Nymet Rowland is an unremarkable village set among the rolling hills of typical farmland in the heart of Devon some 4 miles south-east of Chulmleigh, and it would have remained unnoticed outside the local community if it wasn't for the lurid accounts of the antics of one family living there, the Cheritons, that appeared in the national press in the latter half of the 19th century. The purported behaviour of these villagers so outraged the sanctimonious Fleet Street hacks of the day that is wasn't long before the family became known as the North Devon savages.
To put it mildly, the Cheritons clearly had an attitude problem, and if ASBOs had been served at the time, no doubt members of this disorderly clan would have worn them as badges of honour, nevertheless a 1992 paper by Peter Christie in the Transactions of the Devonshire Society presented evidence to show that their behaviour hardly warranted the frenzied hate campaign waged against them, and he suggests that the claims made against the Cheritons may have been exaggerated by some local landowners who wanted to force them off their 32 acre small-holding.
With the UK tabloid press under intense scrutiny today following the phone hacking scandals and the character assassination of the innocent murder suspect Christopher Jefferies, perhaps it should come as no surprise to find British newspapers back in the 1870's embarking on a ferocious campaign of denigration against an underclass family with no means of redress.
[The following sections are reproduced by kind permission of the ©Devon History Society from a piece titled "The North Devon Savages" that was first published on their website in November 2009.]
The drawing of the Savages' cottage is from S Baring-Gould's An Old English Home and Its Dependencies. Note the naked figure outside, one of many slurs made against the "savages".
The story starts with a piece in The Times (page 9, November 17, 1869) headed "Heathenism in Devonshire". Leading from a report about the conviction of two men for trespass in pursuit of game, it goes on to give a highly hostile report of an unnamed farming family living in rough circumstances in and around a tumbledown farmhouse in the parish of Nymet Rowland. The piece says of them:
The story snowballed, and the family - the Cheritons - gained national notoriety as "the North Devon Savages". The Daily Telegraph did a widely-reprinted special on them in October 1871: A Family of Savages in Devonshire. James Greenwood's 1874 In Strange Company: Being the Experiences of a Roving Correspondent gave a detailed account of them which adds further sensational detail of them going near-naked and overtly suggests their children to be the product of incest because no men outside the family ever associated with the Cheritons. Greenwood had visited various low-lifes and criminals, but awarded the Cheritons pride of place: "Strangest of all strange company was that which, in my journalistic peregrinations, it was my lot to fall in with in North Devon". Reaction grew more and more rabid as the story spread. For instance:
These stories were further fuelled by letters, such as that in The Morning News accusing their women (inconsistently with Greenwood's story) of corrupting local farmer's boys "to which fact medical men in the neighbourhood can bear revolting testimony". Their notoriety even reached the pages of The New York Times: see A Tribe of English Savages, November 11, 1871, which further exemplifies the hand-wringing they evoked:
Peter Christie's paper takes a fresh look at the subject, and finds a rather different story, one actually raised at the time: the Cheritons did have some defenders, particularly the Reverend T J Leslie from Appledore, who wrote several letters to The North Devon Journal pointing out that many of the anonymous accusations were libellous and that the Cheritons did attend religious services, and particularly arguing the possibility that rich farmers who wanted the Cheritons out of the parish could easily entertain journalists who wanted to 'interview' a poor family.
Christie's research to a large extent bears this out: documented court cases show the Cheritons' crimes were small, but of the kind such as poaching about which landowners were particularly neurotic. He also notes that many of the cases were dismissed. Furthermore, land records of the period do show a consolidation of land ownership around Nymet Rowland into fewer and fewer hands. Ultimately the story may come down to a land feud in which the underclass Cheritons were less able to play the media than their rich and well-connected opponents. As the abstract to the paper summarises:
The Heard Family History website page A Criminal Past has two pictures of the Cheritons' house taken around 1860 by the photographer William Hector. The artist F. Bligh Bond's impression in Sabine Baring-Gould's An old English home and its dependencies matches one quite closely, and may be based on it. By Baring-Gould's time, the Cheritons were receding from history into folklore; Sarah Hewett's Nummits and crummits: Devonshire customs, characteristics, and folk-lore has another account, which tells of the just deserts inflicted on a sightseer: