Many people say that you either love Dartmoor or loathe it, I would slightly disagree insomuch as there is a third emotion regarding Dartmoor and that is obsession. It truly can become an addictive place for all sorts of reasons and it is this third category that the writer William Crossing fell into. He also illustrates that old theory that “if you scratch my back, I’ll tear out your pockets,” or in other words, hardly anybody has made their fortune from anything to do with Dartmoor – all will become clear later. “As long as I can recollect anything at all, I can remember the old moor. In my childhood, no sooner did I pass beyond its borders than I felt for it a love, and that love has increased with my years. Many months at a time have I passed upon it, and on the commons surrounding it, spending my days in becoming familiar with its rugged hills, (till at last I look upon them as old friends) and in learning what I could of its ancient stories from the dwellers in its confines,” – William Crossing, 1888, Amid Devonia’s Alps, p.11.
William Crossing was born in Plymouth on the 14th of November 1847 and lived at 17, Drake Street. The family consisted of his father Joseph, mother Elizabeth, brother Joseph, brother Samuel, sister Elizabeth and a servant named Miss Caroline Ellis. Joseph senior was a grocer by trade and earlier members of the family were noted Exeter dignitaries with mayors and bailiffs among their offices. William was introduced to Dartmoor by way of family holidays at a small cottage on Roborough Down where he soon got to know the eastern side of Dartmoor. His mother’s encouragement was instrumental in his interest in the countryside, especially its traditions, folklore and antiquities. After leaving school at Plymouth he went to the Independent College at Taunton and then returned to the Mannamead School in Plymouth When he left school, William was apprenticed to a sail-cloth manufacturer and this was a job he detested, and in 1863 he took a sea voyage to Wales which was followed by a trip to Canada the year later. This was very nearly his final voyage as the vessel was nearly crushed by an iceberg during the night. This must have put the young Crossing off his sea-faring days. Having returned to ‘blighty’ he worked for his father whilst indulging in his passions for Dartmoor and the theatre. For a time he ran a small theatre where he wrote several small plays but after a short lived success the business failed which gave greater opportunities to explore Dartmoor. Joseph Crossing decided that his son needed a greater sense of responsibility and so sent him to manage the family’s flax spinning and sailcloth business at South Brent. Sadly a combination of another ruinous theatrical tour, the distraction of Dartmoor, and the slump in the demand for sail-cloth led to the mill closing down. This left William Crossing struggling without an income but despite this, in 1872, he married Miss Emma Witheridge. The couple settled in South Brent where William began collating his Dartmoor field excursion notes with a view to writing a book.
In 1874, a friend of Crossing was visiting Devon and expressed a desire to see some of Dartmoor and in ‘Amid Devonia’s Alps’, pp. 53-73, he describes the poor man’s visit to the moor. The evening before their excursion they had planned an early night but in Crossing’s words, “The company was so agreeable that very soon all thought about the morning had vanished…” Which sounds a bit like the port bottle came out, either way they decided to abandon any thoughts of sleep and simply ‘party on’ until dawn. After some “strong coffee,” they headed up from South Brent to the moor which they entered at Zeal hill. From here they walked up to Huntingdon Warren where they called in on the warrener and spent some time with him. They then went up to Aune Head, down past Hooten Wheals to the Forest Inn at Hexworthy in order to partake of some, “homely Dartmoor fare.” The pair then left the inn went down to Swincombe Meet and walked up to Loughtor (Laughter tor) and on to Postbridge via Bellever clapper. On reaching Postbridge they called in at the Greyhound Inn (now the East Dart Hotel) which was a temperance house so presumably partook of some tea. The route then took them to Crockern tor and on to Wistman’s Wood after which they dropped down to Two Bridges where being the day after the fair they watched a wrestling match. Crossing and his friend then moved on to Princetown and called at The Duchy Hotel for a rest and some supper. By the time they left it was dark and the pair travelled on to Siward’s cross, where. on reaching it was, “too dark,” for his friend to examine. He also notes that by now that they were getting tired but carried on towards Down tor where it was decided to make for the Dousland Barn Inn. By the time they arrived at the inn it was very late and so the pair slept in the porch. By this time they would have walked a minimum of 28 miles and remember they had had no sleep the previous night. At daybreak the pair then walked down to Marchant’s Bridge, up Lynch hill, down to Cadover bridge, past Blackaton cross over Lee moor, and on to Cornwood where they caught the train back to South Brent. Crossing later remarked how on reaching home his friend went straight to bed and was not seen again until the following morning. He also notes how that when his friend did appear he was wearing: “… canvass shoes, finding it impossible to get on his own boots, for not having been provided with the stout laced boots necessary for such a tramp, he had worn a pair of ordinary ones with elastic shoes (presumably the modern day ‘Market Boot’), and in pulling them off, it seems, he had quite stripped the skin from his heels...” All in all the pair had walked about 35 miles which today may not seem a lot but it must be remembered there was no such thing as lightweight boots or Gortex and both would have worn heavy leather boots. Also bear in mind they had partied all through the night before the excursion and by the reference of, “strong coffee,” it sounds they possibly had hangovers. This ‘long tramp’ is by no means an exception for Crossing and in his various books he describes equally as long walks on the moor, all carried out in all weathers.
As mentioned above, a favourite haunt of the Crossing’s was the Forest Inn at Hexworthy and it was during a stay here in 1878, with the help of his wife learned shorthand which made his excursion notes much easier to write. During this time he wrote many articles about Dartmoor for the local papers and began to publish his books. In 1881 he joined the Devonshire Association and remained as a member until 1891 when he had to resign because he become, “so impoverished.” Not only was Crossing walking and recording day to day Dartmoor he was also responsible for re-discovering and re-erecting a multitude of the granite crosses and other antiquities of the moor, many of which are still standing today. The old place-names that he has left us is a true wealth of information as many a letterbox stamp will testify. In amongst his papers that were so tragically destroyed was his own personal gazetteer of place-names, imagine if that was available today? Throughout his numerous excursions Crossing was always accompanied by his dog, over the years he had several terriers several of which he called ‘Snap’, he was a renown dog lover.
In the 1890’s the couple moved from South Brent to Brentor and then on to Mary Tavy. In 1891 he wrote a article entitled, “Land of Stream and Tor,” which was published in the annual 1892 Christmas publication of Doidge’s Western Counties Illustrated. The following 7 years saw a serious downturn in both his fortune and his health, so much so that for long periods he was confined to his house. In 1900 he wrote a series of articles for the Western Morning News which appeared over 17 weeks. In 1901 the series was published as a book entitled ‘One Hundred Years on Dartmoor’ and was soon a success which led to another series, ‘Echoes of an Ancient Forest‘. In 1906, Crossing became tutor to the three sons of Mr W. P. Collins alongside which he continued work on what was to be his master-piece – ‘Crossing’s Guide to Dartmoor‘. Still things were not going well for Mr Crossing and in 1917 Collins arranged a public subscription for William on his 70th Birthday. Shortly after this Emma was taken ill and the couple moved to Ivybridge to stay with relations from where Emma was eventually moved to the Tavistock Workhouse. Emma Crossing died on the 6th June 1921 after which William was found accommodation at Mary Tavy by Mr Collins. In 1924, William was away for a while and the woman who cleaned his room founds a pile of mice-damaged papers which she took to be rubbish and consequently burnt. This represented his life-time’s work of irreplaceable notes taken whilst on his many Dartmoor excursions and basically was the end for the old man. On the 9th of July 1925, he spent 12 weeks in the Tavistock Workhouse but was then moved to Cross Park Nursing Home in Plymouth. During his stay at the home, Mr Collins paid the bills which amounted to several hundred pounds but it was here William published his final Dartmoor book – ‘Cranmere‘. On the 3rd of September 1928, William Crossing passed away and was buried alongside his wife in Mary Tavy churchyard. On the 4th of September 1928 the Western Morning News published a lengthy obituary among which the following was said; “He was a great admirer of books, and despite the troubles and difficulties of life (of which he had a full share), he declared that in the company of books he never felt dull. He had some acquaintance with the grammar of the Welsh and Gaelic, which he squired principally for comparative purposes. Although Mr. Crossing was very fond of animals, especially dogs, he had no great liking for field sports, although at one time he took much delight in hunting and trout fishing. His wanderings were mostly on foot, occasionally starting soon after day-break, and not returning until after midnight. Sometimes his rambles extended to two or three days. He never set out ‘al a tourist’, to “do”Dartmoor, or gone about “learning” it in any fashion; but by constant association his knowledge of the district gradually grew, until, in the course of years, he crossed it and re-crossed it in every direction.” Andrew Fleming makes a very poignant remark about Crossing when he says, “Educationally and financially he was at an disadvantage compared to most who pontificated on Dartmoor“, and how right he was and how little has changed, Dartmoor still has its wealthy and supposedly learned ‘pontificators’.
Referring back to the initial point about not making fortunes from Dartmoor, is this not a prime example? Here is a man who devoted most of his time to writing about Dartmoor, very much to the detriment of his career, family, and fortune and who died penniless. Today his priceless legacy has given us an insight into the old Dartmoor and its traditions, ways of life, and its landscape . His magnum opus is still the ‘Bible’ for anyone wishing to get to know Dartmoor and his other works are similarly pertinent. I remember reading in his ‘Amid Devonia’s Alps’ how he was describing a dark, wet, fog-bound night where he was stuck out in the Fen, he noted that although he could not see a thing he knew where he was by the feel of the ground – respect or what? Later Dartmoor authors have criticised his work, read Hemery’s High Dartmoor, but considering the technology and ideas available to Crossing he is and always will be ‘guru’ of Dartmoor. I often wonder what he could have done with a digital camera, voice recorder and internet access. There is no arrogance to his writing and what knowledge was imparted by the moorfolk of his time was given willingly, here is a list of Crossing’s Books in my library (not in publication date order): Amid Devonia’s Alps, Ancient Stone Crosses of Dartmoor, Crossing’s Dartmoor Worker, Dartmoor’s Early Historic & Medieval Remains, Echoes of an Ancient Forest, Folklore and Legends of Dartmoor, From a Dartmoor Cott, Gems in a Granite Setting, Land of Stream and Tor, One Hundred Years on Dartmoor, Princetown, its Rise and Fall, Stones of Dartmoor and Their Story, Tales of the Dartmoor Pixies, Teign from Moor to Sea and The Western Gate of Dartmoor. In addition to these is – ‘Cranmere’ and ‘Folk Rhymes of Devon’, both of which fetch in excess of £50 and are a lottery win. This page has only been concerned with his Dartmoor writings and in addition to the numerous short articles are many other books on poetry and Devon. If you look in the Dartmoor bibliography his work takes up 3 columns in the book section and 4 columns in the articles section. So although he may have died penniless what a fabulously rich legacy to leave behind and one which many people would be proud of. So, how do we commemorate this great man? There is a small memorial at Duck’s Pool which granted is one of the Dartmoor pilgrimages, but that is it!
If you ever visit the Forest Inn at Hexworthy) where Crossing spent so many nights ask to see their Crossing’s library or memorabilia – and don’t hold your breath. Call in at the High Moors Visitor’s Centre and ask to see the William Crossing display and notice all the Sherlock Holmes paraphernalia as you leave. Drop in at the Museum of Dartmoor Life, the very topic the great man wrote so profusely about – nothing. If you visit the church at Mary Tavy you will be hard pressed to find any mention of him or his grave and if you finally do locate his grave you will find nothing which mentions his achievements. The only consolation for William is that from his eternal resting place he has a good view of the moor which he held so dear as can be seen from the picture above. Not that you would know it, but Crossing’s grave is the one beneath the large tree looking out over Smeardon Down. Over the past few years the Crossing grave has slowly become smothered in weeds, grass, and moss to the extent that it is hardly recognisable due to the neglect. In the July of 2022 a post put up on my Legendary Dartmoor Facebook page once again drew attention to the poor state of the grave. A comment on that post said, “Interesting that this has been raised . Mary Tavy Parish Council are just about to embark on providing some tlc to the grave. I believe a working party is due to start work on Friday. It is also the intention to look into providing some sort of signage/information board to commemorate the great man.”
Oh, there is one other lasting memory of William Crossing and that is a rock up the East Dart river which is where he spent many hours looking out across the moor. Thanks to the letterboxing fraternity this has been identified and ‘Crossing’s Chair’ (SX 6050 8490) has entered the place-names of Dartmoor.