Over the centuries Dartmoor has lost many old characters, all of whom were proud, hardworking men, born of the moor and all who have left their legacy in the pages of the moor’s history. One such character was Jonas Coaker the ‘Dartmoor Poet’. Jonas Coaker was born at Hartyland near Postbridge in 1801. When old age overtook him he retired to Ringhill Cott at Postbridge where he spent his final years. Sadly, his later years saw him penniless, blind, infirm and with a failing memory In the 1881 census Jonas was recorded as being a retired farmer boarding with Mary Hawke at Ringhill, (On-line source – Ancestry.com). Jonas Coaker died on the 12th of February 1890 aged 89. In the tradition of the old moormen his corpse was carried down the Widecombe Church Path for burial at the ‘Cathedral of the Moor’ in Widecombe. Towards the ends of his days Jonas’s only concern was that of what would happen to him when he died. Being virtually penniless he constantly fretted not about actually dying but about his journey to his last resting place and burial. Baring Gould described his plight and how needless were his concerns when his final day came…
“Towards the end of his life the old man’s mind was concerned with but one care –
“Oh dear life! whativer shall I do wi’ myself when I’m dead?
“What do you mean, Jonas”
“I’ve no relations – no wife, no sons, no daughters, and I’m desperate poor. Lawk-a-dear life! Whatever shall I do wi’ myself when dead?”
“Jonas, doant’t’y be terrified over thickey trouble. I’ll see to’y that you be put away in Widdecombe churchyard all vitty.”
” Thank’y Cap’. That’s very kind of you. But how will’y get the men to carr’ me?”
“There be men at Hexworthy Mine.”
“I reckon there be – let me see; You see, Cap’n, it’s a cruel long way to Widecombe. I must have for sure Sartain a change of bearers. You see, Cap’n, I can’y ease ‘em. I’d walk part of the way to ease ‘n if I could. But I can’t. Oh, dear life! Whatever shall I do wi’ myself when dead?
“I assure you I will find you plenty of bearers.”
“That’s very kind of you. But what if you be away on business when I die – whatever shall I do wi’ myself then?
“I’ll tell my missus to send a man on horseback to the nighest telegraph office and wire right off on to me, and I’ll come I promise you, and leave my business so as to attend you.”
“That’s uncommon kind of you and I thank’y gratefully for the same; but supposing that the horse should cast a shoe – then, whatever shall I do wi’ myself?”
“There is Will Fry can shoe the horse.”
“But Will, he gets a drop too much occasionally. What a pretty job it would be if Will Fry were fresh and ran the nail into the frog and lamed your horse – and all along o’ me. Whativer should I do we’ myself then?”
“You need not trouble yourself about that, Jonas, The licence has been withdrawn from the inn, and it has now been changed hands and has become a temperance hotel, so that Will cannot get drink even if he desire it.”
“That’s a great comfort to me to think it. But, then, doant’y fancy Will Fry might be that sulky and perverse all along of not getting’ his drink that he might refuse to shoe the horse?”
“Then Jonas, my horse shall go without his shoe.”
“Thank’y Cap’n, it is very good o’ you to say so, and no doubt you mean it kind. But if your horse fell lame on the road – whativer should I do wi’ myself then?”
So he fretted – there was no relieving his concern; a fresh difficulty continued to start up as soon as an old one was laid. In his humble mind he supposed that no one could care sufficiently for him to give up a day’s work to assist in his burying; and he had absolutely nothing of his own to leave to pay for his funeral. After a friend had done everything to satisfy his scruples, he would put his hand to his white yes, wipe the tear that trickled down his withered cheek, and recur to the same difficulty. “When I’m dead, whativer shall I do with myself?”
At last the dreaded day came; not the day of death – to that he he had looked forward, not with blind eyes, but with eyes that saw through darkness into the unspeakable light beyond – but the day of burial, and all the moorside turned out to do honour the the kindly good poet. The day was Sunday the 16th of February, 1890. A frost was on the short turf, the sky was clear. The miners from Hexworthy were at Ring Hill in their best black; and away over the moors in the glitter of the sun on the sparkling, hoary grass and twinkling furze-bushed the old man was borne, followed by a great train of all who had known and loved him; and as the train swept over the rolling hill, down into the glen by brawling torrent, mile after miles, by old cairns and primeval walled enclosures, rose the hymn and psalm, swelling, ebbing, rising again – a river of music – till as the funeral procession reached the head of Hambledon, a mighty wave of moorland, below which lies the church of Widecombe, the music of the bells ringing for afternoon service hushed the song of the bearers.” – Baring Gould, pp. 151 – 155. For more about the life of Jonas Coaker see HERE.
Although rather sombre events the traditional moorland funeral processions of old must have been quite a spectacle. At the head would be the coffin trundling along on an old cart followed by a phalanx of black clad mourners chanting hymns and psalms as they trod their sorrowful weary way across the moor. The final moorland route which Jonas would have taken would have been along the Widecombe church path. Starting at Hartiland the Church Way passed Ringhill where the procession would have picked it up on the way to Widecombe church. The path then made its way to the old footbridge which crosses the Wallabrook near Runnage. Once across the brook the tracks led into what today is a sunken holloway which crosses Cator Common. Just below Ephriam’s Pinch the course then followed the present day road along past Grendon Cottage below which is the farm of Grendon. After crossing the West Webburn River the Church Way ran down past the old manor and Blackaton From there the track then meandered in a south easterly direction and entered the open moor just east of the farm of Hatchwell. At this point on the Widecombe Church Path the course leads up over open moor onto the huge hogback ridge of Hambledon. The path then makes a line for the top of a small, well-worn lane at a point known as Church Lane Head which then becomes Church Lane and leads down into Widecombe in the Moor. Surely the very fact that a “great train” of mourners were prepared to walk the 9 odd kilometres to the church was a sure sign of a much loved and respected character.
Baring Gould, 1896. Dartmoor Idylls. London: Metheun & Co. pp.