UNEXPLAINED

Episode 7 Extra: Hands Off

For the weeks in between episodes we look at the stories that for one reason or other didn’t make it into the show.

In last week’s episode, Ghosts in Time, we looked at the strange occurrences that took place in the 1920s at Borley Rectory in Essex, England. 

What intrigues me most about the story is the slight air of credibility due to the reputable character of the witnesses and the anodyne nature of the supposed hauntings. 

But for others, a ghost story is nothing without something a little more sinister buried somewhere within…

I was reminded of one such story after receiving a tweet from Graham Murray, a listener of the show.  Graham compared the phrase ‘Borley Rectory’ with equally evocative ‘Grimpen Mire.’

For those that don’t know, Grimpen Mire is the fictional haunt of the hellish hound featured in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s in his masterful Sherlock Holmes The Hound of Baskervilles.  The Mire is actually based on the eerily beautiful but no less ominous stretch of moorland known as Fox Tor Mire, which is found in Dartmoor in the South West of England. 

For a relatively small pocket of wilderness there can be fair fewer places in the UK so synonymous with a gloomy moon lit night, as Dartmoor. 

Home to some of the country’s blackest and most treacherous of bogs, with some believed as deep as 20 ft., it is rumoured to have snared even the most seasoned of travellers.  It is also the location of the infamous Dartmoor Prison whose looming grey granite walls were said to make even its Governor shudder at the mere sight of them.

And like all such places, particularly on the days when the fog rolls in just that little bit thicker, it’s easy to see this intensely evocative landscape for the cauldron of myth and folklore that it has become. 

It is a place also of rich ancestral history, having been home to settlers as far back as the late Neolithic period, their bodies now long since buried deep beneath the peaty wilderness. 

Just a few miles to the northwest of Fox Tor is a stretch of road that strikes a line right through the heart of the moors.  Known rather prosaically as the B3212 it is nonetheless the location for one of Dartmoor’s most intriguing mysteries.

On March 24th 1921, a certain Dr. Ernest Helby of the Dartmoor Prison medical team, had been instructed to travel to the local village of Postbridge. It had fallen to Dr Helby to attend the inquest of a man named French who not long before had been killed after being thrown from his horse and trap whilst riding through the village. 

Dr. Helby planned to make the make the trip on his motorbike accompanied by his wife Maude and the two young daughters of the prison’s deputy governor who had begged to come along.  With the girls safely positioned in the sidecar, Dr. Helby and his passengers set out on their journey to Postbridge.

A short time later, the Adkin family, who had been holidaying nearby at a place called Cherrybrook Farm, were driving along the B3212 when they spotted a distressed looking woman up ahead. It was none other than Mrs. Helby.  Mr Adkin, who was also a doctor, hurriedly pulled up the car and rushed to her aid.

Down below in a ditch lay the crumbled mess of Dr. Helby’s motorbike.  The two young girls had been safely thrown from the vehicle but the 51-year-old Dr. Helby had not been so lucky.  Dr. Adkin confirmed his death but when he asked Maude what had happened, her reply deeply shocked him.  He was shouting about someone’s ‘hairy hands’, she said, and how they were forcing him off the road.

Despite a short notice in The Times newspaper the event passed with little attention.  That was until something extraordinary occurred months later on the exact same stretch of road.

On one grey and foggy August Friday, a young army officer who had been staying at Penlee Farm in Postbridge offered to run some errands in nearby Princetown.  Setting off on his motorbike, he had barely made it out of the village when he was astonished to see two hands on his handlebars that did not belong to him. 

The hands began to fight with him for control of the vehicle.  As the officer approached the border of a nearby forest the struggle became too much and he too was forced off the road head first into a ditch.  Fortunately on this occasion the young officer escaped with only minor cuts and bruises. 

The story was picked up by the Daily Mail who ran an article later in the year detailing the strange events along with the account of another victim of the ghostly hands:  The man had been driving an open topped motor coach in the exact same spot as the others when he felt the hairy hands pull the wheel violently toward edge of the road.  Thankfully, on this occasion again, no one was hurt.

Fast becoming an accident hotspot, the local council made a thorough assessment of the area deciding that a treacherous camber had been responsible for the accidents.  After a number of repairs were made, the problem appeared to have been resolved.

That was until 1961 when another car was found overturned at exactly the same spot.  With the driver having been sadly killed we will never know exactly what exactly occurred that sent their car careering off the road. 

Then in 1978, a Doctor from nearby Somerset was driving through Dartmoor on the B3212 when, in his own words, ‘the atmosphere in the car suddenly became deathly cold and I had a feeling almost like paralysis.  I stopped the car and found I was trembling all over…I drove on but after about two hundred yards it came back worse than ever…I was aware of a great force…something quite out of my control.  The steering wheel was wrenched out of my hands [sending the car skidding] across the road. [T]he next second I was hanging [upside down] from my seat belt…’

It would seem this was the last incident linked to the strange case of the hairy hands with some believing the curse to have simply left the area.  But what of the owner of those mystery hands?

In 1805, as British involvement in the Napoleonic wars began to escalate, so too did the number of prisoners captured by the British Navy.  With the current facilities in appalling condition and straining to cope a prisoner of war depot was commissioned.  A suitably isolated destination was chosen and in 1806 work began in earnest.  Three years later, the facility was finally opened, it’s name, Her Majesty’s Prison Dartmoor.  

By 1812 the prison housed as many as 6000 inmates, most of whom were either French prisoners of war or perhaps surprisingly for many on this side of the Atlantic, American sailors, the consequence of the lesser known War of 1812.

Angered by the drafting of 10,000 Americans into the Royal Navy, as well as the continued attempt of the British government to maintain a foothold in North America, the United States took advantage of the distraction of war in Europe to declare war on Great Britain.  Over the course of the war as many as 20,000 American seamen were captured by the British navy and imprisoned throughout the world. In 1815, an end was brought to hostilities with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent but for the prisoners of Dartmoor, it hadn’t come soon enough. 

On 6th April 1815, Prison commandant Capt. T. G. Shortland discovered a tunnel leading from the prison quarters to the barrack yard near the gun-racks.  With many Prisoners gathered in the yard at the time and fearing an imminent insurrection, Capt. Shortland ordered the prison bell to be sounded and the prisoners to return to their quarters.  However, the bell had only succeeded in bringing more prisoners into the yard and the crowd grew restless.

The guards were ordered to fire a warning shot to disperse the crowd, which served only to send the prisoners into a terrified frenzy.  As the men grew increasingly agitated, the guards began to fire indiscriminately, even shooting the prisoners as they scrambled to the safety of their cells.  Once the smoke had cleared, seven men lay dead including one prisoner named Thomas Jackson who was only 14 years old. 

A later account of the events maintains that at least one American sailor used the chaos to mount a successful escape from the prison.  The prisoner made it as far as Carters Road where they attempted to commandeer a horse and carriage only to be crushed to death beneath the wheels in the process.   Carters Road is today more commonly known as the B3212.  Could this unfortunate prisoner hold the key to the mystery of the hairy hands?

For any motorists brave enough to take that infamous road through the heart of the moors, I offer only this - please drive safely and whatever you do, be sure to wear a seat belt. 

And if, god forbid, you ever find yourself venturing out on foot, as the daylight starts to dim and the fog drifts slowly in, think on the words of poet Edward William Lewis Davis:

‘The hunter homeward speeds in haste,

Before fogs overtake him on the waste;

And if to Fox Tor Mires he roam,

He’ll bid a long adieu to home;

A dreary shroud is over his head,

A yawning swamp around him spread;

Spell-bound and lost he ventures on

One fatal step – and all is done;

Hopeless he struggles, vain his throes,

Deeper and deeper down he goes!

The raven claps her ebony wing,

His dirge the howling winds may sing,

And mists will spread the last sad pall

Over that dark grave unknown to all.’

© Richard MacLean Smith

 

Sources

1.    Dacre, M. (2010), Devonshire Folk Tales, UK: The History Press

2.    Fortean Mind, (2015), A Helping Hand, Grimerica, http://www.grimerica.ca/a-helping-hand/

3.    HM Prison Dartmoor, Wikipedia Entry, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HM_Prison_Dartmoor

4.    Original Documents written by Charles King and Francis Seymour Larpent of the Brittish Navy pertiaining to the 1812 massacre at Dartmoor Prison, http://www.1812privateers.org/Riot.htm