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Poet, Pastor, Vandal?
Thomas White Windeatt (1769-1827)

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The Vandal?

On several contemporary web sites, you can read the story of Childe the Hunter and how his prehistoric tomb was destroyed by a Mr. Windeatt in 1812 (1) (2), (3)

This tale of destruction was first told by William Burt, a Plymouth Solicitor, in 1826.  He accused Windeatt of using stones from the ancient monument as doorsteps for the farmhouse he was building at Fox Tor.  See the full story on the Devon County Council Local Studies page linked opposite (select the picture of Child's Tomb here on the right and then scroll down when you get to the Local Studies page).

William Crossing, the famous Dartmoor chronicler,  writing in the late nineteenth century repeated the story in more than one of his works.  He also added details obtained from conversations with his friends, the moormen Richard Cleave (whose father had worked at Fox Tor Farm) and Richard Eden (who was born and brought up there).

Child's Tomb / drawn & etched by P.H.Rogers. [London] : [J.Murray] , [1826].
Copyright Devon County Council, 2002.

The story has been further investigated by  Elizabeth Stanbrook in her fascinating and detailed book, Dartmoor Forest Farms (4).  She tells the story of Fox Tor Farm in the upper Swincombe Valley and how Thomas Windeatt from Bridgetown near Totnes applied to take over the lease in 1808 and signed the Indenture in 1809.  But it was not until 1812 that the actual building began and it was then, it is alleged, that his workmen destroyed the Tomb.   Elisabeth Stanbroook describes how Crossing painted a picture of a man whose motives were both exploitative and speculative, who built an impressive gentleman's residence, and who had strange habits such as hiding money in the rocks of Cumston Tor.   She questions Crossing's depiction of a palatial farmhouse, pointing out that, until 1857, it consisted only of a kitchen and bedroom on one floor with a bit of  extra space under the thatched roof.  She does not question the rest of Crossing's comments however, and adds that Windeatt soon left the the farm (the Eden family were living there in 1817).  Although ownership was still attributed to Thomas Windeatt in 1828,  the lease had passed to a Mr. William Wingate  by 1840 and this was shortly acquired by the Eden family themselves in 1843.

From the above tale, it might appear that Thomas Windeatt was a townie who was out to make some money from the contemporary enthusiasm for taming land on Dartmoor.  With no sensitivity to the life and work of the moormen or the preservation of antiquities he happily allowed an ancient monument to be vandalised for his own profit and comfort.

Is this true?

Well, it would seem to be more complicated than the tale originally told by Burt and frequently repeated by Crossing.    There is a Thomas Windeatt on the Totnes tree who would appear to be the most likely candidate for culprit.  It is certainly true that he was a townie.  His family had lived in Bridgetown, a suburb of  Totnes,  for at least five generations and, at the start of the nineteenth century, they were small tradesmen:  serge manufacturers, grocers, tanners..  He could easily be characterised as a type of 'nouveaux riche' lower middle class man keen to ape his betters - the wealthy Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt being the pioneer of agricultural revolution on Dartmoor in the previous generation.

The Pastor?

But family history paints a picture of a very different kind of man and written references studiously eschew any mention of the Fox Tor Farm venture.  His daughter writes:

My dear father was brought up to the woollen business, after being well educated, this he disliked wishing to go into the Ministry. After his father's death he retired from the trade and preached in the Chapel at Totnes, and the neighbouring villages with extraordinary usefulness; my dear mother dying early he gave himself more to the work and was untiring in his efforts to do good. My brother William Fabyan Windeatt and myself were the only ones of six who lived to grow up. Our dear father was taken from us before we were of age and we remained with our Uncle and Aunts until we were both married (5).

and his grandson, Edward Windeatt, wrote a similar autobiography of him for inclusion in the volume of West Country Poets  published in 1896:

The Rev. Thomas White WINDEATT was the son of Samuel WINDEATT, of Bridgetown, Totnes, who was engaged in the woollen trade.  He was born at Totnes, February 17, 1769 , and educated there.  He at first went into his father's business, but never cared for it, being of a literary turn of mind; and soon after his father died he gave up business.  All the family were Nonconformists, and attended the Independent Chapel; but the minister embracing Arian views, the grandfather of T. W. WINDEATT  opened his house for worship and ultimately a chapel was built in Totnes, now the schoolroom of the Congregational Chapel, and in 1806 the grandson became its pastor.  He wrote several religious articles, under the nom de plume 'Albus', for the Christian Guardian Magazine from 1809 to 1814. He also composed a number of hymns and sacred poems, which were used in the services of the chapel of which he was pastor, and which were published in a small volume after his death. He died August 20, 1827, at the age of fifty-eight. (6)

Edward Windeatt also ensured that his grandfather had an enduring memorial:

"The Sunday School of this Church 
was founded on January 1st 1807
by the Pastor the Rev. T. W. Windeatt
which was the first Sunday School in Totnes
this memorial stone was erected
by his grandson Edward Windeatt,
1910"  (7)

And contemporary attestations to his piety are to be found at the web site of Torbay Methodist Churches where Revd John Searle is quoted as follows:

Southfield Chapel is the oldest non-conformist place of worship in Paignton. It's origin lies with a small group of Congregationalists who began meeting in 1816 under the leadership of the Revd T W Windeatt who was minister of a flourishing Congregational Church in Totnes . . .[on] Saturday, 7 November, nineteen men and women gathered for a solemn dedicatory service conducted by Revd Windeatt, and were constituted an Independent or Congregational Chapel . . . The foundation stones were laid on 24 February 1818 . . . On Thursday 5 November in the same year, the completed Chapel was dedicated for 'the worship of Almighty God and the preaching of the gospel'. . .  The following Saturday, 7 November, nineteen men and women gathered for a solemn dedicatory service conducted by Revd Windeatt, and were constituted an Independent or Congregational Chapel (8).

Can these two accounts possibly be about the same man?

How can we reconcile these two portraits?  Surely they can't be one and the same man?  There must be two wool spinners from Bridgetown called Thomas Windeatt?  

I can't completely rule this out but there don't seem to be any other likely candidates around.  Windeatt had become a relatively rare surname in the early nineteenth century and the only other Thomas Windeatt I can find in the area who was about the right age was a seaman.  Also several of the dates and other particulars mentioned by Elizabeth Stanbrook do seem to fit in with what we know of the Pastor Poet. 

The Poet?

1806

Thomas White Windeatt's  father dies and he gives up the woollen trade and becomes a congregational Minister in Totnes. 
1807 Thomas White Windeatt's  father-in-law, William FABYAN of Ashburton, dies and his wife Mary comes into  "some thousands of pounds settled on herself and children".  

This good fortune and presumably an inheritance from his father may have inspired his interest in the applying for the Fox Tor lease.

1808 A Thomas Windeatt signs the Indenture for the lease of land at Fox Tor in February.

Why?  We have no clues.  Perhaps it was a speculative investment?  If he was busy ministering to his flock in Totnes I can't imagine that he would have wanted to live up at Fox Tor.  Perhaps he just planned to invest the money in  land and then develop and let out the property?   It is possible that he also bought other "pockets of land" nearby (see beside 1840 below).

Stanbrooke points out that Crossing was uncomplimentary about Windeatt "saying that his only achievement was to alienate the land from the commoners" (9).  And he certainly appears to have been  unwelcome intruder.  But perhaps, this man, whom we now know to have had poetic sensibilities and literary ambitions, was seeking a rural idyll or even a return to his roots?  Postles, after researching the surnames of Devon, concludes that the Windeatt name has its origins near Widecombe on Dartmoor (10).  There were lots of Windeatts on the moor in the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries although they had almost all moved away by the middle of the nineteenth century.  Only a few miles walk west from Fox Tor  is Deancombe, an ancient Dartmoor farm, which was tenanted by  some Windeatts in 1567.

1810 A Thomas Windeatt, woolspinner, of Bridgetown, Devon was made bankrupt. (11).  

I don't have any further information but financial problems could explain why building didn't begin on the farmhouse until 1812.  

This bankruptcy and the collapse of Abraham's Bank mentioned below could also explain the insistence in his Will that the trustees should not be personally responsible for each other nor "for any Banker or Bankers with whom the Monies shall be lodged for safe Custody".

1811 Thomas White Windeatt's  wife, Mary (nee Fabyan), dies.  

There were more money problems according to his daughter, Frances Amery: 

. . . my grandfather William [FABYAN] .. . gave my mother on his Will, some thousands of pounds settled on herself and children, which was unfortunately for us in old Abraham's Bank, which failing soon after was lost.  The Trustees being our nearest relations we could not call them to account, our mother had died before so never knew her loss (12).

Was her father one these 'nearest and dearest' trustees?   Was this failure the same as the bankruptcy  reported in 1810 or a subsequent one?  Whatever happened it could well explain his strange habit of hiding money in the rocks around the farm.  But what was he doing up there anyway?  Was he hiding from his creditors?  Had he abandoned his flock in Totnes?

1812 Building work began at Fox Tor.  

Where did the money come from?  Was it the money he had hidden from his creditors in the rocks around the place?

Why did he allow the cross to be destroyed?  Did he instigate it or was it done by his workmen in his absence?  

If he instigated it, could he have had a religious reason?  The Legend of Pixies Cross tells of a Puritan Preacher determined to uproot the ancient cross because it was a symbol of popishness.  He gets cornered by a bull and eventually rescued but only after he has promised the villagers to leave the stone alone..  Could this be a confusion of the two tales and could the Puritan Preacher be Thomas White Windeatt himself? (13)

1817 The small farm is inhabited by the Eden family. 

How long had they been there?  Perhaps since the farm house was completed?  

1818 I have found no more mentions of the pastor's work after 1818.  

Did he continue his ministry until his death in 1827?  His daughter makes the strange statement that he "was taken from us before we were of age and we remained with our Uncle and Aunts until we were both married" (14).  But his daughter was 22 when he died -  although admittedly his son was only 20.  I have wondered if he had perhaps suffered some sort of breakdown and had been packed off to one of those private lunatic asylums that flourished in those days?  But this is sheer speculation based on the slender evidence of (a) his daughter's statement above (b) his strange behaviour on the moor as reported by Crossing and (c) on the harsh images of 'sleepless nights', 'tearful eyes',  'weary hours', 'piercing cries', 'sin and grief' that he suffers in his poem below.

1826 William Burt publishes his attack on Windeatt for destroying the tomb.  

A biography of Burt also appears in the West Country Poets book (Burt, Crossing and Windeatt all tucked up cosily together within the pages!) and it is interesting to read that Burt, himself, "was at one time possessed of considerable private means; but he was induced to speculate, and lost from £15,000 to £20,000, chiefly owing to the failure of a country bank" (14).   I can't help wondering if the bank was 'old Abraham's Bank' and if there was an element of revenge in Burt's attack?  Burt died in the same year (1826).  Was this the reason why his Introduction and Notes to Carrington's poem Dartmoor were not repeated when the second edition was published also in 1826?  Or were they withdrawn for a different reason?

1827 Thomas White Windeatt dies, aged 58.  

Had he been very upset by the attack on him the previous year?  This poem of his which his grandson submitted to the West Country Poets book reveals a somewhat tortured spirit:

IN CLO QUIES

Departed saints my thoughts employ;
     Before the throne of God they stand,
And high delight and holy joy
     Their raptur'd faculties expand;
And whilst they mingle with the blest,
Sweetly respond - 'In Heaven there's rest.'

But 'twas not rest while here below,
     'Twas sleepless nights and tearful eyes;
'Twas keen affliction's varied woe,
     And weary hours and piercing cries;-
But the dark clouds are all disperst,
And now they sing - 'In Heaven there's rest.'

Look forth, my soul, beyond the clay,
     Beyond the land of storms and night;
For there remains a brighter day
     Of ceaseless joys and purer light,
And when with sin and grief deprest,
Anticipate - 'In Heaven there's rest.' (15)

1828 The ownership of Fox Tor farm is still attributed to Thomas Windeatt in a map.

 I suppose it is possible that the mapmakers had not been brought up-to-date with his recent death.

1833 His Will proved by his brother John WINDEATT and cousin William Doidge TAUNTON. See transcription on the Will page.
1840 "by 1840 the lease had passed into the hands of Mr. William Wingate, who had various other pockets of land in the area, and was joint lessee with Mr. George Bouvay for one piece of land used by the Edens." (16).

William Wingate was probably William Fabyan Windeatt, Thomas's son, who would have inherited the farm and land on his father's death.   The names Wingate and Windeatt are written  interchangeably in Devon up to this period.  If William inherited Fox Tor from his father, perhaps he also inherited the other 'pockets of land' from him?  Certainly it looks as though he was the owner of a farm in Widecombe as well - see Mike Brown's discussion of Widecombe history in his Online Magazine.

1883 Crossing began to write his accounts of Windeatt at Fox Tor and the destruction of Childe's tomb. 

These must have been upsetting for Windeatt's grandchildren, Thomas White Windeatt and Edward Windeatt.  They were becoming important people in Totnes: both eventually reached the giddy heights of Mayor.  Edward had an interest in local history and was to write many papers on the subject and was at one time a President of the Devonshire Association.  Perhaps it was in response to Crossing's accounts that Edward tried so hard to build up his grandfather's reputation by erecting plaques and submitting poems to the West Country Poets book - where ironically Thomas Windeatt snugly shares its pages with his bitter critics William Burt and William Crossing?

1904 Eden Phillpotts publishes his novel 'The American Prisoner' (17). 

This tale is about an English heroine,who lives at Fox Tor farm, and an American hero imprisoned at  Princetown.  The heroine's father, Maurice Malherb, may be loosely based on Thomas Windeatt.  Phillpotts certainly knew of the surname, WINDEATT, because he used it for a character in his play, The Farmer's Wife.  In the novel Malherb is an irascible character who destroys Childe's tomb and cruelly beats a servant but he is not depicted as totally evil.  He is portrayed more as a victim of his own bad temper rather than an unremittingly vicious sadist.  Strangely, rather than an upstart member of the nouveaux riche, Malherb is introduced as the younger son of a noble family and he builds the Fox Tor house to be the impressive gentleman's residence suggested by Crossing rather than the humble cottage of reality.  The characterisation may have arisen entirely from Phillpott's literary imagination but it is conceivable that he had heard of the Bridgetown Windeatt's claims to be related to the Edgecumbes, "an old branch of the earl's family" (18)?  Did the family also make some claim to the old Wingate coat of arms which displays a portcullis - a pun on the name?  Certainly Phillpotts gives Malherb a similarly punning coat of arms: three stinging nettles!

This whole story is intriguing but I can't find out any more wihout going to Devon and spending some time reading up about bankruptcies and Crossing's allegations  in the old newspapers in addition to scanning the Totnes tree records (a sheaf of family records has been deposited in the DRO and is as yet unexamined).


References

  1. Devon Life Online, Beyond the Mire, 2001, [online] Available from: http://www.devonlife.co.uk/magazine/magarticles_folder/dartmoor_folder/mire/mire.html [accessed on 20/04/01] [back to text]
  2. Dartmoor's Crosses, Childe's Tomb, 2001, [online] Available from: http://www.dartmoor-crosses.org.uk/childe's_tomb.htm [accessed on 20/04/01] [back to text]
  3. Paul, T. , Images of Dartmoor: Along the Monastic Way Buckfast Abbey to Buckland Abbey Hawson's Cross to Nun's Cross,  Flaxey Green, 2001, [online] Available from: http://www.flaxey-green.co.uk/dartmoor.htm#8%20CHILDE'S%20TOMB [accessed on 20/04/01] [back to text]
  4. Stanbrook, E. Dartmoor Forest Farms:  A Social History from Enclosure to Abandonment,  Devon Books, 1994, pp.42-52. Can be ordered from Dartmoor Books[back to text]
  5. DRO 5651, M Amery, F., Family Legends, 1863.
    Extract from the memoirs "compiled by Mrs Frances AMERY nee Frances WINDEATT, of Druid, Ashburton, Devon - daughter of Thomas White WINDEATT and Mary FABYAN - only sister of William Fabyan WINDEATT of Totnes. She recorded her recollections at the request of her brother and her own children in 1863".  Frances Amery was the mother of John Sparkes Amery who, with his cousin, Edward Windeatt, a fellow member of the Devonshire Association, wrote many papers on local history. [back to text]
  6. Wright, W. H. K., West-Country Poets: Their Lives and Works. London: Elliot Stock, 1896, pp.48-51, [online] Available from: http://www.cs.ncl.ac.uk/genuki/DEV/DevonIndexes/WestCountryPoets.html [accessed on 20/04/01] [back to text]
  7. Noticed high on the wall of the building in Totnes in the late 1980s or early 1990s by another researcher. 
    [back to text]
  8. Searle, J. Southfield Methodist Church, Paignton, Devon:  A Brief History,Torbay Methodist Churches, Torbay, Devon, UK, 1990. [online] Available from:  http://www.torbay-methodists.org.uk/paignton/southfieldhistory.htm  [accessed on 20.04.01] [back to text]
  9. Stanbrook, E., op cit., pp.44. [back to text]
  10. Postles, D. The Surnames of Devon, (1995), Leopard's Head Press, p. 129. [back to text]
  11. Mansfield, P. Windeatt Thomas - Bridgetown Devon woolspinner bankrupt - Taunton Courier, 05/07/ 1810. [back to text]
  12. DRO 5651, op cit. [back to text]
  13. Sandles, T., Pixies Cross,  Dartmoor: The Wildest Land, 1999, [online] Available from:  http://members.aol.com/dartmoorlander/dartmoor/pixiescross.htm accessed on 20/04/01] [back to text]
  14. DRO 5651, op cit. [back to text]
  15. Wright, W. H. K., op cit. pp. 69-70. [back to text]
  16. Wright, W. H. K., op cit. pp.48-51 [back to text]
  17. Stanbrook, E., op cit., pp.44. [back to text]
  18. Phillpotts, E. The American prisoner. London : Methuen, 1904. [back to text]
  19. DRO 5651, op cit. [back to text]
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