Widdecombe Fair

I recently made a wonderful purchase from an antiques store – this fine pottery mug, of indeterminate age, which came from a dealer in Burton on the Water, Gloucestershire.

widecombe mug front

But the fair it refers to is on wildest Dartmoor, about half way between Buckfastleigh and Moretonhampstead, and now found in atlases as Widecombe in the Moor. The mug shows 5 men trying to ride a horse to the said fair. Dating it is impossible, but thankfully the side  provides some help:

widdecombe mug side

 

 

 

 

 

 

RIP

TOM PEARCE, TOM

PEARCE, LEND ME YOUR

GREY MARE. ALL ALONG

DOWN ALONG, OUT

ALONG LEE, FOR I

WANT FOR TO GO TO

WIDDICOMBE FAIR

WI’ BILL BREWER, JAN

STEWER PETER GURNEY

PETER DAVEY DAN’L

WHIDDON HARRY HAWKE

OLD UNCLE TOM COBLEY

AND ALL

_______

WHEN THE WIND WHI

TLES COLDON THE MOON

OF A NIGHT, TOM PEARCES

OLD MARE DOTH APPEAR

GASHLY WHITE AND ALL

THE LONG NIGHT BE HEARD

SKIRLING AND GROANS

FROM TOM PEARCE’S

OLD MARE IN HER RATT

LING BONES. AND

FROM BILL BREWER

ETC.

This is the rear of he mug showing the old mare in a field under a crescent moon, free of the yokels who apparently rode her to death.

widdecombe mug rear

The antiques dealer told me he used to sing the song at school, so of course I googled it. As I suspected, the names are all West country, and it is widely believed to be based on real people and a real event. The dating of it is difficult, as with many folk tunes. Sabine Baring Gould, cleric and folkloricist published it in his ‘Songs of the West’ in 1890, but it fits with the tone of Rev Holland of Stowey in Somerset at the start of the 19th century when he bemoaned the ignorance of locals, and the many ‘rascals’. Most such fairs were closed down from the mid 19th century, and there was a shift from seeing open moors as places for fairs and fun to more sinister aspects with the rise of the Victorian Gothic. So this points to a date before this. Some claim the song was sung by Devon soldiers in the Boer War, and the agricultural collapse of the mid century saw many English rural people emigrate, so taking their songs and folk tales with them.

So, here’s a few versions of the song. This from Dr Who John Pertwee on a children’s tv show, from the 1960s when folk songs were not worthy of adult attention:

Here’s a glee version from the King Singers:

Here’s a version sung by Town Criers in Widdecombe followed by a documentary of 1947:

But the song also goes under the name Tom Cobley. Feel free to trawl in search of the many singalongs and instrumentals. Burl Ives also did a version. Here’s Steve Knightly with a very different version, that uses the story as a starting point to  become a gothic murder mystery:

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