Dubious Doings – Crime in Otterton

Dubious Doings – Crime in Otterton

Underneath Church Hill lie passages leading to Church Cottage, the direction of Otterton Barton, and the direction of the Church. All of these entrances are now blocked up so no one can go exploring, but archaeologists in the 1980s concluded that they date from C13-C14 and possibly were the kitchens of the old priory.  Village tales exist, however, of activities going on underground in later years.   It is believed the passages were used for the smuggling of illegal substances that landed at Ladram Bay, with one rumour claiming one passage stretches all the way to the Ladram Bay beach itself, although no one has ever proved this theory!

Perhaps the most notorious smuggling crime was in June 1684, when 35 bags of tobacco were landed at Ladram Bay and transported by the horses of farmers George Austin and Richard Lee to Otterton, where they were hidden in the dwellings of Richard Warry, John Rice, and Richard Dolling.  Eventually all the bags were seized by the Excise men and the smugglers were fined £20, an enormous sum at the time.

Punishment facilities were put in place from time to time.  Otterton had stocks erected in the churchyard at one point, but at a manor court held in 1779 it was written that ‘the stocks of this parish is out of repair’, as there were simply not enough crimine in the village to justify it.
A prison cell was also erected on Maunders Hill, but again by 1859 it was repossessed by the state as villagers were simply too law abiding!

Those punishments seems fairly mild in comparison to other methods that existed in Otterton. The most shocking 18th century crime deterrent was a cage hanging from a tree on Blackhill which displayed dead bodies as a warning to other criminals.  Villager Thomas Dyer’s body is believed to have been brought here after his execution in Exeter for the murder of his wife.
On Tuesday November 19th  1745 the General Evening Post (London) wrote that Thomas Dyer ‘was brought to the New Gaol, Southwick from Guilford, by Mr. John Kent, Post-Master of Ottery St Mary in that County, attended by a strong guard, to which gaol he was committed by Sir Mow Molineaux, Knt. and Robert Austin Esq., Justices of the Peace for the county of Surrey, for the barbarous murder of his wife.’ His trial began on the 17th March 1746, and he was executed on Friday 11th April 1746 at the gallows at Heavitree.

In the 19th century villagers were growing increasingly worried about the ‘bad character’ of some inhabitants, ‘many of them appearing to live well without any visible means’.  A petition emerged in favour of a policeman being posted in the village after an incident in 1853 where a policeman was assaulted outside the Kings Arms, and his house was later set on fire.  Villagers claimed a large proportion of inhabitants would ”plunder by night and cause malicious injury to property, such as breaking gates to pieces, cutting down and carrying off railings, lopping trees for firewood and robbing gardens”. The villagers’ concerns were answered, and a constable was appointed in June 1853.  He resided in a house on the village green, and the cottage and clothing were provided from £61/1/- raised by Otterton Vestry.  The last PC who served at Otterton Constabulary and we can name was Brian Tucker, who was here from 1961 to 1964.   We don’t know who took Brian Tucker’s place, and although by 1967 the Devon Constabulary had bought a plot of land in Lea Road for a Police House, they then decided to withdraw police from Otterton.