Thursday, January 2, 2014

A Child Arsonist at Dodscott

West Dodscott, St Giles in the Wood, Devon

Dodscott is a small hamlet in the parish of St Giles in the Wood, Devon, about one kilometre east of the village, and was listed in the Domesday Book of 1086. The hamlet historically consisted of  three farms with the unimaginative names of East Dodscott, West Dodscott and Great Dodscott. In the 16th century Great Dodscott had likely been the home of Thomas Chafe (1585-1648) whose effigy is found inside the church of St Giles in the Wood. Chafe was the brother-in-law of Tristram Risdon (1580-1640), author of Survey of the County of Devon.

During the 19th century all three farms (indeed most of St Giles in the Wood) were part of the Rolle Estates and were leased to tenants. The same family would often occupy the farm through several generations. East Dodscott, for example, had been occupied from before 1742 to 1786 by my ggggg-grandfather Michael Cooke (1707-1777), and then by my gggg-grandfather George Cooke (1742-1821).

In 1868 Dodscott suffered two incidents of arson. Arrests were quickly made in both cases. The alleged perpetrators? Two fourteen and one eleven year old girl.

William Squire had occupied Great Dodscott since the death of his father Robert Squire in 1858. Shortly after he returned home from Stevenstone on the morning of Wednesday, September 9, 1868, Squire discovered that a linhay (a shed with an open front) was on fire. A lack of water meant that the fire "spread with great fury" to the other outbuildings and to the farmhouse. Fortunately, Squire was able to save most of his household goods. Suspicion fell upon two fourteen year old girls with a donkey and cart who Squire had seen at the gate to his farm: Elizabeth Copp and Polly Diment.

Elizabeth, daughter of William Copp, was born in Black Torrington in 1854. Her father was a miller at Stonyford, a kilometre south of Dodscott. Mary, also known as Polly, was born in Great Torrington in 1854, the daughter of Elizabeth Diment. Both girls had been frequent visitors to South Dodscott.

Despite protesting their innocence, and despite "assisting in the removal of the household goods," Elizabeth and Polly were taken into custody on the Thursday. Their
"distressed" parents bailed them out on the Friday, and they appeared before the magistrates in Great Torrington the next day. The Bench adjourned the case for two weeks as the only evidence was that the two girls had been in the vicinity. Why the girls had been incarcerated given the slight evidence was also questioned.

Two weeks later the bench ruled that there was not enough evidence to commit the case to trail, and the charges were dismissed.

Following the fire, William Squire, his wife Fanny, and their four children moved in with William's aunt and uncle, William and Fanny Snell of West Dodscott. With them was their eleven-year-old servant, Selina Matthews.

Selina, the daughter of Thomas and Mary Mathews, was born in St Giles in the Wood in 1857. Her father was an agricultural labourer. Like many girls from poor families, Selina had entered domestic service at a very young age.

On November 4, 1868, at about four in the afternoon, a fire broke out in the loft above the stable at West Dodscott. Luckily, Snell was able to rescue the horses and prevent the fire from spreading. Suspicion, however, immediately fell upon Selina.

Selina had left the house for a few minutes before the fire, and on her return had been the one to alert Fanny Snell about smoke coming from the stable. The constabulary was summoned and when Selina was searched a box of matches was found.

Selina was taken into custody. The following day she made this statement to Eliza Babbage, the wife of Police Sergeant George Babbage:

I went out to give the pigs some corn. I was going into the stable, but was afraid the horses would kick me. I went into the shippen, took up a handful of straw, and there was a little hay in the rack. I set fire to it, and went in upstairs to make up the beds. I looked out of the window and saw smoke and fire—smoke first, and fire after. I shouldn't have done it if I hadn't been told by Polly Diment to burn Black Fan and old Will.
Black Fan and Old Will were taken to mean Fanny and William Squire, but Selina may possibly have meant Fanny and William Snell who were considerably older. Selina told Police Sergeant Babbage that she had set the fire because Polly Diment, a suspect in the South Dodscott's fire, had told her to do so. Polly strongly denied the accusation.

Selina appeared before the magistrates a few days later. The Bench committed her for trial at the Lent Assizes.

At her trial on March 11, 1869, Selina said she was sorry she did it, and began to cry. The judge in his charge to the jury said, "there could be no doubt that prisoner set fire to the stable, and it was for them to consider whether it was done with a felonious intent." The jury found the prisoner guilty with a recommendation to mercy. Selina was given a deferred sentence of two months hard labour.

Two years later Selina was a servant in the household of Thomas Shearm of Beaford.

In 1877, Selina gave birth to a son, Thomas James Matthews. The reputed father was James Hearn of Great Torrington who had promised to marry her, and had gone so far as to have banns published. James, however, had absconded, and Selina was forced to apply for a court order. The Bench made an order for two shillings a week.

In 1881, Selina was a servant in the household of Joseph Row of St Giles in the Wood. Thomas James was living with his grandfather Thomas Matthews. Thomas James also fell afoul of the law. In 1896 he was charged with "feloniously wounding Annie Hooper, with intent to murder her, and to do her grievous bodily harm." Thomas pleaded guilty and was sentenced to seven years. Annie had been Thomas's "sweetheart" but when she broke off the relationship he cut her throat with a razor.

In 1884, Selina, then an inmate of the Torrington Union Workhouse, gave evidence at an inquest into the accidental death of a infant.

Sometime before 1891, Selina "married" George Buse, a labourer who lived in Great Torrington. While no record of the marriage has been found, Selina and George had several children: John Henry in 1890, Norah Ellen in 1891, Alice Maud in 1893, Kate in 1894, Albert William in 1895 and Walter Cyril in 1897.

Selina died in Great Torrington in 1923 and was buried in Torrington Cemetery.


North Devon Journal, Thursday, September 17, 1868
Western Times, Tuesday, September 22, 1868
North Devon Journal, Thursday, October 1, 1868
North Devon Journal, Thursday, November 12, 1868 

Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, March 12, 1869
North Devon Journal
, Thursday, January 10, 1878
North Devon Journal, Thursday, January 31, 1884
North Devon Journal, Thursday, June 25, 1896
North Devon Journal
, Thursday, May 31, 1923

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