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In search of the true Uncle Tom Cobley

There had long been a rumour in the family that we were in some way descended from Uncle Tom Cobley. When I discovered that Tom Cobley's grave was in Spreyton, just a couple of miles from my grandmother's childhood home in Colebrooke, I realised this could well be true.
But where to start?

A family friend in Australia - Jeannie Hodkinson- had investigated her own family tree with great success and had copies of the 1881 UK census and the 1851 census for Devon, Norfolk and Warwick. I found my greatgrandmother on the 1881 census as a girl of 16, living with her
parents. I found her father on the 1851 census living with his parents and his grandmother Jane Bartlett.

Interestingly Jane was born in Spreyton. But still no mention of a Cobley!

That summer I decided it would be nice to visit the villages I'd come across in my research, and go to Tom Cobley's grave in Spreyton. The Tom Cobley Tavern in Spreyton seemed like an appropriate place to have lunch! There on the walls, were a painting of the man himself, versions
of The Song in various forms, such as place-mats, and also some framed newspaper cuttings

Waiting for my meal and listening to a couple of oldboys discussing the merits of the pasties from the local butcher, Idecided to read the newspaper cuttings. These words hit me like a bolt.

' ....... included his brother William and his sisters Mary Roach, Joan Cobley and Jane Bartlett.'

So it was true!!

I also discovered from this article that there was another contender for the title whom I have since discovered was the great-uncle of the original. !!! Stories about Uncle Tom Cobley vary - one says he died without issue, another that he disinherited his son, another that he fathered every red-headed child within a 10 mile radius!

Certainly the Thomas Cobley who is buried in Spreyton churchyard died without issue which is how my family, the descendants of his sister Jane, came to inherit Buttsford, Tom's house and how my grandmother came to be in the possession of Tom Cobley's clock.

Mary Bartlett, grand-daughter of Jane Bartlett nee Cobley, very obligingly recorded details of her ancestors, one of whom was a vicar who moved to Somerset. Others lived on the outskirts of Exeter, very close to some of the areas being researched by Cobley families in Australia.

There is still lots to do, but work continues on the family tree of Devon's most famous son!

Hazel Lockhart © 2001


Hazel's research is soon to be published on this site and hopefully the true Uncle Tom Cobley will be proven!

* From People and Places in Devon

The True Story of "Old Uncle Tom Cobley and All"

Worked Hard And Played Hard

One has only to mention that Widecombe Fair takes place next Tuesday and instantly the name of Uncle Tom Cobley will spring to many minds. He has become a symbol of Devon, even more than Drake or Raleigh, and yet surprisingly little is known about him, except in the words of an anonymous song.

In the churchyard at Spreyton there is a gravestone with an inscription to the effect that in 1844 Thomas Cobley was buried there at the age of 82, and he is theone to whom legend has attributed the strange happening on the moor with a grey mare and six cronies.

Thomas Cobley, of Buttsford, Colebrooke, was a popular personality in his day. He kept his own pack of hounds and was very active in the sporting and social life of Devon. But he was also a hard worker, and had a reputation as an excellent farmer. That he was able to work and play hard is explained by the fact that he was a phenomenally early riser.

There is one of his chairs and an oil painting of him hanging at Wellparks, Crediton, the farm of Mr Richard Roach, whose grandfather was a nephew of Thomas Cobley. The portrait of a well built man with his favourite hound resting its muzzle on his knee. His face weather-beaten, honest, and humourous, but with none of the side whiskers that caricatures have given him.

The story goes that he was such an active man that the artist had great difficulty in making appointments with him for sittings. The work took such a time that the hound and then the artist died before the picture was completed, and the lower half of it was finished by another hand.

Tom Cobley's favourite chair is now at Smallbrook, Newton St. Cyres, where Mr Richard Brook, another grandson of a nephew of of Uncle Tom, lives, and his brother William Brook, is at Bowbeer, Spreyton, one of the properties owned by Uncle Tom.

Thomas Cobley, was a considerable landowner, as is shown in the will he made in 1842. Described as Thomas Cobley, gentleman of Buttisford, he left the following properties: Bowbeer and Park (Spreyton), Colebrook Mills, East and West Bigbeer (Spreyton) Spesters and Tappers (Bow and Nymet Tracey), Linhayes and Courilage (on the Bigbeer estate).

He was a bachelor and distributed his property most generously in the form of annuities and properties among 25 relatives and friends. These included his brother William and his sisters, Mary Roach, Joan Cobley and Jane Bartlett. There were four nieces and four nephews, so the name of Uncle Tom Cobley was fully deserved.

The song "Widecombe Fair", although it must be less than 150 years old, is obscure in its origin. It is said that it was written by one of Tom Cobley's relatives who was a parson, and that he kept his own name out of it for fear of a scandal. Likewise, the names of Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Davy, Peter Gurney, Daniel Whiddon, and Harry Hawk are ficticious, but they represent his real friends.

That Thomas Cobley went to Widecombe Fair on more than one occasion may be safely assumed, as that was one of the few great fairs to which he had access. The roads were few and poor, and in fact even the journey to Exeter would have been a hazardous one for him.
What truth there is in the celebrated ride on the grey mare is open to doubt, but it sounds like an escapade carried out by him and his friends after an evening's celebration, and enlarged to make a good song and an amusing story. There is another Thomas Cobley whom some consider to be a contender for the title of Uncle Tom. Very little is known about him. He died in 1794 at Puddicombe Park, Spreyton, and is believed to have been buried in the parish, but there is no trace of his grave. A dispute over his will reveals that he lived to the age of 99, and although hard of hearing and with poor sight, was said to be "sensible" and capable of making his will.

Although unable to read the will he could recite the terms of it from memory, and indeed did this to a solicitor to confirm that it had been correctly drafted by another lawyer.

He was of an earlier generation of the same family as Thomas Cobley of Buttsford, and was also blessed with nephews and nieces. The property he left included Burbear (Bowbeer) and Park at Spreyton, as well as Puddicome Park, his home.

There is a letter in existence written in 1880 by Mary M. Bartlett, of Buttsford, Colebrooke - she was a descendant of the Buttsford Tom Cobley - and in it she gives these details of her ancestors:
John Cobley of Nymet Tracey and Ide married Judith Gulley in 1680; Benjamin Cobley of Nymet Tracey married Elizabeth Churchill of Showbrooke at Bow in 1720; the Rev. Ben Cobley (rector of Dodbrooke) married Sarah ley of exminster, and was buried at Ide in 1764; Thomas Cobley of Odessa (Russia), a field-marshall and Knight of St. George married a lady named Tiplotoff; Harriet ley Cobley was married at Leghorn to Nicholas, Count Mordinoff.

As far as is known, the surviving descendants are William and Richard Brooks, and Richard Roach
*. The latter's grandfather Samuel Roach, was trained in farming at Buttsford by Thomas Cobley, and in his turn became a progressive and highly-respected farmer at Wellparks, Crediton. He had something of the same temerament as his uncle, and was a keen follwoer of hounds. The tradition of good husbandry which he inherited has been passed on, and through him it can be said the authentic nature of Uncle Tom Cobley transcends the amusing legend of Widdicombe Fair, and takes its place in the honnourable annals of Devon.

* Of course this is incorrect !! (mc)

Widecombe Fair

"Tom Pearce, Tom Pearce, lend me your grey mare,
All along, down along, out along, lee,
For I want for to go to Widecombe Fair,
With Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,
Peter Davy, Dan'l Whiddon, Harry Hawke,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all."