MED Theatre’s DARTMOOR, DEVON AND WORLD WAR TWO will began in November 2019 to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War. In an effort to preserve precious heritage, in the form of the memories and first-hand experiences of the local wartime generation, the project offered the opportunity for younger members of the rural Devon communities to carry out research and oral history interviews for use in the creation of various creative outputs.
For the final stage of our Dartmoor in WW1 project (2013-14) we decided to create an exhibition – For Whom the Bell Tolls – using a selection of scenes from our two plays – Road to Nowhere and Chasing Kitty Jay – on video and displaying a lot of the research we had conducted on A1 boards with photographs. We also carried out oral history interviews with local people whose relatives had taken part in the Great War. At the launch event we performed a Morris dance and two scenes from Road to Nowhere interspersed with music from the period and a piece specially composed by two of us. There were over 120 people who attended – we felt very proud to know that so many people took an interest in our work. We put the exhibition on in partnership with Moretonhampstead History Society.
MED Theatre’s Young Company
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.
Galsworthy wrote two plays and a story which are linked to 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.
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.
A community play about the life of Thomas Tyrwhitt who built the war prison in Princetown
Image designed by Nicola Oakey
Loricum (MED Theatre 2006) was a play about two generations of childhood on Dartmoor, bringing together memories from the 1960s with the 1990s
Loricum Video Game is based on the controversy that surrounded the building of Dartmoor’s reservoirs – most recently Meldon.