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Roborough Down Murder

Roborough

Roborough Down – the placename was first documented in the index of the Charters and Rolls of 1114 when it appears as Rueberge. The name originated from two Anglo Saxon words – ruh (rough), beorg (hill) and dun (down) which translates as ‘Rough Hill Down’. There is evidence of man’s occupation of the down from the early Bronze Age period, through the Iron Age and beyond. For centuries the main road from Tavistock to Plymouth has been across the down and it has carried many a traveller passing to and from those places. So with such a long history of human activity it’s not surprising that some of it has been of the more sinister type with tales of ghosts, highway robbery and in this case murder – or was it?

The neighbourhood of Plymouth and Devonport has just been the scene of a cruel and cold blooded murder. The particulars of the dreadful occurrence have been gleaned from the substance of a confession made by the murderer, when apprehended on a charge of having deserted his regiment. Benjamin M’donnal, an Irishman, about 24 years of age, was a private soldier in her Majesty’s 50th regiment, now stationed in the Plymouth garrison. In personal appearance he was brutal and repulsive, and he had always bourne a very bad character in the regiment.
A few months ago the head quarters of the regiment were removed from Preston, Lancashire, and the strikes having just summonsed there, a large number of factory girls, infatuated by the sight of military parade, followed the troops to Plymouth. One of these was a young woman of abandoned habits named Theresa Rundle, whose acquaintance was saught by M’donnal An intimacy soon sprang up between them, and it is said, they were about to be married as soon as the soldier could obtain the consent of his superior officers.
The young woman, Rundle, as the victim of this dreadful crime. The locality of the murder is a bleak and lonely spot on Roborough Down, about six miles from Plymouth, an extensive waste tract of county, only surpassed in cheerless barrenness by the desolate regions of the hills of Dartmoor, in the same neighbourhood. About the latter end of October last (1853), M’donnal deserted from the regiment and left Plymouth for Okehampton, in company with the young woman, whom he had intended to elope with him. the night he deserted he slept with Theresa Rundle and the next day planned to head for Okehampton. Their route lay through Tavistock, and in order to reach that place they had to cross Roborough Down. After proceeding some time on their journey, a quarrel arose between them on some trifling matter, when the girl Rundle retaliated upon her companion, half in earnest, half in jest, by saying she would retrace her steps and inform the authorities at the garrison of his having deserted the regiment. On this M’donnal  replied that; “he would not give her leave to inform on him and that he would take *** good care she didn’t,” and at the same time struck her a blow over the temples with his two inch thick walking stick which knocked her senseless to the ground; he then jumped upon her and commenced kicking her, and continued his violence until she was quite dead, he having to use his one brutal expression; “danced the life out of her.” Finding that she was dead he took up the body of his victim and carried it across the Down for some distance where it placed it down some forty yards away from the ruins of an old castle while he rested. He then washed the blood stains from his hands and his walking stick in a small running stream close at hand, and afterwards removed the body to an adjoining embankment, where he threw it into a hole and covered it over with some loose earth and pieces of fir from a neighbouring brake. the murderer then walked on to Okehampton. On reaching the town he went into the London Inn, where he burnt the stick with which he had struck the deceased. A recruiting party belonging to the Royal Artillery happened to be there, and M’donnal enlisted into that corps. He actually enlisted as Thomas Morrison but unfortunately forgot this fact and in the course of events mentioned his real name. This caused some suspicion and he was taken into custody at Okehampton where he remained whilst a communication was sent to the officers of the 50th regiment, at Plymouth. They immediately confirmed he was a deserter from their regiment and an escort was dispatched to bring  M’donnal  to the headquarters at the garrison. On his arrival he was immediately lodged in the military prison at Devonport to await his trail by court-martial for desertion. During the escort from Okehampton, M’donnal made some observation which induced the members of the escort to believe that he been concerned in the commission of some atrocious crime; but nothing transpired to confirm those suspicions until the man had some time been in prison. It appears that he sent for the head warders of the prison, and made a voluntary statement to them, agreeing in every particular with the foregoing details. The police are now engaged in investigating this melancholy affair. – The Bells Weekly Messenger, January 8th, 1854.
Then the story takes several twists, during the late January of 1854 Dartmoor was under snow which meant that there was to be no early search for the deceased body. Meanwhile ‘safely’ ensconced in the military prison M’donnal was amongst some prisoners partaking in drill exercises. Somehow he took possession of a knife and concealed it in his clothing. Later that evening he summonsed a warder named Sparrow and upon entering the cell M’donnal attacked the warder and viciously stabbed him several times. Despite Sparrow’s cries for mercy the attack continued until eventually M’donnal calmed down. The next day M’donnal was up before a court of enquiry and ended up receiving a sentence of 50 lashes on his bare back and a six months in prison. Later that afternoon the corporal punishment was carried out by  the drummers of the 50th regiment and it was reported that they were none too lenient in dishing out the lashes, mainly due to the disgrace he had brought upon the regiment. Apparently for such a hardened man he never took his punishment too well; “for as lash after lash fell upon his back, his shrieks and cries led the soldiers who looked on to designate him as a ‘coward‘.”
Next he added to his original statement saying that; “I forgot something in the middle part of my statement, and that is, after I was placed in prison at Okehampton, I kept starting in my sleep, and could not sleep. One night the the governor came to the room where I was confined, I told him I could not rest and that I was frightened, but did not state the cause. Previous to leaving the prison at Okehampton, the keeper brought me a doctor, who ordered a constable to sit up with me for six nights previous to my leaving. The last night, through a fright, I broke out of the place, and don’t know how I got out; and at the present time I am suffering from fright, and have been since the deed was done.”
Following his flogging M’donnal was placed in the prison hospital where he was visited by one Mr. Gifford who was the superintendent of Devonport Police. The purpose of his visit was to try and establish the facts of the murder. During their conversation M’donnal reaffirmed his statement which along with inquiries made of the Preston girls who travelled down to Plymouth with the 50th regiment all seemed to point to the fact that Theresa Rundle vanished sometime during the previous October. Superintendent Gifford also gleaned the fact that previously whilst at a small town near Bolton he and three others committed a desperate robbery for which they all received a sentence of 21 years transportation. Somehow they managed to escape and for some reason Macdonald ended up in hospital. Apparently whilst there he displayed some very odd behaviour, jumping out of bed and wearing utensils on his head, one of which he threw at a surgeon and hit him on the head. Superintendent Gifford soon realised that M’donnal’s behaviour was strange and hatched a theory that this along with the story of the murder was all an act. The reason for this being that the regiment were due to be sent abroad on foreign service and this would avoid him going.
A few days later M’donnal asked to see the prison chaplain, the Rev. G. W. Langmaid and confessed to him that he had also murdered his step-brother. This fact was made known to superintendent Gifford who then once again visited the prison. Macdonald related how; “After the death of my father, my mother married a man named Lambert Heaton, a small farmer residing in the parish of Heaton, about two miles from Bolton. Mr. Heaton at that time was a widower, and had only one boy, named James Heaton, who was about fourteen years of age. Shortly after this my mother gave my step-brother butter on his bread, and would not give me any. She continued to do this, and it gave quietness to Lambert Heaton. About this time James was taken ill with a cold. In consequence of my step-brother being allowed butter on his bread, and I none, I formed a dislike of him. Whilst he was ill I was working at a rope-walk on Bolton Moor, in the employ of Mr. Riley. I one day told my mother that I was poorly, and could not go to work, and I remained at home. On the same day my mother went down the street to buy some vegetables. She at that time told me I might warm some milk on the fire for James. During the time of her absence I took the milk down to the cellar.. The milk was in a little tin can. There was some poison in the cellar kept for poisoning rats, some of which I took and mixed with the milk. I then took upstairs and warmed it. After wards I put it into a jug and gave my step-brother who drank it. About two hours afterwards my step-brother complained of sickness. He got worse and about two or three days afterwards he died.” This confession was signed by the prisoner and witnessed by superintendent Gifford and the Chief Warden.
Once M’donnal had recovered from his flogging and the snow melted he was escorted up to Roborough down in handcuffs by a sergeant Dinamore and privates Goss and Martin. During the journey  M’donnalmysteriously commented that; “one of them should return dead.” Whether this was to intimidate his guard nobody knew but either way it had no effect on the soldiers. The first poo rt of call for the party was the Lopes Arms at Jump where Gifford had arranged refreshments for the soldiers. Having eaten their fill the party was joined by various local men who first made their way to the Wheal Yeoland mine. Possibly it was the old mine’s chimney that supposed M’donnal  to take it for the ‘castle’  where following the murder he rested as noted in his statement. They then proceeded for about half a mile in the direction of Bickleigh where they came across a large hollow at which point the prisoner looked at the ground, became breathless and ‘swooned’. Taking this the place to be where Rundle’s body had been buried the party carried out an exhaustive search but found no such evidence. M’donnal  the led the party over to Roborough Rock by which time a party of onlookers (miners and locals) had joined the spectacle.
Just a small aside here regarding Roborough Rock – it has gone by many names in the past; Ullestor Rock, the Duke of Wellington’s Nose, The Rock, and by some authors Udal Tor. If you look at the Ordnance Survey map extract below from 1907 you can see that Roborough Rock and Udal tor are marked as two separate entities???
Again  a thorough search was carried out all to no avail. M’donnal then recounted how; “he knocked the woman down with his stick; he struck her a blow to the right temple, and she fell; he half dragged and half carried the corpse to a small running stream about three-quarters of a yard wide, it was overhung with furze, and by the side of the stream, under the furze, he placed the woman, and with his feet he stamped the furze over her.” At this point the local men were consulted as to where in their opinion the stream might be. The posse then head eastwards over the Down until they reached the Devonport Leat but this was deemed not to be the stream in question. So the party headed off up the Dartmoor Railway for a couple of miles  until reaching an old, dilapidated, unroofed stable. The prisoner said that in his opinion it was not the old castle so the procession then moved to another old building further down the valley. Excitement then grew as  M’donnal said he definitely recognised the building as being the ‘old castle’ but on reaching the building he dashed all hopes saying; “no that’s not it.” So off went the party for a few more miles by which time many of the group were becoming very tired and very frustrated. as they entered the parish of Bickleigh. At this point M’donnal viewed the countryside and pointing at at a spot some ten miles away Dartmoor he declared that; “There must be the place and this is the water where I went to drink – no, I did not drink – she drank, and that was at a house on the roadside.” I think at this point superintendent Gifford had had enough, he angrily demanded to know if; “the whole affair was not a hoax from beginning to end.” The prisoner flatly denied this and replied; “certainly not; I killed her with the stick and I am sure if I can’t find the body it will be found in less than a week.”
Shortly after that confrontation Mr. Hayman, a local farmer  wandered up and said how he recognised M’donnal as having been on the Down the previous October and he was dressed in his military uniform. This point was flatly denied by the prisoner who stated that he had in fact changed his clothes at the Black Bull Inn at Plymouth. He then pointed out another nearby valley and said he was sure that was the spot so off went the posse and yet another minute search of the area was carried out – again to no avail.  Following further questions M’donnal said although he had been there picking blackberries at that time Theresa Rundle was about three miles away on the turnpike road trying to get a drink. During the wild goose chase one of the escort soldiers asked Macdonald  what he thought would become of himself once he died. The reply was that; “he knew he was was doomed for the hottest place in hell; that God had nothing to do with him, and he just wanted to die.” As the evening began to draw in Macdonald stated that he was becoming ‘exceedingly feeble’ and wished to return back to prison, but once he had got his head clear he could find the spot where the body was buried. So the exercise was called to a halt and after a wasted day the party returned to the Lopes Arms.

And that is basically where the mystery begins, the body of Theresa Rundle was never found living or dead and so without a corpse no crime could be proven. What is clear that despite being a large area of land Roborough Down was thoroughly searched under his directions. Was this an excuse to get some fresh Dartmoor air after being incarcerated in the barrack’s prison? It was evident that M’donnal was suffering some kind of mental illness which at the time would classify him as a lunatic – therefore could the various confessions he made be believed? Whether or not he was sent on foreign duties abroad is unknown, did he manage to avoid such duties due to his mental state? Or was he suffering from delusions or was it some clever ploy whose true purpose will never be known?

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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