Backwoods Horror in Nineteenth Century Devon

Illustration from An Old English Home and Its Dependencies (1898)

A recurring theme in the ‘backwoods’ genre of horror films is that of a group of city dwellers either heading deep into the countryside for a weekend retreat or somehow getting lost or stranded in such a location. Invariably, the urbanites stumble upon some isolated farmhouse inhabited by a primitive, violent, and degenerate ‘hillbilly’ family, and few of them live to tell the tale. One thinks, for example, of families such as the Sawyers (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), the Odets (Wrong Turn), and the Fireflies (House of 1000 Corpses).

Reading Sarah Hewitt’s Nummits and Crummits: Devonshire Customs, Characteristics, and Folk-Lore, published in 1900, we find similar themes in a chapter on ‘peculiar and eccentric Devonians’, where Hewitt offers the tale of the Cheriton family, also known as the ‘North Devon Savages’. The family became the stuff of legend, even being written about in the New York Times. Here are some excerpts from Hewitt’s account:

The Cheriton family, fifty years ago, resided in the parish of Nymet Rowland, a hamlet sixteen miles from Exeter, situated in the very centre of the most picturesque part of our fair county.

In the early days of their possession they were respectable, hardworking yeomen, living on and cultivating their estate to advantage. Then a son married badly, and the children of this union grew up idle and dissolute, consequently the farm was neglected and in a short time it fell into a low state of cultivation. Each successive generation sank lower in the social scale till a condition insensible to shame was reached.

The family lived in a most disreputable way. Their language was, as Tickler in his Devonshire Sketches, says, “too horribly foul for repetition: they poured forth copious streams of the dirtiest and most obscene words conceivable.”

A correspondent, who when a young man lived in the neighbourhood, tells me that no one could beat them at rough language, horseplay, and filthy discourse. They were a disgrace to the neighbourhood and a nuisance to their neighbours. One day, when passing the house, he was accosted by a woman of the tribe, who called him disgusting names, pelted him with mud and stones, performed indescribable offensive acts, and finally chased him brandishing a hay fork, with which she would have undoubtedly assaulted him had he not beaten a hasty retreat…

The farmhouse and outbuildings were originally trim and well kept, but had been gradually allowed to reach the last stage of dilapidation. The thatch was stripped from the rafters, and the rooms below received all the rain which fell, the wind played havoc with, and carried away every scrap it could dislodge. The windows had long been denuded of glass, and in winter were stuffed with bundles of hay or straw to protect the inmates from the severity of the weather; the air had free passage from basement to roof. A person standing in what was at one time the kitchen, could see the clouds passing and the birds flying above the roof. The doors were nowhere. The living room was almost destitute of furniture, and in place of seats a hole had been dug in the lime-ash-floor in front of the fireplace, which was on the hearth. Into this hole the legs of the members of the family rested as they sat on the bare floor around the fire…

Their land being freehold no one dared interfere with the family so long as they kept upon their own ground. Many strong efforts were made to clear them out of their holding but without success, and for many years these disgraceful conditions continued.

Over their social life one would wish to draw a curtain, for they regarded not the holy rites prescribed by the Church, nor the authority of bishops, arch-deacons, or civil laws. They had all things in common, and multiplied into a large family without marriage. Their conduct, habits, manners, and language, made them a terror and a nuisance to their immediate neighbours. Their misdeeds were the cause of their making frequent appearances before the magistrates in the local police courts. The surrounding farmers, after a time forbore to summon them as their ricks, stacks, barns, and homesteads were fired. By whom? None could tell, though pretty shrewd guesses were levelled at the Cheritons…

A former rector of this parish, a tall robust man, standing six foot, two inches, in his stockings, whenever he passed the premises was assailed with showers of stones and inexpressibly revolting abuse. The property has long ago changed owners, and of the fate of the Cheritons very little is known. The old folks are dead, and the younger ones have emigrated or married, thus breaking up a family notorious for evil in all its forms.

James Greenwood, in his 1883 book In Strange Company: Being the Experiences of a Roving Correspondent, writes of a visit he paid to the home of the Cheritons. He sets the scene in dramatic tones:

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.

A mandan of the Indian prairies would laugh to scorn such an effect 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…

[T]he barbarian tribe of Nymet Rowland, squatting amid the model dairy farms and mellow apple orchards of Devonshire… care no more for the house they inhabit than the pig does.

He continues:

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, 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 offensive 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.”

Greenwood knocked at the door, requesting water, and entered into the Cheriton home, where he found a group of women and children, as well as pigs, cocks, hens, and ducks. He describes their living area as follows:

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 yellow quart basins, 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.

Despite all of this, Greenwood has to admit the Cheritons aren’t actually all bad, despite their filthy living conditions and the presence of pigs, cocks, hens, and ducks in the house:

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.”

Only when the parson (the parish priest) is mentioned, does Greenwood see another side:

“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 enquire.

“A reg’ler old,” spoke the young gentleman in the ashes, deftly picking up a stick with his toes, and 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 disemboweling.

Greenwood concludes his account by making further observations about the lifestyle of the Cheritons. He strongly implies incestuous practices:

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 ever 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 service 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 the 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, that they herd together like brutes of the field, and breed like them.

Greenwood also describes the Cheritons as living off subsistence farming:

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 an old horse and a bull.

Greenwood’s account of the Cheritons (as well as that found in Hewitt’s book) contains many elements found in modern rural horror films: A violent clan living in squalor on a run-down old farm; a hatred of civilisation and religious authority; a house shared with animals; the suggestion of incest; and the traveller who escapes back to the safety of urban modernity:

” They’ll be home with him presently,” said old grand-mother 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.

In many ways, then, the Cheritons are forerunners of the type of rural family found in contemporary horror stories.

Were the Cheritons actually as bad as some said? It is hard to tell. Certainly, they seem to have been in conflict with their parish priest, for, in addition to the material found in Hewitt and Greenwood’s accounts, the New York Times article on the family states that ‘[t]he outcasts known as the “North Devon Savages,” were brought some time ago to public notice by the clergyman in whose parish they reside’.

Why the Cheritons hated this clergyman so much, we may never know, although one can’t help but suspect that at least some of the Cheriton mythology may have in fact been concocted as a pretext for stripping them of their land. The Cheritons hurled abuse at ‘the “passen” and all his friends’; perhaps those ‘friends’ were moneyed landowners who didn’t like rural riff-raff getting in the way…

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