Kitty Jay

by Claire Hyne

The Story

The story is said to have occurred at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries. Kitty Jay was a pauper girl from the workhouse at Newton Abbot. She was apprenticed out to a household at Ford Farm near Manaton (in some versions Barracot Farm or in others Canna Farm although Canna was probably not an independent farm at the time she is supposed to have lived),  on the eastern edges of Dartmoor, where according to one version the son of the house seduced her and she became besotted by him and then pregnant. Two hundred years ago it was total disgrace to get pregnant outside marriage and because of that no one would help her. She would also have been dismissed from her job, and have no means of supporting herself.

The young man refused to admit to any involvement. He, his family and the Church despised and disowned her, and in her total despair she committed suicide by hanging herself from a beam in a building on the farm.

The Church denied her a Christian burial in consecrated ground* and she had to be buried at a cross road on the Parish Boundary. She still lies at the crossways where the parishes of Widecombe and Manaton meet and there are always fresh flowers on her grave.

*In one oral version of the story she was first buried in the green lane opposite Canna, where she is said to have hanged herself in a barn, before being dug up and re-buried at the site currently known as Jay’s Grave.

Influences on creative work


John Galsworthy

Jay’s Grave was the inspiration for John Galsworthy‘s short story The Apple Tree, written in 1916. John Galsworthy (14 August 1867—31 January 1933) was an English novelist and playwright. Notable works include The Forsyte Saga (1906—1921) and its sequels, A Modern Comedy and End of the Chapter. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1932.

Beatrice Chase

The story of Jay is laid out in Beatrice Chase’s novel The Heart of the Moor, published in 1914.

Celia Ann Leaman

Leaman was born in Moretonhampstead and now lives in Canada. She based her novel Mary’s Child around the legend of Kitty Jay. Mary’s Child was nominated for the Frankfurt Ebook awards.

Music and theatre:

MED Theatre

Kitty Jay the musical (Gillian Webster and Ruth Way, MED Theatre, 1999)

Grave Intimations (the MED Theatre film about Kitty Jay broadcast on BBC 2, 2004) (see below)

Chasing Kitty Jay (MED Theatre community play on the creation of the Kitty Jay myth, 2014) (see below)



Beeson, Mark (2018). Kitty Jay, Nature and the Improvers, Trans. Devon Assoc. 150, 120-138


Wishbone Ash

In the 1970s, knowledge of the legend prompted Martin Turner of British rock band Wishbone Ash to write the lyrics to a song called “Lady Jay” which appears on the band’s 1974 album There’s the Rub. Here is an extract from ‘Lady Jay’ –

“Hear me when I cry,

Listen to my song

Of Jay, my lovely lady,

To the earth she did belong.

I, a country Sir

Loved her all my life,

But the manor lady’s bright young son

Couldn’t  take her for his wife. “

Seth Lakeman

Seth Lakeman’s album ‘Kitty Jay’ was short listed for the 2005 Mercury Music Prize. It was a low tech album recorded in three weeks in his brother’s kitchen for £300. The album is inspired by folk tales from Lakeman’s native Dartmoor. The eponymous track is the most rousing of the album with sharp fiddling from Lakeman. Here is an extract from the Kitty Jay track –

“Poor Kitty Jay such a beauty thrown away

So young and fair now she’s turned to dust and clay

Terror broke her sleep. “

Kitty Jay film - grave intimations

MED Theatre’s community play Chasing Kitty Jay explores the development of the modern Kitty Jay myth through the eyes of writers Beatrice Chase and John Galsworthy, who both lived close to Jay’s Grave on Dartmoor during World War One.


Dartmoor Ash Houses

The ash-house at Ford Farm. One of Kitty Jay’s tasks would (probably) have been to gather the ash from the great fireplace in the house each evening – to avoid the risk of the embers setting light to the thatched roof – and pour it in through the ash-house window, from where it would be taken out later as fertiliser and to make soap. The ash-house roofs were corbelled in stone, rather than thatched, so that they did not catch fire either.