The Honour Oak can be classed as one of Dartmoor’s historic oaks as it certainly holds a place in history that dates back nearly 200 years. To discover this we must go back to the times of the Napoleonic Wars and find the French prisoners that were brought back to England, more precisely the French Officers. It was these men that the mighty oak held a great significance insomuch as if they ever went beyond its spreading boughs their lives would not quite be the same. During the 18th century a system evolved whereby French (and later American) prisoners of war that were of a certain rank were allowed to live in what were designated as ‘Parole Towns’. This meant those who qualified for the Parole system were allowed to live in these towns as virtual free men, happily mixing with the local populations. In 1803 there were 50 parole towns in Britain and on Dartmoor there were 4 such designated places; Ashburton, Moretonhampstead, Okehampton and Tavistock. On average there were at any one time between 150 and 300 parolees living in the towns and each and every one of these men had to abide by 8 rules, these were:
1) To behave decently and abide by the laws of the realm.
2) Not to correspond in any way directly or indirectly with France.
3) All other correspondence had to be vetted by the Commissioners or Agents.
4) To be permitted to walk or ride not more than 1 statute mile from the designated limits of the parole towns nor go outside the parish boundaries if they were within the allotted miles, nor turn left or right.
5) To be back in their lodgings by 5 o’ clock in the winter and 8 o’ clock in the summer months
6) Not to enter any field or take a turning on any crossroad.
7) Not to riot or behave in an improper manner.
8) Not to try to escape.
Should any man contravene any of the above rules then the penalty was imprisonment which in the case of Dartmoor meant a trip to Princetown prison and a rather unpleasant stay within its drear walls.
It is the fourth rule to which the Honour Oak owes its fame, for the 1 mile boundaries were marked by boundstones known as a ‘Miol Stones’ or some prominent landscape feature such as a tree or a bridge. Therefore the old oak tree marked the 1 mile limit from Tavistock. If any prisoner walked past the Honour Oak he would have broken his parole agreement and should he be caught then a prison sentence would be waiting. There was a 10 shilling reward for any of the townsfolk who reported any such breach of the 1 mile limit or the night-time curfew which for some was a great temptation. It was not unheard of for such ‘spies’ to hide near the 1 mile limits in the hope of catching a prisoner breaking his parole. Just outside Moretonhampstead is an ancient cross which was supposed to have marked the parole limits of that town. This spot became known as the Watching Place as it was a favourite spot for the parole spies to lay in wait but sadly this particular spot is 3 miles from Moretonhampstead. Despite the rules and spies a fair number of prisoners did make good their escapes. A prime example of such an occasion comes from The Times newspaper of 1811 where in November it reported the following:
“On Tuesday last, six French Officers, who were on their parole at Oakhampton sic), escaped from that town, accompanied by an English guide. Having crossed Dartmoor, on Thursday afternoon, they came near Bovey Tracey, where, meeting with a woman, they enquired if there was any other road through the town: being answered in the negative they made a halt. The woman communicated the particulars to some of the towns-people, and four men went in pursuit of them: when they were discovered, three of them surrendered and were secured: but the other three, with the guide, made off, and were followed by two of the men. The first that came upon these was Mr Christopher Snell, when the guide instantly turning round, with a dagger, stabbed him in the heart, and he expired on the spot. Lord Clifford soon after ordered a troop of yeomen cavalry to go in pursuit of them.“
In 1832 the Honour Oak took on another role which marked a completely different kind of limit, this time the tree acted as a quarantine limit during an outbreak of cholera. This basically meant nobody went any nearer into or out of Tavistock for fear and contamination. Accordingly the townsfolk would leave money at the tree and this was exchanged for food and other essential supplies which were also left at the tree. This was the same principle as was used at the Merrivale stone row when Tavistock was struck by the Black Death.
In late 2003, early 2004 the tree recieved some emergency repair work due to the trunk being attacked by two species of fungi. Over the years this has led to the hollowing out of the trunk and this treatment is a last ditch effort to save the tree, if it doesn’t work then the whole lot will have to come down. The tree surgeon has drastically pollarded the old oak and after the work it was reported as, “never looking the same”. Today a plaque marks the Honour Oak on which the following is written:
HONOUR OAK TREE
MARKED BOUNDARY OF FRENCH PRISONERS ON PAROLE
IN TAVISTOCK FROM PRINCETOWN
DURING THE NAPOLEONIC WAR (1803 – 8114)
ALSO WHERE MONEY WAS DEPOSITED IN EXCHANGE FOR FOOD
DURING A CHOLERA OUTBREAK IN 1832