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Western Morning News (08/Sep/2007) - New book reveals secrets of Widecombe Fair

(c) Western Morning News (08/Sep/2007)

New book reveals secrets of Widecombe Fair

It's Devon's best-known folk song, but the ghost of Tom Pearse's old grey mare still leads historians on a never ending merry-go-round ride.

The poor put-upon beast supposedly expired after carrying Uncle Tom Cobley and his band of fair-goers to Widecombe, but more than a century on mystery still surrounds the tragic journey across Dartmoor. Did it really happen, or is it all just a myth?

According to a new book - launched at this year's fair - there are still many unanswered questions surrounding the song. But the characters mentioned in it did exist - and they all came from mid-Devon.

After more than two years of delving into the history of the famous fair, the Widecombe and District Local History Group concludes that its story, as with all legends and folklore, has elements of truth.

"For a short period in history, the name Thomas Cobley was very popular in the Spreyton area," say the eight-strong team. "Research has shown that there were up to six Tom Cobleys in the period 1698-1844. The one who fits the best died in 1844, aged 82 years. He lived at Butsford in the parish of Colebrook and is buried at Spreyton, just outside the south door of the church."

This conclusion, they say, fits well with the name board on the Tom Cobley Tavern at Spreyton, which states that Uncle Tom Cobley left there to go to Widecombe Fair - about 15 miles away - in 1802.

The genial land-owning bachelor's companions - Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer and the rest - are reputed to have lived in nearby Sticklepath and families bearing all their surnames have been found in old documents relating to parishes in the area.

But as for Tom Pearse, whose mare "took sick and died" after carrying the motley band to the fair, there is an element of confusion.

The book's authors tell how in 1818 Pearse's father, John, moved from Horrabridge to open a serge mill at Skaigh Hall, on the parish borders of Sticklepath and Belstone. Tom, they say, was born in 1793, but if the excursion from Spreyton to Widecombe happened in 1802, he would have been only nine years old! "So with the first name there is a query," write the authors.

In 1830, Tom became a prime mover in a merger between the Quakers of Sticklepath and the growing Methodist movement. At that time, the serge mill was in full production and products were transported to Plymouth and Exeter by horse-drawn wagons.

Tom's father was an accomplished horseman and must have owned a large stable. Records show that he regularly rode a return day trip from Sticklepath to Exeter - a journey of 40 miles.

The earliest written record of Widecombe Fair dates back to 1850, though fairs are known to have been in existence across the country for centuries.

As well as being a social event, they played a key part in the agricultural year at a time when farmers wanted to review the harvest, calculate whether there was enough food to carry their stock through the coming winter and, if not, to adjust their stocking levels accordingly.

As for Widecombe's famous song, it can be traced to long before 1850. While the words and tunes varied according to different parts of the country, they always had the same theme of Tom Cobley and Tom Pearse.

But research also reveals that similar "fair" songs long existed in Cornwall, Somerset, Hampshire, Oxfordshire and Bedfordshire. Included in the various casts were such notables as Uncle Tom Cobbler, Uncle Tom Cockerell and Uncle Joe Maybe.

Today's most popular version of Widecombe Fair appeared in Devon parson Sabine Baring Gould's "Songs of the West", published in 1890, but an earlier one was performed in the South Hams - and it included an extra member of the riding party known as Bob Paul.

"Baring Gould started collecting folk songs in the Westcountry in 1890, assisted by singers from various backgrounds," say the book's authors. "In most cases, the words had to be written in situ, there being no recognised lyrics.

"His research into Widecombe Fair covered the county from Kingsbridge to Horrabridge. His earliest field notes recorded our song title as Tavistock Fair.

"However, Baring Gould eventually appeared to accept the version performed by Harry Westaway of Belstone. Although Baring Gould was convinced of a real live Tom Pearse and Tom Cobley, he appears to have neglected the existence of Bob Paul."

Over the years, the song and the fair has inspired postcards, books, a play and the 1928 film The Farmer's Wife, directed by none other than Alfred Hitchcock. And the Devon Regiment of Volunteers supposedly marched to the song's tune in 1899 during the Boer War.

The latest book charts the story of the fair year by year. It records the part played by each of the ten Uncle Tom Cobley impersonators who have entertained crowds since 1928 and how only the Second World War and the 2001 foot and mouth epidemic called a temporary halt to the much-loved charity event.

There are stories, too, of showbusiness celebrities being caught up in traffic to reach the fair, police appealing to local farmers to provide extra fields for parking, and how in 1964 "Uncle Ton Cobley" could only make it to the event on a gelding because of a shortage of grey mares!

That same year, the fair on the green was attracting major attention. One woman, posing for a picture, complained bitterly that a monkey had bitten her shoulder, and another visitor wanted an Uncle Tom Cobley mug to take back to her children. "You can't," her husband replied ungenerously, "there is no such person. Have a toasting fork instead. It doesn't look so commercial."

The authors say that, without doubt, the song's storyline is ageless. The names of the cast have varied, local names have been substituted for the traditionally accepted version and different locations have sparked other changes. But "Old Uncle" appears in most versions, the events generally centre round a fair and the one item that exists in nearly all is the essential grey mare.

Just how many people went to Widecombe Fair? The answer is often given as seven, but in fact it was eight as "I" went with the over seven characters. Who was "I"?

"Could it have been Uncle Tom's nephew, whose name appears on the gravestone in Spreyton Churchyard?" suggest the authors, referring to William Cobley who died in 1837, aged 24.

And taking the probe one step further, they ask who or what was "All"?

"We know that one of Uncle Tom's dogs was called 'Spot' and he was buried near Colebrook," they say. "Could he have had another one called 'All'?"

The History of Widecombe Fair is written by The Widecombe and District Local History Group and published in paperback by Orchard Publications of Chudleigh. It costs £6.95.