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Wicked Jan

The tale of how Jan Reynolds was taken from Widecombe church for playing cards during the service has already been told on another Legendary Dartmoor page. But who was Jan Reynolds and what led up to the fateful day when the Devil took him away? Well…

“It is said that there was a graceless youth in the parish familiarly known by the unenviable name of the “Wicked Jan Reynolds.” My informants disagree respecting the place of his birth. The reason is apparent – neither the village proper, nor either of the hamlets wished to own him, as he was so incorrigibly wicked, but he was born somewhere among the ten or eleven thousand acres that form the broad parish; that, Widecombe folk confess.
As a child he appears to have been an imp of Satan terrestrialised, for he took to mischief as naturally as a young duck takes to water. I shall pass over his juvenile depravity with just glancing at some of his acts of devilry, such as roasting a live cat on the hearth, telling his mother (when she came in and saw the baking-kettle on the hearth) that they would have baked rabbit for supper. This at the tender age of six, and he became worse and worse. At the age on nine or ten he was bound an apprentice to one of the farmer Hannafords, but his villainy increased, and as he possessed such imperturbable cunning ways he was hardly ever detected, and if accused of a delinquency would stoutly deny it. With the greatest nonchalance he would cut off the wings and tails of poultry, ears and tails of sheep and swine, would rob the nests of the poultry and dispose of the eggs to those who were as criminal as himself. The good old farmer used to well flog him. At length he gave up saying, if he whipped one devil out he whipped in a score more. As Jan grew towards manhood he became adept in card-playing, always setting up stolen stakes, and by the time his apprenticeship had expired he was the best player in the vicinity. The dreadful curse of gambling added to his other accomplishments in rascality made him perfect in wickedness. As long as he could get money by play he would never work; and as he could cheat at will, he was very lucky. He unblushingly used to say his greasy pack of cards was his common prayer-book! But Jan was now so far on the descent that he was standing on the lowest rung of the ladder that leads to irretrievable ruin.
It was three o’clock of a foggy morning in November when Jan was returning from Ashburton where he had been the previous day attending the fair, when after a very successful run of all-fours he was taken in and done for by one of the fascinating nymphs de pare, who after plying him with drugged wine, relieved him of his cheatings at the card table and left him on the floor in the little parlour of the “Red Lion,” in East Street. After sleeping off his opiated debauch, he awoke to find himself penniless, and with a rueful countenance at this turn of affairs he started for Widdicombe.
While on the road he continually cursed his luck, uttering dreadful imprecations on his body and soul. And there in the darkness and fog, on the lone moor, he swore an awful oath that he would do anything required of him if he could be sure of having a shilling in his pocket more than he wanted as long as he lived, even to selling himself to the devil! He had scarcely uttered the wish when the devil was before him in the appearance of a white-chokered gentleman, who politely replied that if he would shake his hands on such a contract he should never want for a pound. And the probability was that he would have run of pleasure on a long lease, as he should not call for him until he found him asleep in church, “and as you seldom go there,” he said, “there is a slim chance, Jan, of my never getting satisfaction; but it shall not be said that I have broken my word because I have taken but one chance perhaps in a million.” They shook hands and parted.
And what a parting! When alone he began to realise his position, and cursing his foolishness and too late for repentance swore lustily that he would keep away from church at any rate. And still moody, he thrust his hands into his breeches pockets and in one of them felt a coin; quickly extracting it, he examined it as well as he could in the darkness, and to his glad surprise found it was a guinea! His cares and fears were instantly dissipated, and “Wicked Jan Reynolds was himself again.”


He was determined to have a good spree, and turning right abruptly left the road and proceeded across the Down to Ilsington; and after a little delay in getting entrance (as the host of the “Carpenter’s Arms” was yet in bed). he ensconced himself in the settle, and after the fire had been replenished with fuel he was soon discussing the quality and contents of a jug of mulled ale; then fell asleep, and slept the sleep of the God-forsaken guilty wretch he had become. And thus it went on for seven long years, sinking deeper and deeper in crime and dissipation; but he never lacked his guinea! Since he had been in possession of his fortune he had been enabled to follow his pursuit of gambling without let or hinderance, and would attend every revel and fair for miles around and stay days and weeks at a place. But the last he ever attended was one of the Tavistock fairs, at which place there are several during the year. He was there on October the 10th when a fair was held at that time, and had what such characters call a “high old time.” He stayed there more than a week, then left for Widdicombe and got there on Saturday night, the 20th, a poor, dissipated, forlorn, miserable wretch. He slept away away the morning of Sunday, and as the “Old Inn” was not open during the church service and not knowing how to dispose of his time until it was over, unthinkingly he strolled into the churchyard just as the choir were singing the first hymn. Jan was fond of music and could sing a hunting song with the best of them, and as the choir was a perfect one he could not withstand the desire to have a better place to hear it, and with no thought of anything but the glorious music of the hymn he entered the church – a thing he had not done for many years. The congregation were surprised. All knew him, and many had never seen him inside the church before.
He saw an empty pew entirely isolated as the surrounding pews were unoccupied. He entered it and sat down,and listened attentively until the hymn had finished. As the service did not interest him, to keep himself from dozing he took the greasy pack of cards from his pocket, and as the his pew screened him from observation he played dummy games of all-fours. But alas, alas, this fated wretch was force to yield to the power of Morpheus, and he fell asleep with the cars in his hand!” – William Ellis, 1893.
For the rest of the saga of Jan Reynolds, the Devil frightful “Widecombe Storm” of 1683 and where you can still see Reynold’s playing cards – see HERE.

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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