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My Mysterious Moor IV. Jay's Grave

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posted on Feb, 4 2017 @ 06:09 PM
My Mysterious Moor. Jay's Grave.

Jay's Grave is supposedly the last resting place of a suicide victim who is thought to have died in the late 18th century. If you ever investigate this mystery for yourself you will see this date and explanation plastered haphazardly about. It has no provable basis in fact. Jay’s Grave has become a well-known landmark on Dartmoor, Devon, in South-West England, and is the subject of local folklore, and several ghost stories. It has been referred to under various different names and there are several different claims as to who occupies it and when and how the poor unfortunate came to be laid to rest in this forlorn spot. The small burial mound is at the side of a minor road, about 1 mile north west of Hound Tor, at the entrance to a green lane that leads to Natsworthy. Fresh flowers are regularly placed on the grave, although no-one admits to putting them there.,_geograph.jpg The current story attached to the grave appears to have been first set down in the mid nineteenth century has changed and like many of its kind has likely undergone revision and embellishment. A burial is considered “profane” when the body of the deceased is somehow desecrated to show disapproval of the person’s actions in life. Perhaps some of the strangest examples of profane burials come from medieval Europe, particularly England. Lonely rural crossroads in England host a dark, sad secret. Many are the sites of profane burials, where the bodies of suicide victims were laid to an uneasy rest.

Today a largely sympathetic view is taken of suicide although some stigma still attaches to the topic. This however was not the case in mediaeval England where those who took their own lives were viewed as criminals instead of victims. Suicide was viewed as a crime against God and Man largely down to the teachings of Thomas Aquinas. The taking of one’s own life was sinful for three reasons. The first was that killing oneself violated the divine order: God gives life and takes life away, and taking your own life is taking that decision out of God’s hands into your own. The second reason was that suicide was a crime against society, because everyone belongs to a community and killing yourself does harm to that community. Finally, the act of suicide upends the natural law, because the natural tendency of living things is to try to preserve its own life, not lose it. Suicides did not just face spiritual consequences, to be denied a proper Christian burial in consecrated ground brought shame on the relatives and all those associated.

Posthumous excommunication put their souls in jeopardy of an eternity in purgatory, or worse still a direct route to hell. All felons faced legal penalties and as suicide was deemed a felony it was acrime against the Crown. In the feudal system, landless peasants swore fealty to lords, who in turn swore fealty to the king. Depriving ones lord, and ultimately thing king, of one’s labour by killing oneself was seen as theft. In the case of suicide theft from the Crown was committed and the Crown had the right to seek repayment in the form of the deceased’s property. Unsurprisingly it was not uncommon for families and legal guardians to go to great lengths to conceal suicides. Once a suicide was determined to have indeed been done the gruesome custom of a profane crossroads burial would commence.

The procedure for dealing with suicides body at the time gives us some insight as to how some pagan traditions overlapped into the Christian ethos. Stripped naked, tied to a wagon, the unfortunate was dragged through the streets to a crossroads far from town. Crowds would then witness the desecration of the body. This may have been the simple and expedient laying of the body on a North/South axis, deliberately opposite to Christian East/West burials. Alternatively a much more physical and gruesome desecration involving decapitation, dismemberment, and the removal of organs. This barbaric practice of physical desecration seems to have waned as people adopted the more enlightened attitudes of the late medieval period and onwards. Some bodies were buried under a pile of stones as a visible reminder to all that passed by of the dangers of loose morals and blasphemy.

It has been suggested that crossroads were chosen for profane burials, because it was believed that the ghost of a suicide, who would come up out of their grave at night, would be confused by the choice of four paths and stay deliberating until dawn. It is more likely however that a crossroads was chosen so that the profane burial would not officially be within the bounds of any Civil Parish, and therefore, no responsibility for the upkeep of the grave was due. Stakes were utilized to pin the spirit into place and keep it from getting out of the grave, and to deny them from rising up to meet God come Judgment Day. If this practice was in use it is another indication of overlapping traditions. Crossroads Burials continued up until the eighteen hundreds and the last known took place in Eighteen Twenty Three. The crowds held up King George VI’s carriage and the burial was heavily criticised by the press. A public outcry and pressure from the King lead to the Eighteen Twenty Three Burial of Suicide Act.

An early newspaper account of the discovery of Jays grave appears on page five of the North Devon Journal for 23 January 1851, under "County Intelligence".
In the parish of Manaton, near Widdecombe on the moor 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.

If we take a generation to mean a period of approximately Twenty Five Years that places the burial at around Seventeen Seventy and we can be reasonably sure that crossroad burials were very much in practice at that time.

In 1876 Robert Dymond edited and published a book entitled "Things Old and New" Concerning the Parish of Widecombe-in-the-Moor and its Neighbourhood has this to say.
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 (lonely/silent) spots by night. (Note the term Old Woman Is used here; I should point out that the use of the term “Old” in the vernacular of the time may not necessarily mean aged, it was also used to denote affection and pity.)


posted on Feb, 4 2017 @ 06:10 PM
In Volume 1 of the Western Antiquary, dated October 1881, one F. B. Doveton asked for further details of a grave that he had noted by the side of the road to Hey Tor. Doveton's guide 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.( Doveton’s guide would likely have been a local person relating a verbatim version of the story).
In a reply to Doveton's enquiry that was published later the same month, P. F. S. Amery quoted the above passage from Dymond and added the following extra information. 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 crossroad, 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. This is the form the grave can be seen in today.

Twenty years later, in the first volume of Devon Notes and Queries (1900–01), W. H. Thornton, who identified himself as the rector of North Bovey, asked:
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. The Rector also asked, Can anyone assign a date to the tragedy?

In reply to this enquiry P. F. S. Amery, who was by now one of the editors of Devon Notes and Queries, wrote “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”. He is not known to have revealed his source for this reply.

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. (Master of the Royal College of Surgeons; A trained medical professional) 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. Medial science of the time would have been able to identify the sex quite easily. The fact that Mr Sparrow does not describe the bones as belonging to a child does suggest that he, at least, considered the remains to be those of a full grown woman.
In 1909, William Crossing, in his Guide to Dartmoor repeated Amery's report, though he named the suicide as "Kitty Jay, as she used to be spoken of", and amended the location of the incident to "Canna, a farm not far from the foot of East Down"

The Dartmoor author Beatrice Chase wrote about the legend in her 1914 novel The Heart of the Moor, and claimed in a prefixed publisher's note that the events it describes are true. In the novel she says: Near a plantation a little off the roadside, upon a turfy bank, I found the semblance of a rude (rough) grave. It was a narrow ridge, raised above the surrounding turf, with irregular stones along its edges, and at the head an upright hunk of granite. Going nearer I found that unknown hands had placed upon it a rough cross of ducky (charming or delightful) flowers, which lay limp and dying in the sunshine(which would seem to give the lie to the folklore that says fresh flowers are placed on the grave by an unknown hand each morning). Because there is no inscription on the grave she sets out to discover whose it might be. After asking several locals and searching maps and guidebooks without success, she eventually finds that "Granny Caunter" knows the story:
"Yes, miss, it be a grave sure 'nough, J's grave 'tis called. No, I can't tell 'ee how 'tis spelt for I never couldn't spell. Mary Jay was the poor maid's name. I heard my mother tell of it, when I was a li'l maid. It happened when her was a li'l maid herself. Her could just mind (remember) hearing tell of it. 'Tis a suicide's grave, miss. Her was an orphan from the workhouse, 'prenticed to Barracott Farm between Manaton and Heatree. One day, when her was quite young, her tooked a rope and went to the barn there on the Manaton Road, and hanged herself from a beam. Her was quite dead when the farmer found her. Us reckoned 'twas the same old story, miss—a young man, who wadn't no gude to her (Edit; pregnancy outside of wedlock) poor maid." Reading between the dialect what we see here is that the grave has been incorporated into local verbal tradition and was used to serve as a warning to those who might deviate from the morality of the time. So in its own sad way this particular crossroad burial continued to serve its intended purpose. Patricia Milton, writing in 2006, points out that Chase was being disingenuous in her novel, because as early as 1905 the grave was being mentioned in guidebooks, and coach drivers (of the horse drawn type) were already pointing it out to tourists.

By Nineteen Sixty Five Jay's Grave had become a major Dartmoor attraction, with tourist coaches (The motorised types that our US Friends call buses) stopping there while the driver/guide related his own version of the story. The mysterious appearance of fresh flowers upon the grave was always mentioned. Recent versions of the legend include embellishments such as the orphaned baby being taken into the Poor House in Newton Abbot or Wolborough where she was given the name Mary Jay. She now sometimes acquires the name Kitty after being sent to Canna Farm as a teenage apprentice. In one version of the tale she is raped by a local farmhand. In another version she finds romance with the farmer's son. Either way she becomes pregnant which results in her being thrown out of the farm and left with a reputation as a 'slut'. Such is her shame and despair that she hangs herself in a barn, or perhaps from the great kitchen fireplace lintel,or else she drowns herself in a shallow pool. It is now said that the three local parishes of Widecombe-in-the-Moor, North Bovey and Manaton all refused to bury her body within consecrated ground, so she was buried at a crossroads, which was standard practice for suicide victims at the time. It is also often said that this crossroads is at the point where the three parishes met, though the Ordnance Survey map confirms that this is not the case.


posted on Feb, 4 2017 @ 06:11 PM
Who was Jay/Kitty Jay/Kay/Betty Kay.
There is more than one suggested person that fits the time and the story

There are always fresh flowers on the grave, the placement of which is the subject of local folklore - some claim they are placed there by pixies, but it is known that the author Beatrice Chase who lived nearby was one person who did this, before her death in 1955. By Two Thousand and Seven the placing of flowers had expanded into all sorts of votive offerings: coins, candles, shells, small crosses and toys. Motorists passing the grave at night have claimed to have glimpsed ghostly figures in their headlights while others report seeing a dark, hooded figure kneeling there. In my youth I once spent a night camping very near the spot with a group of friends and I have to report beside us all deliberately spooking each other out at every opportunity nothing remotely supernatural happened. We even rose at dawn to see if we could witness the placing of the flowers by some moorland spectre, it must have been the spooks morning off.

Notable uses of the story
Jay's Grave was the inspiration for John Galsworthy's short story The Apple Tree, written in 1916. In the 1970s, knowledge of the legend prompted Martin Turner of British rock band Wishbone Ash to write the lyrics to a song called "Lady Jay" which appears on the band's 1974 album There's the Rub. David Rudkin wrote an episode inspired by the tale entitled 'The Living Grave' for the BBC 2 TV anthology series Leap in the Dark, broadcast in 1980. It also inspired Seth Lakeman to write his 2004 song and album, both called Kitty Jay.

There are a great number of supernatural stories and legends that situate in and around Dartmoor and Jay's Grave is just one of my favourites. If the denizens of ATS would care to hear of more, I will be only to happy to oblige.

posted on Feb, 4 2017 @ 08:34 PM
Yes please.

BTW I noticed the name Kitty Jay. Reminds me of another lonely grave her in Australia.

Seems to me that the name Kitty is often associate with prostitutes around the goldrush times (1850s). I have seen photos of very large prostitutes of the time with names containing Kitty. It could also be a pet name for Katherine.

posted on Feb, 5 2017 @ 06:01 AM
a reply to: Cinrad

Kitty does seem to have once been a colloquial term for a woman of dubious morals in the same way that Maggie (as in Mary Magdalene) once was. I suppose it figures that the worlds oldest profession would have a rich folklore that has grown up around it. Glad you enjoyed the post and thank you for the interesting link.

Kind Regards.

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