The Haunted Dragoon

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Historical and Geographical Background

The 'Lottery Incident'



One August an oarsman on a preventive cutter is shot by a crew member of the Unity smuggling lugger from Ruan Lanihale. This results in the harbour entrance being kept under constant surveillance from the sea and an order of the Twelfth Dragoons to search the village.

Two weeks later the dragoons pass Ruan Lanihale church, where Sam Tregear, the narrator, and his father are on watch. A message is conveyed to the village by the harvesters of Farmer Tresidder’s wheat field. The perpetrator of the murder escapes to the security of Mabel Downs, and eventually to Guernsey.

On arriving in the village the officer-in-charge secures accommodation for himself at the ‘Jolly Pilchards’ and sends the troop, under Sergeant Basket, up the valley to a billet with Farmer Noy at Constantine. As Noy is a receiver of contraband he is unable to refuse. The troops return to the village on a number of occasions, with Basket lodging at Constantine.

Sarah Noy, the farmer’s young wife, falls in love with Sergeant Basket and proceeds to poison her aged husband with arsenic. By the following January Noy is a dying man. He visits his executor, Dr Gale of Looe, requesting him to search his wife’s bureau when arriving to verify the death. A week later Noy dies, a packet of arsenic is discovered by Gale and the local justice is informed.

Sarah Noy is tried and found guilty at the Spring Assize in Bodmin, but Basket is released for lack of evidence. As she is found to be pregnant the hanging is delayed until June. The infant dies within a few hours. When on the scaffold of the public hanging, Basket throws a ring up to Sarah Noy, who informs him that in due time the dead infant will reunite them.

On the way home from the hanging the Tregears are overtaken by Farmer Hugo, who is fleeing from the apparition of a sergeant of dragoons and a screaming child.

One September, about 8 years later, the narrator’s father is working in Ruan Lanihale churchyard when he is approached by a sergeant of dragoons, followed by a screaming child. Shortly afterwards he sees the sergeant, the child and a veiled woman riding a black horse down to the cove. They are later observed passing Constantine farm and a smithy on the road to Bodmin.


Unlike ‘A Blue Pantomime’ and ‘The Disenchantment of ‘Lizabeth’, which both have a single narrative thread, ‘The Haunted Dragoon’ is a composite of diverse threads woven together:

  1. An explanation of how a superstitious belief that children sprinkled with water from a well at Ruan Lanihale church will never be hung fell into desuetude.
  2. A semi-fictitious retelling of ‘The Lottery Incident’ from Polperro of 1798 to 1800.
  3. The hanging of a young woman at Bodmin jail for poisoning her aged husband in the expectation of marrying a young sergeant.
  4. A Talland ghost story involving a man, a woman, a child and a horse.
  5. Peripheral details such as the old Cornish custom of ‘crying-the-neck’.

It is difficult to determine whether Q has taken a local story with various threads or whether he has taken a number of unrelated stories and woven them into a single narrative. The introduction in paragraph one claims the story to have been related to the writer by a witness of some of the events. If the witness was born in about 1795, which appears possible from the text, he would have been 68 when Q was born. Seventy was a good age in those days but some individuals lived much longer.

Historical and Geographical Background

For more information, see Jonathan Couch's History of Polperro (1871, pp. 177-196).

Ruan Lanihale Church

This is Talland church with its detached tower, the top of which overlooks Talland Bay, and with a spring by the churchyard wall. Jonathan Couch married Jane Prynn Rundle at the church in 1810 and Jane was later buried there, the grave being dug by the historical Sam Tregear. The Couches did not leave Anglicanism until Methodism became a separate body in 1814.

Ruan Cove

This is Talland Bay, a favourite haunt of smugglers. A road to Polperro runs by the cove head. 

The Unity lugger

According to Johns (1994) the Unity was a lugger of 102 tons, carrying a crew of 40, whose owners included Richard Rowett.


The Preventive Boat

This is possibly the Hind, captained by Gabriel Bray.


Farmer Tresidder

Farmer Tresidder is the owner of Sheba Farm, which is Porthallow, and appears in 'I Saw Three Ships'.


Braddon Point

This is Downed Point between Talland and Polperro.


The Twelfth Dragoons

The Dragoons came from Plymouth on six occasions in the two months following the 'Lottery' investigation in the spring of 1799 and after the court case in London in December 1800, with their arrivals petering out in the spring of 1801.

The Dragoons' Route

The Dragoons came from Plymouth and had to pass through Looe. After crossing Looe bridge they had to turn left, Polperro New Road not having been built, climb West Looe Hill and then descend into Talland Bay by the churchyard wall. They then skirted the cove head and ascended to Brent, before descending into Polperro. Inevitably, surprise was almost impossible.


Uncle Philip

Uncle Philip is based on Tom Potter of Polperro, who was finally convicted of the murder of Humphry Glinn and hanged on 18 December, 1800, in London. 

'Jolly Pilchards' Inn

This is the 'Three Pilchards' inn in Polperro. It is lso featured in 'I Saw Three Ships'.

Farmer Noy of Constantine

This farm is up the valley from Polperro and is possibly Great Kellow Farm. 

Doctor Gale of Looe

This character is presumably based on Mr. John Rice of East Looe, with whom Jonathan Couch trained in 1804, four years after the incident in the story.

The Constables

These might well have come from the justice-of-the-peace Sir Harry Trelawney of Trelawne who facilitated Jonathan's training in London.


Trial and Execution

These took place at the law courts in Bodmin, as Q describes in The Ship of Stars, and Bodmin jail. Couch held medical positions at Bodmin barracks and at the jail.


The Journey from Bodmin by the Tregears

The journey by car, today, would involve the A38 to Derricombe, then south under the viaduct to the A390, along to Taphouse and south again along the B3359 to Pelynt and finally on to the A387. Stretches of the A387 did not exist at the time of the story.

The journey of the Tregears would probably have been by what are today byroads, through Lanhydrock to Respryn Bridge, joining the A390 at Bodmin Lodge, then south to Carnsews and by Higher Hartwell Farm to Couch's Mill. The Lanreath road would effect entry onto the B3359 to Pelynt. The most likely place for the Farmer Hugo incident is the lane from Ashen Cross Farm through the ford at West Watergate to the A387.

The ‘Lottery Incident’ 

The transcription of an ‘oral testimony’, presumably by someone close to the ‘incident’, is included in Jonathan Couch’s History of Polperro (1871, pp. 85-8). The ‘Lottery Incident’ has been more recently investigated by Jeremy Rowett Johns, with his findings published in Polperro’s Smuggling Story and The Smugglers’ Banker: the Story of Zephaniah Job of Polperro. He researched Customs and Public records, the Sherborne Mercury and an unpublished manuscript by Thomas Quiller Couch. Q’s grandfather was ten and eleven years old at the time of the ‘incident’ and must have been cognisant of its effects on the community. Q’s father took a personal interest in the historical details. Some of those involved must have been near or distant relations of the Couches and the Quillers. We learn from the History of Polperro that up until its time of publication in 1870 the ‘incident’ was still a topic of conversation in the village. 25 years later, when I Saw Three Ships came out, it cannot have been completely forgotten.

Johns informs us that on December 26, 1798 (exactly four years before the rescue of the ‘Stranger’ in Ruan Bay in ‘I Saw Three Ships’), Humphry Glinn, an oarsman aboard a custom’s boat, was shot. This individual was identified as Ambrose Bowden in the History of Polperro. According to Johns, Bowden was the commander of the boat. Johns reported that he was shot in the head while the History of Polperro and 'The Haunted Dragoon' say the shot was in the breast. The shot was fired by a crew member of the Lottery smuggling cutter from Polperro; ‘The Haunted Dragoon’ has the Unity. A two hundred pound reward was announced by the Customs on February 17, 1799, with a company of dragoons ordered to descend upon the village to apprehend the culprit. The Lottery was taken at sea on Monday 13,1799. Roger Toms secured a pardon by turning King’s evidence, implicating Thomas Potter and others from Polperro. Toms was kidnapped, released and transported to London as chief witness. At the trial on December 10, 1800, Potter was condemned to hang, other crew members were convicted of various offences, and the dragoons were ordered to Polperro to secure those still at liberty. Tom’s family disowned him and he remained in London.

‘The Haunted Dragoon’ is obviously based on the ‘Lottery Incident’ of December 1798 to the spring of 1801. Jonathan must have been home from Bodmin Grammar School in December 1798 and during subsequent holidays. The houses of Couch, Quiller (notorious smugglers) and the Zebedee Minards (see ‘I Saw Three Ships’) would have been searched. The individual who endeavoured, by fair means or foul, to obtain the release of the crew was Zephaniah Job, who appears under his own name or pseudonym in a number of Q’s stories (see History of Polperro, 1871 pp. 89-90). For obscure reasons Q renames the Lottery the Unity, one of Polperro’s best known smuggling and privateering craft. According to the History of Polperro (1871, pp. 92-3), it was a hired armed lugger commanded by Richard Rowett, the Dick Hewett of Q’s ‘Captain Jacka’ stories.

A residual knowledge of the ‘Lottery Incident’ still exists in the Polperro area today, over 200 years after the actual incidents.


After the difficulties the commentator finds in interpreting ‘A Blue Pantomime’, coming to ‘The Haunted Dragoon’ offers some relief. It can be dismissed as a simple ghost story, the sort of thing found in Robert Hunt’s Romances and Drolls of the West of England of 1865. A rationalistic gloss is all that is required. Unfortunately, an analysis of the text makes such a gloss redundant, with the commentator open to the criticism of taking a superior attitude and falling for a version of the ‘Whig interpretation of history’.

The compendium of Robert Hunt, mining engineer and Fellow of the Royal Society, provides the reader with an insight into, the ideas, images and thought forms of Cornish working people between 1825 and 1830. His introduction relates that by the year of publication much of this had been lost. He goes on to explain his debt to Thomas Quiller Couch of Bodmin and William Bottrell of Penzance for contributing to the work. He saw both men as repositories of material from a former and fading age.

Hunt’s method was to gather and systemise rather than to theorise. In his introduction, however, he makes some interesting general observations. He concluded that the geographical area from Exeter westwards, the old ‘Danmonium’ or Dumnonia, possessed a common cultural inheritance, possibly dating back to pre-Celtic times, and subsequently overlain but not obliterated. Although exterior form of the folk material changes, the substance remains. Hunt also draws attention to a similarity between the cultures of Cornwall and Cromarty in Scotland, as evidenced in Campbell’s Popular Tales of the West Highlands (1862). This work includes the ‘Legend of Ticonderoga’ which the American historian F. Parkman includes in an appendix to Montcalm and Wolfe (1884). The work but not the legend provided the basis for Q’s novel Fort Amity, which includes an account of the battle of Ticonderoga. The approach of Hunt and Parkman is different from that of Rowse, with his Marxism and Darwinism. Rowse was a rationalist even though he was reared in a family in which remnants of the old culture persisted. Hunt informs the reader that he gathered his material, as Jonathan Couch must have done, in the pre-Victorian era when individuals still had the confidence to deliver it free from the fear of being ridiculed.

Q believed the conflict-driven theories of the late nineteenth century were the product of the political repression and the refusal to countenance dissent that followed in the wake of the Napoleonic War. The villagers who suffered from the press-gang, as in ‘I Saw Three Ships’, and the Dragoons in ‘The Haunted Dragoon’, would not have been surprised at news of the ‘Peterloo Massacre’ in August 1819. The radical tradition which Q inherited from Jonathan Couch, a firm supporter of the 1832 Reform Bill, probably had its roots in Jonathan’s experience in Polperro following the ‘Lottery Incident’. This was intensified by a belief in the village that Humphry Glinn had actually been killed by a stray shot from a member of the Revenue boat.

Jonathan Couch’s History of Polperro (1871) contains a body of information dating back to the eighteenth century. The commentator can therefore inscribe a line from Jonathan to Thomas to Q. It is quite possible for Q to have met Hunt in Bodmin. He might well have met Bottrell while staying with his relations in Penzance. One folktale, which Hunt included in his book, relates to a common phenomena called the ‘Dandy-Dogs’. These hunters with flaming eyes Jonathan Couch identified as packs of weasels, frightening enough on a moonless night but harmless to humans (1871, pp. 85-8). Jonathan Couch was usually able to explain supposedly supernatural phenomena; but not always. On one occasion he visited two orphan sisters on the Warren whose brother was at sea. The passage was running with water and the sisters were in a farther room claiming that their brother had just visited them. News came shortly afterwards of his drowning at sea (p. 89). Jonathan Couch had all too frequent reports of this phenomenon, especially from the Quillers. This is the phenomenon upon which J.M. Synge based his play Riders to the Sea and which Izaak Walton reports in his life of Dr. John Donne.

In the 1928 Duchy Edition of his writings, Q observes in his introduction to ‘Wandering Heath’ that of all styles the ‘plain objective’ one is best, with the ‘drolls’ of Cornwall given as an example. He follows this in the preface to ‘The White Wolf’ by contrasting the writings of the Romantics with those of his contemporaries who were trading in libertinism, conflict and disillusionment. Maybe this is a side swipe at Freudianism, Marxism and ‘struggle-for-life competition’. The word ‘objective’ clearly indicates presenting facts free from the distorting mirror of theory, the traditional Couch position. Yet Q was more than aware that he was writing against the age.