This town’s enclos’d with desert moors,
But where no bear nor lion roars,
And naught can live but hogs :
For, all o’erturn’d by Noah’s Flood,
Of fourscore miles scarce one foot’s good,
And hills are wholly bogs.
And near hereto’s the Gubbins’ cave;
A people that no knowledge have
Of law, of God, or men;
Whom Caesar never yet subdued,
Who’ve lawless liv’d; of manners rude;
All savage in their den.
By whom, if any pass that way,
He dares not the least time to stay,
For presently they howl;
Upon which signal they do muster
Their naked forces in a cluster
Led forth by Roger Rowle.
The people all, within this clime,
Are frozen in all Winter time,
Be sure I doe not fain ;
And when the Summer is begun,
They lie like silkworms in ye sun,
And come to life again.
One told me in King Caesars time,
The town was built of Stone & Lime,
But sure the walls were Clay :
For they are fallen, for ought I see,
And since the houses were got free,
The town is run away.
O Ceasar, if thou there didst Reign,
Whilst one house stands, come there again ;
Come quickly, while there is One :
If thou but stay a little fit,
But five years more, they may commit
The whole Town into Prison.
To see it thus, much grieved was I,
The proverb says, Sorrow is dry ;
So was I at this matter :
When by great chance, I know not how,
There thither came a strange stray’d Cow,
And we had Milk and Water.
Sure I believe it then did rain
A Cow or two from Charles his Wain*
For none alive did see
Such kind of Creatures there before,
Nor shall from hence for evermore,
Save Pris’ners, Geese, and we.
To Nine good Stomacks with our Whig
At last we got a Tything Pig:
This Diet was our bounds :
And that was just as if ’twere known,
One pound of butter had been thrown
Amongst a pack of Hounds.
One Glass of Drink I got by Chance,
‘Twas Claret when it was in France :
But now from that nought wider :
I think a man might make as good
With Green Crabs, boiled with Brazil Wood,
And half a pint of Cyder.
I kissed the Mayor’s hand of the Town,
Who though he wear no scarlet Gown
Honors the ROSE & THISTLE :
A piece of Coral to the Mace,
Which there I Saw to serve the place,
Would make a good Childs Whistle.
At six a Clock I came away,
And prayed for those that were to stay,
Within a place so Arrant :
Wild and open to windes that roar,
By Gods Grace I’ll come there no more,
Unless by Some Tin Warrant.
William Browne – 1644
Salmon, A. 1906. Literary Rambles in the West of England, London: Chatto and Windus.