Few areas of the UK are as deeply swathed in myth and mysticism as Cornwall.
And this week’s CCN Fortean Report moves on from modern-day UFO sightings to one of the great popular spook stories of all time – the accursed ‘Black Dog’.
Sightings of ghostly Black Dogs in the Duchy were interpreted either as portents of death, apparitions from the ‘other side’, simple manifestations of evil, or the embodiment of Satan himself.
Sometimes the ethereal visions turned out to be nothing more than forlorn lost farm dogs, and village hysteria would be ended abruptly by a no-nonsense farmer going and catching the errant beast.
But other bizarre sightings continue to fascinate to this day.
Superstitious tales of devil-dogs flourished in Cornwall’s thriving mining and maritime communities, so our first this week, and one of the most widely known, is the much-feared ‘Black Dog of Penzance Harbour’.
THE BLACK DOG OF PENZANCE
There are numerous accounts of the black dog which is said to appear at the harbour in Penzance.
Addicoat and Buswell recount the tale of a French sailor who spoke to his crewmates of a small black dog which had been pestering him around the harbour, and had even tried to board the boat.
But none of his crewmates had seen the dog as it disappeared whenever anyone else tried to look for it.
That evening the sailor, reportedly a usually healthy man, became gravely ill and within a few hours he was rushed to hospital where he died later that night.
The same authors recount a further tale, dating from roughly the late 1960s, of the crew of a boat moored in the harbour for the night.
The crew went to the Dolphin Tavern, on Quay Street and opposite the harbour, where they spent several hours drinking.
One of the men was charged with returning to the boat early in order to check that all was well.
On the return of his crewmates he informed them that he had been accompanied all the while by a small and very friendly black dog which had boarded the boat shortly after his return, but had disappeared shortly before they had returned.
The following day the boat was fishing out in Mount’s Bay when a ferocious and unexpected storm arose.
After a while, the storm died down and at that moment one of the crew exclaimed, “Man overboard!”.
It was the fisherman befriended by the black dog.
He was never seen again.
As a harbinger of doom the Penzance black dog seems to fit the pattern from elsewhere in the British Isles, but the dogs here are reported as being small and quite friendly, unlike the majority of the reports of their much larger cousins elsewhere.
THE HOUNDS OF WHEAL VOR MINE
Deane and Shaw recount the tale of the hounds of Wheal Vor Mine, though the account is based on that of Robert Hunt, originally published in 1865 and often reprinted.
Wheal Vor is in Breage in West Cornwall and was, in the 19th century, one of the larger mines in the area; it covered almost 4 square miles and was described by the historian Joseph Yelloly Watson as resembling a small town.
The account given by Hunt is here reproduced in full.
“About thirty years since, a man and a lad were engaged in sinking a shaft at Wheal Vor Mine, when the lad, through carelessness or accident, missed in charging a hole, so that a necessity arose for the dangerous operation of picking out the charge. This they proceeded to do, the man severely reprimanding the carelessness of his assistant. Several other miners at the time being about to change their core, were on the plat above, calling down and conversing occasionally with man and boy. Suddenly the charge exploded, and the latter were seen to be thrown up in the midst of a volume of flame. As soon as help could be procured, a party descended, when the remains of the poor fellows were found to be shattered and scorched beyond recognition. When these were brought to the surface, the clothes and a mass of mangled flesh dropped from the bodies. A bystander, to spare the feelings of the relatives, hastily caught up the revolting mass in a shovel, and threw the whole into the blazing furnace of Woolf’s engine, close at hand. From that time the engineman declared that troops of little black dogs continually haunted the place, even when the doors were shut. Few of them liked to talk about it; but it was difficult to obtain the necessary attendance to work the machine.”
Neither Hunt or Deane and Shaw give any further details of the case.
Mid 19th-century newspaper reports of a coroner’s inquest into a very similar accident were published on August 19, 1856, only 9 years before Hunt’s account was first published.
The elder of the two miners is therein named as John Richards, aged 39, of Wheal Vor United Mine.
The cause of his death is given as by the sudden and premature explosion of a hole he and his comrade were preparing.
The name of his young comrade is not deemed worthy of notice.
Of course, a similar accident could also have occurred about 20 years previous to this one.
There are a number of features within Cornish mines named after black dogs.
A Black Dog Footway is named at Chacewater Mine in a document dating from 1788 and Black Dog Shafts are named at Wheal Jane and Great Wheal Busy12 in the latter half of the 19th century.
THE HELSTON HELLHOUND
Walkers reported seeing “the Helston Hellhound” overlooking the Coronation Park boating lake in early 2006. Two witnesses insisted the animal was “the size of a donkey and with a large tail”.
Although nobody has got up close to the creature, which sits at the top of the hill, some locals say it is already becoming a part of modern folklore.
A woman too stricken with fear to be named said at the time: “It’s been seen several times by a few people.
“It just stands there looking down at the lake and then goes off.
“A few people have seen it but it always disappears just when you look up at it. It could just be a very big dog. At one point we thought it was a donkey because it was so big.”
THE BLACK DOG OF LINKINHORNE
Deane and Shaw also note the account of a black dog, “as big as a calf, with eyes as large as saucers and a foaming mouth”, witnessed on several occasions on the road between Linkinhorne and Rilla Mill.
The case occurred in the latter months of 1936, the original account appearing in The Cornish and Devon Post in 1937, later summarised by local folklorist William Henry Paynter.
The black dog was seen on a stretch of the road known as Bangors Hill and, according to the locals, was interpreted as either the canine ghost of a miner who had been killed at the nearby Marke Valley Mine at Upton Cross, or the ghost of “Carlo”, a black retriever dog “that ran under the axle of the old coach which used this particular stretch of road between Launceston and Bodmin”.
The dog had been regularly seen during the night and was even seen during the daytime.
Paynter declared that “the alleged ghost was becoming a public nuisance, for people of the district were afraid to venture out after dark.”
Eventually the explanation for the sightings was discovered (a fact not mentioned by Deane and Shaw) in the guise of “a grey farm dog, with a long chain which has been straying in the parish”.
The dog was caught in mid-February 1937 by a local farmer and the sightings thereafter ceased.
From Linkinhorne again, in tandem with the neighbouring parish of North Hill, comes a rather more substantial case of insubstantiality.
A black dog has often been seen padding along the few miles of roads (primarily the B3254) between Darleyford in Linkinhorne and Battens in North Hill.
Darley is the ancestral home of the Darley family.
They acquired Battens by marriage to the Vincent family in the 17th century and the black dog has always been understood to be the ghost of Vincent Darley of Battens, who died on February 8, 1764; though he occasionally puts in an appearance in human form.
THE HOUND OF ST AUSTELL
The following tale was related by one Samuel Drew, co-author of The History of Cornwall, and relates to an incident that occurred in his youth, and whilst he was apprenticed to a cordwainer called Baker who lived at Tregrehan Mills in the parish of St Blazey, adjacent to the, now large, town of St Austell.
“There were several of us, boys and men, out about twelve o’clock, on a bright moonlight night. I think we were poaching; but it was something that would not bear investigation. The party were in a field, adjoining the road leading from my master’s to St Austell, and I was stationed outside the hedge, to watch and give the alarm, if any intruder should appear. While thus occupied, I heard what appeared to be the sound of a horse, approaching from the town, and I gave a signal. My companions paused, and came to the hedge where I was, to see the passenger. They looked through the bushes, and I drew myself close to the hedge, that I might not be observed. The sound increased and the supposed horseman seemed drawing near. The clatter of the hoofs became more and more distinct. We all looked to see who and what it was; and I was seized with a strange, indefinable feeling of dread, when, instead of a horse, there appeared coming towards us, at an easy pace, but with the same sound which first caught my ear, a creature, about the height of a large dog. It went close by me; and, as it passed, it turned upon me and my companions huge fiery eyes, that struck terror to all our hearts. The road where I stood, branched off in two directions, in one of which there was a gate across. Towards the gate it moved; and, without any apparent obstruction, went on at its regular trot, which we heard several minutes after it had disappeared. Whatever it was, it put an end to our occupation, and we made the best of our way home.
“I have often endeavoured in later years, but without success, to account on natural principles, for what I then heard and saw. As to the fact, I am sure there was no deception. It was a night of unusual brightness, occasioned by a cloudless full moon. How many of us were together I do not know, nor do I distinctly, at this time, recollect who the men were. Matthew Pascoe, one of my intimate boyish acquaintances, was of the party; but he is dead, and so probably are the others. The creature was unlike any animal I had then seen; but from my present recollections, it had much the appearance of a bear, with a dark, shaggy coat. Had it not been for the unearthly lustre of its eyes, and its passing through the gate as it did, there would be no reason to suppose it any thing more than an animal, perhaps escaped from some menagerie. That it did pass through the gate, without pause or hesitation, I am perfectly clear. Indeed, we all saw it, and saw that the gate was shut, from which we were not distant more than twenty or thirty yards. The bars were too close to admit the passage of an animal of half its apparent bulk; yet this creature went through, without effort or variation of its pace. Whenever I have read the passage about the ‘lubber fiend,’ in Milton’s L’Allegro, or heard the description of the ‘brownie,’ in these legends of other days, I have always identified these beings, real or imaginary, with what I, on this occasion, witnessed.”
The road referred to is in all likelihood that known as Trenowah Road which runs between Tregrehan Mills and St Austell.
Samuel Drew was born in 1765 so the incident probably occurred towards the end of the 1770s.
THE BLACK DOG OF WHITEBOROUGH
Deane and Shaw also make brief mention of a black dog which “once appeared to a group of wrestlers on Whiteborough, a large tumulus on St Stephen’s Down near Launceston, as they were finishing the day’s sport.
The earthwork was once believed to be “the burial place of the giants and their gold.”