16 March 2018 | Your Stories
TALES of death, ghosts and consequence in South Petherwin have come to light once again, as a Cornish historian aims to make a 17th century tragedy known.
Cornwall has its fair share of tales of ghosts and spirits, but some may be familiar with the ghost of Dorothy Dingley, who supposedly haunted a young local boy in a field near South Petherwin, following her death in the 1600s. However, it has emerged that Dorothy has been paying visits to more recent owners of a connected home in the parish of South Petherwin.
Keen historian and researcher, Barry West, from St Austell, has been researching a 17th century ghost story, involving an ancient Cornish family and a sad end for an unfortunate woman.
Barry told the Post that his journey with this particular tale came about after a mother of a child at a primary school in the Newquay area had asked him if he knew of any Cornish mysteries, after the school carried out a series of Cornish history sessions.
He said: “This all started for me when a woman who had a young daughter who was doing history in her school, asked if I could help find a Cornish mystery — so this is a new story for me too!”
It is thought that Dorothy had fallen pregnant, but had tragically died during childbirth in 1662, with the eldest Bligh son suspected to be the father of the baby. He disappeared soon after Dorothy’s death. There are two theories that Dorothy died either three or eight years before she was seen as a ghost.
In Dorothy’s day, becoming pregnant before marriage was seen as shameful and was frowned upon, but the stigma did not seemingly apply to the fathers of the children. Barry said: “Life would have been tough — many unwed mothers, or widows with small children, without a home, in poor health, hungry and exhausted, and nowhere to go. So who knows what the future might have held for Dorothy?”
In 1665, it is believed that the youngest Bligh son, known in many documents detailing the occurrence as 16-year-old ‘Sam’, was haunted by the ghost of Dorothy every morning at dawn on his way to school, thought to be Launceston Free School, run by 29-year-old Parson John Ruddle.
Sam crossed a field each day in South Petherwin, then known as Higher Brown Quartils, where he saw the apparition several times during his walk. She would glide across the grass, pointing at something that he could not see, but would not take any notice of the boy. He claimed that he saw her as clear as day, but became frightened as he recognised her as Dorothy Dingley, who had died three years previously and who he had seen be buried in the ground at her funeral.
Sam eventually became so afraid that he journeyed an alternative route through the ‘Under Horse Road’, but, still, the apparition of Dorothy followed. His friends and family soon noticed a change in Sam’s behaviour, as he came more sullen and moody, with his friends putting it down to laziness or something that had happened in his life that he wasn’t willing to share with them.
In the book, Launceston Past and Present: A Historical and Descriptive Sketch, published in 1888 by Alfred F Robbins, it details a theory of Robinson Crusoe author, Daniel Defoe, having been the first to mention the story in 1720 in A Remarkable Passage of an Apparition, 1665, where he told of a Mr Ruddle, who kept a school in Launceston, and had exorcised a haunted field for a troubled boy.
It is widely believed that this was not a fictitious narrative, but one penned by Mr Ruddle himself, which Defoe had managed to claim into his possession whilst at Launceston in 1705.
Robert Stephen Hawker, from Morwenstow, also retold the tale in The Botathen Ghost, 1867.
Parson John Ruddle, who was headteacher of the school in Launceston, was called to by the parents of Sam Bligh. He eventually spoke to Sam alone, and agreed to go to the field with him one morning.
To his disbelief, the parson saw the apparition and, after having to take a break due to his wife’s illness, applied for permission from the bishop of Exeter to exorcise the field and the ghost. Upon the time of the exorcism, in July 1665, he spoke to Dorothy, who, reportedly told him: “Before next Yuletide, a fearful pestilence will lay waste the land, and myriads of souls will be loosened from their flesh.”
Dorothy told the parson that she had ‘committed a great sin’, and it is widely believed that she named the man she had committed the sin with as the eldest son of the Bligh family. After vanishing, the parson returned to the field the next morning and told the ghost that he had spoken to the man, ‘who had apologised and swore to make penance’. Again, she vanished, and the parson returned the next evening and Dorothy disappeared for, supposedly, the last time, where she was not seen again. The following June, the village suffered a drought and a plague was inflicted on the area.
The Blighs are an ancient farming family, who were based in Cornwall since the Norman Conquest. Their ancient seat was Botathan House, South Petherwin, which came to them in the late 1300s, after Juliana Renfrey gave ‘all her lands and tenements in Botathan’ to her daughter, Johanna, who was married to a John Bligh.
The Bligh lineage runs from the 1400s and 1500s to the 1700s, after William Bligh died in 1744, leaving no male heir to succeed him.
As for Dorothy Dingley, records in South Petherwin do not go back far enough to suggest she was ever buried locally or that she even existed. Whether she died in 1657 or 1662 is unconfirmed.
A ‘Dingley’ family was known to have occupied the Lezant and Linkinhorne areas from 1577, and a Dorothy Dingley had married a Richard, son of George Durant, from Worcestershire, as told in Sabine Baring Gould’s Cornish Characters and Strange Events, 1909.
It is thought that both Dorothy and her husband were buried in South Petherwin in 1677, making this Dorothy too old to be the ghost of the story.
However, there is a theory that it may have been the ghost of her mother, also a Dorothy, who died in South Petherwin in 1655 approximately. Rev James Dingley was vicar of South Petherwin from 1682 until 1695, born in 1655, only ten years before the supposed ghost of Dorothy Dingley was seen by Sam Bligh.
Botathan House is based in the parish of South Petherwin, and came into the Jasper family line some years ago, who lived in the house for 17 years and still run an abbatoir from the farm.
The property is mentioned in Charles Dickens’ journal, All the Year Round, which began publishing in 1859.
Maureen Jasper explained her experience of Botathan House, having lived in the house for 17 years. She is convinced that her family has also experienced the ghostly presence of Dorothy Dingley.
She said: “We were renovating it (the house) before, and she didn’t like that!”
One family previously staying at the house also experienced an unusual occurrence. The couple had a little girl, about three or four years old at the time, who had woken up in the night and told her mother that ‘the woman’ would put her back to bed.
Mrs Jasper said: “Dorothy is definitely visible to children. She also liked playing with electric lights — we’d often have the lights flickering on and off, and the kettle would suddenly boil on its own. My cat used to watch and be very confused! So that was all happening when we were renovating.”
Mr and Mrs Jasper bought the property in 1957, opening the farm up for their meat business in 1960. The couple moved out of Botathan around 35 years ago, and her son Graham and his family moved in, who lived there for many years.
Mrs Jasper told the Post that there is information on the Bligh family in her copy of the Domesday Book, which is currently stored away.
She said: “Obviously it was a long time ago — the 1600s — so I don’t know how long they (the Bligh family) were there for. Graham and his family lived there for a long time, but eventually moved on, away from the business. A chap bought it after that; he doesn’t know anything about the history of the place, and I don’t think he’s particularly bothered about it.”
Having experienced flickering lights and the kettle mysteriously switching on by itself, Mrs Jasper also said that her daughter had experienced Dorothy.
She continued: “My daughter — I think we had gone away for a few days, and my mum was looking after her — she had a friend round to stay, and they were just sat in the lounge, watching TV. We used to keep a torch on the side, because you never know when you’ll need it, and it just came on suddenly and shined in her face — she was only about 12 or so at the time.”
Despite the ghostly goings-on, Mrs Jasper thinks Dorothy came in peace, not meaning any harm on the people living in the house. “It was always a friendly situation, whatever it was; it never got nasty or frightening,” she added. “Unless you’ve actually experienced it and looked inside the house, you probably wouldn’t think anything of it.”
The story was a big project for Barry, who said: “It’s interesting, but very sad. It just shows there were no consequences for men at the time, but for women, they suffered tremendously. I think people in Cornwall deserve to know about this story, as it could soon become forgotten, and it’s also about equality as well — there’s a lot of that in the news at the moment — so I’d like to show how Dorothy suffered at the hands of inequality in the men around her.”
Barry paid a visit to Botathan and St Paternus Church in South Petherwin recently, where Mrs Jasper had said that Dorothy is supposedly buried.
“Unfortunately there was no evidence of Dorothy having been buried there. It’s unusual to find a headstone from that time, because it was so long ago. You’re more likely to see headstones dating from the 1700s, 1800s. There were also no records in the church, but I did find that there are memorial stones in the church for the Bligh family.”
Researching Cornish history, locations and people is something that Barry feels is vital to teaching young people about their local past.
He said: “For Cornish schoolchildren, they don’t get told about the real history in their towns. Even when I was at school, in history you just learnt about historical incidents that started in London, or someone who was from London — everything started from there. I think if we can start the stories locally, and then work back to any links with London, that’s fine. But with local history, we’ve got to start teaching children about their pasts, because it’s so important.
“There’s so much I’d want to share on all history — it inspires young people, because there is a lot around here. Even in small towns like Launceston, it has a very rich history, a significant history.”
Barry said that the story about Dorothy is ‘inconclusive’. “We can’t find anything on Dorothy — that’s because it may be fictitious; Dorothy and her family could have been very poor, perhaps they couldn’t afford to give her a proper burial — so it’s inconclusive at the moment. However, what we do know is that the Bligh family definitely existed.”
He added: “The story may or may not be one we can ever prove, however there is almost always a message in the stories of long ago and maybe this one reflects the values of the day and that a mother that had an illegitimate child could not be allowed to rest because of the so called ‘sin’ she had committed — and the power of good over evil; the parson Ruddle, a man of the cloth, being good, of course, talking to the spirit and, in effect, getting her to leave.”
It is thought that John Ruddle was appointed as the vicar of Altarnun in 1679 and was later made prebendary of Exeter in 1680. Ruddle is also thought to have exorcised an ancient tree in Trebursye, where a ghost of a girl who had once danced in the tree, fallen and broken her neck, was believed to have possessed it. He died in January 1699, aged 62.
An undated edition of the Lawhitton Parish Magazine suggests that the young Bligh son, haunted by Dorothy, grew up to become the mayor of Launceston, in 1696. However, upon looking at the records via the Launceston Then website, a ‘Charles Blight’ is listed as the mayor of Launceston from 1696 to 1698. Could ‘Sam’ have been the boy’s middle name?
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