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Turve Boy’s Tragedy, The



Today if the house gets cold we simply turn on the gas or electric fire or light the logs in the hearth, probably without a thought. But go back a couple of hundred years or so and the heating in a Dartmoor home more than likely came from turves. These are a local name for a form of peat  found on the high moors and used as household fuel. Many families would cut their own turves on the moor which meant physically venturing forth to cut and collect them. It was the norm for those who owned a pony or donkey to use them to convey the turves back home, these would commonly be loaded onto a crook or simply strapped to the animals back. Before the days when youngsters sit glued to Ipads or X boxes the task of turve collecting was often down to the sons or even daughters of the household. Today it would be unthinkable to send children unaccompanied out onto the moor regardless of how well they knew the surrounds but again two hundred years ago it would be thought as the norm. Unfortunately there were occasions when things went horribly wrong as this report from the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette of 1829 clearly demonstrates. I make no apologies for directly quoting the whole article as the written style is far less tactful than any of today’s articles would be and it serves the purpose well. Please be warned this story goes into graphic and lurid detail of the events

In the early part of July last two sons of a labouring man, of South Zeal, named Beer, the one about 13 years of age, and the other 6, were sent with a donkey to a part of Dartmoor near Sticklepath; to gather turves, which they had often before done. It was in the early part of the afternoon, when they arrived at the spot. Our readers will probably remember the stormy character of the weather at that period, but they must have been upon Dartmoor to witness the horrors of its inclemency. After the boys had executed their mission, and when they were about to return, one of those tempests, which so frequently sweep over that dreary and desolate plain, took place: this probably hastened the boys’ desire to return, and the brother taking his heath, and putting the rest upon the donkey, sent the younger brother a short distance to fetch his little burden, which had already been bound up with a leather girth, commonly used for that purpose: he then continued his way slowly, expecting every moment to hear the footsteps of his brother behind him; he stopped to listen, and at length becoming alarmed, called with all his might, but in vain – no answer was returned: the poor little fellow in fact had mistaken the direction he aught to have pursued, and was still wandering with his burden, (and the rain driving piteously upon him,) far, far, into the interminable moor.

After waiting some time in great anxiety, the elder boy began to hope that his brother had passed him unobserved, at some distance, as he might have done in such a tempest as they were out in, and that he had reached home before him, and accordingly made the best way to father’s cottage. Those who reside a distance from such extensive and uncultivated plains as Dartmoor, can have no conception of the impossibility even for a grown person, who should be lost upon one of them, to discover, after nightfall, the direction which should be taken: but those who live upon its borders well know the dangers of the place; and the enquiry if the child had returned was no sooner made, than alarm was given by the agonized parents, and a party immediately set out in search: the party was, as the night approached, joined by another, and another, till at last nearly one hundred people from South Zeal, Sticklepath and the neighbouring places were actively employed, but in vain. Night at length closed in, and the tempest continued: lights were procured, and signals agreed upon, each individual taking care not to wander from his appointed companions, and the search was vigorously renewed. It was now conjectured that the poor child must have fallen into a river, which is near, the search was therefore principally continued near its banks.

Morning came, but all the efforts had been fruitless. To the honour of humanity, Mr. Pitts of North Tawton, hearing of the melancholy event, sent out all his quarrymen, and they continued the search all the following day, day after day it was recommenced for weeks, then months, by which period probably the afflicted and agitated relatives of the child, were the only persons devoted their little leisure to the melancholy task of endeavouring the ascertain what had become of him, it being concluded that he must have been washed down the river by the floods, and by some means got driven under the banks, or otherwise concealed.

About three weeks since a shepherd passing across the moor, not more than a quarter of a mile from the spot where the child was first missed, discovered a leathern cap, and, upon searching further, the girth hat had been used to tie the turves, and the thigh bone apparently of a child about 6 years of age. Other remains there were none, but the wetness of the season, and the horrible certitude that birds of prey and foxes abound on the spots, render it too certain that the child had been torn piecemeal by them, and that his clothes which must have become rotten, were dragged away with the human flesh attached to them These reflections cannot fail to make the blood curdle with horror; but if the mangling a dead body can impart terror, what must we feel for the sufferings of the poor child whilst he was yet living, conscious that he had lost his brother, and alas far from any human assistance, the prey of the dreadful tempest? what musty he have felt, when night shut from him the dim objects he could discover, and when he felt the cold piercing winds driving heavy rain upon his perishing form; or how far he wandered till he fell exhausted amongst the high heath which had subsequently prevented the discovery of his remains; and who can tell how long he existed without food or shelter? till it pleased God of mercy, whose ways are past man’s finding out, to relieve him from his sufferings. It is a subject for imagination, not description; there is however a melancholy satisfaction that it is the opinion of people who went in search of him, that neither the poor child or any human being lost upon Dartmoor, and scantily clothed as he was, could have lived through a night so dreadfully tempestuous. Fiction could not have invented a tale more dreadful than the forgoing – alas it is true.”

Fortunately things have improved immensely for when folk get lost on Dartmoor these days with the help of modern technology and the dedicated services of the Dartmoor Search and Rescue Teams. Should the above scenario happen today the chances would be that help could be summoned with the aid of a mobile phone or possibly a GPS app map on the mobile could have guided the child to safety. Likewise, instead of hundreds of people conducting a search the specialist rescue teams would be deployed and by dint of their expertise and modern equipment such as SARDA dogs and even helicopters the chances of discovery would be high. It is also worth noting that such a tragedy today would surely involve child care and social service investigations along possible criminal charges brought upon the parents.

There is also a huge difference in the way incidents of lost people are reported in the press. For instance here is a report which appeared in the Herald newspaper on the 2nd of July 2016: “A group of walkers had to be rescued after getting lost on Dartmoor in bad weather early on Sunday morning. Dartmoor Search and Rescue Tavistock was called out to find the three walkers at 2am. The group’s last confirmed location was Nun’s Cross Farm. A DSRT spokesman said: “We had phone contact and located them, wet and tired but safe and well, north of Cuckoo Rock near Down Tor at 3:45am. They were able to walk off with team members.” Another such incident was reported in The Plymouth Herald; “A group of teenagers taking part in a Duke of Edinburgh exercise had to be airlifted off Dartmoor after one of their members fell unconscious.Two Dartmoor Search and Rescue teams and the coastguard were called out at 2am this morning after the team got into trouble. A spokesman for DSRT Plymouth said: “Early this morning the team were called out to New Waste near Cornwood to search for a Duke of Edinburgh award team.”The D of E team had called the ambulance service and reported that one of their members was unconscious.”With the assistance of DSRT – Ashburton the team were located by helicopter and all members were air-lifted off the moor.”

It is well worth remembering whilst the capabilities of the various rescue services have immensely improved one thing that hasn’t over the past 200 years is the Dartmoor weather. There are still “tempestuous” storms that can suddenly appear from nowhere along with thick mists and freezing temperatures. So always be prepared for any eventuality and know how to summons assistance when needed. Bear in mind that if you do have to call the rescue services many of the teams who are called out consist of dedicated volunteers and such teams are always looking for funding in order to carry out their services. One way you can help is to join one of their supporters clubs such as the dart2ZERO one that the Ashburton group run, you never know when you just might need them.

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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