The old saying of ‘Old Uncle Tom Cobley and All‘ is often used to describe an all encompassing assemblage of people. It is from here that the name ‘Uncle Tom Cobley‘ has become recognised along with the famous folk song – Widdecombe Fair. There is much fierce dispute as to whether or not Tom Cobley was a real person with several Devon villages claiming that he was at one time a local resident, Spreyton being the hottest contender. His connection with Dartmoor clearly derives from the folk song and his annual appearance at Widdecombe Fair. However, there are two other lesser known things with which Widdecombe in the Moor can claim an association with him.
On a recent visit to the church at Widdecombe I was discussing the tradition of the famous fair and happened to mention that at one time a chair that once belonged to Tom Cobley was to be seen in the village. I have several old postcards showing the chair but to my knowledge the whereabouts of it was unknown. After leaving the church an old friend, Roger called me over to his shop – The Smithy, for a catch up. We went inside the shop and low and behold I spotted the famous old chair sat just inside the doorway. Roger then related the history of the chair, In the 1930s his father-in-law’s grandfather went to a sale at the Cobley’s old farm where he managed to purchase the chair. Clearly with the Widdecombe connection this was an important artefact to take back to the village. The chair’s first resting place was the Old Glebe House where it resided for many years as can be seen from the old postcard below. During the 1990s the chair was then taken to The Old Forge gift shop where it remained on display until its closure. In 2013 Roger installed the chair in his shop where today it proudly sits in all its glory and once again on public view.
As can be seen from the photograph below, Roger kindly let me photograph the chair bathed in the rather extraordinary (for the time of year) Autumn sunlight just outside his shop. The chair is reputedly over 500 years old and was said to be Tom’s prized possession and one must admit it’s an interesting piece of furniture The back of the chair consists of two panels framed by patterned sides, the first panel is a carving which depicts two men, one holding what appears to be a palm branch, both seem to be wearing ecclesiastical attire. In Christian circles the palm is meant to signify glory, triumph and victory over death. The second panel shows the same two men but this time one is holding a book, possibly a bible, about which a discussion is taking place. It is said that the symbol of a open book represents the book of life, learning and the spirit of wisdom and in addition represents the apostles teaching of nations. The seat of the chair has a round carving, once again showing the same two men, one his holding a large cross and the other could be giving some kind of instruction. The cross would allude to Christ’s sacrifice, redemption and salvation. The end of the two chair arms both be fashioned into the forms of two grotesque animal heads, possibly lions?. It has been suggested that the chair has been constructed from various parts of a misery chord originating from some monastery.
It must be said that the Widdecombe chair is not the only contender for Tom Cobley’s ownership in Devon, there is another one in Spreyton which looks nothing like this one with a much more later appearance and design. The second chair resides in Crediton and has a similar religious but much less rustic design. It may well be that all three chairs were the possessions of the Cobley’s but the Widdecombe one has a more believable providence. In addition to Tom Cobley’s chair Roger also has in his possession a transcript of a will pertaining to one Thomas Cobley of Puddlecombe Park which is dated the eighth of March 1794. Although not on public display at the moment Roger has plans to show the document along with the chair at a later date.
So next time you visit Widdecombe in the Moor do not miss out on the opportunity of visiting Roger at his shop and seeing for yourself Tom Cobley’s old chair. Not only that, there is a whole host of gifts to buy which includes a huge stock of Toby Jugs, Moorcroft Pottery and other amazing things.