According to legend, September is the month of the year when a gentleman enquired of his friend Tom Pearse if he could borrow his grey mare to enable him and some acquaintances, including Uncle Tom Cobley, to journey to Widecombe Fair. The disastrous result of this early Devonshire outing is well known to many in the song collected by Rev Baring Gould circa 1890. But who were these characters, and did they exist? The late Mabel Lee, a long-time landlady of The New Inn, named most of the characters as coming from the Colebrooke area, if somewhat tongue in cheek. The PEARSE family farmed Road Farm for most of the 19th Century and at some time probably possessed a grey mare. BREWERS and DAVEYS were reasonably common in Colebrooke, as were STEWERS or STEERS. Old GURNEY was the name by which a man called Greenslade, who lived beyond Colebrooke, was known. Messrs WHIDDON and HAWKE were collected on the way through Whiddon Down, which leaves us with UNCLE TOM COBLEY. There were, in fact, two Uncle Toms.
The original was a bachelor who lived in or around Spreyton and seemed to have acquired many properties in that area. He died in 1794, aged 96 and is buried at Spreyton without a headstone. He was known to all as Uncle Tom because of his great age and many nephews and nieces, as was evident from his will. The executor of this will was his great-nephew, also Thomas Cobley. This Thomas farmed one of the Cobley farms at Spreyton, and for reasons unknown, circa 1812 moved to Colebrooke and took the tenancy of Butsford Barton, which was then part of the Coryton estates. He, too, partly in deference to his ancestor and partly because he and his wife had no family but numerous nephews and nieces, was known as Uncle Tom. He died in 1844, aged 82 and was buried at Spreyton, beside his wife and nephew who had predeceased him. A note beside the register entry says, “supposed to be subject of the well-known song”. At Butsford he was an enthusiastic huntsman and kept a pack of hounds there. He rode with his hounds until well into his seventies. An 1828 newspaper hunting report spoke of “Uncle Tom’s melodious voice being well to the fore urging his hounds on”. As children, we were told that along Butsford Lane, there were stones that marked the resting place of many of Uncle Tom’s hounds. Sadly despite thorough investigations on birds’ nesting forays, nothing was ever found!! One thing is sure, Uncle Tom lived and died in Colebrooke, but his travels will be forever debated and sung.
© Neville P. Enderson