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You are in: Devon > Arts and Culture > Arts Features > Uncle Tom Cobley and all...

An illustration of the characters in the song

An illustration of the characters

Uncle Tom Cobley and all...

Widecombe Fair is Devon's most famous folk song, but what's the origin of the story behind the famous characters Tom Cobley, Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Tom Pearse and his old grey mare?

The lyrics of Devon's best known folk song tell a simple enough story - seven men and a grey mare set off for Widecombe Fair, but before completing their journey the old horse becomes sick and dies.

Delve deeper though and the history of the song becomes a little more muddled. Is this world famous ditty really steeped in Devon history and are the central characters based on real people?

Research carried out by the Widecombe and District Local History Group suggests that Tom Cobley and his friends were real people - probably from mid-Devon.

Most of the characters featured in the song had names which can be traced to families working in the Sticklepath and Spreyton area in the early 1800s.

"I'm convinced the characters were real people," explained history group member Tony Beard.

Old postcard illustration

"We found a sign at the Tom Cobley Tavern at Spreyton, which says all these characters left from outside that pub in 1802 to go to Widecombe.

"That's the earliest date we've been able to find.

"The name Thomas Cobley was very popular in the Spreyton area.

"The one who fits the best died in 1844, aged 82 years. He lived at Butsford in the parish of Colebrook and is buried at Spreyton, just outside the south door of the church.

"When we were researching our book, we found relations of Thomas Cobley still alive.

"We went around lots of churchyards in mid-Devon and found Davys, Gurneys, Pearses and Stewers.

"All these names were from mid-Devon, so you can see how the song developed with all these local characters of that time co-opted into the song."

In all likelihood people from mid-Devon would have travelled to the annual livestock sale at Widecombe at the end of every summer to trade their goods for sheep.

It's this cross-country journey that is described in the lyrics of the song.

"In the Autumn all over Dartmoor there were a lot of fairs, these were for selling surplus livestock," added Tony.

"The easiest thing for the people in the middle of Devon to do was come to these country fairs and buy the stock they wanted.

Old postcard illustration

"You might think that Widecombe and Spreyton were miles away from each other, but if you follow the old country paths over the tops of the moors, the distance is only about 12 miles. That's a reasonable distance to drive a flock of sheep or a herd of cattle.

"It was as a result of this that the song developed relating how this bunch of people travelled to Widecombe.

"It's quite humorous and also quite sad because the poor old grey mare dies in the process."

As the lyrics suggest, Tom Cobley and his friends ask Tom Pearse if they can borrow his grey mare to get to the fair. They agree that the horse will be returned by midday on Saturday.

When the horse isn't returned, Tom Pearse sets out to find them. On reaching the top of Widecombe Hill he sees the horse making its will after which it falls sick and dies.

The song concludes with a description of the ghost of Tom Pearse's grey mare which is said to appear 'when the wind whistles cold on the moor at night'.

However some versions of the song have more than the standard eight verses and, depending on where it is sung, the words vary.

Old postcard illustration

Tony Beard says this can be easily explained and is due to the song's universal appeal.

"Over the years many people have used that song for village shows and adapted it using local names," he said.

"Sometimes people have added an odd extra verse if there was something they wanted to incorporate in their village concert.

"There are versions that have popped up at different places. Being a Widecombe boy, I'm convinced they have taken Widecombe Fair and adapted it to suit their particular place." 

The 'official' version was originally published in 1890 by the Rev Sabine Baring-Gould, one of the first people to collect the music and lyrics of traditional English folk songs.  

"It was the Rev Baring-Gould, who used to go around listening to folk songs, he was the first man who actually wrote the music down," explained Tony.

"His version of the song was recorded in his book 'Songs of the West' which was published in 1890. That is the version that we'd like to stick with as the model."

Since then, the song Widecombe Fair has travelled across the world - taken to distant shores by people who emigrated from the West Country.

Over the years, the song and the fair has inspired postcards, books, and the Devon Regiment of Volunteers supposedly marched to the song's tune in 1899 during the Boer War.

The History of Widecombe Fair is written by The Widecombe and District Local History Group and published by Orchard Publications. The illustrations on this page are used with their kind permission.

The Lyrics

Tom Pearse, Tom Pearse, lend me your grey mare,
All along, down along, out along, lee,
For I want for to go to Widecombe Fair,
With Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,
Peter Davy, Dan'l Whiddon, Harry Hawke,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

And when shall I see again my grey mare?
All along, down along, out along, lee,
By Friday soon, or Saturday noon,
With Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,
Peter Davy, Dan'l Whiddon, Harry Hawke,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all."

Then Friday came, and Saturday noon,
All along, down along, out along, lee,
But Tom Pearces old mare hath not trotted home,
With Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,
Peter Davy, Dan'l Whiddon, Harry Hawke,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all."

So Tom Pearse he got up to the top o' the hill
All along, down along, out along, lee,
And he seed his old mare down a-making her will,
With Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,
Peter Davy, Dan'l Whiddon, Harry Hawke,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all."

So Tom Pearse's old mare, her took sick and died,
All along, down along, out along, lee,
And Tom he sat down on a stone, and he cried
With Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,
Peter Davy, Dan'l Whiddon, Harry Hawke,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all."

But this isn't the end o' this shocking affair,
All along, down along, out along, lee,
Nor, though they be dead, of the horrid career
Of Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,
Peter Davy, Dan'l Whiddon, Harry Hawke,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all."

When the wind whistles cold on the moor of a night
All along, down along, out along, lee,
Tom Pearse's old mare doth appear gashly white,
With Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,
Peter Davy, Dan'l Whiddon, Harry Hawke,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all."

And all the long night he heard skirling and groans,
All along, down along, out along, lee,
From Tom Pearce's old mare in her rattling bones,
With Bill Brewer, Jan Stewer, Peter Gurney,
Peter Davy, Dan'l Whiddon, Harry Hawke,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all,
Old Uncle Tom Cobley and all."

last updated: 27/06/2008 at 10:05
created: 28/05/2008

You are in: Devon > Arts and Culture > Arts Features > Uncle Tom Cobley and all...



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