There was an old tradition in the Dunsford area that when a dwelling was left unoccupied a ghost would come down the chimney and take up residence in the house. On Friday Aug 7th, 1874 the following case was heard at Crockernwell Assizes and as the evidence was revealed it encompassed criminal damage, ghostly happenings and bribery of a police officer. All in all it makes for interesting and at times amusing reading.
The Complainant – Mr. Hellier.
The Defendants – Henry Pook, George West, Frank Chaff and Fred White.
The Prosecutor – Mr. Friend.
The Defence – Mr.Creed.
Main Witness – PC Brook
The defendants charges were; “doing wilful and malicious damage to a cott belonging to Mr. Hellier called Butts. Mr. Friend began saying that Hellier was a cattle dealer living at Dunsford who owned Butt cott. On Lady Day (25th of march) the tenant vacated the property which was then left unoccupied during which time damage to the value of 30s. was done. The matter was reported to the police and P.C. Brook was dispatched to ‘stake’ out the place in the hope of catching the culprits.
Mr. Hellier was then asked to take the stand in order to give a statement as to give an estimate of the damage caused, he estimated that at the very least the cost would come to 30s. Today that would equate out to around £100 but back then, being a cattle dealer he could have bought one cow for that amount.
Mr. Creed then cross-examined Hellier who admitted that he could not say exactly how much damage had been done before the day in question as some of it had happened previously and had no idea who had caused it. He also remarked that yes, some of the damage to the palings had in fact be done by his own cart. The defence then stated as Hellier had stated that some of the damage had been done previous to the day in question how could he come to any specific claim for damages. The prosecutor then objected to the remark and a to and fro debate took place between Friend and Creed. Hellier was the allowed to continue with his evidence and described how George West had visited him and asked what he was going to do with regards to legal proceedings and that he was prepared to pay his share of the cost.
The cross-examination continued with Mr. Creed asking whether or not Hellier had paid PC Brook as sovereign for keeping watch on the premisis along with a pig? Hellier swore that he had not given PC Brook the guinea and that he actually paid for the pig. He the remarked how he would be prepared to bet Mr. Creed £500 that this was the truth, Mr. Creed decline the bet.
PC Brook took the stand and noted how he was stationed at Dunsford and on information he had seen proceeded to Butts Cott on Sunday, 7th of June. He had arrived there at half past five that evening and had secreted himself in the pig sty to keep watch. The sty was opposite the cott and provided a clear view of the property. Clearly back then there was no association between a ‘pig’ and a policeman or perhaps he would have chosen somewhere else to hide? Three hours later he observed Pook and two others approach the property, as people often passed that way Pook was posted as a look-out. Meanwhile he observed West picking up rocks from the road and throwing them through the windows closely followed by White and Chaff. The bombardment lasted for approximately fifteen minutes. When anyone approached the cott Pook could be heard to call out, ‘hold hard’. Brook also heard something go rattling down the chimney and someone shout out, ‘That’s one of the bloody ghosts falling down the chimney’. At this point in the proceedings it was pointed out that when a house became untenanted in Dunsford people believed that ghosts took possession of the property. Mr. Friend quipped that this belief, ‘pointed to the high civilisation existing at Dunsford, much to the amusement of the court. PC Brook continued saying that he then heard Chaff say, ‘I’ll put one through that window’ to which Pook replied, ‘look sharp then, Frank’. Just a Chaff was about to throw the rock someone was approaching and Pook yelled out, ‘hold hard’. Once the four defendants had left the cott he went inside and discovered three bricks in the chimney breast and how on a previous inspection of the property they weren’t there. Brook also added that in his onion at least several hundreds of stones had been thrown at the property. Then the witness was cross examined by the defence and in answer to his questions stated that on no occasion had he received or expected to receive a pig from Mr. Hellier. He was aware there was a reward offered but that he didn’t know if he was entitled to it but was not concerned either way. then for some odd reason he was asked if it was indeed he that was acting as the ‘ghost’ and if he had been hiding by the stairs, on both accounts Brooks denied them. Mr. Creed continued pressing the ‘ghostly’ questions at which point the prosecution objected on the ‘ghost’ factor being irrelevant to the case. The Bench agreed and told to confine himself to the matter at hand.
The cross-examination and PC Brook continued stating that it was a fortnight later when he met George West and charged him with the offence. It was suggested to West that if he and his friends would pay Mr. Hellier 8 shillings and 4 pence each the matter would be dropped. Brook also said that he was well aware that 4 times 8 shillings and 4 pence come to 50 shillings and that he knew this sum was 20 shillings over what this claim was for. He also added that he was unsure if the extra 20 shilling was to cover the reward.
Having finished with the cross-examinations Mr. Creed submitted that firstly there was no case against Henry Pook as he was only the lookout and the only charge that should apply is that of aiding and abetting. With regards to the other defendants he was of the opinion that the policeman’s evidence was ‘suspicious’ to say the least and why did it take about one month for them to be charged? The Clerk of the Court immediately pointed out that Mr. Hellier had sought to file the summons immediately after the event but as he had not been in his office for a month this loed to the delay.
John Wills was then called to give evidence who apparently was at the scene during the events, he stated that although all the defendants were present he had not seen any stones thrown. At this point the prosecution attempted to discredit Wills by asking if he had been sacked by his master for being drunk and also if one of the alleged defendants had not served time in Dartmoor Prison.
Walter Wills then took the stand and gave his dubious evidence that although he had passed by the cott and seen all the defendants there he did not stay there long as he was just passing by.
The Bench dismissed the charges against Henry Pook and fined the other three defendants 10 shillings each, 1 shilling cost plus expenses, Mr. Hellier was awarded 5 shillings for attending to which the prosecution immediately objected but this was denied. – The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, August 7th, 1874
OK, a long-winded way to get around to ghosts and chimneys but the interesting thing here is the comment about “That’s one of the bloody ghosts falling down the chimney.” Although probably spoken in jest it was taken that the three others needed no exploitation as to what was being said. What is interesting is that this belief as far as I can find is exclusive to Dunsford and occurs nowhere else on Dartmoor. There was/is a belief that chimneys were the ideal portals in which to enter a dwelling because not only did they provide an open entry point but also and exit. Vacant properties would provide somewhere spirits could inhabit before a new owner moved in or if derelict left to their own devices.