Roger Rowle and the Gubbins – the Robin Hood of Dartmoor and his Merry Men ?
While plays about Robin Hood were entertaining 16th century audiences in Chagford and Ashburton (and probably other Dartmoor locations ) the exploits of Roger Rowle and the Gubbins in the Lydford area were creating parallels with the traditional characters. It is said that a gang of outlaws, known as the Gubbins, lived near Lydford Gorge, possibly in caves or ‘cotts’ – rough shed-like structures. They terrorised and robbed any travellers who passed that way. Their leader was Roger Rowle. A pool known as ‘Rowles Pool’ is situated at the village side of the gorge.
Historical records, written in very uncomplimentary terms, tell us about Roger Rowle and the Gubbins, and have formed the basis for characters in literature. For example, in the poem ‘A Lydford Journey’ by William Browne, written in the first half of the 17th century, we read:
And near hereto’s the Gubbins’ Cave
A people that no knowledge have
Of law, or God, or men
Whom Caesar never yet subdued;
Who’ve lawless liv’d; of manners rude;
All savage in their den.
By whom, – if any pass that way,
He dares not the least time to stay,
For presently they howl;
Upon which signal they do muster
Their naked forces in a cluster,
Led forth by Roger Rowle.’(Browne, n.d.)
According to Westcote, writing in c.1630, these verses were ‘commonly sung by many a fidler’(Oliver and Jones, 1845, 359). If the date of Westcote’s manuscript is correctly identified then Browne’s verses must predate 1630.
Photos by Lucy Edmonds
Anna Eliza Bray, in her novel Warleigh, published in 1834, makes a direct comparison between Rowle and Robin Hood, saying that her character of Rowle:
‘…as lawless as he was brave, was the Robin Hood of Devon in times of Charles the First.’ In Charles Kingsley’s novel Westward Ho!, published in 1855, he describes the journey of his characters, Amyas Leigh and Salvation Yeo, in the autumn of 1583, saying:‘…it was by no means a safe thing in those days to travel from Plymouth to the north of Devon; because to get to your journey’s end, unless you were minded to make a circuit of many miles, you must needs pass through the territory of a foreign and hostile potentate…..the King of the Gubbings’
From near Brentor, Leigh and Yeo, together with ‘five or six north Devon men clad in headpieces and quilted jerkins, each man with his pike and sword’ paused near Brentor where in the distance they saw ‘tiny threads of blue smoke rising from the dens of the Gubbins.’ In the story, Yeo’s troop is attacked but he manages to kill all of the dozen ‘savages’ including their leader – Rowle being killed at the Dartmoor Inn near Lydford.
These writers probably based their ideas for characters on information about the Gubbins provided by Fuller’s The History of the Worthies of England written in 1662. He did not have a good word to say about them! The following is an example:‘We call the slaverings of fish (which are of little worth) Gubbings; and sure it is they are sensible that the Word importeth shame and disgrace…the Gubbings land is a Scythia within England, and they pure heathens therein. It lyeth near Brentor, in the edge of Dartmore. It is reported that some two hundred years since, two strumpets being with child, fled hither to hide themselves, to whom certain lewd fellows resorted, and this was their first original. They are a peculiar of their own making, exempt from Bishop, Archdeacon, and all authority either ecclesiastical or civil. They live in cotts (rather holes than houses) like swine, having all in common, multiplied, without marriage, into many hundreds.’ Fuller went on to say that their language was ‘vulgar Devonian,’ they lived by ‘stealing sheep on the More,’ and they worked together to outwit any lawful attempt to prevent or sanction their crimes.Not all historians agree with Fuller. Patricia Milton quotes Edward Gibson, who wrote in 1695 that: ‘…there is a village nam’d the Gubbins, the inhabitants whereof are by mistake represented by Fuller as a lawless Scythian sort of people.’
Further doubts were raised in 1700 by Thomas Cox, who is also quoted by Milton. Cox stated that the reputation of the Gubbins as ‘a barbarous sort of people’ was based on false information given to Fuller by someone with a grudge against them. Milton puts forward an interesting theory that: ‘…the possibility of an anti-social tribe living somewhere in the area provided a modicum of interest and excitement for many writers searching for local ‘colour’ in a place devoid – until well into the 19th century – of much of a store of written folk tales (Milton, 2006, 25)’.Another possibility is that, being a minority ethnic group, the fact that the Gubbins led an existence which was unconventional caused people to treat them with suspicion, and this in turn could have led to rumours and stories. In ‘The Paint Man’, a play by Mark Beeson, performed in 1991 by MED Theatre in Manaton, Bovey Tracey and Ashburton, two Gubbins women were sympathetically featured, and made occasional reference to Roger Rowle.The Robin Hood parallel fits neatly up to a point – Roger Rowle and the Gubbins appear to have been outlaws who lived close to nature in an area which offered them protection – but there does not appear to be any evidence of them robbing the rich to give to the poor, apart from to themselves. Historians are inconsistent in their views of Roger Rowle and the Gubbins, but one thing is certain – literature and folk lore would have been poorer without them.
Bray, A.E. (1834) Warleigh.
Browne W. (n.d.) in Oliver and Jones (1845), 360. (Browne’s poem is dated 1644 according to www.legendarydartmoor.co.uk but pre-1643 according to Milton, 2006, 26 ).
Fuller, T. (1662) The History of the Worthies of England (revised by J. Nicholls, 2 vols, 1811)
Kingsley, C. (1855) Westward Ho!
Milton, P. (2006) The Discovery of Dartmoor (Phillimore & Co Ltd, Chichester )
Oliver, G. & Jones, P., eds (1845) A View of Devonshire in MDCXXX…by Thomas Westcote…(Exeter).