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The precise origin of an old "character song" is often obscure, and as often as not much of its point may have been lost through omissions or embellishments. It has long been customary, for example, to sing Loch Lomond without the verse which provides the key to its pathos. A book was necessary to establish the real history of John Peel, and Widecombe Fair, as sung today differs considerably from the original version supplied to the Rev. S. Baring-Gould more than half a century ago by a moorman named Henry Westaway, living at Belstone, a North Dartmoor
village.
According to a report still current in the locality, Westaway, when making the transfer, "kept the best verses for hisself." This picturesque tradition, however is not borne out by research, which rather suggests considerable additions as well as an altogether more sophisticated arrangement of the crude ditty sung by the country people. The original rendering was recently given to me by Mr Harry Westaway, a son of the moorman from whom Baring-Gould obtained his version. The son is now very much what the father must have been, a charactersistic figure of old Dartmoor and deeply imbued with its spirit, for he has lived for about 70 years among the tors and cleaves.

harry westaway
Such a man to whom the will-o'-the wisp's fantastic dance is as familiar a phenomenaas the sudden descent of the ghost white mist or the unearthly shimmer of the "ammi" under a cold January sun, must have been invaluable to an author who specialised in topography and folk-lore. Harry Westaway can tell many stories of the days, long before the motoring age, when Baring-Gould rode up from Lew to prosecute his researchs on northern Dartmoor, which he reached by following the wild ways of the Tavy, the less famous but beautiful Amicombe, and the Brimbrook. In a heather bank near the head waters of the lonely Bambrook, he had a chache of mineral waters and biscuits, replenished weekly by the Westaway family. The arrangement continued for many years, and was ended only by Baring-Gould's death in 1924. The Westaways, father and sons, were also employed by him to mark or cut tracks through the peat-veins, over wide areas of which no horse can pass. The most ambitious of these pioneering experiments was being planned when he died.
" come in, and I'll tell 'ee"

Harry Westaway, who still sings the original version of Widecombe Fair, invites the author into his cottage at Belstone.


Baring-Gould grew very deaf in his later days, and used to carry an ear-trumpet. How his deafness was responsible I do not know, but there seems to be some justification for the local complaint that, when publishing the song, "they didn't make it a bit the same". The old version, entirely unaccompanied, was recently sung to me by Harry Westaway as he sat in his Dartmoor cottage, completely devoid of any embarrassment or self-consciousness. I wrote it down to his dictation as follows:

Tom Pearse, Tom Pearse, lend me your grey mare,
That I may ride out to Widecombe Fair
With Will Lewer, Jan Stewer, Harry Hawkins,
Joe Davy, Harry Whitpot, George Parsley,
Dick Wills, Tom Cobley and all"

When shall I have my old mare home again?
Ri-fol-diddle-ol, diddle-I-do
A Friday night or a Saturday morn
With Will Lewer etc.

Friday being past, Saturday was come.
Tom Pearse's old mare has not come a home
With Will Lewer etc.

Tom Pearse went upon a high hill.
There he saw his old mare making her will
With Will Lewer etc.

How do you know it was your old mare?
'cos one foot was shoed and the other three bare
With Will Lewer etc.

The Home of the Westaways

The Old Dartmoor holding at Presticott where Widicombe Fair was first taken down by the Rev. S. Bring-Gould

presticott

Such was Widecombe Fair as, I am assured, it was sung to Baring-Gould at Presticott, the picturesque thatched home of the Westaways, and so it is sung today by peat fires in farmhouse kitchens, or on Saturday nights in the village inn, where the country people still recognise no other rendering. Although the tune is much the same as that published, it will be noticed that the words differ a good deal from the published version. Four of the published verses are omitted - those being :

So Tom Pearse's old mare, her took sick and died
And Tom he sat down on a stone and cried….
Wi' Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney, Peter Davy, Dan'l Whiddon,
Harry Hawk, Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.


But this isn't the end of this shocking affair
Nor, though they be dead, of the horrid career…

When the wind whistles cold on the moor of a night
Tom Pearse's old mare doth appear gashly white

And all the night long be heard skirling and groans
From Tom Pearse's old mare in her rattling bones.

On the other hand the unpublished version contains a verse - the fifth- which is omitted from the published version, and regrettably omitted, as I hope to show. Where the four extra verses came from I have been unable to discover. There are, of course, many local variants of most traditional songs, and Baring-Gould may have picked them up in neighbouring villages. It is probable too that each district introduced the names of its own local celebrities into the chorus, with complete disregard of the underlying story.

As traditional songs go Widecombe Fair is not very old, since all the characters, and the grey mare itself, were living less than a hundred years ago. Tom Cobley, the central figure although his name only appears in the chorus, lived at Buttsford Farm in the parish of Colebrooke. His house, which was plainly visible from Yeoford Junction, on the Southern Railway, was often pointed to strangers until it was burned down a few years ago. He died in 1844, and his grave may still be seen in Spreyton churchyard, where others of his family lay buried.

It may be noted that in the adapted song, only is he described as "Uncle" Tom Cobley, and with regard to him a curious inaccuracy occurs in both versions, since he and not Tom Pearse was the owner of the grey mare. This is characteristic of tradition and suiggests that the original composition was based upon a second-hand account or garbled account of some incident which, according to local opinion, occurred as the outcome of a rollicking visit to the fair. "Thomas Cobley Gent." Was a prominent sporting figure, a keen rider to hounds, and had specialised in a strain of grey horses of which the mare was one.

william baker

The Old Time Before Him

William Baker, a South
Tawton farmer, one of whose forebears may have inspired the song


In South Tawnton parish lives a septuagenarian farmer, Mr William Baker of Allen's Down, son of a blacksmith whose father frequently shod the famous grey when he served as an apprentice at the Spreyton smithy. To this circumstance there is attached a fully authenticated anecdote which may account for the last verse of the unprinted version. The mare was being fitted for new shoes, but only one of them had been attached when hounds were heard in the distance. The blacksmith and the groom who had brought the mare immediately ran out to see what was happening, leaving the apprentice, then a seventeen year old lad, in charge. The temptation to play a prank proved irresistible-. The boy untied and mounted the grey, intending to only raise a laugh.

He had, however, reckoned without the old hunter, who, catching the familiar cry, promptly took the bit between her teeth and bolted, thus providing historical background for the line

One foot was shod and the other three bare

The boy, clinging round her neck, formed a most unwilling addition to the field, until he was brought to a stop at the foot of a steep hill. Fortunately neither rider nor mare in reality came to serious harm.

All things considered, circumstantial evidence seems to establish the generally accepted background of the song. There are, however, dissentient views. Those who have enquired closely into the history of interesting gravestones have usually unearthed testimony that "the last Lord Marmion lay not there," and the Spreyton stone is no exception. Another farmer in the district who refers to Thomas Cobley, Gent, as "grandfather's brother" lately told me that in his opinion the historical or mythical -in whichever light one prefers to regard him - "Uncle Tom" was an altogether different person, an uncle of the Colebrook yeoman. Living at Puddicombe Park, Spreyton (also now a ruin) and that a mystery is attached to his death and burial place, no record of either being obtainable.

The same descendant of the Cobleys owns a family bible upon the fly-leaf of which is a "Thomas Cobley" signature, but here again the dentity of the inscriber is uncertain. Various Cobleys of the period were called Tom. Each in his day lived the same sort of life and was regarded as the much-besung character. It is possible, therfore, that the Uncle Tom of the song was a composite creation, just as the song itself, as is the way with of folk-songs, appears to have evolved rather than to have been the creation of an individual. As for the other names which occur, Pearse, Davy and Whiddon or Wheddon are so eminently west country that their inclusion in any list is easily accountable. Lewer, Whitpot and Parsley, on the other hand, are less characteristic, and these, according to Harry Westaway, "must have been put in, like enough, by the fellers as made up the song"

The primitive Spreyton forge still stands, and the same anvil is worked at to-day by a descendant of the same smith. The building, like the sturdy craftsmen who earned a good livelihood within its walls, is fast sinking into the past, and with it will disappear an interesting link with picturesque characters and conditions. It is not surprising that country people live so much in bygone days, for even in the twentieth century comparitevly little changes, and the spirit of old times is always with them. For this reason a village smithy, like an ancient inn, or any place where men have met and talked for generations, inevitably becomes a storehouse of rural history, and too often one regrets the absence of any record other than tales repeated from memory or hearsay.

grave of thomas cobley

The Tomb of "Thomas Cobley, Gent"

But was he the "Uncle Tom Cobley"
of the song?

edwin hill
spreyton smithy
The Old Smithy at Spreyton

Where the old grey mare was shod; "the same anvil is worked at to-day by a descendant of the same smith"

Still Carrying On

Edwin Hill, descendant of the blacksmith who regularly shod the famous grey mare. He still works at the old forge.