Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - In Strange Company, by James Greenwood, 1874 - The North Devon Savages

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STRANGEST of all strange company was that which, in my journalistic peregrinations, it was my lot to fall in with in North Devon. At first the vague rumours of a veritable savage tribe existing at a remote place called Nymet Rowland was received by the British public with incredulity. At the nick of time, however, I received from the good minister of the parish such information as decided me to make the journey, and if possible glean, as an eye-witness, some particulars of the manners, habits, and customs of these modern barbarians who were scandalizing the land. Without daring to breathe a word of my intention to anxious friends or family, I made the first step towards invading the barbarian stronghold by taking a North Devon ticket at Waterloo Railway Station.
    Nymet Rowland, approaching it across country, is about a mile from Lapford station, on the North Devon line. The village is not numerously inhabited, but it contains several substantial farm-holdings, a sprinkling of the handsome residences of gentlemen farmers, and a venerable and goodly-sized church. Almost within the shadow of its ivy-clad square tower is to be found the kraal of the savage tribe of Cheriton. Hut, hovel, stye, or whatever else it should be termed, it is in every respect inferior to anything in the way of house architecture that can be met with in the most barbarous regions on the earth.
    [-110-] A Mandan of the Indian prairies would laugh to scorn such an effort at hut-building; a man-eating Fijian would regard as a wanton insult the suggestion that the hideous structure at Nymet Rowland might serve as a pattern useful to be followed in his construction of a dwelling-place. Carved and painted warrior as he is, he has at least some notions of decency in his domestic life, and of home comfort for those dependent on him. He will take care that his house is shut in from the inquisitive gaze of neighbours by a wattle wall or latticed fence; and, with no other material at his command than rough-hewn timber, grass, and reeds, he constructs a clean and commodious habitation, not uncommonly with some attempt at ornamentation in its exterior.
    Within the hut of the Fijian will be found a fire-place, even though it be nothing more than a slab of stone edged about with a curbing of iron-wood; he recognises the utility of doors and windows, and weaves mats for the floor. Even the benighted Esquimaux, who has nothing besides snow to serve in the place of bricks and mortar and timber, somehow contrives a house of which he has no reason to be ashamed. He provides a window of thin fresh-water ice in the wall of his snow-hut; and he has raised seats for his family and guests, covered first with a layer of whalebone, then with sealskins or deer pelts; and all within is made as snug as possible.
    But the barbarian tribe of Nymet Rowland, squatting amid the model dairy farms and mellow apple orchards of Devonshire, are less fastidious in their domestic economy. They care no more for the house they inhabit than the pig does. The pig, indeed! I can imagine with what disgust and scorn a daily-scrubbed, milk-and- bran-fed, white prize Windsor pig would curl his dainty [-111-] snout were he condemned to pass a single night in the crazy, breezy hovel in which the individuals who have earned for themselves such unenviable notoriety are born, are bred, and pass their lives. To be sure, the premises in question give shelter to pigs as well as people; but they are pigs of a bad sort - unhappy animals which have had constantly before their eyes the villainous example their owners and fellow-lodgers have set; and therefore it cannot be expected that they should be so delicate in their tastes as pigs more fortunately circumstanced.
    The savages of North Devon are by no means shy. The threshold of their abode, although not exactly on the highway path, is not so far removed therefrom that it would not be quite easy for the passer-by to pitch a penny piece into any one of the yawning holes in the wall or roof partly mended with wisps of filthy straw. The building is not large, and it is difficult to decide whether it was originally a farm-house, a granary, or merely a cow-house. It is perhaps forty feet long by twenty-five feet wide; its walls are apparently a mixture of lime, mud, and pebbles, and very thick; and the thatched roof is surmounted by a wide-mouthed chimney-opening, partly blown down. The front of the hovel may be made out with tolerable distinctness from the road. There are several apertures, designed and accidental; but the main opening, which I suppose is designated the window, is a jagged hole about seven feet high and five wide, into which, by way of windowblind, ragged bundles of straw are piled.
    This was the inviting domicile for which I was bound; and the closer I approached, the more vividly rose to my mind the current stories of its redoubtable inhabitants - of the eldest son, the lawless villain with a gun, who, [-112-] on the smallest provocation, or none at all, would let fly at a peaceful neighbour; of the shock-headed amazons, who, from concealed parts of the premises, hurled bricks and other unpleasant missiles at strangers. I thought, too, of the inoffensive farmer, who, guilty of no crime more grave than that of looking over the fence behind which these savages dwelt, was set on and so terribly cut and mauled, that, in the words of the local guide-book, "he bears the marks of his barbarous treatment to this day."
    There was a gate - a five-barred gate - with its posts rotten and sunk all aslant in the ground; and between it and the "house" such a quagmire of black mud, that it looked more like a pitfall for the inquisitive and incautious than a path to be trodden by visitors. Besides this, it was a gate with a curious crook for a fastening; and, one way and another, I deemed it advisable to make my presence known before I proceeded any farther. I shook the gate, and rattled on it with my stick; and from amid the bundles of straw I have mentioned as piled in the great jagged hole at the front of the premises was protruded what, in consequence of the hair growing over the eyes, could be recognised as a human head only by the open mouth and remarkably white teeth. The eyes in the head having, from behind its covert of thick hair, contemplated me for some little time, the head was withdrawn, and one of a larger size filled its place - a female head this time, with a face tolerably clean, and a pair of cheeks rosy as any Devonshire milkmaid's: a "devil" of a face, all the same, with high cheek-bones and a retreating forehead, and eyes deeply set in their orbits.
    Like the first inquisitor, this one had, as I believe most savages have, a splendid set of teeth, but, oh! the [-113-] voice that proceeded from between them. "Well, what is it?" It was the voice of a full-chested "navvy," grown hoarse through long toil in tunnels and deep railway cuttings.
    "Well, what is it ?"
    "Have you got a drink of water to give to a thirsty man ?"
    She did not say she had not, nor did she say that she had. She appeared undecided on the matter; and I thought it a good opportunity for unhitching the gate-fastening, and walking in - slush, plash - through twenty yards of mud that covered my boot-tops. Then I had a fair view of the savage interior through the opening before-mentioned.
    A mud floor, walls black as soot, and full of chinks as a child's dissecting puzzle with the bits wrongly placed together; and overhead the roof through which protruded faggot-sticks and smoke-dried blades of straw that had dropped through holes in the rotten ceiling above. The depth of the place might have equalled that of an ordinary dwelling-house; and through a great gap at the farther end, partly curtained with a piece of frowzy red baise, came a breeze that bore on its wings a strong odour of pigs and their favourite food. The porkers, however, were not yet in sight. The visible living creatures within the shanty, besides half-a-dozen cocks and hens and a duck or two, were seven human beings-an old woman, three young women, a girl of about twelve, a boy of about fourteen, and a baby.
    There was not a single article of what could be called furniture to be seen-neither chair, nor stool, nor table. Ranged against the wall to the right was a long rough-hewn bench, and above it was slung a shelf on which were stacked a few odd bits of crockery, five or six [-114-] yellow quart basons, and an old earthenware foot-bath patched and tied round with string, which, since a ladle reposed in it, and the idea of feet-washing among such a community was simply ridiculous, I presume was the family soup tureen. On the bench were a pile of onions, a monstrous loaf or two of hearth-baked bread, a battered tin pail three-parts filled with milk, a ragged old saddle, and some jars and bottles containing apparently medicine for cattle.
    There was no fire-place; but a ruddy glow smouldered from a hole in the floor of the earth, and over it, by an iron chain, a cooking-pot was suspended. Round about the fiery pit-hole, squatted on their hams, were two of the young women and the younger girl; while the fourteen-year-old lad was prone on his belly among the ashes, with his hideously dirty face resting on his infinitely dirtier hands, and his keen eyes twinkling through his matted hair. They all wore clothes of a sort, and the young women had shining eardrops hanging from their ears. I renewed my application for a drink of water, and, emboldened by the fact that no savage of man kind appeared, accompanied the request with a second - "Might I get a light for my pipe at the fire?"
    A general stare, and a rumble of masculine laughter on the part of the damsels by the fire-hole, were the only immediate response; so, seeing no other way in, I stepped round to the back of the hovel, and putting aside the red baise curtain, walked in. The pigs were a slight obstruction. An enormous black sow, with monstrous flapping ears and an iron ring through her snout, was sprawling in what, from its recognised relation to the rest of the building, might be designated the back parlour; while nine or ten little piglings, as fierce-[-115-]looking as herself were eagerly besetting her for natural nutriment. This impediment overcome, there was nothing to bar my way to the fire.
    Bad as they may be, these North Devon barbarians - bestial, filthy, and inexpressibly vicious-they at least exhibited towards me, a chance visitor and complete stranger, an amount of hospitality that smote my conscience hard when I reflected how little I deserved it. A damsel of the tribe, aged apparently about twenty, with thick clouted boots on her feet like those of a maltster, and a white rag bound about her muscular jaws, caught up an antique pot or piggin of red clay, capable of holding, I should say, a couple of gallons. This she took out, and brought it back full. Then she got a little jug and half filled it with water, out of another vessel filled it up with milk, and presented it to me with the polite observation that "she wished as how it was cider, but they were quite out of it."
    "You're a stranger?" said she, interrogatively.
    I nodded.
    "Don't know the passen (parson), or any of them in these parts ?"
    "No; shouldn't know them if I saw them."
    "There, I told thee so," said she, turning to the others; whereon, as though it was the constant recreation of their lives, and my entry had interrupted it, there arose a family chorus of the foulest abuse and cursing, directed against "passen" and all his friends, that might have made my blood run cold, only that I was stooping over the red-hot chumps and sticks to get a light for my pipe.
    "Parson a bad sort?" I ventured to inquire.
    "A regler old -," spoke the young gentleman in the ashes, deftly picking up a stick with his toes, and [-116-] thrusting it into the fire; "that's what I'd like to do wi' passen," a sentiment which was highly applauded by the rest, one of the girls adding, in far more idiomatic language than I dare use, that she would like to perform upon the gentleman in question the operation of disembowelling.
    "He don't come here very often, I'll wager," I remarked, wickedly joining in the hideous laughter. This crowned the joke. Come there! "Passen come here!" The little villain in the ashes was so tickled that he almost stood on his head, his mahogany-coloured legs writhing convulsively in the air; while a comely squaw of thirty, who as she sat in the dirt was engaged in patching an old pair of corduroy trousers with some twine and a carpet needle, flung aside her work to grasp her sides, they ached so with laughter.
    "You're a droll 'un," exclaimed the old woman, grinning till she showed her toothless gums. "Passen come here! ho! ho! Gi' he some more milk, Lisa."
    "I suppose the old fellow is too wide awake to chance it," was my next irreverent remark, for which I humbly beseech the clergyman's forgiveness.
    "He ain't old, --- him; he's young enough to take a young wife," returned the female savage named Lisa. "He got married a bit ago, and come up with his --- (it was a mercy that the villainous epithet she applied to the bride did not sear her heathen throat) - and we all of us went to the gate to gi' 'em a warmin'. Ha! ha! ho! ho! She won't forget us more'n passen will. It'll make him hotter agin us than ever, --- his carcase!"
    I wanted to prolong my stay a little, so looked about for an excuse ; and at that very moment the baby which the old woman was nursing thrust its little face forward, and presented a convenient, though at the same time an [-117-] appalling, pretext for talk. It was a ghastly contrast, that between the nurse and the child. The former was a creature wrinkled, gray, and hideously dirty, but still with some tigerish light in her deep-set eyes, which, combined with her flat, backward-slanting forehead, and her hard-set thin lips, betokened the constitutional inclination to vice that had tempted her to the dreadful path she had entered forty years ago, and which still sustained her in that path unashamed and dauntless. This was the female founder of the savage tribe by which she was now surrounded, and her arms held the last fruit of the inhuman stock - a five months old, as I was informed; but there were more than as many years of suffering in its poor little yellow, pinched face, its weak watery eyes that blinked shyly at the light, its frothed lips, and the sickening sores that disfigured it.
    "Does the doctor come and see it?" I asked.
    "He don't come here, he'd be afear'd ; nobody comes here;" the old hag replied, with an ugly grin. "I takes it to the doctor, but he don't do it no good; and I ain't goin' to stand his humbuggin' any longer. It's been like it is ever since it was born the biles come up on it, and they break and leave sores. Look here." As she spoke, she turned the helpless infant savage over, and showed me its neck and shoulders; and glad indeed was I to escape from the sight on pretence that my pipe had gone out again, giving me an excuse for turning towards the fire. There was another baby somewhere - I had learned that previously-and some allusion was made to it by a member of the family; but I could not see it anywhere, and I did not care to appear too curious. I did not like even to ask to which of the three strapping wenches present the poor little horror belonged.
    [-118-] And here I have to touch on the most repulsive and scandalous feature that distinguishes the North Devon haunt of savagery and its occupants. The facts are simply these: Here is a man - Cheriton by name - who takes a woman as his mate; and the pair agree to defy decency and goodness in any shape for the remainder of their lives, and "to do as they like." The den they inhabit at the present time is that in which more than forty years ago they first took residence. They can afford to keep aloof from their neighbours, their homestead being surrounded by about forty acres of good land, their own freehold. In the natural course of events, they have children; their daughters grow up and have children, and the latter in turn grow up and become mothers; but no one ever yet heard of a marriage in that awful family, or knew any male stranger to be on visiting terms with it. The only adults of the masculine sex ever heard of in relationship with the Cheritons are the old man, Christopher; his eldest son Willie, aged thirty-five or so; and the fourteen-year-old youth I have already mentioned.
    They decline communication with the world outside the boundary hedges of their estate. Accidental encounters with civilized beings are invariably accompanied by conflict, physical or verbal. No one knows when a child is about to be born in this mysterious settlement, for they dispense with the services of a doctor and nurse each other. No one knows to whom a child belongs when it is born, nor are the neighbours usually aware of the fact until by chance some one gets a glimpse of the infant two or three months afterwards. Supposing Ěthe members of this awful tribe to be so inclined, they might dispose of their infant dead and nobody would be the wiser. The horrible suspicion is, [-119-] that they herd together like brutes of the field, and breed like them.
    Thus saith rumour ; and my personal observation enabled me to gather what may be regarded as corroborative evidence in support of much of it. The ground floor of the hovel is at once the living-place, the cooking-place, the pig-stye, and the sleeping-place. As I have mentioned, not a single article of furniture is contained within it; there is not even a bedstead. The family bed, on which repose savage old Christopher, Willie his middle-aged son, the old woman, the three strapping daughters, the big boy and the big girl, and the smaller fry, including the horrifying baby or babies, consists of an accumulation of foul straw, enclosed within rough-hewn posts driven into the earth.
    It has been said that the tribe sleep in a pit; but if so, the pit has become filled in with fresh layers till now it is raised nearly two feet above the level of the ground. The bed space is about that of the floor of a country waggon, and in or about it not a vestige of sheet, or rug, or blanket was visible, thus there seems no choice but to suppose that they burrow in the straw like rats or ferrets, and so keep themselves warm.
    That they are more decent in their behaviour than they used to be, is allowed by every good authority in Nymet Rowland. I was informed by a gentleman whose extensive estate joins that of the savages, that not more than two years since, it was quite common to see dreadful old Christopher sunning himself at noon, with nothing but a wisp of dirty rag slung round his waist, his body being otherwise perfectly naked, except for the dirt that begrimmed it; while the daughters, grown women arid mothers, thought nothing of attend-[-120-]ing to their daily farm duties, clad airily in a single garment of calico.
    The most incomprehensible part of the business is that the Devon authorities, who have effected a partial reform, are not strong enough entirely to wipe the disgrace from their county. If the horrors proved, and the dreadful suspicions whispered, came to civilised ears concerning some benighted tribe at the Gaboon or Tierra del Fuego, every community of Christians, with missionary power at its disposal, would be roused to immediate action, and the whole religious world thrown into a state of commotion, until the happy day when it was announced that the barbarians had been brought to acknowledge the iniquity of their ways, and had given substantial security against longer continuance in them. But Nymet Rowland is not in a savage land. It is in the heart of fruitful Devon. You may take a railway ticket at Waterloo Station at noon, and arrive at Nymet Rowland in time to see grandmamma savage slinging the iron pot over the fire-hole to brew tea for the evening meal.
    Whoever sets about the task of converting the savages of North Devon should, however, be thoroughly apprised of the attending difficulties. He should be a man accustomed to barbarians in grain, to their manners and customs - a Moffat, a Livingston, or a Williams. Savagery is in the blood of the Cheritons. It is a fact that a brother of the present old Christopher Cheriton, Elias by name, was even more strongly tainted than the latter with the family malady; but by some merciful dispensation of Providence, he lived and died a bachelor. Elias Cheriton resided at Whitsone, which is not very many miles from Nymet Rowland. Like Christopher, Elias was a freeholder of land to some [-121-] extent; but unlike him, he had not a house or a hut to live in. He lived in a cask, with a few rags and some straw,. just like a make-shift mastiff-kennel. The cask was placed under a hedge that skirted one of his own broad meadows; and it was his serious declaration that there was nothing on earth so handy as a tub to live in, because one could shift it about according to the quarter from which the wind blew.
    Elias, however, though he neglected his land, was famous for rearing poultry-making caves and breeding- places for them in the earth all round about the spot where his gipsy kettle was slung, and where he sometimes cooked the meat he ate; and when he died, which is no more than two years back he was able to leave to his dear brother Christopher between three and four hundred pounds. Of the five-and-thirty or forty acres owned by the Cheriton savages, not a fifth part is under cultivation ; it being their practice to grow no more than suffices for their personal consumption, and that only in the way of potatoes and cabbages, and a little wheat which they dry and grind for themselves. They breed a few sheep-a mere dozen or so. They hire no labourers, the whole family engaging in the necessary field-work ; the females helping at the plough, assisted by one old horse and a bull.
    The animal I have just mentioned was out of work when I saw him, and taking his ease in a field; but, as though determined that all their belongings should be in keeping with their savage selves-the horned brute has the reputation of being the most vicious and dangerous bull in the county. The only way of getting him to work yoked with the old horse is to envelop his head and shoulders in a sack; and even then he needs to be pretty sharply watched, lest in his blind malice he [-122-] should wickedly prod his equine comrade through his sackcloth hood. They are proud of their bull, those wild Devonians. He has never slept under cover summer or winter since his calfhood, one of the damsels informed me; and she showed me out in the open the tree to which the creature was tethered at nights, all withered and barren in consequence of the bull's fierce assaults on its bark, which was gored and torn all away. "They'll be home with him presently," said old grandmother savage, who sat rocking the awful baby, that was squeaking like a snared rabbit. "Who will be home with him?" I asked. "My old man and Willie, she replied.
    Willie was the young fellow who had nearly smashed the unoffending farmer; so, inwardly thanking her for the timely hint, I. bade the interesting family good morning, made for the five-barred gate that grew out of the black mud, and sought the sweet highway.