History and performance today on Dartmoor

Dartmoor's history has featured in a number of contemporary plays and songs. MED Theatre has used history extensively in its community play tradition on Dartmoor, from The Paint Man (1991), which was based on the life of John Elford of Sheepstor in the 17th century, to Snow (2009) which looked at oral and documentary recollections of the winter of 1962-3, and Hinterland (2010) which dramatised the life of Thomas Tyrwhitt, the creator of Princetown.  Seth Lakeman's Kitty Jay released in 2004 and Childe the Hunter released in 2006 are examples of songs that use Dartmoor's history.

For the history of theatre and performance on Dartmoor, click here


Dartmoor Writers in World War One

the creation of the ‘Kitty Jay’ myth

Writers Beatrice Chase and John Galsworthy lived in the Dartmoor parishes of Widecombe and Manaton during the First World War. Both had come from London where they had witnessed the poverty of the East End and developed a vocation for social reform. Living on Dartmoor provided them with fresh insight for their writing, amongst which the modern myth of the lost girl ‘Kitty Jay’ was created...


Life on Dartmoor

John Galsworthy and his wife Ada Galsworthy lived at Wingstone Farm in Manaton. Their activity within the parish can be found in both written and oral history.  One such account in the Manaton school logbook states that the Galsworthys took an interest in the local school, organising summer outings for the children to Paignton, Torquay and (following the suspension of the train line during the war) Haytor. Galsworthy is also known to have been a keen animal lover, particularly of horses, though local oral history suggests that during the war he had his thoroughbreds put down as they were eating too much forage.

His Writing

Galsworthy wrote two plays and a story which are linked to Dartmoor:

  • Escape is his one play that can be directly linked; an ex-war hero is sentenced to Dartmoor Prison for defending a prostitute. The man escapes and is helped by a variety of Dartmoor characters on his way.
  • A Bit O’ Love is partly set on a village green ‘somewhere in the West Country’, though its resemblance to Manaton Green is clear. Written in 1915, the play’s leading lady is named Beatrice, which might imply that Galsworthy was acquainted with Beatrice Chase.
  • His story The Apple Tree is a version of the Kitty Jay story, taking its inspiration from a Dartmoor legend of a girl buried at a local crossroads. It begins and ends at Jay’s Grave (as it is now known), written during the war in 1916.



Life on Dartmoor

Olive Katharine Parr (later using Beatrice Chase as her literary name) and her mother (whom she referred to as ‘the Rainbowmaker’) worked in the slums of London’s East End during the last decade of the 19th century, helping to alleviate the effects of poverty as part of a Roman Catholic mission. She developed tuberculosis in her late 20s and came to Dartmoor under doctor’s orders, where she lived at Venton near Widecombe until her death in 1955.

Beatrice Chase fell in love with Dartmoor and when given the title ‘Lady of the Moor’ by writer John Oxenham she adopted it herself. Whilst living on Dartmoor during the First World War she is said to have lost her fiancé on the front line. As such in later life she campaigned against military training and live-firing on the moor.

Her Writing

Beatrice threw her energy into moorland life: she immersed herself in the Dartmoor communities and wrote books about the area, significantly The Heart of the Moor and Through a Dartmoor WindowThe Heart of the Moor, which claims to be factual, records her enthusiasm for the Dartmoor people she met and their culture and traditions. One character, for example, was ‘the man in the leather mask’, whom she transformed into the man in the ‘iron mask’ in the book.













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!

(John Galsworthy, circa 1910)


Both John Galsworthy and Beatrice Chase were instrumental in the development of the Kitty Jay myth, which is now perhaps one of the best-known stories from Dartmoor’s folklore. Until their arrival in the area, all that was known about Jay’s Grave was that it contained the bones of a female, probably the victim of suicide. Following the death of her fiancé in the trenches, Beatrice Chase became closely attached to the unmarked grave. She is thought to have begun the tradition of leaving flowers by the headstone, though in her book, The Heart of the Moor, she indicates that she took this practice from others.

Ultimately it was through the creative intervention of both writers that the grave became an outlet for human bereavement in a grieving community, during a brutal yet remote World War. Galsworthy’s poem ‘The Moor Grave’ describes a girl who ‘died for love’, buried under ‘a heather sod’. His short story ‘The Apple Tree’ elaborates on his theory that the girl buried there drowned herself in a nearby river, following abandonment by her fiancé. Similarly, Beatrice’s account in ‘The Heart of the Moor’ describes a girl who, jilted in love and possibly pregnant, hung herself at a local farm. Forever adorned with fresh flowers to this day, Jay’s Grave still survives as Dartmoor’s shrine to the tragedy of abandonment.

Read more about the Kitty Jay myth here

Read about MED Theatre's play Chasing Kitty Jay here

Read about Galsworthy the dramatist here


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