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Origins: Widecombe Fair / Widdecombe Fair

11 Sep 07 - 02:56 PM (#2146611)
Subject: Origins: Widecombe Fair
From: BB

Having seen mention of the song Widecombe Fair in another thread, prompts me to ask this:
Widecombe Fair has been in full swing today, and so was mentioned on our local news, when I found out, to my surprise, that it has only been in existence since 1850. The question therefore is how and when the song came to be written - and for that matter, by whom?

Anyone know?


11 Sep 07 - 03:04 PM (#2146622)
Subject: RE: Origins: Widecombe Fair
From: Irene M

It was collected and (according to my grandmother who knew him), somewhat cleaned up by the Rev Sabine Baring-Gould. Check in with Martin Graebe, who seems to have done a lot of Baring-Gould research.

Irene in Derby, who had the Cornish grandmother, born 1886.

11 Sep 07 - 06:24 PM (#2146803)
Subject: RE: Origins: Widecombe Fair
From: The Doctor

Someone recently gave me a copy of The Folk Song Fake Book, containing that well-known Scottish song 'Tam Pierce', the one that starts 'Tam Pierce, Tam Pierce, lend me your gray mare.' The same book also has the Irish song 'Byker Hill', and the English song 'David of the White Rock', and that's just what I've found so far. Seems collecting isn't what it was in Baring-Gould's day, or even Martin Graebe's. A more reliable book in my possession says 'Widdicombe Fair' was collected from W.F.Collier in Woodtown in 1888.

11 Sep 07 - 07:04 PM (#2146834)
Subject: RE: Origins: Widecombe Fair
From: Leadfingers

I have a version - 'Stow Fair' from Bob Arnold (Tom Forrest in the Archers) with a variant on the tune and a totally different set of lads ! - Uncle Tom Goblin and all !
Whenever this originated , it obviously got around a bit .

11 Sep 07 - 07:07 PM (#2146836)
Subject: RE: Origins: Widecombe Fair
From: Hawker

Hi Barbara,
The website I found Here!
it has this to say:
This Dartmoor song is one of the best known folksongs in England and can be found all over the world. It is thought to have been first heard in the early 1800's and the song first published either in 1880 by Mr W. Davies or in 1888 by Mr. W. F. Collier. However it was Sabine Baring Gould's book - Songs of the West that brought it to fame when it was published in 1890. Some people will say the tune originated in Somerset but we don't talk about them. The 5th Devon Volunteers used a more up tempo version as their theme tune and even after they were merged into the Devonshire Regiment the tune was heard as the men went into battle during the Boer Wars. Exeter City football club used to play the song before every match, that is until they hit a losing streak and thought the song may have something to do with their losses.What does the story line refer to? Clearly it is about a group of men who ask Tom Pearce if they can borrow his grey mare to get to Widdecombe Fair. The men agree that the horse will be returned by midday on Saturday by the latest. The designated time comes but the men and his horse don't appear. Tom Pearce then sets out in search of them. When he reaches the top of Widdecombe Hill he sees his horse making its 'will' after which it falls sick and dies. Poor old Tom then sits down and sheds a tear or two for his departed horse. Finally the song suggests that "when the wind blows cold on the moor of a night," the ghost of Tom Pearce's grey mare appears to the accompaniment of "skirling and groans," and the "rattle of bones." Strangely enough there has never been a single sighting of the ghostly grey mare. In the unmentionable Wessex version events are similar except the mare is a bay coloured and Tom Pearce goes to the top of Bunthill (which is thought to be Bonehill) and is told that there had been a "terrible spill," and that he found the "racketty crew.. " "strewed all over the shop." On the eve of Widecombe Fair the ghost of the horse appears in a cloud of blue light. In all possibility the men borrowed the mare to pull a gig as clearly it is impossible for eight men to ride a horse. Having had a busy time at the fair they got cydered up and overturned the gig on their way home which resulted in the death of the mare which roughly equates to the unmentionable Wessex version.
But is there any truth in the song? There was both a Bill Brewer and a Tom Pearce living in the northern moorland village of Sticklepath. The Pearce family owned a large mill in the village, outside which was said to have been the stable where the grey mare was kept. There is also a grave in the nearby village of Spreyton where a Thomas Cobley or Cobleigh was buried in 1844. This however is not the Tom Cobley, this person is said to be his great nephew. Thomas Cobleigh was 82 when he died reputedly having inherited his Great Uncle Tom's estate and who lived at Butsford. Tradition has it that the original Tom Cobley died in 1794 at Spreyton, nobody knows where his grave is. All the surnames are of true Devonshire stock, there are still plenty of Brewers, Stewers, Davys' Pearces, Whiddons, Hawks and Gurneys to be found today.
On Saturday, October the 19th 1850 the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette announced that on the following Friday (25th) a Free Fair would be held on the Green which adjoined the churchyard at Widecombe-in-the-Moor. It was expected that a large show of cattle and moorland sheep would be offered for sale. The following Saturday the same paper reported that "A cattle fair was held at Widecombe-in-the-Moor for the first time on Tuesday last." It was said to have been a busy affair with a large attendance of yeomen and gentlemen of the district where 736 sheep, 1,507 cattle, and 50 ponies were put under the hammer. The paper noted that due to its success the fair should be "permanently established," and so it came to pass. To this day the fair is probably one of the most famous events of the moor with visitors flocking to see the sheep, ponies, cattle, stalls, and events. The date has altered to the second Tuesday of September which just misses the busy holiday season. Some would say that the fair is congested enough without the additional numbers that holiday makers would bring but most will say that it does not clash with any other annual event.

I dont know how accurate this information is, but hope it helps answer your question!
Cheers, Lucy

12 Sep 07 - 03:45 AM (#2147049)
Subject: RE: Origins: Widecombe Fair
From: GUEST,Jim Carroll

Here is note to Cademon series version:
This song is well known through the Devonshire version, Widdecombe Fair, the one which Baring-Gould published in 1895, but in fact many other variants exist. According to Baring-Gould the original Uncle Tom Cobleigh lived at Spreyton in a house near Yeoford Junction at the end of the eighteenth century. He also thought that the names in the chorus all belonged to Sticklepath. These two places on the edge of Dartmoor are within a few miles of where Bill Westaway recorded his version. In fact Bill told us how Baring-Gould took down his father's words and then put a tune to it.

"Mr. Baring-Gould was a parson down Lew Trenchard on the borders of Cornwall and he got Widdecombe Fair from my father in Mr. J. D. Prickman's, the Solicitor at Okehampton. He and my father were wonderful great friends and Mr. Prickman send up his coachman to father that he was to come in to Okehampton as he wanted to see him very particular . . . The day after, father went in. He had a good time, they fed him well and paid him very well he was given a drop or two, you know, and got a bit merry and on to get father singing. Well that's what Baring Gould wanted, you see, for father to sing Widdecombe Fair while he took it in, in shorthand writing or in notes, you know - And all he done was put a new tune to it."
Bill Westaway (a) was 87 when he made this recording outside his house in Belstone. He said of himself that" he had been "blacksmith, stonebreaker, hedge-cutter, everything bar a parson I".
George Maynard (b), born at Smallfield, Surrey in 1872 lived, most of his life, around Copthorne until his death in 1962. 'Pop' learned most of his songs from members of his own family who were all well-known and locally respected singers.
Jim Carroll

12 Sep 07 - 04:01 AM (#2147059)
Subject: RE: Origins: Widecombe Fair
From: KeithofChester

There are at least two songs called Widecombe Fair. There is a Steve Knightley one which has a very dark alternative take on the events. You will sometimes find that particular one spelled Widdecombe Fair, which isn't how Mr Knightley intended it to be spelled at all, but he missed the mistake at the proof-reading stage of the CD sleeve.

The Knightley song takes the trad song as its inspiration and was NOT intended to look like it might be be an ode to the looks of the Member of Parliament for Maidstone West...

12 Sep 07 - 07:40 AM (#2147185)
Subject: RE: Origins: Widecombe Fair
From: GUEST,The black belt caterpillar wrestler

On the radio progarm Folk on Two Jim Lloyd played a recording on 8th May 1984 of Bill Westaway singing the song. As I remember it the phrasing was different to the way it is normally printed, "lend me your grey mare" is sung on equal length notes, also some of the names were different from what I learnt at primary school.

12 Sep 07 - 03:06 PM (#2147579)
Subject: RE: Origins: Widecombe Fair
From: Irene M

Also, check out the Yetties version of it.

12 Sep 07 - 05:13 PM (#2147711)
Subject: RE: Origins: Widecombe Fair
From: BB

Unfortunately, none of this answers my question, although it has produced a few new bits of information.

I know too that it was in the repertoire of Charles Tree (1868 - 1940) along with a number of other West Country songs.

It seems unlikely that it was "first heard in the early 1800s" if Widecombe Fair started in 1850. I can certainly believe that it may have first been published in 1880. From the rest of the information from Hawker, it would appear that the death of Tom Cobley or Cobleigh predates the start of the Fair.

And if Baring-Gould collected the song from Bill Westaway's father and published it in 1890 or '95, it must have been a relatively new song at that time, assuming it postdates the start of the Fair. Interesting that Baring-Gould seems to have 'collected' a song which can hardly be called 'traditional' at the time, by the yardsticks we use these days to define 'traditional' - we don't generally consider a song written within the last forty years as 'traditional', do we? (Discuss...)

Thanks, Hawker and Jim, for taking the time to at least try to answer the query.


12 Sep 07 - 06:05 PM (#2147741)
Subject: RE: Origins: Widecombe Fair
From: Tradsinger

In the Cotswolds it was sung as 'Stow Fair' and in Sussex as 'Lansdown Fair', but I am prepared to believe that its origins are in Devon as explained above


13 Sep 07 - 05:09 AM (#2148059)
Subject: RE: Origins: Widecombe Fair
From: Hawker

It may also be worth talking to Bob & Jackie Patten, from Morchard Bishop, who are a mine of useful information on things such as this.
Cheers, Lucy

13 Sep 07 - 11:18 AM (#2148361)
Subject: RE: Origins: Widecombe Fair
From: GUEST,Cats at work

You could also try contacting Paul Wilson and Marilyn Tucker at Wren music [google it] as they worked alongside Martin Graebe on the Baring Gould collection and have a vast knowledge of Devon songs complete with history and family connections etc.

08 Oct 20 - 06:47 AM (#4074722)
Subject: RE: Origins: Widecombe Fair
From: GUEST,Tony Bird, Northridge, California

I listened to this on a Burl Ives album back in the day, but it popped into my head recently and I thought I'd dig into it.

Seems to be based on the "Scarborough Fair" melody, but it adds its own remarkable lilt and the charm of the string of local names. There's no song quite like it, and I can see why it has had such appeal.

Thanks to Lucy from Devonshire for weighing in on this thread--she really grounds its history.

So, way over here in California, I googlemapped the place of origin and looked around. Isn't it wonderful to be able to do that? There's Widecombe, and I guess the fair keeps going strong. If you get the close-up images of St. Pancras Church, you can see the monument they made portraying the eight men with this poor gray mare!

You can also see that it's about a 20-mile ride to Widecombe from Sticklepath, where, according to Lucy, the locals may have asked Tom (Tam, being a rendering of "Tom", pronounced with a short "a") to borrow his horse. You wouldn't get to Widecombe without one in the early 1800s, when this song is thought to have been made.

But this is in the heart of Dartmoor National Park! Browse around that park and you will see the remnants of many stone circles, a la the more famous Stonehenge, way out on the wild, empty moors.

This seems to be a song about the disappearance of eight men and a horse. Could it be that this isn't a song about overloading a horse, but about riding through the wrong stone circle at the wrong time? It does have a spooky edge to it ...

08 Oct 20 - 07:45 AM (#4074729)
Subject: RE: Origins: Widecombe Fair
From: GUEST,Evadne

More likely to be just a comic song and a good sing.

08 Oct 20 - 09:53 AM (#4074744)
Subject: RE: Origins: Widecombe Fair
From: GUEST,Tony Bird, Northridge, California

Well, having said all that, there might be another interpretation, dark in a different direction. Tom saw his horse dying and "making her will". He loved his horse and cried for her death--did he decide to do in this careless bunch for horse abuse?

Well, perhaps he thought the thought and, who knows, decided to write a ballad about it instead of committing eight murders to avenge his horse. If he had done so in reality in the early 1800s there would likely be a record of it.

I don't believe in superficial meanings. Folk songs run deep, although it isn't easy to figure them out when the origins are far back in time. However, I've come to think that the reason they survive time is because they run deep.

08 Oct 20 - 09:59 AM (#4074745)
Subject: RE: Origins: Widecombe Fair
From: GUEST, Steve Shaw

Last time I heard, Lucy was still yer in Cornwall! For years she's been involved in organising the Bude Folk Festival. There's some interesting information about "Uncle Tom Cobley" and his band of friends on - just google Uncle Tom Cobley. We've been to the excellent Tom Cobley Tavern for lunch in Spreyton many times. The grave of the Thomas Cobley who died in 1844 is just a short stroll from there up the tree-lined path to the church, the grave being fairly close to the church door. Go for the springtime flowers if you can. If it's still the same pub landlord, if you get talking to him you'll discover that he can talk the back legs off, er, a grey mare...

08 Oct 20 - 05:32 PM (#4074788)
Subject: RE: Origins: Widecombe Fair
From: Steve Gardham

I'm awaiting the arrival of what is purported to be the definitive book on the subject:
Uncle Tom Cobley and All by Todd Gray. As soon as I've read it I'll report back.

My interest stems mainly from its possible relationship to a much wider-spread older song 'The Old Grey Mare' (Roud 680). It would appear that WF is an adaptation of this as they both contain taking the mare to the fair, the mare going up ----Hill and making her will, dying and the owner crying.

If the book doesn't make the connection I shall probably write an article on the connections.

08 Oct 20 - 06:39 PM (#4074795)
Subject: RE: Origins: Widecombe Fair
From: Reinhard

Are you sure about the Roud number, Steve? I believe Roud 680 is about the suitabilily of the grey mare as a dowry, not about her dying.

09 Oct 20 - 10:32 AM (#4074837)
Subject: RE: Origins: Widecombe Fair
From: Steve Gardham

Good job somebody's on the ball. Well spotted, Reinhard. I'm getting my grey mares mixed up. Put it down to my grey hairs!

The correct Roud number is 5418 although at one point it had several Roud numbers. 'Master Title 'The Old Grey Mare'.

09 Oct 20 - 06:52 PM (#4074903)
Subject: RE: Origins: Widecombe Fair
From: Richard Mellish

It's a while since I read the book. I recall being a bit disappointed but I don't recall exactly why. I'll be pleased to hear what Steve makes of it.

12 Oct 20 - 06:31 PM (#4075314)
Subject: RE: Origins: Widecombe Fair
From: Mrrzy

Had this by Ed McCurdy. Along with several other grey/gray mare songs. Like the uncommon one.

13 Oct 20 - 10:18 AM (#4075386)
Subject: RE: Origins: Widecombe Fair
From: Steve Gardham

Not read it through yet but as far as the versions that relate to and emanate from WF it is very detailed and pretty comprehensive. I won't say too much as I've just emailed Todd Gray with some of my theories and I'm waiting for his response.

13 Oct 20 - 02:53 PM (#4075418)
Subject: RE: Origins: Widecombe Fair
From: Steve Gardham

Todd reckons the East Devon version collected a little earlier more likely predates WF so I need to look at the 2 in detail.

Richard, I'm very glad to have such a comprehensive study with all the versions together for just a tenner!

13 Oct 20 - 10:33 PM (#4075461)
Subject: RE: Origins: Widecombe Fair
From: allanwill

As a descendant of a Gurney (my mother), I've been doing a bit of family history of the family. Our line comes from Winwick, Northamptonshire but I've been branching out (so to speak) looking at other lines.

The two main ones in the area of the song are centred around Padstow and Dartmouth. Peter does not appear to be a common christian name except for one family; that of Edward Gregory Gurney married, in 1746, Mary Peter and since then Peter is used quite often as a second christian name (in fact, one of Edward Gregory and Mary's sons was Thomas Peter Gurney, but known as Peter).

That, in a roundabout way, is me saying I can't offer any new information to this topic but if I do find a Peter who fits the bill, I'll let you know!


14 Oct 20 - 03:50 AM (#4075474)
Subject: RE: Origins: Widecombe Fair
From: GUEST,Sean O'Shea

You might be interested in the form of the song as sung today among Dartmoor singers;
Tom Pearse,Tom Pearse,lend me thy grey mare.
Right fol,fol de rol.diddle I do.
For I want to go to Widecombe Fair.
With Bill Brewer,Jan Stewer,Hugh Davey,Philly Winkpott,George Parsley,Dicky Wilson.
Tom Cobbley and all.
Here,here's Uncle Tom Cobbley and all.

Bill Murray,the great Dartmoor singer, sings it like this and the chorus has a slightly different tune.This version is considered definitive down this way.

14 Oct 20 - 03:57 AM (#4075475)
Subject: RE: Origins: Widecombe Fair
From: GUEST,Sean O'Shea

Sometimes Bill Brewer is sung as WILL LEWER,I should tell interested parties.

14 Oct 20 - 05:00 AM (#4075481)
Subject: RE: Origins: Widecombe Fair
From: Richard Mellish

Steve said
> I'm very glad to have such a comprehensive study with all the versions together for just a tenner!

No quarrel with that. As I said, I don't recall exactly why I was a bit disappointed, but I think I would have liked a bit more in the first part of the book, before the texts of the many versions.