Tom Pearce. Tom Pearce, lend me your grey mare,
All along, down along, out along lee,
For I want for to go to Widdecombe Fair…
The chances are that any mention of Devon and Tom Pearse will immediately bring to mind the famous Widecombe Fair folk song and how he lost his grey mare. Was this fact or fiction? Why would anyone want to loan a valuable horse to a gang of old codgers in order that they could go on a drinking spree at Widecombe Fair? Over the years there has been much speculation as to the origins of the song and why the named people had come to be in it. What is known is that all of the surnames in the song belong to well established families in and around northern Dartmoor. Additionally some of the village graveyards contain the last resting places of individuals with the same names as mentioned. The kind hearted man who lent his grey mare is a prime example and the subject of this webpage – Tom Pearse.
Firstly to begin with the facts, the Pearse family were wool staplers by trade and originally lived in Horrabridge where in 1793 Tom Pearse was born. Then around the beginning of the 19th century they moved to Sticklepath. In 1810 the family purchased the old Cleave or Wilmott’s mill which had burnt down in 1803. This then became known as Cleeve Mill which was a water powered mill that drew its water from the river Taw like the other nearby mills. It is probable that the original mill building was three storeys high and today parts of the old east end of the mill and the lower portion of the west end survive. One of its more lucrative products was a red cloth which was exported to Hyderabad to make uniforms for the Maharajah’s bodyguard. This would have been a veritable hive of industry with wool and the finished cloth being transported to and fro on pack horses.
At one time Sticklepath was a stronghold of the Quakers, reports suggest that at one time at least two hundred Quakers lived in the village. In the 1740s the famous Wesleyan preacher John Wesley made several visits to Sticklepath whilst on his preaching missions to Cornwall. He took advantage of these stop-overs to preach to the inhabitants and over time converted many to his doctrines. The Pearse family were also Calvinists and after arriving at Sticklepath soon established a Methodist following. So much so that the majority of their family, the mill manager and most of the mill workers were staunch Methodist believers. In 1816, thanks to the efforts of Tom Pearse and his mill manager, Thomas Searle a chapel was built in the village. Throughout his life Tom Pearse was prominent in village affairs, for example in 1860 he allowed the Band of Hope Society to meet at his factory. There were around 400 guests who were all provided with afternoon tea. In a similar act of kindness he held a forty fourth anniversary celebration of the Wesleyan chapel at his factory in 1862.
Behind what is now Finch’s foundry is the old Quaker burial ground and in 1818 the last of the Sticklepath Quakers was interred there. This in effect made the graveyard redundant so in 1830 Tom Pearse bought the plot for the sum of £14. He then gave the graveyard to the village on the understanding that it was to be a undenominational cemetery. Eight of the Pearse family were appointed as trustees and down through time several family bequests have been made to ensure its upkeep. It is also worth noting that any of their mill workers could be buried in the cemetery without having to pay the normal grave fees.
Tom Pearse died on the 8th of February 1875 and was buried in the Sticklepath cemetery where his grave stone can be seen today as shown in the photograph above. Beside the entrance to the burial ground is a small thatched summerhouse that has been restored as a memorial to one of the later family. The original structure would have been semi-oval in shape with a bench running around the walls and a small table in the centre. On the wall is a wooden plaque which is thought to have been installed by Tom Pearse. Just before entering the graveyard sits Tom’s old summerhouse which once stood in his garden, on the inside walls are two ornate plaques on which some pious words are written.
So I think it can be assumed that Tom Pearce was a strict Methodist and was well respected within the Sticklepath community where he could only be described a being a leading light. This then brings us onto the question as to whether or not he was ‘The‘ Tom Pearse of the Widecombe Fair folksong? First of all it is estimated that the song was first heard of in or around 1802. This means that as Tom Pearse was born in 1793 he would have been roughly nine years old. Would a nine year old lad be lending a grey mare to anyone yet alone owning one? As a strict Methodist Tom Pearse would have been teetotal and strongly against the ‘Demon Drink’. Why would he then loan his grey mare to that motley crew in order for them to go on a drinking spree at Widecombe Fair? Incidentally, one of that ‘crew’, Harry Hawkes, was the superintendent registrar at Sticklepath Methodist chapel in 1839. Again being a strict Methodist would have wanted to go carousing around. Widecombe Fair?
As noted above, it is fairly certain that all the surnames mentioned in the Widecombe Fair folksong belonged to well established families who lived in the north Dartmoor area. So one could say that Tom Cobley and his crew at least existed in name only. Did they borrow a horse and go to the fair, not from a very young Tom Pearse they didn’t. It may well be possible that they went to the fair to conduct some business with it being a sheep and wool marketplace. Alternatively it just may be that the composer of the lyrics was teasing some of the local worthies either out of fun or spite? So did Tom Pearse really exist? Yes he did, was he the man in the song? No he wasn’t, despite what some of the locals may say.
It is worth noting that varying versions of the folksong can be found up and down the country which include different characters. One suggestion being that the Widecombe Fair version has been adapted from one of these and the surnames have been substituted for local Dartmoor ones.