A DEVON author who specialises in breathing life into true stories from the past has chosen a remarkable Torrington story for her latest book, “The Ordeal of Miss Lucy Jones”.

In 1879, the effigies of two local people were tarred, feathered and burned on Torrington Common by a disorderly crowd of 3,000 people.

The cover of The Ordeal of Miss Lucy Jones by Liz Shakespeare.
The cover of The Ordeal of Miss Lucy Jones by Liz Shakespeare. (Liz Shakespeare)

Who were the two victims, and why were they being publicly shamed?

“I was fascinated by a report of the event in a 19th century newspaper,” said author Liz Shakespeare, who lives near Bideford, “so I decided to find out more.”

Incidents of “rough music” were not uncommon at the time.  A crowd of people, often in disguise, would march to the houses of those who had committed an offence against society, often a couple who were believed to be having an illicit affair.

The crowd would make a terrible racket by banging pots and pans and blowing horns, and sometimes effigies of the couple were burnt. However, this event in Torrington was on an unprecedented scale.

“One of the effigies was of Miss Lucy Jones, the daughter of a Torrington doctor who lived in Castle House,” said Liz. “As a church visitor to the poor, she had to meet regularly with the curate, Reverend Francis. He was very unpopular, so when someone claimed to have seen him and Lucy ‘acting improperly’ together on the Common, the people of Torrington seized the opportunity to be rid of him.”

The ensuing enquiry, culminating in the burning of the effigies, was reported in no less than 52 newspapers throughout Britain, and all included the name of Lucy Jones.

“It would have been a terrible time for her,” said Liz. “The investigation into Reverend Francis’ behaviour was reported in great detail in the local newspaper. I studied this carefully, and although there were plentiful reasons for his unpopularity, I am convinced that Lucy was innocent of any wrongdoing.”

Liz’s novel draws on extensive historical research to tell the story from Lucy’s point of view. Lucy Jones liked to walk on the Common and to take excursions by train to Bideford and Instow, and the novel describes Torrington and the surrounding area as it was in the 1870’s.

Reverend Francis had to leave the town as a result of the scandal. “But after the burning of the effigies,” Liz said, “Lucy was afraid to leave the house. Knowing that her name would be forever associated with the scandal, she despaired of ever being able to marry her childhood sweetheart.”

While researching the book, Liz particularly enjoyed walking on Torrington Common, as Lucy had done.

“As I studied the history of the Common, I came to understand what a powerful influence it has had on the people of Torrington. Their grazing rights gave them an independence and a determination to unite and organise which enabled them to get rid of Reverend Francis, and I believe that determination still survives today.”

Torrington is famous for its May Fair, and for the hugely successful bonfires organised by the Torrington Cavaliers which raise a lot of money for local charities, and take place on the same spot as the burning of the effigies in 1879.

This is Liz Shakespeare’s seventh book; all her books are set in North Devon and are based on true stories.

“The Ordeal of Miss Lucy Jones” was launched at The Plough Arts Centre in Torrington on Thursday, April 25.

Liz will be speaking at Parracombe Arts and Literary Festival on May 6, Bude Literary Festival on May 17, RHS Rosemoor on May 18, and Torrington Library on June 13. 

“The Ordeal of Miss Lucy Jones” (ISBN 978-0951687970), which is £10.99, can be purchased from local outlets, including The Bookery in Crediton, or ordered post-free from:  www.lizshakespeare.co.uk .

Cheques for £10.99 made payable to Letterbox Books can also be sent to The Old Post Office, Littleham, Bideford EX39 5HW.