Whilst researching the Okehampton Deer Park I came across the Okehampton Stag Hunt, which amazingly, has nothing to do with hunting deer at all. No, the ‘stag hunt’ was in effect what can only be described as the forerunner to the modern Anti Social Behaviour Order or ASBO. This tradition took place in many of the northern Dartmoor villages and towns, reports coming from; Okehampton, Drewsteignton, Chagford and Gidleigh. The tradition was a display of public censure that was meted out for various kinds of moral lapses. In normal circumstances the ‘stag’ hunt was only carried out when both partners of a marriage had transgressed in the eyes of their neighbours. Theo Brown, (1952, pp 105) describes one such hunt that took place at Okehampton somewhere between 1873 and 1875. The townsfolk had decided that for whatever reason the occupants of a house in East Street had earned their displeasure. Accordingly a ‘stag’ was found, in this case was a local gardener called Mr. Steer who it seems was renown for his athletic prowess. He was dressed in a loose robe that was tied at the waist, on his head he wore a pair of short deer antlers and his face was painted brown and red. Once the hunt began the ‘stag’ was chased by the huntsman and his hounds, all local men from the town. The ‘stag’ led the chase around the various streets of the town watched by hoards of knowing onlookers, every now and again hiding in a garden to catch its breath. The sole intent was for the chase to eventually finish up at the house of the transgressors but to add to the suspense and ignominy the route avoided this location for as long as possible. The ‘stag’ would occasionally hide in a garden in order to get his breath back which normally wasn’t for long because the children would seek him out and call down the ‘hounds’. This really was a time of great excitement and pleasure for the townsfolk who either partook in the chase or generally derided the victims. Eventually the ‘stag’ would arrive at the doorstep of the victims house where he would allow the hounds to put him at bay, then a dramatic kill would take place ending up with a bladderful of ox blood being spilled all over the doorstep. The ‘stag’ had carried the bladder in preparation all throughout the chase, the red stain it left on the doorstep was in effect a stain of shame. Denoting in no uncertain terms that the townsfolk wished the transgressors to either mend their ways or leave town. Once their official displeasure had been demonstrated the crowds then retired to continue the jollification in the local inns until well into the evening.
At Drewsteignton things were a little different insomuch as the displeasure was aimed at a single victim, usually guilty of a grave moral offence.
Once such a person had been identified all the men of the village would meet up after dark at some central point such as the churchyard. All carried torches or lanterns and all were armed with frying pans, bells, cans and the like. Once assembled the men would lead the whole village to the offenders home, banging and crashing their ‘instruments of displeasure’ as they went. Once outside the house the leader of the hunt donned a pair of rams horns which was a signal for the crowd to noisily dance around the victims abode, howling like hounds as they did so. Once stirred up enough the offender would be dragged out of his house and given a head start before the hunt gave chase. When the ‘hounds’ caught up with their quarry he was usually tossed into the nearest pond or stream after which, deemed to having been informed of his neighbours displeasure, was released to return home and ponder his future. The last recorded instance of this tradition at Drewsteignton was in 1894.
This tradition was not exclusive to Dartmoor but it and other variations appear to be concentrated in Devonshire. One extreme variation on the theme was applied to any man suspected of paying court to a woman whilst her husband was at market. In this case the offender would be caught, released and chased until he collapsed of heart failure. One such instance was a man whose ‘chase’ began at the village of Shebbear which is about 12 miles from Okehampton. This ‘hunt’ chased its quarry through four parishes until it finally on Sourton Moor where the victim died from exposure. It is said that his body was buried under the village cross at nearby North Lew, (Brown, 1979, p.21). For quite a long time this tradition was frowned upon by the authorities as it was constituted as harassment, today it could be classed as antisocial behaviour or breach of human rights. The modern answer is, as mention above, the ASBO although there are many instances where justice is administered on a local basis although not as overtly as the ‘stag hunt’.
A similar dispensation of justice was also carried out at Lydford in the form of Riding to Water, again aimed at local miscreants.
Brown, T. 1979. A Further Note on the Stag Hunt in Devon. In – Folklore. Vol. 90, No. 1. The Folklore Society.
Brown, T. 1952. The Stag Hunt in Devon. In – Folklore. Vol. 63, No. 2. The Folklore Society.