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Tragedy at Mary Tavy



Mary Tavy is a small and tranquil moorland village nestled snugly in a small valley above the River Tavy but sadly in the August of 1905 things were far from peaceful. The events over that August Bank Holiday are probably one of the most tragic and pitiful in the history of the village. One of the local residents, Mr. William Ball had mysteriously disappeared and had note been seen for over a week. William was a farm labourer who worked at Holditch Farm which lay to the north of the village. He was last seen on the August Bank Holiday sat beside the road at Blackdown where he appeared to be on his way to nearby Wilsworthy. It was a young lad named Reed who had met him and after a very brief conversation the two parted their ways. When William Ball had not returned that night it was just assumed that he had gone to Tavistock or to some friends who lived in the district. However as the day went on his family became very concerned for his well being and so sent telegrams to Tavistock and Princetown enquiring if he had been seen. Much to their alarm there had been no sightings of the man in either town.

What caused even greater concern was that the whole area on his route was pitted with deep, open mine shafts belonging to the Devon Friendship Mine and it was feared that he may have fallen into one. Search parties were organised and over the next few days the villagers accompanied by their dogs and the local police spread out all over the area in the hope of finding the missing man. The rector of Mary Tavy  Mr. I K. Anderson not only joined in the search but even removed all the bell ropes from St. Mary’s Tower in order that they may be used for men to descend the mine shafts to ensure that Ball was not laid at the bottom of one.  Alas despite an exhaustive search there was no sign of William Ball and hopes of him being found alive were fading fast.

On the Wednesday one Mr. Geodfrey Boulton, his wife and son decided to go for a horse ride across the moor, they were on holiday from London and staying at the Manor Hotel in Lydford. They had not rode very far when they came to the boundary stones which lay on the Mary Tavy and Willsworthy Manor bounds. It was here at about 12.15 am that Mr. Boulton noticed a man lying on the ground, at first he thought he was simply taking a lunchtime snooze but then reconsidered his theory and rode over to make sure the man was OK. He soon discovered that far from snoozing the man was infact dead. Having quickly called his wife and son away from the scene the party hurriedly made their way back to Lydford in order to report his discovery to P.C. Berry. Both Boulton and Berry then returned to the spot where the body lay at which point P. C. Berry immediately recognised the deceased. He then asked Mr. Boulton to ride over to Mary Tavy and to inform the policeman there that the body of Ball had been found. Under the direction of the police the body was laid on a gate which was fastened to a cart, the party then moved down to the schoolroom at Mary Tavy. However, unfortunately they could not get the gate upon which the body lay through the door and so it was taken to one of the buildings at Wheal Friendship.

Poor William Ball’s inquest was held on the 16th of August in the Counting House at Wheal Friendship with Mr. J. D.Prickman as the presiding coroner and Mr. C. H. Grace as foreman of the jury. The body of William Ball was formally identified by his brother Thomas Ball who stated that the deceased had been living with him for about the past sixteen months. During the past eight months William had been working as a farm labourer for a Mr. Nicholls at Holditch Farm near Mary Tavy. Originally he undertook the milking but for some unknown reason he ceased this job and just remained as a general labourer. Prior to this he had been residing with another brother at a farm in Walkhampton for about eight years.  Whilst at the farm he had fallen off a horse which had resulted in him suffering severe and regular headaches which had been put down to the shock of the accident. Thomas Ball also stated that he had last seen his brother alive at about 9.00am on the Bank Holiday Monday. As this was the day of Lydford Pony Show he asked his brother if he was going to attend to which he relied that he would not.

The next witness was Godfrey Boulton the solicitor from London who recounted the circumstances in which he discovered the body of the deceased. P. C. Berry then testified how both he and Boulton and returned to the location in order to examine the scene. He added that he had found the deceased lying face down on the ground and that about six feet away was a rusty razor. There were no signs of a struggle or of a second party being involved despite there being signs of a severed neck.  On the arrival of P.C. Heales from Mary Tavy the victims body was searched where they found 15s and a notebook in his pockets. A  sheet of paper tucked into the notebook read; “I know this will be a great trouble to you all, and to all the family, but I cannot help it. I am just mad. Oh my poor head.

Dr. Richmond Marshall the gave his evidence saying how he had made a post mortem examination of the body and was able to ascertain there was a deep wound to the neck which was caused by a sharp instrument. He also noted that in his opinion it was self-inflicted and certainly the cause of death. The doctor also said how six months ago he had been consulted by William Ball who was complaining of pains in the head, memory loss which in the doctors words resulted in him being; “upset by trifles.” Marshall finally concluded that it was not uncommon for a man suffering from pains in the head to develop insanity.

The last witness was P. C. Heale who confirmed the evidence given by P. C. Berry and further adding how he had know William Ball during which time he had always regarded him as being very reserved and peculiar. The coroner then summed up by saying that the deceased had undoubtedly died from self inflicted wounds and that he had allowed trifles o worry him which had led to the lost of his mental balance. The Jury returned a verdict of; “Suicide whilst temporarily insane.”.

Shortly after the inquest the funeral of William Ball took place with his coffin being carried from the Counting House at Wheal Friendship to the parish churchyard. It was reported that many of the villagers stood along the route and at the churchyard gates in order to pay their final respects. If this was not a distressing enough time for William’s family and friends the Rev. I. K. Anderson had refused to perform a service for the deceased.  In an interview after the funeral the reverend quoted the rubrie (a set of rules or instructions) which was written above the order of service for funerals which stated; “Here it is to be noted that the office ensuing is not to be used for any that die unbaptised, or excommunicated, or have laid violent hands upon themselves.” To this very day the same rubrie applies to the Church of England’s ‘Order For the Burial of the Dead’ – see HERE. Having, many years ago, lost my mother to similar circumstances I can vouch for the fact that this rubrie is just as distressing as the loss of life further compounded by ruling that suicides cannot be buried in consecrated ground. Nobody can understand the desperation that leads a person to end their own life unless they have felt it themselves. In William Ball’s case it was undoubtedly caused by his horse riding accident which modern medicine would now diagnose as an ongoing brain injury leading to severe depression. There would be no mention of ‘insanity‘ or being ‘upset by trifles‘ today but back in 1905 there was very little knowledge of brain injuries or severe depression and so the stigmas firmly stuck to those unfortunate sufferers. R.I.P William Ball.


About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor


  1. I read this with much interest and confusion as I am led to believe my grandfather William Ball left Mary Tavy with his bothers wife and move to Ryton previously Co, Durham now Tyne and Wear.The house he lived in it was named as Mary Tavy and I was led to believe he managed a mental institution in nearby Northumberland.
    My grandfather’s son’s have all past now and I know very little whether there are truth’s or untruth’s of the past, because all I was told when I asked questions was to ” let it go”.
    As far as I can gather my farther and his brother’s where serious church choristers and know very little of their earlier lives.

    • Hi would you by any chance be related to Josephine ball of peter tavern who used to work at bakers of Tavistock. I am an old workmate. Thankyou ray martin.

      • Hi Ray I honestly would not know as my grandfathers brothers and sisters would have had families of which i don’t have a lot knowledge about, unfortunately i can’t
        help you with this one.

  2. This is probably off the topic but I have been interested in the name Mary Tavy. Here in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario one of the early successful business men was William Henry Plummer. He was born at Mary Tavy in 1868. He ran a large business starting about 1900 in the city. A large mansion was built naming his daughter Lynn as Lynnhurst. It was converted into a hospital and finally demolished. A huge hospital named the Plummer Memorial Hospital was built in the 1920’s. It remains empty now, as a large complex new hospital was built just north of the city.

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