You all are looking at me like “Isla, why are you doing three places in one episode?” Well, I’ll tell you. Sadly these places are all lacking in historical documentation. I’d absolutely love to tell you more, but I just can’t find anything. I hope you’ll appreciate what I did manage to find out.
Episode 19 – Abbots Deuglie, Perth and Kinross
Welcome back to Scotland, and the region of Perth and Kinross. The hamlet of Abbots Deuglie is about half-way between the two towns, and is home to a handful of people.
The hamlet is named ‘Abbot’ thanks to Cambuskenneth Abbey, to the south near Stirling. The monastery held land at Abbots Deuglie, so it must have been in existence prior to the Scottish reformation of the 1500s.
But in all my research I haven’t really found much information on this small place. Apart from the faint remnants of a stone circle, nothing of any historical interest or importance seems to have ever happened here. There isn’t even a website! And I don’t know how to pronounce Deuglie either, so feel free to mangle the name.
I imagine this must have been a small farming community, doing the same thing every day for hundreds and hundreds of years. Quiet, peaceful and hopefully happy.
Episode 20 – Abbotsham, Devon
And now that we’ve been in Scotland for a few minutes, let’s return all the way back to South West England and the county of Devon. Abbotsham is in the north west of Devon, very close to Bideford and Barnstaple. The village surroundings are mainly farmland, but it’s also part of the North Devon Heritage Coast of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
The human history here goes back to the stone age, with flint tools being found in Abbotsham parish, but the next mention is in the 9th Century when the Abbotsham locals fought and won a battle against the Vikings at Kenwith Castle. The earliest definite date is in 974 when the village, then known as ‘Hame’ (which means enclosure), was given to Tavistock Abbey by Aelfwynn wife of Ordulf, the king’s brother. Ordulf and Aelfwynn were considered the abbey’s primary founders, and they each gave lands in their own rights to Tavistock. You’ll recall from last week that Tavistock Abbey refused to accept Scottish prisoners of war from Abbotsbury Abbey.
In the Domesday book Hame was still the village’s name, and there were 31 households living there. This was quite large for the time, though it produced a relatively small amount of tax. Later the name transitioned to Abbots-hame, and today is pronounced more like Abbot-sham.
The parish church of St Helen’s dates from the 13th Century, and belonged to Tavistock Abbey along with the manor house. In the 15th Century the Thatched Inn was founded and still stands today serving food and beer to visitors. It’s said that the inn is haunted by a ghost who used to come to the inn regularly to meet his loved one.
Following the reformation, the village came under the ownership of the Coffin family, and later the Willett family of whom one John Willett was lord of the manor and died in 1736.
Having been a quiet nondescript Devonshire coastal village for many hundreds of years, in the Victorian era – as with so many other places – Abbotsham grew. It was never a major industrial location, but gentlemen found it a wonderful place to retire, and the local quarries provided the stone to build with. There were also lime kilns, which were used to make building materials for the local farms. A railway station was also built there on the Bideford, Westward Ho! and Appledore line, and mainly served visitors to the coast.
In 1835 Thomas Arthur (or Thomas McArthur) was born in Abbotsham, and aged 18 he enlisted in the artillery where he would be stationed in Woolwich. The next year the Crimean War broke out, and No 1 Company, 5th Battalion was sent out to the battlefield.
The Crimean War was caused by a conflict over the rights of Christian subjects in the Holy Land, which at the time was part of the Muslim Ottoman Empire. Russia wanted to protect the Orthodox Christian rights, while France wanted to protect the Catholic Christian rights. At the same time, the English and French were concerned about the decline of the Ottomans and the rise of the Russians.
The conflict between the Orthodox and Catholic Christians got resolved, but the Russians and French were still at loggerheads, having pretty-much abandoned all pretence at a reason to fight. The English acted as mediators between Nicholas I of Russia and Napoleon III of France, and came to a compromise that Nicholas accepted. The Ottomans weren’t so happy, and demanded changes.
At this, Nicholas stepped away from the negotiations and prepared for war. France and England stepped up to support the Ottomans, and the war began in October 1853. It was fought throughout the Balkans and soon moved into the Crimea region.
Thomas and his battalion arrived in the Crimea in January 1855. The conditions were terrible, and many men died of sickness; Thomas himself would spend some time in hospital, though most of his time was spent in the trenches. As a side note, it’s important to recognise that Florence Nightingale pioneered her modern, life-saving nursing techniques during this conflict.
On 7 June 1855, Thomas was put in charge of a magazine (a storage place for artillery ammunition) on the left side of the line. That evening he carried barrels of ammunition across the open battlefield to the 7th Fusiliers regiment, under heavy Russian fire.
Later, on 18 June, he voluntarily led a ‘spiking party’ as part of the assault on the Redan. One of the 7th Fusilier Sergeants said “I had the honour of taking a man’s name that evening for a most daring act; bringing up a barrel of ammunition on his head across the open field under tremendous fire, throwing it at our feet, exclaiming ‘here you are, my lads, fire away!”
In 1856 Thomas Arthur returned to the UK with his regiment, and in September was charged for being AWOL for a short time. In February the next year it was announced he would be given the Victoria Cross for his bravery.
The VC is the highest award for bravery in the British Commonwealth, and came into existence after the Crimean war as the general public became aware of the heroic deeds of ordinary soldiers in battle. It is a very plain-looking award compared to other medals, made of a cheap metal, but its value comes from the man and the deeds from which the award was made. Today it is very difficult to obtain, though it was not so restricted in the Victorian era. In total just over 1,350 soldiers have received the award, and only fifteen of those since the Second World War.
Thomas went AWOL again right after the announcement, but one of the many amazing things about this medal is that once you’ve earned it, it can’t be taken away from you under any circumstances. He was imprisoned from 21 May to 17 June, and after his release he was tidied up on time for Queen Victoria to present him with the Victoria Cross on 26 June, one of the first ever to earn the award.
It seems Thomas’s brief disappearances weren’t caused by a lack of patriotism or desire to serve the British Army. He remained in the Artillery and also got married to an Ann Goddard. The couple would end up having nine children together – all girls: Jeanetta, Emily, Mary Ann, Britannia, Alice, Agnes, Aileen, Sophie and Nelly. Between 1866 and 1873 the family lived in India, where Mrs Arthur changed her name to Britannia, and their surname was also changed to McArthur around this time. Nelly was born the same year that Jeanette was married – 1879.
Thomas lived until 1902, and was buried in Cadley where he’d been living as a Chelsea Pensioner.
In the last few decades, Abbotsham has begun to grow in favour for retired people, and there are also a few families living there.
In 1957 HMS Abbotsham was launched by the Royal Navy as one of 93 Ham-class minesweepers named after villages ending in ‘ham’. Sadly she was already out-of-date by the time she was launched, like the others of her class, and ended up being put into reserve service for a decade before being sold in 1967. After refurbishment she became the motor yacht Black Abbot, has a crew of three and can sleep nine.
Episode 21 – Abbotskerswell, Devon
Thankfully we don’t need to go too far for our next village. Abbotskerswell is to the south of Devon, just north of the seaside resort of Torquay.
In 1066 it was called ‘Carsuelle’ meaning ‘Cress spring’, cress being a type of herb that often gets decoratively placed on top of food and doesn’t taste like much. Over time the name transformed into Kerswell. There were 21 households, of which about half were villagers.
Even back then it was under the watchful eye of the abbey of Horton, which is in Dorset. The abbey was quite small, and reduced to a priory in the 12th Century. The parish church in Abbotskerswell is St Mary’s, which dates back well before the reformation. Recently some badly-damaged statues from the dissolution of the monasteries were found there, and work has been under way to restore them.
There were plenty of apple orchards around the village, and Henley’s Devonshire Cider was made from apples grown and pressed in the area.
In 1864 John Henry George Lee was born in Abbotskerswell. He was an untrustworthy man with a stealing habit, but still he was taken on by Emma Keyse as a footman at her house at Babbacombe Bay, just a few miles from the village, in 1884. John’s stepsister Elizabeth was Emma’s cook. A local solicitor Reginald Templar from Newton Abbot was one of the few visitors to the house, and he seems to have been attracted to Elizabeth.
One night, Elizabeth was entertaining visitors when Emma came down the stairs to see what was the disturbance. The next day – 15 November 1884 – Emma was discovered with her throat slit, wounds to her head, and signs of attempts to burn her body.
John, the only man at the house, was accused of her murder. The only other evidence around his being the suspect was a small wound on his arm. Reginald Templar made his services available to John as a solicitor. When he came to trial John said to the judge “The reason I am so calm is that I trust in the Lord and he knows I am innocent.”
But the case went against him, and on 23 February 1885 he was due to be hanged at Exeter prison. The executioner tested the trap several times to make sure it would open, and then John mounted the scaffold. But the trapdoor wouldn’t open. They tried again. And again. Nothing.
John was removed back to his cell, and later given a jail sentence instead. The home secretary William Harcourt said “It would shock the feeling of anyone if a man had twice to pay the pangs of imminent death.”
After twenty-two years he was released from prison, and he gained the nickname ‘The man they could not hang’. But was he really guilty of the crime he was accused?
Certainly his past was not great, but his case was not helped by his solicitor Reginald Templar who had advanced syphilis that presented itself as madness. John Lee had claimed that Reginald might also have been one of the visitors at the house that night, perhaps wanting to spend time with Elizabeth? Also the solicitor ventured his services the morning after the murder – how had he heard of the incident so quickly? Well, the evidence for either man is minimal, and the Victorians lacked the investigative techniques we take for granted these days, so we shall never know.
John Lee either died in Tavistock workhouse during the Second World War, or emigrated to the United States where he died in 1945 in Milwaukee. The folk-rock band Fairport Convention released a folk rock opera about John ‘Babbacombe’ Lee in 1971.
Other people with connections to the village include two cricketers: Arthur Judd, who batted for Cambridge and Hampshire, and died at Abbotskerswell in 1988 aged 84; and Jack Davey who batted for Devon and Gloucestershire, and ran the Court Farm Inn for several years.
There really isn’t much more to tell, and I don’t want to overwhelm you with too many different villages in one blog post, so we’ll leave it there for today. Next time we are visiting Abbots Langley in Hertfordshire. See you then!
- Abbots Deuglie: Overview, Gazetteer for Scotland, 2016
- Place: Abbotsham, Open Domesday
- Landscape and History, Abbotsham Village Website
- Things to do in Abbotsham, Devon, AboutBritain.com
- Abbotsham (St Helen), ‘Abbas-Combe – Aberystwith’, in A Topographical Dictionary of England, ed. Samuel Lewis (London, 1848), pp. 1-5. British History Online
- Abbotsham, Daniel Lysons and Samuel Lysons, ‘Parishes: Abbotsham – Aylesbeare’, in Magna Britannia: Volume 6, Devonshire (London, 1822), pp. 5-27. British History Online
- Thatched Inn, Abbotsham, What? Pub, CAMRA, 2017
- Thomas Arthur VC, The Comprehensive Guide to the Victoria and George Cross
- Yacht: Black Abbot, Live Yachting, 2009
- Place: Abbotskerswell, Open Domesday
- History of the Parish, Abbotskerswell
- John Babbacombe Lee, The Man they Could Not Hang, johnbabbacombelee.com
- The Man They Could Not Hang, BBC Inside Out, 14 October 2002
- Arthur Judd, ESPN CricInfo
- Jack Davey, ESPN CricInfo