The Oxenham Arms at South Zeal is a fascinating place full of history and archaeology along with some notable literary connections. Today the establishment is rated as an AA 4 Star Gold Premier Collection Hotel with AA Rosette Culinary Excellence which is a far cry from its humble beginnings.
The earliest part of the building’s structure is a prehistoric menhir which if still in-situ would suggest this was once a ritual site. There is very little mention of this standing stone by any of the noted Dartmoor writers such as Crossing, Hemery, Rowe or Worth but St. Ledger Gordon does noted the following, ‘There, forming part of an inner wall, is an unquestionable monolith. It rises from the floor beneath which its base is lost like that of an iceberg, then mounts to the full height of the room, as though supporting the ceiling through which it disappears. Now scheduled as an ‘Ancient Monument’, its rough granite surface may not be touched – washed, cleaned, polished, painted, draped, concealed or interfered with in any way, and probably this monument only differs from many others in that it has been discovered.” – Under Dartmoor Hills, p.18. The big question is why should a menhir be incorporated in a wall? It could be that when the Benedictine monastery was built the monks simply decided that rather than go to the hassle of excavating it they would simply build around it. Tom Quick considered that sometime in the 1970s an attempt was made to see how far the menhir was buried in the ground. Apparently the excavators dug down to a depth of twenty six feet. – Dartmoor Inns, p.73. There is also an additional ‘menhir’ similarly embedded in another wall although none of the informed archaeological resources such as English Heritage make no mention of it. There is however a local tradition that at some point in the 1800s the then owner, not satisfied with one unique prehistoric feature added it as an ’embellishment. Whether this was a blatant attempt of ‘salting the past’ or simply added as a support for a sagging beam is unknown. Both the menhir and the ‘pillar’ can be seen below. An excellent detailed account of the structure and the history of the Oxenham Arms can be found on the Historic England website – HERE.
Sometime in the 12th century a group of Benedictine monks built a two-storeyed, nine roomed monastery on the site of today’s Oxenham Arms. By the 14th century the monastic estate along with about one hundred acres of land was purchased by the Burgoyne family, a wealthy French shipping family. The estate was then acquired by the two brothers from the Oxenham Family when the estate became known as the Oxenham Manor or the Great House. A licence to become an inn was then obtained in 1477 and was named “The Oxenham Arms.” It is said that in 1530 John Oxenham was born at the Oxenham Manor House. He later became known as the infamous privateer Captain John Oxenham and sailed with Sir Francis Drake plundering Spanish ships for their gold and treasure cargoes. He was captured by the Spanish in 1580 and later returned to England in theory his treasure hoards were never found and thought to have been buried somewhere in Peru.
Over the years the Oxenham Arms has been the social hub of South Zeal and surrounding area. The inn and the adjoining field was for many years the venue for the South Tawton Fair where wrestling matches, horse and pony races along with athletic sports took place. The South Tawton Friendly Society had their headquarters at the inn and often held their dinners at there when at times up to 150 people were catered for. In later years a successful ‘slate club’ was established at the inn. The South Tawton and South Zeal Agricultural Society also used the Oxenham Arms for their meetings in the 1890s. It was a popular location for some of the local fox and harrier packs to hold their pre-hunt meets
It is pretty clear that not only was the Oxenham Arms an inn but also for centuries a farm as well. Now follows a rather sketchy history of the various licensees gathered from some old newspaper reports from about 1834. In the October of 1834 a notice appeared in Exeter & Plymouth Gazette offering up the Oxenham Arms for letting. The lease was for a term of either 7, 10, or 14 years starting from Lady Day in 1835 due to the death of the then occupier John Bickle. The notice read “The house is very commodious, consisting of a parlour, kitchen, an excellent dining room, and six good bedrooms, with back kitchens, brewhouse, cellars, stabling, and every other convenience. The house is situated on the turnpike road from Exeter to Okehampton, and is much frequented by commercial travellers, and the Manorial Courts are regularly held therein.
The farm is in a good state of cultivation, and 7 acres are now prepared for wheat, and 7 in clover; and there is attached to it an unlimited right for turf, and the pasturage of sheep and cattle on the Forest of Dartmoor. It is very favourably situated for manure, having lime kilns immediately adjoining; and it possesses the additional advantage of being tithe free.”
Having an agricultural connection as well as being a focal point meant it was an ideal place for auctions to be held there. Over the years these were for local farms and domestic properties along with grass keep. There was also the benefit of an adjoining field in which cattle, sheep and ponies and various farm implements were auctioned. One year later in the July of 1836 the Oxenham Arms along with nearby Oxenham Barton were once again offered for lease. There were no details of the inn but land was described as having “three fields of rich pastureland, well watered, and a meadow, containing all together six acres; and also with or without 36 acres of land adjoining.” By 1843 the establishment was being run by a Mr. James Drew when in that year he provided a “substantial repast” for Mr. Born and the followers of his beagle pack. Some 27 years later William Arscott was the licencee and in the February of 1873 he witnessed a distressing event. A father and son from Coleridge were passing through South Zeal and decided to stop at the Oxenham Arms for some refreshment. The father then went out into the barn to fetch a bucket in order to give his horse a drink. On entering the barn he saw one John May, an employee at the inn, hanging himself from a beam. He immediately fetched William Arscott and together they managed to cut the man down who luckily eventually recovered. John May was later summoned before the Moretonhampstead Police Court charged with attempted suicide by trying to hang himself. Arscott testified that he had seen May at work about an hour previous and he seemed ok. He also added that after May had been cut down he was in a confused state and asked “where have I been to?” The local doctor who later examined May stated that he could see no signs of insanity but that May had told him that “he had an illness in which he was for some time unconscious.” Mercifully the verdict of the court was a severe reprimand and the case was dismissed.
In the March of 1881 tenders were invited for the inn. At that time it comprised of the inn, stabling, farm building, around 48 acres of arable, meadow and pastureland with common rights. When the Okehampton military camp had been established the Oxenham Arms was a favourite port of call for the soldiers some of whom were less welcome than others. By the October of 1883, if not before John Warne was the licencee and the establishment became known locally as “Warne’s Oxenham Arms.” As was the norm of the times inquests were often held at local inns as they were normally close to where a local death occurred. Such an inquest was held at The Oxenham Arms in the September of 1884, this concerned a local butcher who was found in a nearby field with his throat cut. Amongst the annual events held at the inn was Warne’s Clay Pidgeon Shooting Match and in the January of 1891 it was, as always well, attended with the benefit of a sumptuous dinner afterwards. In the June of 1891 two privates from the camp appeared in court for stealing eight pounds of butter from the inn. They were both sentenced to one month’s imprisonment with hard labour.
In the January of 1900 it was announced that Mr. John Knapman had taken possession of the Oxenham Arms and was completely renovating the property. The following month an auction was to take place at the inn for household furniture, farm implements, carts, traps, harnesses, and mangolds. This sale was on instructions from the Official Receiver which suggests that John Warne had previously gone bankrupt, hence the reason for the change of licensees. It was at this time that the establishment became known as The Oxenham Arms Hotel. Following her husband’s death the licence of the Oxenham Arms was transferred to Mrs. Knapman in the June of 1917. In the July of 1902 a notice of sale was published for the Oxenham Arms Hotel. At the auction the hotel was purchased for £950 by Mr. W. G. Wedlake with the Knapmans staying on as licensees. In the June of 1921 William George Knapman was the licencee and appeared in court for keeping his premises open during prohibited hours. Along with William Wedlake for being on the premises. By 1925 the Wedlake family had taken over the running of the inn until the October of that year when it changed hands to Mr. George Millington. He didn’t last long because in the November of 1926 Millington put the place up for sale. The advert for the sale described the property as having a “very large bar with open hearth fireplace, large parlour, smoking room, cellarage, kitchen scullery, 5 bedrooms, dining room (eating capacity for 125), dairy, indoor W.C., large hall and porch, covered skittle alley, large yard with side entrance leading to 6 stall stable, cart sheds, cow houses, calves’ house, barn, large productive kitchen garden, a large paddock containing nearly three acres. Excellent water supply and extensive grazing rights on Dartmoor. The licence, rates and other outgoings are very low.” Another auction was held in the March of 1927 where all of Millington’s antique and modern furniture and household property was up for sale along with 107 laying fowls. In the October of 1927 the licence for the hotel was transferred from Mr. George Wellington to Mr. William Gunn from Exeter. Unfortunately Mr. Gunn passed away in the November of that year at the hotel. The licence was temporarily transferred to Mrs E. Gunn in the December. The license was once again transferred from Mrs E. Gunn to Mr. Charles Roberson in the August of 1928. At the South Zeal licencing Sessions held in the December of 1928 it was requested that the licence be transferred to Major Patrick Albert Forbes-Winslow á Beckett. The Chairman remarked how there were already five public houses in South Zeal and noted how the licence for the Oxenham Arms had been transferred five times in the recent past. A reference from the Lord Hewart, the Lord Chief justice was produced which said the Major was a fit person to hold the licence – it was duly granted. Major Pat á Beckett was surely the most charismatic of all landlords of the Oxenham Arms Hotel In the May of 1929 the Oxenham Arms came into the possession of Major Pat á Beckett who was formerly of The Royal Horse Artillery and the nephew of Lord Kitchener, he was also a direct ascendent of Thomas á Beckett.
On acquiring the Oxenham Arms the famous Dartmoor author, Eden Phillpotts wrote the following to him. “I am delighted to think the Oxenham Arms has come into the keeping of an artist who will appreciate its story and be jealous for its rare qualities and distinction. May you win a genuine success, and create for South Zeal and the Arms the wider attention they so richly deserve from tourists, travellers, and all lovers of the interesting and beautiful. It is a centre of extraordinary attraction to me, and I shall hope to revisit your famous house.”
When Major á Beckett first took possession of the place he found “the house absolutely covered with wallpaper and modernness. At once I had the modern fireplaces scrapped, the oak beams and walls cleared of paper and whitewash, and the whole house returned to its primitive state. In a word, I have undone all that had been ‘done up’.” He also festooned the place with numerous memorabilia which he had collected over the years. A few of the more eccentric items being; the thousands of matchbox covers which he had collected from his worldwide travels, a china plate which came from the officer’s mess on HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar, a helmet belonging to Lord Kitchener when he was at at Gallipoli, a framed photograph of Lord Kitchener signed “Your affectionate uncle 1914,” and a photograph of a small bust and a picture of old Weymouth given him by Thomas Hardy. The most eccentric article being the skin of a lioness that used to follow him around when he was in Kenya. Both the lioness and her cubs used to sleep on his bed but when the cubs had grown too big he made them sleep on the floor. Being a caring mother the lioness resented this and had to be shot. Two of the cubs were sent to Nairobi zoo, another two to the Durban zoo and the remaining two to London Zoo. On his collection the Major commented “all my furniture is genuine, there is nothing for sale. I don’t want American tourists to think they can buy the stuff.”
A travel article written in the May of 1931 recommended that “a visit to this part of Devon (Dartmoor) would not be complete without seeing the wonderful collection of curios at the Oxenham Arms, South Zeal, which Major Pat á Beckett is fondly showing all who come his way. In two years 6,000 people have signed the visitors’ book and incidentally the Major has collected a nice little sum for Okehampton Hospital.” Another report from August 1931 read “This season there has been an enormous rush of visitors to the Oxenham Arms where Major Pat á Beckett has on view a wonderful and valuable collection of interesting subjects. During the month of July no less than 1,200 people signed the visitor’s book. Among them was an old lady from Exmouth, aged 95 years, who paid her second visit… Amongst the names of places signed during July are; Holland, Austria, Oxford, Portugal, Germany, France, Cape Town, Kenya Colony, New York, Boston, Fiji, Jamaica, Channel Islands, Karachi and Bombay.”
In the March of 1932 this article was written about the Pixie man of the Oxenham Arms. “If some curious hiker, overtaken by nightfall in the neighbourhood of South Tawton, were to saunter into the bar of the ancient Oxenham Arms, he might, with luck, happen upon a very venerable old figure with a long white beard… If the stranger at the bar allowed his curiosity a little freedom he might discover that the old man was well known and well liked in the locality, and something of a link between this rather prosaic world of reality and that other word which can only be reached by fancy through moorland mists, and where elf-like creatures dwell. Some of the duller folks call him the ”Pixie Man”, and he is rather proud of his title; for it means that he can see what others cannot… Those like the venerable old man of South Zeal, who has not only seen them once, but says he sees them often, have quite a different tale to tell. It was probably the favourable impression conveyed by this first-hand observer which prompted Major Pat á Beckett to write the following picture of “Pixieland”.” The Major’s poem “Pixieland” can be seen above.
In the December of 1932 he had the following published in the Daily Mirror – “BIBULOUS BABIES, As a publican and ‘sinner’, let me beg to state that I should not welcome any law which permitted children to frequent my house, ‘disgraceful’ or otherwise as it may be. Surely some parents like to break occasionally away from the companionship of their offspring and personally I should very much deplore having to provide a ‘parking space’ for prams. Pat á Beckett (Major).
In the May of 1933 it was announced that “Major Pat á Beckett, proprietor of the Oxenham Arms, South Zeal, has sold the business and is going abroad. The major was responsible for the introduction of omnibuses through South Zeal, and during the time he has been here has collected a large amount for the hospitals. Many people will learn with regret of his going and wish him success in the future.” That month the licence of the Oxenham Arms was temporarily transferred from the Major Pat to Major Alan Rowley Pertwee.
With regards to his matchbox cover collection. It is said that when he was eight years old the Major dropped his tram ticket and on bending down to pick it up he found a foreign matchbox cover. This was the beginning of a lifelong passion for collecting the covers. In an article of 1929 he suggested to “the boys and girls of Devon, that they would find it a really interesting hobby, these days where there are so many different stamps in the world, that a mere handful, say of a couple of thousands can be purchased for a few shillings. Let them instead, keep their eyes open wide and they will soon find many rare specimens in Exeter alone, to start their matchbox cover collection.” By the September of 1939 the Major’s famous matchbox cover collection had grown to over 22,000 and the Spanish ex-king Alphonso, also an avid collector came to view it. The collection and the Major often went on tour exhibiting what had grown to 30,000 covers. The money raised from these he donated to charities, in particular hospital. On his death in 1941 the matchbox cover collection was willed to Bryant & May the match manufacturers.
Amongst his many talents were those of an actor, comedian, and at one time the ringmaster of the Olympia Circus at Liverpool. In 1935 he formed the “In Town Tonight Club”. This was a social club for people who had once appeared in the BBC “In Town Tonight” programme. There was a huge variety of members including dukes, duchesses, actors, musicians, adventurers, artisans etc from every walk of life.
Finally I did mention that the Oxenham Arms has had many literary connections where it has been said that Charles Dickens stayed there whilst writing his ‘Pickwick Papers’. The noted Dartmoor author Eden Phillpotts was a regular customer (as can be seen from the above letter he wrote). In his 1911 novel called ‘The Beacon’ a large part of the story was woven around The Oxenham Arms. Some years back we stayed at The Oxenham Arms and were given what I take to have possibly been one of the old Benedictine monk’s cells. What made me think this, simply because being 6 ft. 2″ tall I had to bend nearly in double to get through the doorway. Whilst there we were told the legend of an old hunting horn that was fixed to the ceiling, it is said that should anyone ever blow it they will immediately drop dead on the spot. As with any old inn it has it’s resident ghosts in the form of a monk and a lady whose footsteps can be heard in the dead of night along with weird rattling noises.
Today the Oxenham Arms is owned and run by Lyn and Simon Powell. If you would like to experience a stay at the Oxenham Arms then the rates, menu etc can be found – HERE.