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When the Devon troops returned home after the Boer War, the tune of Widecombe Fair became even more closely associated with them as it began to be played at the many "welcome home" receptions being held throughout the county. Some people who were interested in genealogy began to ask themselves if there might be a grain of truth in the words. So many men with known old Devon names were mentioned  in the song - had they really existed and if so, did the incident take place as described in the words?


The Rev. Prebendary John F. Chanter MA; FSA;, was a well-respected Devonshire Antiquarian who published many learned articles and was a member of the Devonshire Association . After the Great War, he began to turn his mind to researching Tom Cobley's family history - and that of the others mentioned - and although he didn't quite resolve it, he paved the way for another to do so for he received a reply from Joseph Attwood, a Plymouth bookseller, which made an interesting suggestion:


Mr. Attwood's suggestion of Crediton as the place of origin of Uncle Tom Cobley has lead to Prebendary Smith Dorrien looking up Cobley entries in the Register, and, though no birth in 1697 or 1698 can be found, there is a Thomas Cobley, son of Thomas Cobley, bapt. Aug. 29, 1682 ; also baptism on Aug. 29, 1680, of a Thomazin Cobley, daughter of John Cobley, — this is probably the Thomazin buried at Spreyton in 1698. But the search was doubly interesting, as it led to the discovery that at this period there were also the following names in the Register - Pearse, Stuer, Davy and Hawkes - which suggests that Crediton was the original home, not only of old Uncle Tom, but also of the band of friends who accompanied him on his famous expedition.

J. F. Chanter.


What follows is an article the Rev. Chanter published in 1920 in Devon Note and Queries - a quarterly magazine aimed at all who were seriously interested in discovering and preserving Devon's historical past.



"There is no Devonshire celebrity whose name is wider known and yet of whose personality so little is known as " Old Uncle Tom Cobley " or Cobleigh, as it is sometimes written. For although a huge mass of fictitious stories have gathered round his name in the last thirty years, with the exception of his famous expedition to Widdecombe or Hoodicot Fair, as it appeared in the older versions, and the note attached to the song in Songs of the West, (collected by Sabine Baring-Gould) I know of no reference to him or his life in any publication, and even at Spreyton, where he lived and died, the tomb that is pointed out as his, is not that of " Old Uncle Tom Cobley," but of his great nephew and successor who died in 1844, at the age of 82. There are many curious stories that could be told of the love affairs and exploits of this later Uncle Tom Cobley, but the original Old Uncle Tom Cobley is the one we are all interested in, and he must have been a well-known character in his day, so I think no apology is needed for putting on record a few particulars concerning him, and also a story which is not fiction, but the truth, which I can vouch for, as it is gathered from a statement made on oath in a court of law by Francis Freke, of Loddiswell, in the County of Devon, Esq., aged forty-six years or thereabouts in the year 1794, and it is the story of how Old Uncle Tom Cobley made his will.


" Old Uncle Tom Cobley " was a well-to-do yeoman in the parish of Spreyton, where he owned lands and houses as well as having a good sum of money. Born in the year 1697 
or 1698, he lived to be nearly a hundred years old. In Spreyton Register the entry of his burial is, " Thomas Cobley, aged 96, was buried March 6, 1794." No entry of his birth can be found there, and there is only one Cobley entry before 1772 and that is the burial of Thomasin Cobley, of Bow, 21 Feb., 1698. 

Now Uncle Tom, as he got on in years, was the subject of anxious solicitude to his many relations, for was he not an old bachelor and the possessor of Puddicombe Park, of Bowbeer, of Park, of houses in Spreyton town and money out in debts and specialities. Whom would he leave it all to ? There were his nephews, two called Thomas Cobleigh after him in hope of succeeding. They were now both getting on in years, and each had a son also called Thomas after Old Uncle Tom, and both were grown-up men ; as well as other children, and all anxious to be remembered in the will.

But Uncle Tom was very suspicious about signing any will, for as he got on nearly to 90 both sight and hearing were failing fast and he said, " I can't see to write myself much, and I can't see well what they attornies has written, and I can't hear what they say they has written. I don't know whether 'tis right." He had been once or twice to a friend, Mr. Battishill, of Colebrook, to draw up a will, but was not quite satisfied that it was all right, so one morning in January, 1787, he went to see Mr. Christopher Hamlyn, of Paschoe*, to ask him to draw up a will. It happened at that time Mr. Hamlyn had two visitors staying with him, the Reverend Richard Freke, of Clannaborough, and his son Francis Freke, of Loddiswell, in whose words I will take up my story :

"My father and I," he says, " were walking through the court at Paschoe when I saw Mr. Hamlyn come out of the house with an old man and a young woman. ' Why, there's old Thomas Cobley, of Spreyton,' said my father, and the old man came up and told my father he well recollected him and said he had come over to Mr. Hamlyn's house to have his will made and would be there again in a few days to sign it, and would be much obliged if my father would give himself the trouble to attend and be a witness. And on my father saying it would not be very convenient for him I offered to witness it, and the old man understanding I was the Reverend Richard Freke's son, said it would be a reputable thing to have a gentleman to witness his will, and so on January 20th, 1787, old Thomas Cobley came again, accompanied by the same young woman he called his niece to Mr. Hamlyn's, who, accompanied by his clerk, Thomas Piercy, put the will into the old man's hands, observing, ' He is so deaf he can't hear the will read over and it is writ large so that he can read it himself.' Uncle Tom took the will and tried to read. ' 'Tis writ bad ; 'tis scrawling,' he said, and turning to Piercy, the clerk, exclaimed, 'Odds tidds, you damned rogue, you've been scrawling here I can't read the writing. I'll tell you again what I want put. I give my estates of Bubear and Park to Thomas Cobley, son of Thomas Cobley, of Puddicombe Park, and he to be executor ; to Mary Cobley here present two hundred pounds and the other bequests and legacies that are mentioned in the will.'

And then Mr. Hamlyn being dissatisfied that the old man did not read over the original will sat down and wrote over the heads of the will, saying, 'The old man can read my writing,' and then gave the paper he had written into old Thomas Cobley's hands, who said, ' What is this, oh, I see,' and then plainly and distinctly read out the paper on which was written : To Thomas Cobley, son of Thomas Cobley, of Puddicombe Park*, the two estates of Bubear and Park and the said Thomas Cobley to be executor. ' Yes, that be right,' he said. To Mary Cobley two hundred pounds. ' Yes, that's right, two hundred pounds for Molly here.' To John Cobley, Puddicombe Park and all the goods there. ' Yes, that's right.' To Richard Cobley the houses at Spreyton town and fifty pounds. ' Yes, that's right.' To Thomas, the father, two shillings a week. ' Yes, that's right.' To William Cobley, twenty pounds. To Elizabeth, Ann, Joan and Jane Cobley each twenty pounds when they come of age. ' Yes, that's right.' To Thomas Cobley, of Bubear*, one guinea. ' Yes, I gave him that to cut him off, the begarring scamp,' and other words of great resentment.

There were also legacies to John Veazy, £20 ; Margaret Bishop, £20 ; Anne Salter, ;£20; Mary Sticks, one guinea. ' There, that's my meaning,' he said, and signed, sealed and delivered the will and then Francis Freke, Mr. Hamlyn and Piercy, the clerk, duly witnessed it. And so at last Old Uncle Tom's will was made."

The particulars of the above story are gathered from the depositions made by Francis Freke, of Loddiswell, and other witnesses, when the validity of the will was called in question in the Consistorial Court of the Archdeacon of Exeter, on Sept. 15th, 1794, in the Testamentary Cause, Cobley deceased, promoted by Cobley against Cobley. And I trust it will lead to some of the readers of Devon and Cornwall Notes and Queries giving some further particulars of the hero of the well-known old Devonshire song, "

*The ancient property known as Paschoe was rebuilt in 1852 but even today still retains its medieval remoteness. There are no lanes or roads from which a photograph may be taken but we can use Google to look down on it and its lands - the reference is Paschoe House, Bow and the postcode is EX17 6 JT UK.

*Puddicombe Park is at Spreyton. It too was remodelled in the 1850s but still stands in the isolated grounds which make it a popular wedding venue.

*Bubear in Spreyton is now known as Bowbeer Farm and still stands.



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