John Ford of Ilsington


John Ford is one of the ‘Elizabethan’ dramatists we know very little about. We have to presume he was brought up on Dartmoor at Bagtor, Ilsington, because that is where he was baptised and that is where his father lived. He may have gone to the grammar school in Ashburton, in the same way that William Browne of Tavistock, who was born around the same time and like Ford went on to Oxford, attended his local grammar school in Tavistock. Here are the few facts, and a little speculation:

John Ford was baptised at Ilsington, April 12th 1586, the second son of Thomas Ford of Ilsington. His mother was either the sister or niece of Lord Chief Justice Sir John Popham. His grandfather George Ford was very active in the Dartmoor tin-mining industry.  John Ford probably matriculated as a member of Exeter College, Oxford, on 26th March 1601. He entered the Middle Temple in 1602, but there is no record of him being called to the bar. Perhaps he remained in chambers all his working life, possibly managing property for the gentry.

His first appearance as an author was  in 1606, aged 18,  when he publishedFame’s Memorial, a tribute to the memory of Charles Blunt, Earl of Devonshire. His first recorded play An Ill Beginning Has a Good End, was acted at the Cockpit in 1613 – the only known manuscript was destroyed in the 18th Century by John Warburton’s cook.

Ford wrote commendatory verses for plays by Massinger and Webster among others. The dedications attached to his own plays have suggested to some that he may have been part of a Catholic coterie, though there is no good evidence that he was a Catholic himself. Certainly his poem Christ’s Bloody Sweat  (1613) is hostile to the Pope.

Ford was just old enough (7) to have been present at a famous performance of Marlowe’s Dr Faustus in Exeter in 1583, at which an extra (‘real’) devil was supposed to have appeared among those acting devils, and sent both cast and audience running from the theatre in panic. If he was not there, he would certainly have heard about it, and there are one or two near quotations from Dr Faustus in his own plays, and many echoes in The Witch of Edmonton.

Extant plays

In conjunction with other authors: The Witch of Edmonton, with Dekker and Rowley, The Spanish Gypsy, with Middleton and Rowley, The Sun’s Darling  (masque) with Dekker.

Most famous plays by Ford as sole author – tragedies: Tis Pity She’s a Whore, Love’s Sacrifice, The Broken Heart; history: Perkin Warbeck; comedy: The Lover’s Melancholy

The last play of Ford’s for which we have a record of performance is The Lady’s Trial,  licensed and acted at the Cockpit in 1638. In 1642 the Civil War began and theatres were closed. Shortly before this it is believed, on very slender grounds, that Ford returned to his native Devonshire where he lived out the rest of his life. In 1653, The Queen, which is now attributed to Ford, was published anonymously, but it is thought that this play was actually written much earlier.


Gurr, A. 1988. Singing Through the Chatter: Ford and Contemporary Theatrical Fashion, in Neill, M., ed., John Ford: Critical Re-visions. (Cambridge University Press), 81-96

Beeson, Mark (1998) ‘A History of Dartmoor Theatre, Part One: 1325-1660’,Trans. Devon. Assoc.130, 137-177.

Possible references to Dartmoor in the plays

There are things in Ford’s work which suggest that certain scenes from his childhood stayed with him. And there is one play in particular, Perkin Warbeck, whose subject matter as a whole suggests that an instinctive sympathy for the South West remained with him into his adult life. Ford’s grandparents would have been alive at the time of the Prayer-book Rebellion in 1549, when Devon and Cornwall rose against Edward VI’s reforms. Perhaps stories of this rebellion were in his mind when he took as his subject the rebellion half a century earlier in which the pretender to the throne of Henry VII, Perkin Warbeck, landed in Cornwall calling himself Richard IV and marched through Devon gathering supporters along the way. Ford displays great sympathy with Warbeck and has the Cornish described in the following favourable terms: ‘The Cornish blades are men of mettle’.

This pun calls to mind Ford’s mining imagery. Cornwall is the home of the British tin-mining industry. But Dartmoor in the sixteenth century was also a busy tin-mining area, having enjoyed a peak in productivity around 1530. The industry and culture of the mines must have been all around Ford as he grew up, and it would be surprising if his frequent references to mining do not reflect Dartmoor experience. Consider the following passage from Tis Pity She’s a Whore, III VI 7-23:

There is a place –

List, daughter – in a black and hollow vault

Where day is never seen; there shines no sun,

But flaming horror of consuming fires;

A lightless sulphur chok’d with smoky fogs

Of an infected darkness; in this place

Dwell many thousand, thousand sundry sorts

Of never-dying deaths; there damned souls

Roar without pity; there are gluttons fed

With toads and adders; there is burning oil

Poured down the drunkards throat; the usurer

Is forc’d to sup whole draughts of molten gold;

There is the murderer forever stabb’d,

Yet can he never die; there lies the wanton

On racks of burning steel, whiles in his soul

He feels the torment of his raging lust.

On the face of it, this is a conventional medieval picture of Hell. But I wonder if it is not influenced by images of Dartmoor blowing houses in the misty Dartmoor river valleys, where the blowers smelted tin and ladled the molten metal into moulds. We remember the legend (probably untrue) of how pouring molten metal down a man’s throat was one on the tinners’ punishments.

Other references to mining are more direct. For example:

Perkin Warbeck  I  I 48-51

Not Gloucester’s own confusion..

..Can move this woman-monster

But that she still from the unbottomed mine

Of devilish policies doth vent the ore

Of troubles and sedition.


Perkin Warbeck IV V 62-3

For there’s a fire more sacred purifies

The dross of mixture.


Tis Pity She’s a Whore V VI 26-28

But I digged for food

In a much richer mine than gold or stone

Of any value balanced.


Perkin Warbeck  II III 75-6

Dross cannot

Cleave to so pure a metal.

These could of course be merely general references to mining; there is no reference to tin, or anything else which would help to locate the source of the experience as Dartmoor. Even a reference to rabbit burrows in Tis Pity She’s a Whore IV III 156-7

But to

Know what ferret it was that haunted your cony-berry.

could have come from Dartmoor experience, but equally could have come from elsewhere.

There is one passage in Ford, however, which in conjunction with this mining imagery, does seem to me to point the finger more firmly at Dartmoor. 

Perkin Warbeck V III 100-104

Thus witches

Possessed, even to their deaths deluded, say

They have been wolves and dogs and sailed in egg-shells

Over the sea and rid on fiery dragons..

What we should be concerned with here is the mention of ‘Fiery dragons’. Thomas Tonkin, in the 18th century, describes how Cornish women used to see ‘streams of fire to fall on them (undiscovered veins of tin), which they call fiery dragons.’ More relevant still is a discovery by Tom Greeves. He reports that on a map of Ellisborough tin mine in Sheepstor parish, at the point where a vein of tin called South Draggon Lode is shown crossing an ancient working first documented in 1563, is written ‘A Firey Draggon was seen to fall near this place’. Fiery dragons were clearly part of Dartmoor’s mining culture, and the Dartmoor tin industry is the most likely place for Ford to have come across stories about them in connection with women.

Mark Beeson