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Freebooter, The

Freebooter, The

Back in 1844 Eliza Bray related the tale of Nicholas Mason the freebooter and according to the Oxford Dictionary a freebooter was/is, ‘a piratical adventurer, a pirate; any person who goes about in search of plunder‘. From that description one would today simply call him a Labour Minister but things were more subtle in the 1800s. Anyway, Mason was the son of hard working and respectable parents who lived near Tavistock. For some strange reason he decided to embark on a career of crime for which he had two ideal attributes and according to Mrs Bray he: ‘was as light of foot as he was of hand.’ Being light fingered and fleet of foot meant that as a burglar he was highly effective and it did not take long for his crime spree to strike fear into the hearts of local householders. Whether rich or poor the moorfolk took every step to ensure that their houses were securely locked and shuttered of a night for this was the time when Mason would strike. It is always said that man’s greatest fear is that of what he can’t understand and this was exactly the case here. Nobody could work out how the mysterious freebooter was gaining entry into the houses he burgled in. People would wake up in the morning to discover numerous items missing but there was never any sign of a forced entry. It did not take long for fingers to be pointing at dark demonic deeds and there were those who swore blind it was the work of the Devil himself. Afterall who else could walk through locked doors as easy as if they were swinging wide open? Once this theory had spread around the neighbourhood the folks were so scared that even if they heard a sound in the night none of them would go to investigate its nature for fear of being confronted with ‘Old Nick’ himself.

What nobody had realised was that Mason had perfected the art of climbing up onto the roofs and then silently clambering down the wide chimneys to gain entry. Once inside he would then fill his sack with anything worth stealing and then just as quietly climb back up the chimney and make good his escape. Once safely away Mason would head off to what is now called Dunterue Woods near the banks of the Tamar which lie about six miles to the northwest of Tavistock. It was in these woods that Mason had discovered a well hidden cave in which he could hide both himself and his booty. Over time his successes led to a growing air of confidence and he became to cocky, literally, because not content with robbing the houses he then began breaking into the chicken coops and stealing the birds. Once the farmers began losing their fowl they soon realised that it was not the Devil that was robbing them blind but some unknown freebooter. Obviously at the time nobody knew that Mason was the culprit but nevertheless the local farmers became that concerned that they set out to catch the villain.

One day a local squire was out hunting with his hounds in the Milton Abbot area when suddenly two of them began to fight, the tussle led to a chase and both dogs went hurtling into Dunterue Woods. Unfortunately for Mason the squire and his huntsmen gave chase to the hounds who by the time they found them were sniffing intently outside of the cave. Realising that maybe there was something very suspicious lurking in the depths of the cave they decided to withdraw and muster some help. As luck would have it, nearby were some men working on a ploughed field who were immediately sworn in to join the posse, however, by the time they reached Mason’s cave he had realised something was wrong and made off. But as the squire had his hounds it was not long before they were set on the chase with Mason as the hunted quarry. If you recall, Mason was well known to be fleet of foot and so despite the dogs baying at his heels he gave the dogs a good run. Realising that he could never outrun the hounds Mason clambered up a rock face and hid himself in a thicket of furze. Hot on his trail the dogs soon caught his scent and indicated to the posse where their quarry had gone. The squire soon spotted Mason’s hiding place and sent one of the labourers up the rock face after him. Armed with only a pitchfork the poor ploughman began scrambling up the rocky precipice when a heart-stopping click of a pistol misfiring was heard. The labourer not wanting to give Mason time to reload  his pistol launched himself along with his pitchfork at the furze thicket. Once again Mason managed to escape and once again the hunt was on, one suspects that hunting Mason gave the squire and his hounds more sport than any moorland fox could ever do. This time the pursuers were more lucky and finally he was hunted down and taken prisoner by the squire and his posse. Some of the men returned to Mason’s cave where they discovered most of the loot from his night raids along with a partially skinned sheep and a pan of milk scalding over a wood fire. It seems that not only would he steal from the houses he also stole from both milking parlour and field.

In due course he appeared in front of the magistrates but so great was the people’s fear of him that at first nobody was prepared to testify. Eventually one woman came forward who stated that a shirt found in the cave was definately one she had recently made for her husband as she recognised her own left-handed stitching on the garment. Her example was soon followed by other folk and Mason was duely found guilty of his crimes and sentenced to hang. My how things change, today he probably would have just been given an ASBO!

One little aside, Eliza Bray ends her story with the following words: ‘The wood in which he had secreted himself is situated near Cartha Martha rocks ; it is called Dunterwood.’ As I have a thing about place-names the name of the wood seemed interesting. Today the wood is called Dunterue Wood, as noted above,  but that name has been corrupted from the 1566 version of ‘Donterhowe‘. The two elements coming from the Celtic words duno (fort or castle) and hoh (heel) thus giving ‘fort of the heel’ which seems very strange until you look at a map. As can be seen from the aerial photo below the wood is located on a ‘heel’ of land that is described by the river Tamar and the earthwork is in fact the remnant of an Iron Age settlement or ‘fort’ – fort of the heel.

Freebooter, The

Freebooter, The

Bray, E. 1844. Legends, Superstitions and Sketches of Devonshire, London: Murray


About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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