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ORIGINS OF KITTY JAY - THE EVOLUTION OF A MODERN MYTH
This article owes much to Ted Fitch and I am indebted to him for allowing me to use his reseach. The article is based on two articles I wrote for The Dart magazine shortly before it ceased publication in 2001.
The roadside mound near Hound Tor known as Jay’s Grave and the legend of Kitty Jay attached to it represent probably the most popular piece of Dartmoor folklore in modern times. Yet the origins of both are far from clear and the facts, such as they can be established, are not often assembled. Kitty Jay’s fame is largely a 20th century phenomenon – she is not mentioned in Samuel Rowe’s Perambulation or Sabine Baring Gould’s Book of Dartmoor, two of the best-known Victorian antiquarian volumes on Dartmoor.
The earliest account I know of appears on page 5 of the North Devon Journal for 23rd January 1851:
In the parish of Manaton, near Widdecombe on the moor while some men in the employ of James Bryant, Esq., of Prospect, at his seat, Hedge Barton, were removing some accumulations of way soil, a few days since, they discovered what appeared to be a grave. On further investigation, they found the skeleton of a body, which proved from enquiry to be the remains of Ann Jay, a woman who hung herself some three generations since in a barn at a place called Forder, and was buried at Four Cross Lane, according to the custom of that enlightened age.
In Robert Dymond’s 'Things Old and New' Concerning the Parish of Widecombe-in-the Moor and its Neighbourhood, published in 1876, the grave is described as being that of an old woman called 'Kay':
A simple mound and unwrought headstone by the roadside marks the site of a more modern grave. A poor old woman, called Kay, having hung herself, was laid here under cross roads without the rites of Christian burial.
In 1881 the poet F.B. Doveton, writing in the Weekly Mercury on October 10th, requested information about ‘Jay’s Grave’. In reply F.P.S.Amery corrected the name to ‘Betty Kay’, possibly influenced by Dymond:
The grave is known as Betty Kay's, and about twenty years ago, the late Mr. James Bryant, the owner of the property, opened the little mound to verify the local tradition, and discovered the bones, which he placed in a coffin, and reinterred in the same grave with a head and foot stone properly set up.
Eventually on December 3rd in the same newspaper Doveton published a poem called The Suicide’s Grave. J.L.W. Page, in his book Exploration of Dartmoor published in 1889, refers to ‘Kay’s Grave’, but again may have been relying on Dymond. In the same year, however, J.W. Sparrow sent a letter to the Western Morning News (published May 31st) giving an eyewitness account of the exhumation, examination and reburial to which Crossing refers in his Guide to Dartmoor (1909). Contrary to the impression given by Crossing, Sparrow makes it clear that the exhumation happened by accident when workmen were widening the road, and was not carried out by the owner of Hedge Barton. The remains were identified as those of a very young woman or even a girl child, as the skull had not entirely subtured. He gives the name as ‘Betsy Jay’ and states that her death was thought to have occurred 60 or 70 years before the exhumation in 1851, i.e. roughly 1780-1790. In 1901 W.H. Thornton. rector of North Bovey, writing in Devon Notes and Queries (p.186) requested information about ‘Jay’s Grave':
What were the circumstances which attended the death of the poor girl who occupies, or occupied, Jay's grave, at the point where the Heatree Common lane joins the Chagford and Ashburton road? Local tradition declares that she was a maidservant at Manaton Ford farmhouse, and that she hanged herself, and was buried at night on the down above the house. It is also asserted that the grave has been opened and no remains found. They had either been previously removed by friends, or the burial must have taken place long ago. The grave is still distinct, and the mound of earth over it is decently kept. Can anyone assign a date to the tragedy?
In reply to this Amery responded in the next edition of the same magazine:
A workman of mine, aged 74, informs us that about forty years ago... he was in the employ of Mr. James Bryant, of Hedge Barton, Manaton, when he remembers Jay’s Grave being opened, in which a young unmarried woman who had hung herself in Cannon Farm outbuildings, which is situated between Forder and Torhill, was said to have been buried, but no one then living at Manaton could remember the occurrence. The grave was opened by order of Mr. James Bryant in the presence of his son-in-law, Mr. J. W. Sparrow, M.R.C.S. Bones were found, examined, and declared to be those of a female. The skull was taken to Hedge Barton, but was afterwards placed with the bones in a box and re-interred in the old grave, a small mound raised with head and foot stones erected at either end. Such is the present appearance of the grave.
The first widely circulated reference to Jay in print - and the first mention of her first name as Kitty - comes on page 295 of William Crossing’s Guide to Dartmoor published in 1909. Crossing writes:
The road we now follow skirts Swine Down, the enclosures of Hedge Barton being on the left. About 3/4 m. from the gate a path runs off L. between the estate named Heytree and here we shall notice a small mound with a head and footstone. It is the burial place of a suicide, and is known as Jay’s Grave. Kitty Jay, as she used to be spoken of, is said to have been a young unmarried woman, who many years ago hung herself in an outbuilding belonging to Canna, a farm not far from the foot of East Down, and in accordance with the barbarous custom of the time was interred at this cross-way. More than 40 years ago Mr James Bryant, of Hedge Barton, caused the grave to be opened, when human bones, including a skull, were discovered, and declared on examination to be those of a female. The date of the unfortunate woman’s death is unknown, as no-one then remembers the occurrence. Mr Bryant had the bones placed in a box and re-interred on the spot where they were found, and raised the stones on the point that now marks it.
Since Crossing, following Amery, states that no-one could remember the occurrence of Kitty Jay’s burial when the exhumation took place in 1851, Jay's death is likely to have been, as the report of 1851 indicates, three generations (60 to 90 years) beforehand - which is close enough to the range given by Sparrow to offer some corroboration, though an earlier date seems possible.
In Crossing’s version there is no indication that she was an orphan, or came from the poorhouse at Newton Abbot, features of later printed versions of the story. Canna had become part of Ford by the time of the 1843 Tithe Commutation, but was presumably at an earlier time a separate farm, and may have been so in the 18th century. Finally, and most significantly, there is no indication from Crossing that she killed herself because she was pregnant, another feature of later versions. On the contrary, Crossing specifically states in an article called Haunted Places and Apparations published in The Western Weekly Mercury Illustrated in 1914 that ‘what drove Kitty Jay to the act of self-destruction is unknown.’
In 1906 the second edition of the Ordnance Survey 6” map had the label ‘Jane’s Grave’. This was replaced in the next edition by ‘Jay’, possibly at the instigation of Beatrice Chase, who in chapter VI of her book The Heart of the Moor published in 1914 gives the name as Mary Jay, via the words of her fictional character Granny Caunter:
"J’s grave tis called… Mary Jay was the poor maid's name. I heard my mother tell of it, when I was a li'l maid. It happened when her was a li'l maid herself. Her could just mind hearing tell of it… Her was an orphan from the workhouse, 'prenticed to Barracott Farm between Manaton and Heatree. One day, when her was quite young, her tooked a rope and went to the barn there on the Manaton Road, and hanged herself from a beam. Her was quite dead when the farmer found her..[Beatrice Chase asks: Why did she do it?] Us don’t rightly know…No one won’t ever know more than what us thinks, you understand…[Beatrice Chase: And what do you think?]… Us reckoned 'twas the same old story, miss—a young man, who wadn't no gude to her, poor maid."
Though it is possible Chase may have been influenced by a poem written by John Galsworthy (see below), here is the first full suggestion in print we have of the theme of desertion, which was to become central in later versions. Here too are the first mentions in print of Jay being an orphan from the workhouse and of her apprenticeship to a farm, both of which have become generally accepted as part of the story. Elsewhere in The Heart of the Moor Chase talks of seeing a Register of Apprentices in the keeping of a local person which mentions Jay, though as far as I know no one else has ever come across this. Here as well is the familiar disclaimer that no one knows the heart of it, almost as a license for invention. In the next chapter Chase has another of her characters, Thirza, bring flowers to the grave, again something that developed into a vital element of the myth.
John Galsworthy, the Nobel-prize winning author who lived for twenty years at Manaton, wrote a poem called The Moor Grave which, to judge from the chronology of his Collected Poems, dates from before the outbreak of World War One. This poem supposes suicide for love as the cause of death for the grave's occupant, and if it was indeed composed before Beatrice Chase wrote The Heart of the Moor,it is the first documented example of the impact of literary imagination on the evolution of the story.
THE MOOR GRAVE
I lie out here under a heather sod,
A moor-stone at my head, the moor winds play above.
I lie out here…. In graveyards of their God
They would not bury desperate me who died for love!
I lie out here under the sun and moon;
Across me bearded ponies stride , the curlews cry.
I have no little tombstone screed, no: “Soon
To glory shall she rise” – but deathless peace have I!
He went on to publish a short story The Apple Tree in 1916 which appears to be based on the Jay legend. In it he calls his heroine Megan David, which might suggest that he thought of Jay as Mary, since they share the same first letter. Possibly he was influenced by Beatrice Chase. The main conclusion that can be drawn from all of the above is that very little seems to be known about Jay in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in spite of some persistent attempts to find out. There is almost no agreement about the name. Was it Kay, Jay or Jane? And were these surnames or first names used as surnames? If they were surnames, was her first name Ann, Betty, Betsy, Mary or Kitty? On the face of it, Crossing’s ‘Kitty’ seems less likely than Ann or perhaps Betsy.
All the oral versions of the legend I heard while growing up at Ford Farm in the parish of Manaton during the 1960s and 70s suggested that Jay (always used as if it was her Christian name, rather than Kitty) killed herself because she was pregnant. In one version she was pregnant by the local squire or his son, in another by a farm labourer. According to one version she hung herself in the linhay now belonging to Torhill Farm just on the south side of the Manaton road. In yet another version she was originally buried beside a lane which runs south from the road of some thirty yards east of the entrance to Canna – a sort of cross-roads. She was then disinterred and re-buried at the place known as Jay’s Grave, a cross-roads in no-man’s land on the boundary between Manaton and Widecombe parishes.
Given that Crossing had no knowledge of any of this, we must conclude that either he did not spend very much time listening to local storytellers in Manaton, or the stories were made up after he wrote. Galsworthy knew Manaton well when the wrote The Apple Tree, since he lived there. Though it owes something to the first part of Goethe’s Faust, and Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles, The Apple Tree is almost certainly based on the Kitty Jay legend, and set at a farm close to Cripdon Down, a fictional amalgam of Ford and Wingstone farms (Galsworthy lived at Wingstone, which has an orchard). In this version, the girl drowns herself when deserted by her lover but there is no suggestion that she is pregnant.
Are the many elements of the Jay myth that do not appear in the 19th century versions simply later embellishments? It is just possible that local oral tradition has preserved memories which go back two hundred or more years. The version in which she was first buried in the lane opposite Canna seems too particular, and not helpful enough to a good story, to be a story-teller’s embellishment. If this is so, then other elements may also represent memories handed down rather than modern embellishments. In one version, referred to by Margaret Calloway in her volume of poems Kitty Jay (1980), the girl was buried with a stake through her heart, suggesting that she was regarded as likely to wander after death, possibly as a vampire. This would fit with a disinterment from Canna Lane. If the parish authorities found that when they dug her up she had blood around her mouth and on her teeth, as can happen with tuberculosis, they might have wanted to re-bury her as a vampire as far away as they could on the boundary of the parish. See Bioarchaeological and Biolcultural Evidence for the New England Vampire Folk Belief by Paul S. Sledzik and Nicholas Bellantoni (1994) published in The American Journal of Physical Anthropology No. 94 for a full discussion of the role of tuberculosis in generating belief in vampires.
With Galsworthy and Chase, two writers, the story begins to be filled out and shaped. Here for the first time we come across unhappy love as the motive for suicide, over sixty years after Jay was first mentioned in print. As well as his story The Apple Tree, Galsworthy wrote two poems on the subject which are placed side by side in his Collected Poems (1934) – Counting the Stars and The Moor Grave - the first an account of a lovers’ tryst in an apple orchard exactly like that which occurs in the short story, the second clearly a description of Jay’s Grave.
It was not until 1965, in Ruth St. Leger Gordan’s Witchcraft and Folklore of Dartmoor, that we were given in print the full version of the story - including her name as Kitty Jay, her beginnings as an orphan in the Newton Abbot poorhouse, her apprenticeship at Ford Farm, and her pregnancy leading to her suicide by hanging in Canna Barn - as it is generally current today. In 1973 Lois Deacon turned this story into a novel called An Angel from your Door, calling her heroine both Mary and Kitty Jay..
Other more recent variants in print suggest that Jay drowned in a shallow pool (John Pegg in After Dark on Dartmoor ,1984) or that she hung herself from the fireplace lintel still visible in what used to be a cottage in Canna barn (Eric Hemery in High Dartmoor, 1983).
Jay’s Grave’s modern reputation for being haunted is perhaps vaguely bound up with the tradition of flowers being placed on the grave by an unknown hand. Beatrice Chase, who lived nearby at Venton, Widecombe, is thought to have begun the practice, and other identifiable (according to local hearsay) hands have carried it on. The oldest evidence I can find for belief in some kind of actual haunting comes from James Skerret, whose parents lived at Cripdon just before the Second World War. In a letter written to my mother, Jane Beeson, in 1986, he recalled that among his father’s memories was the following:
Mrs Harvey, who lived at 2 Ford Gate Cottage, told of Jane Jay’s burial in way (sic) soil – council employees widening the road – the skull rolled out against his leg – killed him.
James Skerret adds, “Owes something to folklore I feel.”
Mark Beeson 2013