I have walked to the summit of Rough Tor countless times. In the snow. In the blistering hot sunshine. With a full-on gale robbing my breath away. Suited and booted in the rain washing down the slope in streams. I have been going up here when I was probably too small to walk the entire way, and my Dad had me as an added weight to carry on his shoulders. One memorable visit was in the dead of night. But I never feel uncomfortable being in the dark on the moor. Even here, considering the history. I am more hypervigilant walking through town at night than here on the moors cloaked by darkness and the elements.
Rough Tor (pronounced row as in your boat, or an argument, depending on your preference) is another Neolithic/Bronze Age hot spot. However, today I retrace the last footsteps of another from recent history.
The Murder of Charlotte Dymond
The landscape in 1844 looked a little different. I doubt the evergreens planted in artificially straight rows dotted the landscape. The nearby reservoir definitely never existed. Nor did the WWII airbase at nearby Davidstow. The looming granite tor would have looked the same. The ancient homes, burials and processional causeway blend into the naturally scattered rock. The river Alan at the foot of the hill flowed back then as it does so now, and is the site of a violent murder.
Now, a memorial stone marks the murder scene. The inscription reads, “This monument is erected by public subscription in memory of Charlotte Dymond. Who was murdered here by Matthew Weekes on Sunday, April 14 1844.”
Truth, typically, is stranger than fiction, and this has all the elements of a good gothic tale of a passion-driven murder upon the bleak moor.
Charlotte (18) was a domestic servant, living and working at nearby Penhale Farm. Matthew Weekes (22) was another live-in servant working at the farm, and a romantic relationship developed between the two.
A lot about the murder can be gleaned from the newspapers during the time. But even these days the papers are far from being impartial, however much they claim to be. The facts are there, but perhaps to be taken with a pinch of salt.
Charlotte, the innocent victim, is vaguely said to be a pretty girl with a flirtatious nature. In comparison, Weekes is shown, warts and all. “Though not ill-looking,” claims the newspaper, “he has rather an insignificant appearance,” and is quick to highlight his lameness and pox-scarred face. Like most Bond villains, Weekes’ disfigurement and disability were used to physically highlight his likely bad nature.
As in all complicated love stories, another character needs an introduction to make a complicated triangle. Cue Thomas Prout, nephew to the owner of Penhale Farm. He is said to have got on well with Weekes, but it seems he had similar romantic feelings for Charlotte, which were mutual. With Weekes’ fear Charlotte might elope with Prout, it gives weight to what happened next.
Inspiration for authors
I must pull myself out of the tale because Rough Tor is not a huge distance from Boscastle, where, forty years later, the author Thomas Hardy spent his youth as an architect before turning to writing for a living. Here he met his first wife, Emma. It is likely he walked this route and climbed Rough Tor. So he likely saw the memorial and heard the tragic tale. Perhaps it inspired him to write many tragic love triangles in his stories?
Hardy isn’t the only classic author to take inspiration from the local area. Rough Tor features in Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn. I recall one visit to the summit was barred by a BBC production crew for their 2014 adaptation. Some actor was in full period costume standing near the edge at the summit, shouting and throwing his arms around in a dramatic fashion. Now, back to history.
The Day of the Murder
On Sunday 14th April 1844, Charlotte and Matthew Weekes went for a walk in the direction of the moor, wearing their Sunday best. A farmer working on the land saw the couple, Weekes identified even in the fog by his distinct limp. Weekes returned to the farm without Charlotte. Suspicion built over the coming days as Charlotte still had not appeared. Weekes claimed he never ventured onto the moor, but why were his trousers muddy? And why was his shirt torn? Weekes eventually said Charlotte had been offered work in nearby Blisland and left.
Weekes’ story was checked by the concerned members of Penhale Farm to find no position in Blisland had been offered. On the same day, Weekes fled. When blood was found on the clothing he left behind, the likelihood of murder was almost beyond doubt.
Nine days after she went missing, Charlotte’s body was found on the river bank at the foot of Rough Tor, with her throat cut “from ear to ear”. Weekes was later found at his sister’s home in Plymouth, and a blood-stained pair of women’s gloves and a handkerchief was more than enough evidence to put him on trial for murder.
Matthew Weekes’ Trial and Execution
On the 2nd of August, Weekes was tried at court in Bodmin. Weekes pleaded not guilty. Evidence suggested murder, not suicide, and the jury took only half an hour to reach their verdict. Weekes was sentenced to death by hanging.
On the 12th of August 1844 at noon, Weekes was executed. Hangings were popular, and Weekes drew in twenty-thousand. The paper argues the number was so great not only because of the crime committed but because it was a damp day when no harvesting could be done. Weekes looked wretched, and the executioner had to assist as he could barely support himself. The newspaper reporter says “—he (Weekes) seemed more dead than alive, and it is doubted if he saw or heard anything. He spoke not a word. The Chaplain read a short prayer, and left the Drop, which immediately fell, and the wretched culprit expired almost without a struggle.”
Even in this seemingly clear-cut case, a shadow of doubt hangs over proceedings. During the ten days Weekes waited for his execution, he sent two letters. Many, like Weekes, were illiterate and he had his letters dictated. One letter was sent to his family, a simple farewell from an unfortunate son, warning one of his wayward brothers he needed to stop drinking and go to church more often, and listing how he wishes his processions to be divided. The second was a confession.
"I hope young men will take a warning by me and not put too much confidence in young women, the same as I did; and I hope young females will take the same by young men. I loved that girl as dear as I loved my life; and after all the kind treatment I have showed her, and then she said she would have nothing more to do with me. And after this was done, then bitterly I did lament, thinking what would be my end. And I thank the judge and jury too, for they have given me no more than was my due."
For an illiterate man, some wonder if this eloquently pieced letter is truly Weekes’ own words. Fake confessions by Weekes did pop up in the days before his execution, which proves some people will always try to make money through others who are gullible enough to fall for it. Was Weekes innocent? It is unlikely, going by the evidence and motive. But who knows what modern-day forensic and courtroom methods would have found to give weight to his innocence or guilt?
A Ghost on Bodmin Moor
Charlotte’s ghost is said to wander the moors while Weekes haunts Bodmin Gaol. Descending Rough Tor in the dark, I can feel the air turning colder as I reach the ford crossing the river near where her body was found. The livestock and horses on the moor appear silently in the torchlight. But no restless ghost.
Do you think Weekes was guilty or innocent? Would you like to hear more history and folklore from Cornwall? Let me know in the comments.