& the performing arts

Whitehorse hill - Central Dartmoor's History in seven episodes

Whitehorse Hill is a promenade community play created by MED Theatre as part of the Moor than meets the eye Landscape Partnership Scheme, funded by National Lottery Heritage Fund. It was first performed in September 2015 and then again in 2017, involving actors from the local community and lantern bearers from Princetown Primary School. The play was inspired by the discovery of the remains of a young woman accompanied by elaborate burial gifts, including a tin bead, in a Bronze Age cist on Whitehorse Hill. It will be performed two more times in September 2019. 

Aelfthryth of Lydford and her son Aethelred

Set against the backdrop of Dartmoor in late Anglo-Saxon times, MED Theatre’s play In the Shadow of the Vikings follows the story of Aelfthryth – a Dartmoor girl, born at Lydford, who became Queen of England – and in the process charts the high politics of the time from the point of view of the house of Devon. Two twelfth century writers, William of Malmesbury and Geoffrey Gaimar, provide colourful and different versions of the love triangle between Aelfthryth, daughter of Ordgar Earl of Devon, her first husband Ethelwold Earl of East Anglia and his best friend King Edgar – a triangle which sowed the seeds of the tragedy that was to befall England at the turn of the millennium. Gaimar and Malmesbury’s historical credentials are open to question, but their storytelling helps to fill out the sparse record of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, and the often oblique light shed by charters and other contemporary documents.

Lady Howard's Coach - Claire Hyne

The Facts

In the 1600s, a man called John Fitz, of Fitzford House near Tavistock, inherited a large fortune at the age of 21. He spent heavily, made many enemies and murdered two men.  He went insane and committed suicide, leaving behind his daughter, Mary, aged 9, who inherited the remains of his fortune.

King James I intervened and sold Mary to the Earl of Northumberland, who then married her to his brother, Sir Alan Percy. Sir Percy went on a hunting trip and, unfortunately, caught a fever and died.

Mary, then, eloped and married her true love, Thomas Darcy. Tragically, after a few months, he also died.

Mary chose to marry again. This time she decided to protect her fortune, much to the displeasure of her third husband, Sir John Howard. Unfortunately for him, he died of ‘causes unknown’.

Her fourth and final husband, Sir Richard Grenville, did not live for long but provided Mary with a son, George, before he passed away.

Mary and George then moved back to the family abode of Fitzford House. Tragically, George dies not long after they move back. A month later Mary dies of a broken heart.

Soon after people begin to see her ghost.


Sabine Baring-Gould: Songs of the West


Baring-Gould, first published this ballad about Lady Howard in his music collection Songs of the West (1891), and reports that there was a real Lady Howard who, after disinheriting her children, acquired a reputation for being “hard-hearted” – a reputation that grew to supernatural proportions, as Baring-Gould goes on to explain:

“Lady Howard was a person of strong will and imperious temper, and left a deep and lasting impression on the people of Tavistock. . . . She bore the reputation of having been hard-hearted in her lifetime. For some crime she had committed (nobody knew what), she was said to be doomed to run in the shape of a hound from the gateway of Fitzford to Okehampton Park, between the hours of midnight and cock-crowing, and to return with a single blade of grass in her mouth to the place whence she had started; and this she was to do till every blade was picked, when the world would be at an end.

Dr. Jago, the clergyman of Milton Abbot, however, told me that occasionally she was said to ride in a coach of bones up West Street, Tavistock, towards the moor; and an old man of this place told a friend of mine the same story, adding that ‘he had seen her scores of times.’ A lady also who was once resident here, and whom I met in company, assured me that, happening many years before to pass the old gateway at Fitzford, as the church clock struck twelve, in returning from a party, she had herself seen the hound start.

gatehouse history dartmoor

The gatehouse at Fitzford House, home of Lady Howard. Photo: Tom Greeves

okehampton history dartmoor

Okehampton Castle. Photo: Tom Greeves

When a child I heard the story, but somewhat varied, that Lady Howard drove nightly from Okehampton Castle to Launceston Castle in a black coach driven by a headless coachman, and preceded by a fire-breathing black hound that when the coach stopped at a door, there was sure to be a death in that house the same night. There was a ballad about it, of which I can only recall fragments.” (209 – 210).

From those fragments Baring-Gould reconstructs the ballad as follows:

My ladye hath a sable coach,

And horses two and four;

My ladye hath a black blood-hound

That runneth on before.

My ladye’s coach hath nodding plumes,

The driver hath no head;

My ladye is an ashen white,

As one that long is dead.

“Now pray step in!” my ladye saith,

“Now pray step in and ride.”

I thank thee, I had rather walk

Than gather to thy side.

The wheels go round without a sound,

Or tramp or turn of wheels;

As cloud at night, in pale moonlight,

Along the carriage steals.

“Now pray step in!” my ladye saith,

“Now prithee come to me.”

She takes the baby from the crib,

She sits it on her knee.

“Now pray step in!” my ladye saith,

“Now pray step in and ride.”

Then deadly pale, in waving veil,

She takes to her the bride.

“Now pray step in!” my ladye saith,

“There’s room I wot for you.”

She wav’d her hand, the coach did stand,

The Squire within she drew.

“Now pray step in!” my ladye saith,

“Why shouldst thou trudge afoot?”

She took the gaffer in by her,

His crutches in the boot.

I’d rather walk a hundred miles,

And run by night and day,

Than have that carriage halt for me

And hear my ladye say-

“Now pray step in, and make no din,

Step in with me to ride ;

There’s room, I trow, by me for you,

And all the world beside.”


Cecilia Eng

Cecilia Eng is a folk singer from Portland Oregon. She has a version of ‘Lady Howards Coach’ on her first album Of Shoes and Ships.

Will Carnell and Alexa Romanes

Lustleigh composer William Carnell  and writer Alexa Romanes produced together a cantata based on the weird and wonderful legends of Dartmoor.

Alexa is a folklore enthusiast and a member of Cogs and Wheels Ladies’ Morris. Will Carnell is an established composer who lives on the edge of Dartmoor.

One of the songs on their CD A Dartmoor Cantata is ‘Lady Howards Coach’, sung by the Lustleigh Choir.



Baring-Gould, Sabine (1891). Songs of the West.

Baring-Gould, Sabine (1908). Devonshire Characters and Strange Events.




Crossing, William (1914,1997 edn). Folklore and Legends of Dartmoor.

What’s Afloat? Devon’s Folk Magazine. No 83.

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.

Dartmoor Writers in World War One

JOHN GALSWORTHY AND BEATRICE CHASE: 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…

john at work history


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.
beatrice chase history dartmoor


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 Window.  The 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.

kitty jay history dartmoor
kitty jay music dartmoor