Widecombe-in-the Moor Village Sign – It is fair to say that this village sign is the most photographed one on Dartmoor. The one that proudly sits on the green today is not the original one nor is it on the same site of the road as once located. The first village sign came about as the result of a suggestion that Prince Albert the Duke of York made in 1920. He suggested that it would be an admiral idea to revive the old tradition of erecting village signs which dated back to the times of Edward VII. There is one particularly important claim to fame that the Widecombe sign can make, that being it was the first one to be erected in the county of Devonshire.
A report of the official unveiling ceremony read: “Widecombe village sign was formally unveiled on Saturday by Mr. Charles Brooke, chairman of Newton Abbot Rural Council… Mr R. G. Clarke representing “The Daily Mail,” explained that at the opening of the Royal Academy in 1920 the Duke of York referred to the advisability of the revival of village signs. “The Daily Mail” immediately organised a competition for village signs, offering a total of £2,200 in prizes and an exhibition of the designs was held at Australia House in October 1920, and at various other towns throughout the country. The design from which the Widecombe sign was constructed was by Mr. J. M. Doran, 152, Finbourough Road, Earl’s Court, S. W., who was awarded a special prize of £50. “The Daily Mail” had great pleasure in giving effect to the wish of his Royal Highness by handing over the sign to the Newton Rural Council… Mr. Charles Stooke said it was a happy thought of the Duke of York to suggest these village signs, and the “Daily Mail” had shown its usual enterprise in carrying it into effect. This was the first village sign erected in Devon, but it was obviously such an advantage to motorists to know what village they were passing through that he hoped many other signs would be erected in the district. He considered the design was most appropriate for the village of Widecombe, as it was founded on the old song of “Widecombe fair.” A happy suggestion was made by a bystander that “Widecombe Fair” should be sung at the conclusions of the ceremony. Volunteers were forthcoming in Messrs. C. Churchward and F. Gough, local vocalists, and the chorus was heartily taken up by the crowd.” – The Western Morning News, July 17th, 1922.
The actual column on which the ceramic sign is mounted was constructed from rough blocks of granite quarried from a nearby tor and sited on what is today the entrance of the public car park. Keeping with the associated ‘Widecombe Fair’ song good old ‘Uncle Tom Cobley’ and his crew was depicted riding the ‘Old Grey Mare’. The whole scene was constructed with painted glazed tiles. As you can see below it did not take photographers and postcard makers to cash in on the village sign in one form or another, a tradition that lasts to this day.
The iconic sign stood majestically on it’s roadside location for nearly 20 years until one Adolph Hitler posed his threat of invasion. On the outbreak of World War Two all village signs were removed, the idea being that any invading troops would not be able to work out where they were. Somehow I can’t imagine a column of Panzer tanks trundling down Widecombe Hill but at the time the threat seemed a real possibility. For some reason Widecombe-in-the-Moor must have been considered a prime target as on Hameldown just to the north of the village a network of telegraph poles was erected in order to deter German parachutists? Anyway, the sign had to go and unfortunately when dismantling the ceramic sign it was accidentally dropped and broken beyond repair.
With the threat of enemy invasion ended thoughts turned to erecting another village sign in order that visiting motorists could once again “know what village they were passing through.” On the 25th of August 1948 the villagers of Widecombe had a new sign. It was decided to relocate the new sign onto the village green on the opposite side of the road to where the original stood. The new sign was built into a eight-foot high granite base which was constructed by Thomas Nosworthy at a cost of £9. The new sign was carved on Hornton stone (thought to be more weather resistant than Dartmoor granite) and was designed by Mrs. S. Sayer. Once again ‘Uncle Tom Cobley’ and his crew was depicted riding the Grey Mare only this time they are riding from left to right as opposed right to left on the original design. The carving of the figures was executed by 60 year old Mr. Carl Taylor who worked for the monumental masons, Messrs. A. R. Knight of Newton Abbot It is said that the work took him 80 hours to complete at a cost of £89 3s. 6d. for both the carving and fixing the sign to its base. The entire expense of the project was met by Mr. Francis Hamlyn from nearby Dunstone Court. A fact today acknowledged by a plaque on the sign which reads: “This sign was presented to the Parish of Widecombe-in-the-Moor by Francis Hamlyn Esquire of Dunstone Court, Widecombe 1948.”
Today in addition to the sign of 1948 new modern village signs are located at the entrances to the village, once again ‘Uncle Tom’ and crew are depicted trundling from right to left on the ‘old Grey Mare’ as they leave Widecombe. The only modern day addition to the sign is the “Please drive slowly” request, something not required on the old ones. So next time you are in Widecombe have a quick glance at the sign and remember that its predecessor was the first village sign to appear in the whole of Devonshire and maybe buy a postcard for old times sake.