When Charlotte Dymond’s body was found on the lonely moors near Camelford it was April 1844 and Cornwall was overcome with shock but there was also something else – a little unsavoury excitement. This was the stuff of Penny Dreadful fiction. A beautiful and pious young girl brutally murdered on a Sunday while out walking on a lonely moor. There were rumours of jealous lovers and secret rendezvous’, it was all rather melodramatic and darkly romantic. It was the kind of story the rather morbidly obsessed Victorians loved to read about while eating their boiled eggs and soldiers in the morning.
The whole story filled the newspapers for weeks, details of the search for Charlotte, her discovery lying in a river at the foot of the austere Rough Tor, her injuries, the manhunt for her killer and then the trail itself was all reported blow by blow. It was a pretty open and shut case her murderer was apprehended quickly, the evidence was damning and before he was hung he left a written confession (which was printed in the papers too as well as a private letter to his family).
It is a story that I have grown up with, I don’t really remember when I first heard about it but it has stayed with me and Charlotte has always been a kind of Tess of the D’Urbervilles character in my mind. It is however always the public’s reaction 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 the murderer Matthew Weeks was hung an estimated 20,000 people turned out to watch.
But even before the trial had began a large fete was held at Rough Tor and 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 did go towards the granite memorial stone 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 and 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 set out across the moors to meet her mystery lover. She could have had no idea of what was coming. She was an unknown girl who would soon come to mean something to thousands of people and still nearly 200 years later mean something to me too.