‘Out on the wiley, windy moors...’
Well, not on that moorland, but our story today takes us to a very similar place.
Dartmoor is a vast expanse of moorland in Devon, in the south west of England. With a bleak beauty which stretches as far as the eye can see, the area has a rich history and magical atmosphere. Carpeted in part with heather and with huge rugged tors on the horizon, the area has inspired many works of art and literature, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles.
Hound Tor (credit: Nilfanion, wikimedia)
Under the looming rocks of Hound Tor, there is a lonely crossroads. This is the site of a single isolated grave with a sorrowful tale to tell, known as Jay’s Grave. The little mound, also known as Kitty Jay’s Grave, is reputed to be the last resting place of a suicide victim from the late eighteenth century. However, the tale has been much embellished down the years, so that it is difficult to distinguish fact from fiction. But it is an interesting story, which has long been associated with a mystery, and a ghost.
The story goes that in the eighteenth century, an orphaned baby girl was taken to the workhouse in Newton Abbot, a market town on the River Teign. There, as was the custom, she was given a surname beginning with the next letter of the alphabet on the workhouse register, and so it was that she was named ‘Jay’. In the eighteenth century the word 'jay' was associated with promiscuity and prostitution, and so to balance this out the baby was given the Christian name of Mary. The young girl remained at the workhouse until her teens, when she was sent to work at a nearby farm called Canna, just outside Manaton, a village on Dartmoor. Mary’s work at Canna Farm was gruelling and relentless, but having only known the hard life of the workhouse, she would have been well used to it.
It was at Canna that Mary may have become known by her more recognisable name, Kitty. It was also at Canna that Kitty Jay caught the attention of the farmer’s son, with inevitable consequences.
Kitty became pregnant and as a result, was thrown out of Canna Farm. Life in the eighteenth century in general was hard, but the options open to a young unmarried mother were even more limited. Kitty would have known that, regardless of what had passed between her and the farmer’s son, she alone would have taken the blame and would have to bear the shame for her condition and once word had spread, it would have been impossible for her to find employment and provide for her child. She also would have known only too well the bleak reality of returning to the workhouse. In desperation, she took what she would have seen as being the only way out of her situation, and tragically hanged herself in one of the barns at Canna.
In the eighteenth century, the custom was that suicides could not be buried in consecrated ground, and were typically buried at a crossroads, and so it was for Kitty Jay, who was buried at the intersection of a road and a moorland miners’ track. Burials at crossroads took place because it was believed that should the spirit rise up from the grave, they would be confused and not know which path to take, and would therefore remain rooted to the spot, unable to haunt the living. This practice took place through the medieval and early modern periods and only came to an end in 1823, with the passing of the Burial of Suicide Act.
Jay's Grave, from across the main road
Kitty’s tale is a sorry one, but it doesn’t quite end there, as there is a well known local legend associated with the site. Soon after her burial fresh flowers began to appear on her grave, and continued to do so regularly and in all weathers. Even in the depths of winter and with snow on the ground, a posy of fresh flowers would appear, with no footsteps in the snow to identify where the visitor had come from. One tradition states that it is the work of piskies (as pixies are sometimes known in this part of the world) or fairies, who out of sympathy for the poor girl come to tend the grave for all eternity.
A map of the Dartmoor area from 1900. The site of Jay's Grave is circled.
Unsurprisingly, the lonely site also has a ghost story attached. A shadowy figure has been seen many times in the vicinity of the grave, kneeling beside the mound with its head in its hands. Glimpses have been seen of the spectre but no one has been able to identify the spirit as male or female as it is always wrapped in a thick, dark cloak. Some say it is the ghost of the farmer’s son who abandoned poor Kitty to her fate, begging forgiveness and keeping vigil over the grave.
That is the sorry tale of Kitty Jay, and I am sure you will agree that it has all the elements of the perfect story to tell on a winter’s night, huddled by the fire and clutching a mug of hot chocolate. But is it true? I love a good ghost story with a dollop of mystery as much as the next person (more, actually!) but the historian in me wants to search for some of the facts. So let’s take a look.
A variety of articles and accounts can still be found, although all are of a later date than the eighteenth century.
“In the parish of Manaton, near Widdecombe on the Moor while some men in the employ of James Bryant, Esq., of Prospect, at his seat, Hedge Barton, were removing some accumulations of way soil, a few days since, they discovered what appeared to be a grave. On further investigation, they found the skeleton of a body, which proved from enquiry to be the remains of Ann Jay, a woman who hung herself some three generations since in a barn at a place called Forder, and was buried at Four Cross Lane, according to the custom of that enlightened age.”
So went an account written in the North Devon Journal on 23rd January 1851.
The remains were placed in a coffin on the instruction of the landowner, James Bryant, and reinterred in the same spot at the crossroads, with a mound built up over the grave and a granite head and foot stone set in place.
A book entitled ‘Things Old and New’ Concerning the Parish of Widecombe-in-the-Moor and its Neighbourhood was published in 1876 by Robert Dymond, which contains the following:
A simple mound and unwrought headstone by the roadside marks the site of a more modern grave. A poor old woman, called Kay, having hung herself, was laid here under cross roads without the rites of Christian burial. There are many such graves of suicides hereabouts, and the country folk shudder as they pass the whisht spots by night.
An F. B. Doveton, featured in Volume 1 of the Western Antiquary, dated October 1881, asked for further details of a grave that he had seen by the side of the road to Hay Tor. The guide who was with him at the time had told him that:
[It] was called "Jay's Grave" and was that of a young woman who had hanged herself years ago in a barn in Manaton, the bones being subsequently buried here.
A reply to Mr Doveton's enquiry that was published later in October, from P. F. S. Amery:
This one is about a quarter of a mile from the Swallaton Gate, on the road leading from Ashburton to Chagford; it is not now a cross road, but a path strikes across the main road, and leads between the farms of Hedge Barton and Heytree into the valley of Widecombe. The grave is known as Betty Kay's, and about twenty years ago, the late Mr. James Bryant, the owner of the property, opened the little mound to verify the local tradition, and discovered the bones, which he placed in a coffin, and reinterred in the same grave with a head and foot stone properly set up.
In 1900, one W. H. Thornton, rector of North Bovey, asked in the first volume of Devon Notes and Queries:
What were the circumstances which attended the death of the poor girl who occupies, or occupied, Jay's grave, at the point where the Heatree Common lane joins the Chagford and Ashburton road? Local tradition declares that she was a maidservant at Manaton Ford farmhouse, and that she hanged herself, and was buried at night on the down above the house. It is also asserted that the grave has been opened and no remains found. They had either been previously removed by friends, or the burial must have taken place long ago. The grave is still distinct, and the mound of earth over it is decently kept. Can anyone assign a date to the tragedy?
Once again P. F. S. Amery, who was by now one of the editors of Devon Notes and Queries, came to the rescue with a reply:
...Jay’s Grave, which is by the side of the Ashburton and Chagford road, where the Heytree and Hedge Barton Estates meet. A workman of mine, aged 74, informs us that about forty years ago [...] he was in the employ of Mr. James Bryant, of Hedge Barton, Manaton, when he remembers Jay’s Grave being opened, in which a young unmarried woman who had hung herself in Cannon Farm outbuildings, which is situated between Forder and Torhill, was said to have been buried, but no one then living at Manaton could remember the occurrence. The grave was opened by order of Mr. James Bryant in the presence of his son-in-law, Mr. J. W. Sparrow, M.R.C.S. Bones were found, examined, and declared to be those of a female. The skull was taken to Hedge Barton, but was afterwards placed with the bones in a box and re-interred in the old grave, a small mound raised with head and foot stones erected at either end. Such is the present appearance of the grave.
I am sure those of you who, like me, can just about remember the days before the internet must wonder how we ever found anything out, but I think in this case we must trust the memories of the locals and of the workman who helped unearth the grave in 1851. I believe he would have had no real reason to make it up, and certainly his story in 1900 remained unchanged from the report given half a century earlier. Therefore I think it is safe to say that, notwithstanding a bit of confusion over her name (Betty, Ann, Jay, Kay) and the name of the farm (Canna, Forder), the young girl we now know as Kitty Jay still lies in her solitary spot on Dartmoor.
Bridleway between Jay's Grave and Natsworthy cc-by-sa/2.0 - © Adrian Platt - geograph.org.uk/p/1791945
By the 1960s Jay’s Grave had become a big Dartmoor attraction, with coaches full of tourists stopping by to hear the tragic (and greatly embellished) tale of poor Kitty Jay. It seems as though the tale of the orphaned baby being taken to Newton Abbot Poorhouse may be one such embellishment, as may her apprenticeship at Canna Farm. Although these elements of the story are probably fictitious or exaggerations, that does not mean the whole tale is not true. There is a young girl in Kitty Jay’s grave, and the likelihood is that the original pieces of the story are based in fact.
But what of the flowers? Over the years this mystery has inspired many people to spend a vigil at the grave to see where the flowers come from. In the early 1980s, a group of scouts camped here and took it in turns to watch the grave all night. They didn’t see anyone or hear anything, but when they got up in the morning, there were fresh flowers on the grave.
A local author, Beatrice Chase, was fascinated by Jay’s grave and wrote about the legend in her novel of 1914, The Heart of the Moor. She often walked the moors and was said locally to be the one who regularly left fresh flowers on the grave, until her death in 1955. Since then, the tradition seems to have continued on, but these days all manner of votive offerings are left there, including coins, plastic flowers, painted rocks and shells, giving it the appearance of a modern day shrine. With so many visitors, there is no real mystery these days as to who is leaving flowers when they do appear, although every now and then a little something will happen that adds to the puzzle. In February 2020 with Storm Dennis raging and flood water running around the mound, fresh flowers once again appeared on her grave.
A close up of Jay's Grave, with all manner of votive offerings
Lastly, what of the ghost? Well, there aren’t many places that are better suited to being haunted. Especially, I would imagine, at night time. In 1967 a girl and her boyfriend saw something dark crouching over the grave late one night and, as they passed, the figure straightened itself up and disappeared. The figure did not appear to have any legs below the knee, and they saw no face.
The mysterious flowers and the dark ghostly spectre are now intrinsic to the folklore surrounding Jay's Grave. As with many tales of the supernatural, 90% of it can probably be explained away by a rational mind. But it's the other 10% that I prefer to focus on: flowers left in the snow with no footprints, a desperate figure with bowed head at the graveside.
A view of the crossroads
I visited Jay’s Grave early in August of this year, along with my family who are well used to being dragged along to historic sites with strange stories attached. It was a fairly warm day but the site of the grave felt chilly to me, and as I hung back to take photos and videos, an icy wind whipped around me and sent a shiver up and down my spine. I am the first to admit that it doesn’t take much to get my imagination going or for me to look for anything remotely spooky or magical, but the atmosphere around Jay’s Grave felt eerie to me, a little creepy but not scary, just sad. I hope that the many visitors who will continue to visit Kitty Jay will bypass the ghoulish fascination and pause to reflect on the sadness of her tale, as they place a flower on her grave. As with many legends and stories in the United Kingdom, there are many layers of embellishment to sift through, but at the heart of this case is a very sad story.