When Charlotte Dymond’s body was found on the lonely moors near Camelford in April 1844 Cornwall was overcome with shock. But strangely there was something else too – a kind of unsavoury excitement. This was the stuff of Penny Dreadful fiction and to be frank the public was loving it.
The story had everything going for it – a beautiful and pious young girl brutally murdered on a Sunday, a lonely moorland location, the rumours of jealous lovers and secret rendezvous’. It was all rather exciting, melodramatic and darkly romantic. It was the kind of story that the death-obsessed Victorians just loved to read about while eating their boiled eggs and soldiers in the morning.
A Newspaper Sensation
The whole sorry story filled the newspapers’ columns for weeks. Every detail of the search for Charlotte, her discovery lying in a river close to the austere Rough Tor, her clothes, her injuries, the manhunt for her killer.
Then the trial itself was all reported blow by blow.
It was a pretty much what you might call an open and shut case. Charlotte had known her murderer, the farm hand Michael Weeks, and he was apprehended quickly. The evidence against him was damning and before he was hung Weeks even left a written confession – which of course was printed in the papers too, as well as a private letter to his family.
A Scrum of Onlookers
Charlotte’s death is a story that I have grown up with. I don’t really remember when I first heard about it but it has always stayed with me somehow, perhaps because I love the moors and their freedom they give me so much. But in many ways it is the public’s reaction to what happened that shocks and fascinates me most about Charlotte’s case.
On the morning of the trial there was chaos in the courthouse in Bodmin, crowds had been gathering all night to try and get a seat in the public gallery. The police had to intervene as so many tried to get inside there was danger of someone getting crushed in the scrum of onlookers. Later when Matthew Weeks was hung an estimated 20,000 people turned out to watch.
Marking the Spot
But even before the trial had began or the verdict has been decided Charlotte’s murder had become a bit of a circus. A large fete was held at Rough Tor, very close to the site of the murder. The West Briton newspaper reported that around 10,000 people attended. There were donkey rides and wrestling matches as well as all kinds of entertainers and refreshment stalls. There was also a pole with a black flag on it marking the spot where Charlotte’s body had been found. According to the paper this attracted ‘much attention’ and penny ‘subscriptions’ were taken to view it.
Some of this money raised did go towards the granite memorial stone for Charlotte that can been seen at the base of Rough Tor to this day.
It is a place often passed by as everyone strikes out to conquer one of the moors highest peaks (400ft, not exactly Everest but the view is lovely). The last time I visited it was on a very busy sunny Sunday. I found a peace there that certainly wasn’t available on the rest of the tor.
I can’t help wondering what the 18 year old diary-maid was thinking about that day when she walked to this place to meet her mystery lover. She could have had no idea of what was coming. Charlotte was just an ordinary girl, an unknown, who would soon come to mean something to thousands of people, for all the wrong reasons, and still nearly 200 years later mean something to me too.
I provide all the content on this blog completely free, there’s no subscription fee. If however you enjoy my work and would like to contribute something towards helping me keep researching Cornwall’s amazing history and then sharing it with you then you can donate below. Thank you!
For more interesting places to visit try