Music has played a big part in entertaining Dartmoor’s inhabitants over the centuries. Tony Beard recalled during an interview in 1998 how when he was young before the Second World War people would walk miles across the moor to reach a village hall for music and dancing. The legends of Kitty Jay and Childe the Hunter have both attracted musical interpretation.
The story occurs 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.
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.
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.
Lois Deacon’s novel An Angel from your Door locates the legend at Ford Farm during the Napoleonic Wars.
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’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 lyrics of 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 the musical (Gillian Webster and Ruth Way, MED Theatre, 1999)
Grave Intimations (the MED Theatre film about Kitty Jay, 2004) with music composed by Abi Kingsley-Garner
Chasing Kitty Jay (MED Theatre Community Play on the creation of the Kitty Jay myth, 2014)
In his book ‘Songs of the West’ Baring-Gould has collected a version of a folk song about the tale of Childe the Hunter. In his book ‘Further Reminiscences 1864 – 1894’ he explains how he traced it:
‘At Post Bridge, in a rude cottage of granite blocks put together without mortar, and in the midst of a marsh, lived an old blind man, Jonas Coaker, who died in the spring of 1890. Jonas had composed what he was pleased to call “a poem” on Childe the Hunter, who perished on the moor in a snowstorm, after having cut open his horse and installed himself for warmth in its paunch. Jonas recited to us portions of his composition, but when his memory failed, he reverted to the original ballad, which he thought to supersede. I could not obtain the original melody from him. However, I acquired it later from two Misses Phillips of Shaugh, who informed me that they had heard the ballad of Childe sung to this melody some fifty years ago. We obtained the same air from Mrs Gibbons, nee Trelawney, who had learned it from her nurse as a child to the ballad “Cold blows the wind to-night, Sweetheart”’.
Sabine Baring-Gould was born in Exeter in 1834. During his childhood he travelled for 13 years through Europe and learnt 6 languages. At the age of 30 he took Holy Orders and served his curacy in the Yorkshire mill town of Horbury. It was here that he met Grace, with whom he was married for 48 years and had 15 children.
During his time in Yorkshire he wrote the hymns ‘Onwards Christian Soldiers’ and ‘Now the Day is Over’.
In 1881 he moved to his family home of Lew Trenchard as both Squire and Parson (Squarson). The property had been in his family since the 17th century. He did considerable restoration work on St Peter’s Church, Lew Trenchard and his home Lew Trenchard Manor.
He wrote prolifically and it is believed he had more than 200 works published.
Baring-Gould died shortly before his 90th birthday in 1924. He was buried in his own churchyard next to his wife.
In 1888 he set out to collect local folk songs from local people. Over 12 years he travelled throughout Devon and Cornwall, collecting directly from singer’s homes or inviting them to his home.
Baring-Gould was not a musician and would note the words while his colleagues ‘pricked down’ the tune. He enlisted the help of Dr Frederick Bussell and the Reverend H.W. Fleetwood Sheppard to capture the music.
He was unusual in trying to place the songs in their social and cultural context and taking a great interest in the people who sang for him. It is believed that his notebooks contained word pictures of the people he met and these provide a unique insight into the lives of the working men and women of Devon in the late 19th century.
Baring-Gould organised tours to perform the songs in theatre shows throughout the region.
All his work culminated in the publication ‘Songs of the West’ which was first published in 1889.
He placed a manuscript containing 202 of his collected songs in Plymouth Municipal Library in 1914.