On March the 21st 1829 a party of huntsmen and their dogs were hot on th trail of an old moor fox up near the head of the river Teign. A more barren and desolate tract of land would be hard to find, all around lay peat hags and gullys filled with oozing mud. Dartmoor was lying under a blanket of frozen snow and the north wind heralded further flurries. Suddenly the dogs stopped in their tracks and stood at bay, intently staring at some object lying ahead. The huntsmen rushed forward to find a grisly discovery in the form of what initially appeared to be a bundle of wet, muddy rags. Still the dogs stood as still as statues and the silence of the moor was only broken by the occasional whimper of the animals. One of the huntsmen stepped forward and gingerly poked the pile of rags with his foot, an action he was soon to regret. As he lifted a sodden corner of fustian a badly decomposed head rolled out of the mangled heap. Stomachs churned as the putrefying stench of rotting flesh filled the still air, to a one the hardened huntsmen wretched and gagged and fumbled for their kerchiefs.
One of the party bravely decided to examine the corpse to see if any form of identification still remained. It was obvious from the state of the corpse that it had lain there for most of the winter. What flesh and features that had not rotted had clearly been carrion for the moorland scavengers that roam this remote part of Dartmoor. As the pathetic pile was lifted the remaining limbs parted company from the torso with a sickening squelch. It was obvious that nothing further could be done and so the shaken hunting party made their way off the moor in order to report the matter to the authorities.
The following day was a bitterly cold day on the moor, there was a vicious wind blowing from the north bringing with it the threat of further snow. It was under a leaden sky that the coroner, Joseph Gribble and his jury made their weary way through the thick snow drifts to where the corpse lay. Piece by piece the corpse was examined, the remains of the head were hanging by a few sinews to the neck, and bizarrely a hat still sat squarely on it. Such was the degree of decomposition that the coroner found it impossible to establish any signs of an attack. Piece by piece the clothing was examined, firstly a fustian coat under which lay a blue waistcoat and then the corduroy breeches. On what was left of the feet were a pair of blue socks and a pair of shoes which it appeared had not long been repaired. The search for identification continued and finally resulted in a handkerchief and a solitary halfpenny. From this and the style of clothing the coroner assumed that the unidentified man was a farmer’s servant who had become lost on this lonely part of the moor.
One of the assembly informed Mr Gribble that the previous November whilst in the area he met a man who was clearly lost. In true moor fashion he inquired if there was a problem and was asked by the man how he could get to Okehampton. The moorman then related how he told the man that as he clearly didn’t know this part of the moor then he best return to the public road and thus make his way to Okehampton. The couple then parted in different directions and no more was thought of the matter. The moorman then told the coroner that from the best of his memory the sad, sodden pile of clothes was the same as the stranger was wearing on that fateful November day.
By this time the sombre assembly were in severe danger of hypothermia from standing in the exposed moorside of Teign Head. Mr Gribble asked the jury for a verdict and was promptly given the simple answer of, “found dead”. With that they signed the official declaration and hurriedly made their way off the moor. The coroner requested that a coffin be brought to the spot and the corpse of the unfortunate man be taken to Princetown where it was to be buried in the churchyard.
This tragic story was reported in The Times newspaper of 1829 and there are a couple of reports of a lone figure that has been seen wandering around Teign Head and then vanishing out of sight. But for those that know Teign Head there can be no worse place to get lost if you don’t know the area. Possible that unfortunate traveller had it in his mind that Okehampton was to the north and that should be the way to go. Sadly in this case going north simply takes you further into the vast wastes of the North Moor. If buts and maybes, if the traveller did meet the moorman, and if he had taken his advise and used the public road to get to Okehampton he might have survived his journey. According to the map wheel, by going back from Teign Head and walking the roads he would have travelled about 17 miles. The route directly across the moor from Teign Head, as the crow flies, is roughly 7 miles. So for the sake of an extra 10 miles the best advise was ignored and a lone traveller perished on the moor – hindsight is a wonderful thing. But the saddest part of all must be the fact that all that poor man had on him was a handkerchief and a halfpenny, no watch, no food and probably nobody to even care.
The other thing that’s striking about this story is how inquests were held at the scene of death. This event occurred 178 years ago which in the times pan of things isn’t that long ago so imagine in these modern times trying to get a jury to tramp out onto a snow covered moor in freezing temperatures to conduct an inquest. I have the feeling that today Mr Gribble would be making that journey on his Jack Jones.