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Harry, sen, Harry jun & Bill Westaway of Belstone, Devon

Harry Westaway, Belstone, 1950
Bill Westaway, 1950
The Recording

Devon Folk songs recorded by Peter Kennedy at Belstone, near Okehampton, Devon in 1950 were sung by two Dartmoor brothers in their 80s. Bill Westaway, 82, and Harry Westaway, who thought he was 87 or 88, confirming Peter's belief that there must still be country singers in the area covered by Baring Gould who might still have some memory of their family singing traditions. It was in the 1880's the Westaway's father, also called Harry, had provided collector Baring Gould with the words he published for the well-known " Tom Pearce" Song. In fact it was very much because of locating surviving traditional performers around the Sticklepath and South Zeal area that brought about the decision by BBC to go ahead with Peter's West Country " Village Barn Dance " radio series in the 1950's. This in turn led to the start of regular folk-music broadcasts.

So who was the talented Harry Westaway whose song "Tom Pearse" is now a Devon legend? Harry was baptised Henry Westaway on the 22nd June, 1824, in Belstone, Devon, the son of William Westaway and Mary Rowden. William was the son of Simon Westaway & Elizabeth Lacey. His ancestors had lived in the area since the late 1400's when they first resided at Lydcott in Belstone. For hundreds of years they had married into the local farming families, the Reddaways, Laceys, Lashbrooks and Coombes and his mother was a Rowden. He was a true "moorman" Entertainment then would have been centred around village life and the folk songs were all part of this, passed down by generations of "moormen"

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It was in the 1880's Harry & Bill Westaway's father, also called Harry, had provided collector Baring Gould with the words he published for the well-known " Tom Pearce" Song According to a report still current in the locality, Westaway, when making the transfer, "kept the best verses for hisself." This picturesque tradition, however is not borne out by research, which rather suggests considerable additions as well as an altogether more sophisticated arrangement of the crude ditty sung by the country people.

Priesticott Farm, Belstone

It was whilst Baring-Gould was seeking old people who could recall the words and music of the old Devon songs, around 1880, that he first received the words of "Tom Pearce" from Harry. These words were written down by Baring-Gould in Harry's farm of Priesticott. Baring-Gould used to ride up from Lew to pursue his researchs on northern Dartmoor, which he reached by following the wild ways of the Tavy, the less famous but beautiful Amicombe, and the Brimbrook. In a heather bank near the head waters of the lonely Bambrook, he had a chache of mineral waters and biscuits, replenished weekly by the Westaway family. The arrangement continued for many years, and was ended only by Baring-Gould's death in 1924. The Westaways, father and sons, were also employed by him to mark or cut tracks through the peat-veins, over wide areas of which no horse can pass. The most ambitious of these pioneering experiments was being planned when he died.

On Saturday, October the 19th 1850 the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette announced that on the following Friday (25th) a Free Fair would be held on the Green which adjoined the churchyard at Widecombe-in-the-Moor. It was expected that a large show of cattle and moorland sheep would be offered for sale. The following Saturday the same paper reported that "A cattle fair was held at Widecombe-in-the-Moor for the first time on Tuesday last." It was said to have been a busy affair with a large attendance of yeomen and gentlemen of the district where 736 sheep, 1,507 cattle, and 50 ponies were put under the hammer. The paper noted that due to its success the fair should be "permanently established," and so it came to pass. To this day the fair is probably one of the most famous events of the moor with visitors flocking to see the sheep, ponies, cattle, stalls, and events.

Harry senior was a farmer and would have attended the fair with many of his friends and would have known the characters mentioned in the song. Belstone to Widecombe in the Moor across Dartmoor is just a mere walk of eight to nine miles. Widicombe nestles in a valley and is surrounded by steep hills. If you have ever visited the village and walked up these hills you can easily imagine how the poor mare felt, especially if it was a hot day..

The sad, yet comical event that took place while travelling to the Fair is the theme of the famous song which has also become known throughout the world and has been written in many foreign languages. Japan has even created its own version. With its rollicking tune and hearty chorus, the story of Tom Pearce's Old Grey Mare has become somewhat of an unofficial Devonian national anthem. The Devonshire Regimental Band played it with pride when the regiment marched into battle in 1899 while engaging the enemy during the Boer war. Eden Phillpotts, one of Dartmoor's best known novelists, drew from the song when he wrote his 1913 "Widecombe Fair," a very readable story about village life in the Devonshire countryside. The Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, famous in his own rights, popularised it in 1891 by including it in his "Songs of the West" and it has been sung by no less a celebrity, the famous Scottish music-hall entertainer Sir Harry Lauder (1870-1950) when he visited the Widecombe Fair and sang it for the visitors during closing ceremonies.

Clearly it is about a group of men who ask Tom Pearce if they can borrow his grey mare to get to Widecombe Fair. The men agree that the horse will be returned by midday on Saturday by the latest. The designated time comes but the men and his horse don't appear. Tom Pearce then sets out in search of them. When he reaches the top of Widecombe Hill he sees his horse making its 'will' after which it falls sick and dies. Poor old Tom then sits down and sheds a tear or two for his departed horse. Finally the song suggests that "when the wind blows cold on the moor of a night," the ghost of Tom Pearce's grey mare appears to the accompaniment of "skirling and groans," and the "rattle of bones." In all possibility the men borrowed the mare to pull a gig as clearly it is impossible for eight men to ride a horse. Having had a busy time at the fair they got cydered up and overturned the gig on their way home which resulted in the death of the mare. All the surnames are of true Devonshire stock, there are still plenty of Brewers, Stewers, Davys' Pearces, Whiddons, Hawks and Gurneys to be found today. Henry, Harry & William in 1881, Harry was 15 years old and a farm labourer and William was 7 and a scholar.
1881 Census - Belstone Village, Nr Okehampton, Devon
Name Rel. Age Y.O.B. Place of Birth Occupation
Henry Westaway Head 57 abt 1824 Belstone Farmer of 100 acres
Elizth. Jane Westaway Wife 48 abt 1833 Widdon Down, South Tawton Wife
Harry Westaway Son 15 abt 1866 Belstone Farm Labourer
George Westaway Son 14 abt 1867 Belstone Farm Labourer
Annie Westaway Daughter 11 abt 1870 Belstone Scholar
William Westaway Son 7 abt 1874 Belstone Scholar
John Westaway Son 5 abt 1876 Belstone None
Simon Westaway Son 3 abt 1878 Belstone None
Emily Westaway Granddaughter 2 abt 1879 Belstone None
By 1901 Harry, junior had married Eva Pike and was a domestic gardener at Dartmoor House. His wife Eva was a housekeeper. They had two children Ivan Pike Westaway & Lilian Westaway, both born in Belstone. William was still living at home with his parents and was a blacksmith.
1901 Census - Dartmoor House, Belstone, Devon
Name Rel. Age Y.O.B. Place of Birth Occupation
Harry Westaway Head
abt 1865 Belstone, Devon, England Gardener Domestic
Eva J Westaway Wife
abt 1862 Okehampton, Devon, England Housekeeper Domestic
Ivan S P Westaway Son
abt 1895 Belstone, Devon, England None
Liliane A P Westaway Daughter
abt 1899 Belstone, Devon, England None

Henry, sen, died in 1912 and in his will, dated 1910, he leaves his property to his wife Elizabeth Jane in trust for their two sons, Harry & Simon, with annuities from the property to go to his other sons, George, William & John and his five daughters, daughters, Mary the wife of George Ewings of Belstone, Eliza the wife of William Hannaford of Totnes, Jane the wife of Thomas Chastey of Belston, Elizabeth, unmarried and Annie married to William Symons of Okehampton, Simon & John broke tradition and moved to London, where they joined the Metropolitan Police Force, George died young and worked on the railway. William (Bill) married Jane Powlesland and was a blacksmith. William had lost an eye as a child when his sister threw a fork across the table !.

By 1950, Harry & Bill were in their eighties, Harry's grandson, Gordon, shortly after the recording emigrated to Australia and sadly passed away a few years ago. However, his wife Mary, is an active Westaway researcher and there are many descendants still living in Mornington, Australia.

Sadly Harry died in 1954 and William shortly afterwards, but their legacy is there to be enjoyed by future generations. My thanks to Mary Westaway for the personal pieces on her family and to Folktrax who have preserved the songs and photographs and are selling the Westaway CDs.

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  © 2003-6 Sheila Yeo | For more information on the Westaway family and the research contained in this site email sheila@yeosociety.com or call me on +44 (0)1626 360978