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Widecombe Sweet Seventeen

Catherine Parr, alias the noted Dartmoor authoress Beatrice Chase lived just outside Widecombe-in-the-Moor at Venton. She is best described as a typical Victorian dame and was a formidable, outspoken egotist on many matters including Dartmoor. John Oxenham wrote a novel in which Beatrice Chase was the heroine, the book was called, ‘My Lady of the Moor’ and she simply adopted the title. There is a tradition that when the title was bestowed on her she proudly stated that she was, “not the Queen of the Moor”, but then added, “Royalties never use surnames so why should I”. She had many clashes with authority and the Post Office was one who often felt her wrath when things did not suit for whatever reason. For example on the 4th of August 1933 the Western Times cited a letter they had received from Beatrice Chase. It remarked how Widecombe-in-the- Moor was “thrilled at the prospect, not only having a new (post) office at the bottom of the famous Widecombe Hill, but at the arrival of a pillar box! A pillar box has not previously been known in the village. There is just one snag. The colour of the box clashes violently with the colour of the rambler rose adjoining, and it is suggested that the Postmaster General should be asked to see that either the pillar box or the rambler rose should be repainted!” It is worth noting that around this time Beatrice Chase was becoming paranoid about many things. So much so she was convinced that people at the post office were reading her mail and so demanded that any mail was delivered in a sealed bag. In the August of 1933 the telephone service came to Widecombe but the idea of such an intrusion did not initially sit well with Beatrice. The very thought of wires, telegraph poles were abhorrent and she was having none of it at Venton. However, persistence from the Post Office finally won the day and a telephone was installed at her sacred abode. Much to her amazement she soon saw the benefits of such communication and was moved to write an ‘exclusive’ article for the Devon and Exeter Gazette outlining her experience of the process.

Various headquarter telephone officials were present, and these gentlemen gathered around me in a group and told me it was time this nonsense had ceased. I must go on the phone. I explained that it was impossible because I could not afford an underground cable and the hideous gaunt black “galius” poles would ruin the chapel. The gentlemen came to Venton in ones. They came in twos. They came on foot. They came by car. They drove me over. They drove me back. They took me through fields and gardens. They showed me where every pole would go – completely hidden by obliging hollies, which being evergreen, will not moult in winter; they pledged themselves to have me open by that day fortnight, and not to put one pole except where I stated. So I took the awful plunge.
The next week at 10 a.m. the doorbell rung and a smart neat young man, with a tiny, neat car and a tiny neat suitcase, announced that he had come to do the inside work fro my telephone. I set my teeth and clenched my fists. “Now,” thought I. “ for the falling plaster, the broken ceilings, the torn wallpapers, the dust covering everything. We went round the house, fixed the places, and he began. At intervals I went to look for dirt and damage. None. Apparently the operator was only at the initial stage. At 3 p.m., he announced that he had finished. I did not believe him, but as he left, it was apparently true. He had fixed four batteries, one right through the house to my upstairs sanctum, and he had not moved a book, or a lace curtain, and we had not even to dust the bookshop counter.


The following Tuesday at 1.45 p.m. arrived a motor Post-office lorry with four workmen, and inspector, and the poles. The inspector was infinitely soothing, and we once went through fields and gardens and chose the sites. Next day they began operations at 8 a.m. By lunch, all poles were fixed. At 3.30 p.m. two men arrived with ladders and various implements to attack the house. Again I clenched my fists and said, “Now for it.” They erected the ladders, sprinted up, took a bright steel drill, burrowed into my solid granite wall, inserted a bracket with two neat black insulators, attached the wires – and went. It took about thirty minutes. We did not even have to shut a nearby window. At 4.00 p.m. the obsequious foreman came to announce they had finished and were going over to call the linesman out. He had to fix an underground bit and connect up. At 5.20 as I sat in the sunny window of the Pixy bookshop, where the telephone is fixed, I heard my bell for the first time. You hardened folk who are used to the telephone cannot realise the thrill of that living tinkling voice. At 5.55 the first human voice cam through. It said, “Your telephone is complete, Miss, and you can carry on.” It was completed to the day, no pole is visible, not one grain of dust has been seen.
The next morning, greatly daring, I sent my first telegram by telephone. This is a huge convenience. No telegrams either in or out go through the village exchange. They come straight from Exeter, and it saves over an hour’s time on every telegram. I begun dictating and at last reached the word “goes” and there we stuck. I said “g-g-g” to no purpose. The operator soothingly asked me to spell it, and such was my frustration that I could not think of any word beginning with a “g” but goat. I felt this might be interpreted personally – so sat, in a cold perspiration searching my brain for another word beginning with “g” and could only think of “goop,” which was worse. Wildly I wondered if “Gee gee, a horse” would be any use, and then decided to keep all suggestions of the Turf out of the already complicated matter. All I could do was to continue to murmur, “G-g-g-g,” when the operator suddenly said brightly, “Do you mean ‘G’ for George.” Oh the relief. I sobbed out.
There is no fussing about payment or change. Accounts come quarterly. I can order stamps, postal orders, all Post-office stuff by phone and it is delivered by the next mail van at this door. This department is spot cash, so to speak, but one can get special permission to pay by cheque, and the mail vans deliver at this house four times daily.” 
I impudently tell my friends they can’t forget my number – “Sweet seventeen” – and when they can’t hear either of my names I say crisply, “The sixth wife of Henry 8th” which shock pierces the most calloused understanding.” Catherine Parr was convinced she was a descendant of Henry the Eighth’s six wife Catherine Parr, hence the above reference. “This morning my bluejacket (the name for her man servant) announced that the rats in his cottage are destroying a new bit of masonry. Promptly, I rang the ironmonger over the hills “to town.” He is catching the morning post, and the rat-trap will be delivered here today at 5. p.m.
We have notified the outlying farms and hamlets of the permanent telephone service at Venton for emergency, and have told them which window to knock on at night if a doctor or vet is wanted. And so I fold my hands contentedly and ma glad to have lived to be on the phone.” – The Devon and Exeter Gazette, September 1st, 1933.

Imagine how nervous the “smart, neat, young man” must have been trying to do his work with Beatrice hovering over him, watching hawk-like for the slightest mess or damage. Think what the thoughts of the “four workmen and the inspector” would have been as they tramped through fields and gardens as they desperately attempted to find mutually agreeable sites for the four telegraph poles. Then finally, the last ordeal would have been for the “two men with ladders” as they desecrated the hallowed Venton granite walls. The “obsequious foreman” surely breathed a sigh of relief as he reverently doffed his cap, bowed his head and made a hasty retreat knowing that for he and his men the ordeal of ‘Sweet Seventeen’ finally over.

If you would like to know more about the life of Beatrice Chase it can be found on the Legendary Dartmoor page – HERE.

About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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