A Dorset Ghost Story: The Skull of Bettiscombe Manor

Here is an article written by Dorset folklorist and historian John Symonds Udal taken from the ‘Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society Volume 31,  1910 concerning the legend of the skull of Bettiscombe manor.

Part 1: Bettiscombe : The Legend of the Skull

The Skull of Bettiscombe Manor

The Skull of Bettiscombe Manor © DCM

So quiet and unobtrusive was the introduction to public notice of the story of this old skull that in the reference which heralded its first appearance in “Notes and Queries” [Circa 1872] (4th Series X., 183) no mention at all was made of its local habitat. I sent it simply as the record of a matter of pure Dorset folk-lore, a subject in which I was askeen then as I am now, and I have been collecting ever since ; so that my readers may imagine what a mass of more or less undigested material those intervening years must have brought me. (See “Notes and Queries” (4th Series, X., 183); and “Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries,” Vol. II., p. 249 ; VIII., pp. 308, 343 ; IX., pp. 315, 350, 352. )

My first note was in this wise :

At a farmhouse in Dorsetshire at the present time, is carefully preserved a human skull, which has been there for a period long antecedent to the present tenancy. The peculiar superstition attaching to it is that if it be brought out of the house the house itself would rock to its foundations, whilst the person by whom such an act of desecration was committed would certainly die within the year. It is strangely suggestive of the power of this superstition that through many changes of tenancy and furniture the skull still holds its accustomed place “unmoved and unremoved!”

Upon this the late Dr. Goodford, Provost of Eton, wrote to “Notes and Queries” (p. 436) inquiring whether I had not made a mistake as to the county, and stating that there was a similar superstition attaching to a house at Chilton Cantelo, in the adjoining county of Somerset.

I may say here that the superstition, or variants of it, attaching to this skull is not by any means peculiar to Dorset, or even the West of England.

I accordingly replied to Dr. Goodford (p. 509) giving him further particulars, both as to the locality and what I had heard of and about the skull. I there stated: –

The farmhouse (formerly, I believe, an old Manor house), now called Bettiscombe House, in which the skull remained or still remains for aught I know to the contrary, lies in the parish of Bettiscombe, about six miles from Bridport, in Dorsetshire. I cannot ascertain tne time when this “ghostly tenant” took up its abode in the place, but it is tolerably certain it was some considerable time ago. It has, I understand, been pronounced to be that of a black slave; and the legend runs that it belonged to a faithful black servant of an early possessor of the property a Pinney who, having resided abroad some years, brought home this memento of his humble follower. It is reported that a member of the above family in recent years has visited the house, but was unable to give any clue that might assist in clearing up the identity of the skull.

Bettiscombe House

Bettiscombe House © JSUdal/DCM

In 1883, some ten or a dozen years afterwards, I ascertained from the Bridport News that a correspondent in a paper called The Oracle had alluded to the superstition existing with respect to the skull at Chilton Cantelo, and the Editor had also referred to the similar one attaching to Bettiscombe in terms no doubt taken from my earlier contributions to “Notes and Queries.” In the same year also the subject was mentioned in the Daily News, for a correspondent of the Dorset County Chronicle in February of that year made enquiries relating to the skull at Chilton Cantelo, which drew a reply from Mr. A. J. Goodford (a son, I believe, of my former fellow-correspondent), who gave certain particulars as to the Somerset skull.

I will now take up the story with regard to its Dorset rival.  In the second series of “Haunted Homes,” issued in 1884, Dr. F. A. Ingram quotes an account of the Bettiscombe Skull from an essay written by Mr. William Andrews on ” Skull Superstitions,” in the course of which the story is related of a visit paid to Bettiscombe Farm by Dr. Richard Garnett, his daughter, and a friend. The particulars reported as having been gathered by this party contained some new details, namely, the skull was that of a black servant who had lived in the service of a Roman Catholic priest, and there were dark hints of a murder. The black servant had declared before his death that his spirit would not rest unless his body were taken to his native land and buried there. On his burial in the Bettiscombe churchyard, the haunting began; fearful screams proceeded from the grave; strange sounds were heard all over the house, and the inmates had no rest until the body was dug up. Subsequent attempts to dispose of it were followed by similar results.

This was the first time I had ever heard anything of the kind, or that the owner of the skull had been the servant of a Roman Catholic priest, and that there had been any idea of foul play in the matter, or that there had ever been any skeleton other than the head in the house. My information had been mainly derived from an old lady in Dorset (still living), who in her younger days had often visited and stayed at the old manor-house at Bettiscombe, and who had learnt and treasured up the legend as she had first heard it before time and publicity had lent a somewhat heightened and conjectural aspect to the tradition. From her I subsequently received an indignant protest against these innovations. I have also myself several times endeavoured to refute in periodicals and otherwise this attribute of ” screaming,” but, apparently, to little purpose ; for only a year or two ago this same old lady sent me a copy of a periodical called The World and His Wife, in which appeared an illustrated article of ” Old Haunted Houses,” by Mr. C. G. Harper, whom we know in connection with our own county as the author of ” The Hardy Country,” published in the ” Pilgrimage Series ” in 1904.

The account given in this work agrees with that quoted from Dr. Ingram’s “Haunted Houses,” excepting the mention of a Roman Catholic priest as having been the black servant ‘s master.

About the same time “Pearson’s Magazine” contained a graphic description of the Screaming Skull of Burton Agnes Hall, Yorkshire; to which was appended a note to the
effect that ” another ‘ Screaming Skull ‘ is preserved at Bettiscombe in Dorsetshire,” and giving the same details referred to by Dr. Ingram.

So much for this sensational and, I believe, thoroughly unearned attribute to the very quiet-looking emblem of mortality known as the ” Bettiscombe Skull,” and I will now give you an account of a visit I paid to it myself a little later in point of time than the visit of Dr. Garnett’s party, and the account of which appeared in the “Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries” (p. 252 to 255).

I happened to be in the neighbourhood, and not having at that time seen the abiding -place of the “famous skull,” about which I had written some years previously, I determined to make an effort to do so ; and lest I should, by my visit, invoke the spell of any ” malign influence,” I took with me the rector of the parish and a neighbouring clergyman who happened to be with him at the time. Thus accompanied and protected, I arrived at the manor-house (situated in the Vale of Marshwood that vale as to which Hutchins quaintly observed, upwards of a century ago, “few gentry ever resided in this tract” and nestling at the foot of a picturesque combe not far from Dorset’s highest point the famous Pilsdon Pen) evidently an early Georgian restoration of a much earlier building, aa the oak beams in the hall of considerable age abundantly testified. The house boasted of a handsome oak staircase; but, if I remember rightly, the painted panelling was apparently of no older date than such restoration. Up this stair-case we were courteously conducted, and on arriving at a small door on the top landing opening on to the attic stairs a candle was lighted, and we prepared to make the ascent to the darker regions above, where the skull was supposed to dwell. To my surprise I found, on the door being opened, from one of the steps ” the skull sat grinning at us,” as related by Miss Garnett. On inquiry, I learnt that the skull had been placed there in order to save going up to the attic where it formerly rested, which, owing to the ruinous condition of the timbers, was a journey of no inconsiderable danger. However, the present situation not being at all in character with the genius loci, and the good “woman of the house” being besides somewhat fearful of its being carried off by one of the dogs from where it stood, I had little difficulty in obtaining her permission to reinstate the skull in its former place. So, taking it in my hands, I carefully picked my way by the aid of the lighted candle, followed by my companions, over the crazy and broken floor to where, on a niche by the side of the huge chimney breast, lay a brick the old shrine of the skull upon which I reverently placed it; and there I had the satisfaction of seeing it on more than one visit in later years. Upon one of these subsequent visits I, with others, made a careful examination of the skull; and we were inclined to doubt whether it was that of a black servant at all, but as the generally received opinion is that it is I will say no more upon that point. The skull was by no means a large one ; the forehead certainly was low but not receding. The upper half of the cranium only was preserved, the lower jaw being missing; its length was 7½ins., and in depth to roof of mouth Sins, (full). From a phrenological point of view the “bumps” at the base were highly developed. If I remember rightly, there were no teeth left in the jaw when I saw it.

So much for the skull itself. Its surroundings were certainly of a character to add to the mystery of its existence there. The dark attic extended over the entire area of the house ; the floor was in a very unsound and unsafe condition, and evidently, from its appearance, had long been the home of bats, owls, and other ” fearful fowl,” for which easy access was afforded by the many openings in the ancient, massive, and dilapidated stone-tiled roof ; to say nothing of a nest of young birds I myself discovered close to the skull’s resting-place.

Close to the chimney-breast above-mentioned is a rectangular hole or shaft in the floor, of about 3ft. by 4ft. 6in., and of considerable depth, extending to the bottom of the floor below, where the back of a bed -room cupboard touches. At first I thought that this cupboard was an old-fashioned “powdercloset,” but after careful examination I was inclined to think that it might have had some connection with the aforesaid shaft, which may well have been intended for and used as a ” priest’s hole ” or hiding-place in the earlier and more troublous times that might have fallen upon Bettiscombe, as upon so many other places in the West of England. This conjecture is borne out by the fact that one end of the vast attic is divided off by a lath-and-plaster partition in which was inserted a small doorway, constituting a chamber of about 15ft. by 12ft. immediately under the tiles, and containing a small, round, brick fire-place with two window apertures at the end, which were stopped up. This would have formed a secure retreat from any sudden surprise, when, if danger became more imminent by a threatened search of the house, it might be averted by a timely resort to the “hole!” Of course it may have had other uses, but a better place of concealment or confinement can hardly have been imagined.

From time to time I have heard other rumours as to the ownership of the skull, one amongst them that it belonged to a young lady who had died, or had been made away with, after a long period of confinement in the house. To this story, if the skull be that of a woman, the existence of this partitioned-off chamber lends a certain amount of corroboration ; but of the black servant variant, as related by Miss Garnett, I do not remember ever to have heard.

Whatever may be its origin, the superstition is still, I will not say believed in, but sufficiently established to afford protection to the skull around which it clings ; an amusing instance of which I can relate. A former tenant of the farm once, in incredulity or in anger, threw the skull into a duck-pond opposite the house. A few mornings afterwards he was observed stealthily raking out the pond until he had fished up the skull, when it was returned to its old place in the house. It was said that Farmer G. had had a bad time of it during the interval and had been much disturbed by all kinds of noises!

Whether these noises were caused by any other agency than that of the bats, owls, &c., before mentioned, operating upon a conscience rendered unusually susceptible by such a terrible ” act of desecration,” this deponent knoweth not. Suffice it to say that there the skull rests in its accustomed place, there in the words of Macaulay

“To witness if I lie.”

And there may it long remain to attract and awe those visitors and lovers of folk-lore whose reverent feelings may lead them to make a pious pilgrimage to its shrine, but not, let us hope, to the annoyance of the “good woman of the house,” who must find it hard sometimes to retain her good nature under the many inquisitive and often irreverent remarks of her visitors.

I have recently endeavoured to turn these pilgrimages to some practical account ; and on my last visit to Bettiscombe before leaving Dorset I procured a ” Visitors’ Book,” on the fly-leaf of which I wrote the account of the history of the skull and its superstition as I had first heard it, and as it appeared in “Notes and Queries” some twenty years ago.

I further suggested to the good wife of the occupant of the farm (who was the churchwarden of the parish, which had little but the offerings of a very limited agricultural class to support its church) that a box should be kept in the hall for the purpose of obtaining contributions for the much-needed repairs on the church from such visitors as might be willing to make some slight return for the kindness with which they are invariably received und shown over the house.

After laying the “foundation coin” of this now charity I turned my back on the old house, feeling assured that its ” ghostly tenant ” would no longer pine for burial when by staying above ground it might afford the means of benefitting that church in whose soil it ought now to he resting.

I there added that in the Bridport News of September,1890, appeared some verses on “The Skull at Bettiscombe,” from a Lyme Regis correspondent, which afforded evidence that the writer was aware of the suggested black servant origin of the skull and of the story that it had at one time been thrown into the water. These lines, though not devoid of literary merit, were written in rather too jocular and flippant a vein for me to include them in my more serious collection of matters bearing on the subject. (Conf : an interesting parallel to this superstition amongst the natives of British New Guinea which I gathered from a Blue-Book on the affairs of that dependency (1899) and an account of which I sent to “Notes and Queries” (7th Series X., 461).

During a short holiday which I spent in England in 1906 I paid another visit to Bettiscombe, and found matters in much the same condition as when I was there last. The property, which had for some time parted from the possession of the Pinney family, had again recently changed hands, and another tenant acted as the custodian of the skull. This good lady, apparently for the convenience of her visitors, kept the skull safe from injury in a band-box, but the whole was kindly produced for my inspection; whilst I found that the old attics to which I had on my earlier visit reverently returned it were as ruinous and dangerous to traverse as ever Perhaps this was the reason for the change in the skull’s resting-place, but it had a depressing effect upon me though at this time I was aware, of course, of the greater interest that might justly be attributed to the skull in connection with my recent discoveries in the Island of Nevis, which will form the subject of the second part of this paper. I felt that the charm of the old associations had, for me, in great measure departed.

Matters, too, were not improved by finding that the object for which I had instituted the “Visitors’ Book” had evidently not been achieved. There were but few names in it, and I could only imagine that it must have been servants and not the village charities who had meanwhile benefitted by the largesse of the benevolent. May I hope that the opportunity of the skull doing some good whilst it does remain above ground may presently be recovered?

Part 2:  Nevis: The Story of the Skull and its Owners.

It must be seen from what has been said that considerable interest has always been attached to the person to whom the skull belonged, and that it has been generally accepted that it  had “belonged to a faithful black servant of an early possessor of the property a Pinney who, having resided abroad some years, brought home this memento of his humble follower.”

In my paper in the “Somerset and Dorset Notes and Queries,” it will be remembered that I had thrown some doubt as to the skull being of a negroid character at all; but the other is the more generally received opinion, and it is upon that being the correct one that the interest of this part of my story attaches.

In my capacity of Chief Justice of the Colony it is my duty to go on Circuit from time to time to the principal Presidencies constituting the Leeward Islands, and in February, 1903, I was on duty in Nevis. One day on passing through a sugar plantation there I by chance inquired its name, and was informed that it was called “Pinney’s” ; and further inquiry elicited the fact that until about a century ago it had belonged to a family of that name. The story of the Bettiscombe skull at once flashed across my memory, and I thought how strange and withal interesting it would be if I had come across the actual home or source of the legend!

A day or two later I was paying a visit to Fig Tree church in the same island to inspect the marriage register of the great Nelson and his widow-bride Mrs. Nisbet when, on entering the edifice, which had been restored a few decades ago, my attention was arrested by a handsome marble armorial slab inserted in the floor of the centre aisle, bearing a long Latin inscription in memory of John Pinney, only son and heir of Azariah Pinney. Both father and son were styled “Armiger.” The latter is stated to have been born on May 3rd,1686; to have served several high offices in the island, including that of Capitalis Judiciarius (Chief Justice) (all of which offices were, of course, abolished since, if not before, the federation of the Leeward Islands in 1871) ; to have married in 1708 one Mary Helme ; (These Holmes must have been connected with persons of that name in Gillingham, Co. Dorset, for in the Nevis ” Common Records,” Vol. II. (1740). is registered a Power of Attorney from Thomas Helme, of Gillingham, in the County of Dorset, Butcher, to John Frederick Pinney, Esq., and others in America (sic). and to have died on December 11th, 1720, leaving him surviving ” duos puerulos, filiolam unam,” which, genealogically speaking, means two sons and a daughter.

The old-fashioned name of “Azariah” Pinney at once struck me as familiar, and as peculiarly applicable to the many Puritans in West Dorset ; and a reference to my Hutchins’ “Dorset” on my return to Antigua told me that it was one of the family names borne by the old owners of Bettiscombe and Blackdown. The arms, too, engraved on the stone are the same as those mentioned by Hutchins as belonging to the Dorset Pinneys, namely, Gules: three crescents or, from each a cross-crosslet fitchee argent.

Here was indeed a find and a great help towards the theory that I was beginning to form as to how a black servant skull if a black servant it was could have got to Bettiscombe !

Hutchins (3rd Ed., Vol. II., p. 276 s.v. “Bettescombe”) states as follows :

”A farm here of about 150 per annum was leased to the Pinneys. Azariah Penney, Esq., built a handsome house here, and on his death was succeeded by his cousin, John Frederick Pinney, Esq., M.P. for Bridport. He died 1762, without issue, and his estate descended to his nephew, John Pretor, who assumed the name of Pinney and was Sheriff of this county, 1764.”

Further, a brass plate on the wall of Bettiscombe church gives (amongst others) the name of “Azariah Pynney of Nevis, Esq. (youngest son of John Pynney, of Bettiscombe, Clerk, sometime Vicar of Broad Windsor), Ob. 1719, age 58, buried in London.”

But how did Azariah Pinney come to be described as of Nevis? It is true that the result of the troubles which ensued between King and Parliament, and later, when religious factions became so intolerant and bitter, was that many estates in these new Colonies were granted out to English settlers, and that many emigrants came out to commence life anew in what was then a new world. But there was still another way. Before the great black expatriation began, so as to afford labour for the American and West Indian plantations, we hear of numbers of convicts being sent out from England to cultivate those plantations, the victims of harsh laws and harsher judges, the common respite from or alternative to execution. The Puritan name “Azariah” might almost have prepared one for the sequel, for no doubt could be felt upon which side he would be found in any conflict of creeds.

Accordingly one is not surprised to find the name of “Azarias Pinney, of Axminster,” occurring amongst those 251 persons who were convicted of high treason at Dorchester on September 16th, 1685, at the conclusion of the Monmouth rebellion, and who was sentenced by Judge Jeffreys to be executed at Bridport with twelve others, ” the sheriff to see execution done according to his orders.” It is interesting to note that amongst those who were sentenced as above, but as to whom neither place nor time of execution had been ordered ” all which were carried back to be kept in safe Custody till further Orders are taken for their disposal  “appears the name of ” John Pinney.” (See “A further account of the Proceedings against the Rebels in the West of England,” September llth, 1685. (Reprinted from a contemporary broad-sheet in the possession of Mr. A. M. Broadley in ” S. and D. N. and Q.,”  Vol. VIII., p. 226 (1903).

Whatever might have become of John Pinney it would seem from the above extract that the fate of Azarias Pinney was sealed and the death sentence carried out.

Montravers House, Nevis

Montravers House, Nevis © JSUdal/DCM

Shortly afterwards I mentioned the result of my discoveries to Miss Julia Huggins, an old lady who lives at “Montravers,” the mansion or big house of the sugar plantation of ” Pinneys ” and who is the sole surviving grand-daughter of Edward Huggins, who had purchased the estate, as already mentioned, about a century ago, from the Pinney family, who evinced great interest in the inquiry which I was making, and sent me later the following extract from a book entitled

”Under the Blue Flag, or the Monmouth Rebellion,” by Mary E. Palgrave:

“1688, James II.

“Azariah Pinney, to Mr. Jerome Nipho, who shipped him to Nevis to work on his plantation on board the ‘ Rose Pink.’

“A. Pinney was from Bettiscombe, nr. Lyme Regis.”

It would seem, therefore, as if the death sentence on Azariah Pinney had been commuted, for it was no uncommon thing. I believe, for judges in those days and for Judge Jeffreys in particular to make large sums of money by disposing of their convicts to persons who would send them to work on their plantations abroad. If this story from Miss Palgrave’s book be true it would account for the fact that an Azariah Pinney was living in Nevis at the end of the seventeenth century. But he must soon have emerged from the condition of a “white slave” in Nevis to that of a landowner and a landowner of some means to have been able to purchase a sugar estate containing a large number of acres, and to which he had, apparently, given his name. (Many estates in the West Indiett are to this day called after the names of their former owners.)

Hutchins states, as we have seen, that Azariah Pinney left his estate in Bettiscombe (he does not allude to the exodus to the West Indies, the story being apparently unknown to him) on his death to his cousin, John Frederick Pinney, M.P. for Bridport, who, dying in 1762, left it again to his nephew (it should be cousin), John Pretor, who assumed the name of Pinney and was sheriff of Dorset in 1764.

But the identification of this Azariah Penney of Hutchins with Azariah Pinney of Nevis is very convincing to my mind. I am in possession of evidence obtained in Nevis that estates
there became the property of this John Frederick Pinney, which, on his death in 1762, passed to a John Pinney, who came out to Nevis in 1764, the date Hutchins gives as that of his shrievalty of Dorset, and whose son, John Frederick (the second), parted with the Nevis estates to Edward Huggins, of Nevis, in 1810 or 1811.

In an old “Plantation Book,” kindly lent to me whilst I was in Nevis by Miss Huggins, appears an inventory of slaves and other chattels taken from time to time belonging to the Pinney Estates in the parish of St. Thomas, Lowlands, in the Island of Nevis. He gives a list of those slaves born since the death of John Frederick Pinney, Esq., who died November 2nd, 1762, and who were living on the 23rd of June, 1793, consisting of about 40 boys and girls. At the same date (1783) occurs a list of black “and other slaves” (!) purchased by John Pinney, and now living, since his first arrival in Nevis, December the 23rd, 1764. Then follow the names of these new purchases in 1765-7, amongst which occur the names of  “Weymouth,” ”Bridport,” and if anything further was necessary to show where their owner John Pinney came from “Bettiscombe” !

This John Pinney could be, of course, no other than John Pretor,(This is corroborated by a copy of a letter (110 date) which appears at the end of the above-mentioned ” Plantation Book,” evidently written from one member of the Pinney family to another, in which mention is made of ” our uncle Pretor,” and invoking the assistance of ” Mr. Nelson ” towards obtaining some appointment which the writer desired.) who assumed the name of Pinney, as stated by Hutchins, on succeeding to the estates of his cousin, John Frederick Pinney, M.P. for Bridport, in 1762. That he was living in 1795 is evident from the fact that the ” Plantation Book ” records a list of slaves who in that year were conveyed by him to his son, John Frederick Pinney, whilst there also occurs a list of those retained. This second John Frederick Pinney would seem, however, to have presently parted with the Nevis estates, for I find in the same book ” a list of slaves on the estate of the late John Pinney, Esq., purchased by and now belonging to Edward Huggins, taken on the 1st of January, 1811,” the period at which, no doubt, the estates also passed into the hands of Mr. Huggins, whose sole surviving grand-daughter, whom I have already mentioned, still occupies the old and roomy house at Montravers (where some of the old mahogany furniture may still be found; Miss Huggins has kindly sent me a couple of old leaves from the “Plantation Book ” upon which an inventory of the furniture, taken in the year 1794, has been made. It is surprising to see what a quantity of handsome furniture the well-to-do sugar planters of the West Indies must have had out there in those days, though there is very little of it to be found out there now. Miss Huggins tells me that it appears that it was intended to take the inventory in  1783, but it was not done ; and she alludes to the fact that a picture of Azariah Pinney mentioned therein had been taken away by a Miss Weekes, and says what I endorse ” a pity she did not leave it ! ” No doubt this lady was a relation of the family, as John Pinney (Pretor) had in 1742 married Jane, a daughter of W. B. Weekes, of Nevis.

"Old Slave Dungeons" Montravers, Nevis

“Old Slave Dungeons” Montravers, Nevis © JSUdal/DCM

Probably this was done when the Pinneys left Nevis for good and settled in England. Is nothing known of this portrait amongst the Pinneys of Somerton Erleigh, in Somerset?), picturesquely terraced by lichen-covered and moss-grown steps flanked by old iron railings, with the solidly-built stone “slave-dungeon” long disused, a little to one side below the house ; whilst the old-fashioned entrance-hall has many features of the “Chippendale period” in it, as shown by its old mahogany cupboards on the walls. From here, through the arch-way, may be seen the quaint old garden, now somewhat over-grown, perhaps, but restful and charming, in which many rare and beautiful tropical trees and shrubs are still growing in profusion, notably the “King” and “Queen” of flowers, the blossoms of the former being pink, and the latter a bluish-mauve colour, slightly darker, perhaps, than our Dorset “corn-cockle.” The all-spice trees, too, with their dark green leaves, are beautiful to look upon, so tall and straight ; whilst the kind-hearted old lady does not forget to provide food in her garden for her and my dear friends, the monkeys (the pretty West African “green monkeys,” Cercopithecus calletrichus, which must have come there with the slaves in the old days, who make many audacious trespasses from the neighbouring and wooded “Peak” mountain (The “Peak” is the highest mountain in Nevis some 3,000ft. to 4,000ft. in height, and on the top extends a huge extinct crater which looks quite capable of repeating the disaster which its fellow, Mont Pele, brought upon St. Pierre, in the adjacent island of Martinique, in May, 1902. The summit is nearly always capped with light, fleecy clouds, which no doubt was the reason for the name given to it by Columbus when he discovered these islands in 1493,) to feed upon the luscious plums which grow there the “Trinidad” or “Governor” plum, and the “Java” plum, which latter, I am told, disappeared after the last hurricane to say nothing of the oranges, which are here of a particularly sweet and delicious flavour. Near the centre of the garden stands an old drip-stone, an obelisk in shape, which formed and in many places does so still the sole West Indian filter.

Pleasanter quarters these than Dorchester gaol for an ex-convict of the Monmouth rebellion, well may we exclaim! But was the Azariah Pinney mentioned by Hutchins and who returned from Nevis evidently a prosperous man (That Azariah Pinney was well-established in business in Nevis may be gathered from the Court records in that island, amongst which may be found a certificate of purchase to Azariah Pinney and Richard Meriwether, of London, merchant planters, of land formerly of Robert Lorey, containing 20 acres, in satisfaction of a certain judgment dated 2nd May, 1710 (?). Two Powers of Attorney from merchants in London to Mr. Azariah Pinney of Nevis, merchant, dated 20th December, 1714, and 25th October, 1715 respectively, are also recorded. I have recently (1909) been perusing some very fragile old papers, temp: Queen Anne and George I., sent me by Miss Huggins, in which Azariah Pinney is referred to one dated 26th May, 1719 (the year of his death), conveying an estate in Gingerland, Nevis, to him to secure the advance of 1,000.) , and who, it is said, died in 1710 and was “buried in London,” the same person as the “Azarias Pinney, of Axminster,” sentenced to be executed at Bridport by Judge Jeffreys in September, 1685? Is it a fact that after that clear sentence and place of execution named, he was respited and shipped to Nevis? I should have thought that it would be very unusual for any person sent out under such circumstances not only to obtain his freedom so soon, but to amass money or estates. What authority had Miss Palgrave for the statement that Azariah Pinney (“from Bettiscomb”) was transported to Nevis in 1688, as the above extract from her book would infer? Is this date not a mistake for 1685? At that time these doubts appeared so serious to me that I asked the question whether there must not have been two Azariah Pinneys, one” of Axminster,” sentenced by Jeffreys and executed at Bridport in 1685 and the other, “from Bettiscomb,” shipped to Nevis in 1688 (1685 ?) as stated by Miss Palgrave ? But the coincidences were almost too startling to credit this. One thing, however, was certain that Azariah Pinney of Nevis, who died in 1719 and whose tablet is in Bettiscombe church, could not have been the Azariah Pinney who, as Hutchins states, restored the old manor-house at Bettiscombe and died in 1760. Fortunately for me, a few months later (December, 1903) in the same periodical,

Mr. Vere Langford Oliver (recently elected a member of this club), who is well known in my part of the West Indies as the author of an important work “The History of Antigua” in three volume (1894-1899) containing the genealogies of numerous families in the Leeward Islands, was able to give me some most interesting and valuable information, consisting of extracts from wills and other documents which he had obtained in his researches relating to the families of these Islands. To that same number of the ” S. and D. Notes and Queries,” curiously enough, Mr. Oliver had contributed certain particulars relating to the “Monmouth Rebels” and had referred to Hotten’s ” Original List of Emigrants ” (1874), by which we learn that very few of these rebels seemed to have suffered the death penalty. They were mostly young and able-bodied men of the agricultural class, and the King’s clemency was extended to them on condition that they were transported to the plantations to serve for ten years. The Island of Barbadoes, at that period the wealthiest and most important British West Indian Colony, seemed to have procured most of them. These white servants were not necessarily sold to the highest bidder, but were allotted to such estates as were deficient, and there were special Colonial Laws passed for their proper treatment. They had to serve in the Militia, and were generally occupied in various responsible posts connected with the cultivation of the sugar plantations. Such of them as were educated and had friends no doubt did not serve their full time, and as soon as they were free obtained grants of land and became merchants and planters.

From the foregoing it will be seen that the question to whom the skull at Bettiscombe belonged has now become merged in the more interesting inquiry what became of “Azarias Pinney, of Axminster,” who took part in the Monmouth rebellion? From the information furnished by Mr. Oliver it is now made clear that there were two Azariah Pinneys ; one, the Monmouth rebel, son of the non-conforming minister, the Rev. John Pinney, of Bettiscombe (who was succeeded in his living in the neighbouring parish of Broadwinsor by the famous Thomas Fuller), born circa 1661 probably at Bettiscombe or Broadwinsor and who was respited and shipped to” Nevis, whence, returning to London, he died and was buried there in 1719 ; the other, his nephew, Azariah Pinney, of Bettiscombe (who I take to be the son of his sole surviving and elder brother Nathaniel, who married Naomi Gay, and who had, apparently, steered clear of the perils and attractions of the Monmouth rising), and died, or rather his will was proved, in 1760.

That the respite from execution which enabled this to be effected was not unlikely, notwithstanding the explicit orders given by Judge Jeffreys for his execution at Bridport, we know, when we consider how, contrary to popular belief, perhaps, comparatively very few of these convicts actually suffered the death penalty. The remarks of Mr. Oliver on this subject are very interesting; and the West Indies, and especially Barbados, would seem to have benefitted largely by these respites.

Mr. Jerome Nipho, or Nepho, would appear to be one of the largest consignees of these unfortunates, and must have done very well for himself out of their disposal. This Nipho, as we learn from a note on page 393 of Mr. Allan Fea’s “King Monmouth” (1902), was Secretary to Mary of Modena, Queen Consort of James II. ; and it was through him, as we now learn, that Azariah Pinney escaped with his life. Mr. Oliver, therefore, confirms Miss Palgrave’s statement, so far at all events as that he was respited from execution and disposed of to Nipho. But, apparently, one George Penn, or Penne, seems to have secured the ransom for Azariah Pinney from Nipho for the sum of 65, and Mr. Oliver gives interesting particulars as to this taken from the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1851. The entry showing this, taken from some old Pinney accounts, is very curious and will bear reproducing:

Bristoll, Sep. 1685.

” Mr. John Pinney is debitor to money pd Geo. Penne,
” Esq. for the ransome of my Bror Aza ; August 1685, £65.”

So far as I know Azariah had no brother named John then living, though Mr. Oliver tells me that there was a John Pinney, possibly an elder half-brother, living at Bristol in 1685, and surely it was only in September that he was tried and convicted in Dorchester. As Mr. Oliver observes, this John Pinney can hardly be identical with the John Pinney, or Penny, in Dorchester gaol in Sept. 1685. This latter, possibly a relation of Azariah and already alluded to by me (pp. 310-313), was, we learn from Mr. Oliver (p. 344), also respited, put on board the “Happy Returne” at Weymouth, and was sold on arrival at Barbados to Capt. George Perwight before the 8th of the following January. I wonder if there are any records of his future life or descendants in Barbados; but I imagine that he had not the same opportunities allowed him of doing so well for himself as Azariah had in Nevis.

This matter of the respite of Azariah Pinney is further alluded to in H. B. Irvings’ recent ” Life of Judge Jeffreys ” (1898), p. 307, where he mentions that ” Mr. Prideaux was given to Jeffreys, as Azariah Primly (Pinney) was given to Mr. Nepho, and the Taunton maid to the Queen’s maids of honour, that is to say as a prisoner, whose friends could ransom him by paying the money to the person to whom he had been ‘ given.’ ‘

Azariah Pinney, of Nevis, we may take it then, was the founder of the family fortunes in the West Indies, and having attained to some influence in Nevis probably purchased the estates which afterwards bore his name, (What is now known as ” Pinney’s Estate,” was, I am informed, formerly known as “Sharlows ” or ” Charloe’s ” the name, probably, of a former possessor of the property and which were sold by the representative of the family and then owner of those estates to the Huggins family about a century ago, as I have already mentioned.

Mr. Oliver’s extracts from the will made in 1718 by Azariah Pinney, of Nevis, described therein as a merchant, show that he left a widow, Mary, and an only son, who was appointed sole executor. Substantial legacies were given to his grandson, George William Pinney, at 21, and to his grand-daughter Sophia at 18, and a smaller one to his nephew, Azariah Pinney, of Bettiscombe. These two grand-children were, of course, two of the three surviving children left by the testator’s only son, John Pinney, whose monumental slab exists in Fig Tree Church, Nevis, already mentioned by me (in my former paper), and who is there described (in Latin) as having been born on May 3rd, 1686, and as having died on December 11th, 1720. The date of John’s birth as here recorded gives rise to rather interesting considerations. Did Mary, the wife of Azariah Pinney, accompany her husband to Nevis on his restoration to comparative freedom? Who was she?

According to the monumental inscription in Fig Tree Church there appears to have been another son of this John surviving him; and from the will of John Pinney’s widow Mary (nee Helme), we learn that this son was John Frederick Pinney, then described as her only son, to whom she left everything ; her other children (the two legatees under their grandfather Azariah’s will) being evidently then dead. This will was proved in London by John Frederick Pinney, only son and executor, in 1735. John Pinney, the father, seems to have died before proving his father Azariah’s will, or having made one himself, and eventually administration to both estates was taken out by John Frederick Pinney, the grandson, in 1742.

This John Frederick Pinney was then the sole lineal descendant of Azariah Pinney, of Bettiscombe, nephew of the Azariah Pinney, of Nevis, and heir to all the West Indian properties. But he was also to become the heir to the English family property as well under the will (made in 1758) of his cousin Azariah Pinney, of Bettiscombe, nephew of Azariah Pinney, of Nevis, who, although he does not seem to have possessed any West Indian estates himself, was evidently a man of means, and rebuilt the old house at Bettiscombe. He appears to have been married, for he expresses a desire in his will to be buried with his late wife in Wayford ; but he does not appear to have left any issue.

He left all his estates in strict entail to the above-mentioned John Frederick Pinney, his cousin; with remainder to John Pinney, of Herwood, Thorncombe ; remainder to John Pretor, son of Michael Pretor, deceased, on his taking the name and arms of Pinney. The will was proved by John Frederick Pinney in June, 1760, then M.P. for Bridport. And so it was, as Mr. Oliver observes, that the younger branch of the family settled in Nevis, and eventually inherited the Bettiscombe property on the extinction of the heirs in the elder line.

But this branch now, too, fails in direct issue, for according to Hutchins, John Frederick Pinney died without issue in 1762 and his estates descended to his second-cousin, the above-mentioned Pretor, afterwards high sheriff of Dorset (1764), who took the name and arms of Pinney. This statement as to the failure of issue is borne out by the extract
furnished by Mr. Oliver from the will of John Frederick Pinney (made in 1761), who is described as of Bettiscombe, and was apparently unmarried. He left all his estates in
Nevis and in England to John Pretor, following the devise in his cousin Azariah’s will, with additional remainders over. This will is proved in 1762 by John Pretor (Pinney). So that this John Pretor may be said to have succeeded to the family property under both wills. And here the Nevis blood also, notwithstanding the seven children of John Pinney (who died aged only 34), expired with his last surviving son, John Frederick Pinney, for I take it that the Pretors (a Dorset name) were not connected through any Nevis member of
the family.

And so the history of the family as unfolded by the “Plantation Books” on the estate in Nevis appears drawing to a close as the period connected with the history of the Bettiscombe skull begins to dawn.

John Pinney (Pretor) who pays a visit to Nevis in 1764 settles in 1765 certain of his estates and a portion of his slaves on his son John Frederick (the second), and the two of them disposed of the estates in Nevis bearing their name, as I have already stated, to Edward Huggins in 1811.

Apparently it was not long after the disposal of these estates to the Huggins family that the last of the Pinneys removed from Nevis, for I find, in looking over an old abstract of title which comprises these later dealings, traces of a desire to dispose of their remaining property and business in the Island and to retire to the old country. This they eventually did.

John Pinney, who had married Jane Weekes, of Nevis, died on January 23rd, 1818, and from the recital of a marriage settlement executed in 1801, we learn that the name of John Frederick’s wife was Frances. Under the will of John Pinney, John Frederick Pinney, Charles Pinney, and the widow Jane were appointed executors, and John Frederick Pinney also residuary legatee. This Charles would appear to be a younger son of John Pinney (Pretor), and to be engaged in business with his elder brother, John Frederick. It is believed that having left the West Indies they retired to Bristol, and set up as merchants there. Miss Huggins indeed tells me that both John Frederick and Charles did so first one and then the other both in her father’s life-time. At all events the last document I can find in Nevis with which they are connected was in 1830, and which, apparently, disposed of the remaining Pinney lands to the Huggins family. In this document John Frederick is described as the eldest son and heir of John Pinney, deceased.

But it may interest my readers to learn that this Charles Pinney, who about this time was Mayor of Bristol, was the hero of a very interesting law case Rex v. Charles Pinney, Esquire an account of which is to be found in the third volume of “Barnewall and Adolphus’s Reports” (1832), p. 947, and which I came across quite accidentally. In this case, Charles Pinney was charged, on an information filed by H.M.’s Attorney General, with neglect of duty in not having, as Mayor of Bristol, taken proper steps to suppress a riot in that city in October, 1831, during which the mob attacked and burnt the Bridewell, partly destroyed the Bishop’s Palace, demolished the Customs House, and burnt several other institutions and houses. The case was tried at bar in the King’s Bench at Westminster by a special jury of the county of Berks. The trial began on October 25th, 1832, and lasted seven days, and ended, after an elaborate summing-up by Littledale, J., in the acquittal of the defendant. Eminent counsel were engaged on both sides. The case was further interesting from the fact that after a day or two Lord Tenterden, C.J., was obliged to discontinue his attendance through illness, under which he had for some time been labouring, and which in a few days terminated fatally.

This brings me down to modern history, and to a time not long after, I should say, the skull must have taken up its abode at Bettiscombe, so that I will not attempt to trespass further upon private family history. But I should be glad if any later member of the Pinney family could say when the occupation of the old home at Bettiscombe was given up (I have said that for many years it had been let as a farmhouse, Colonel Reginald Pinney, a direct descendant of John (Pretor) Pinney, and now re.siding at Broadwindsor, Dorset, has recently informed me that the Pinneys lost Bettiscombe by not renewing the lease with the Brownes of Frampton, Dorset. John Frederick Pinney had quarrelled with the owner of Frampton at that time, and neither would nominate a life (the tenure being lifehold), so, on the death of John Frederick Pinney, the manor reverted to the survivor Browne. In the meantime, Azariah and his cousin, John Frederick Pinney, had built Racedown Lodge, in the parish of Thorncombe (the future home of Wordsworth, the poet), so their successor John (Pretor) Pinney removed to this place). or when the skull is first known to have made its appearance there.

It will have been noticed that two members of the family were concerned in the Monmouth Rebellion, Azariah and John. This circumstance, and the transportation to the West Indies, are confirmed by a letter that I recently received from the before-mentioned old Dorset lady to whom I had written, telling her of the result of my visit to Nevis. She writes to me : “It confirms a lot of the old legend, and that the son who did return brought his own black servant and the skull of the servant of his dead brother. It used to be said that these brothers were sent to Jamaica for work instead of being butchered after the Monmouth Rebellion.” But this is a variant of the legend of which I was not previously aware. Nevertheless, how the terrible results of the great tragedy seemed to linger in the memory of the people of the West!

Before I finish I should like to be allowed to give one more small yet pathetic incident which may fittingly close all reference to Azariah Pinney “the Monmouth Rebel.”

Considerable alterations had been made, as was only to be expected, in the old house at Montravers since Azariah’s time, in particular, the addition by Mr. Huggins of a spacious stone wing, which bears the marks of an incomplete finish, the result, probably, of that depression in the sugar-cane industry which has caused so many of the old estates (Pinney’s amongst the number) to pass into the hands of English West Indian merchants and ” advancers.” On one occasion the old dining-room the building being mostly of wood was being pulled down, and Miss Huggins told me that she remembered as a child this being done, and that as the workmen were ripping a board from the ceiled partition under one of the windows out fell a soldier’s coat, with all the buttons scattered on the floor ! Wonder and amazement were expressed by all that the coat had been built up in that way, but the matter has always remained a mystery. An inquiry from me could elicit nothing more than that ‘ ‘ it was certainly a soldier’s red coat,” and that Miss Huggins believed that the buttons were of silver or brass, but much blackened or tarnished; nothing of either had been retained. The question naturally arises, whose coat could this have been? The answer as naturally suggests that it was Azariah Pinney’s uniform which he wore at Sedgmoor it is very unlikely that he was actually captured in the fight and which was either taken out with him to Nevis then to some extent a free man or, more probably perhaps, had been sent out to him there when times had become less troublous. Otherwise, what was the occasion for hiding it? This would hardly have been the case had it formed the uniform of a local Defence Force, raised to meet the Frenchman when he came prowling round those coasts, what time Nelson came courting his widow-bride in Nevis in H.M.S. Boreas (Mr. Oliver refers iu an extract from the ” Minutes of Council of Nevia for 1693,” to ” Lieut.” Azariah Pinney being chosen one of the two Commissioners to assess Charles Town) It is a pity that not even one of the buttons has been preserved so as to show whether there remained upon it aught of the Duke’s cypher, or other badge by which its identity could have been established. Yet it is not a very wide conjecture to imagine that this faded old coat with tarnished buttons was all that was left as a memorial of the youthful ardour and zealous faith of this follower of the “Protestant Duke,” put away when Azariah Pinney came home to die, and forgotten during that century and a half until it came upon the astonished gaze of those from whom all knowledge of the history of the exile had long since passed away.

So far, then, no additional light has been thrown on the history of the skull, or as to which member of the Pinney family brought the skull to Bettiscombe. Was it John Pinney (Pretor) and what time he, in conjunction with his son, John Frederick (the second), disposed of the estates a century ago, and returned, we may presume, to end his days in England?

If so, may not one’s imagination easily lead one to believe that it was the skull of old “Bettiscombe,” the slave purchased by him in 1765 (who at that time, after many years
of faithful service, was undoubtedly dead, for his name no longer appeared in the last list of slaves entered in the ” Plantation Book”), taken by his old master with him to the very place, indeed, from which his trusty servant had taken his name, as “a memento of his humble follower ! ” If this be so, one can understand the history of the legend better, and the motive that prompted the home-bringing of the now famous skull. The rest is easy for the simple country folk to weave, and is, at the best, a form of superstition, as I have said, by no means confined to West Dorset.

In conclusion, let me say that though I may be wrong in many of my surmises and deductions I do not think that it is often given to one, in trying to penetrate the uncertainty and myth that surround the investigation of so many of our local superstitions and pieces of folk-lore, to come across, as I have, so many minor items of interest connected with an event that appeals so strongly to West of England folk as the Monmouth Rebellion. Whether I have been as successful in tracing the history of the Bettiscombe skull as I have been lengthy in suggesting its connection with that period of English history, I must leave my readers to judge, but I am very much afraid that their patience, as well as my subject, has at length been exhausted.

P.S. I append a rough pedigree of the Pinney family connected with Nevis, constructed from such materials as I had before me, which may be of some service to my readers.

Pedigree of the Pinney Family of Nevis

Pedigree of the Pinney Family of Nevis [Click image to enlarge]


Since writing the above, I have been referred to George Roberts’s “Life of the Duke of Monmouth ” (1844), from the second volume of which I have made the following ext acts relative to the subject matter of my paper

Mr. Roberts says (p. 237):

“The desire to procure white labour for the plantations in the West India Islands, instead of the black slaves, was very great in this country. The sugar trade flourished at the close of this reign in a remarkable degree. Extreme cupidity was displayed in order to get hold of parties to send out. …….At a time when courtiers, favourites, and soldiers were rewarded by having condemned prisoners given to them as a present, the value of a man for working in the plantations was soon ascertained, and great was the scramble for the booty. This was the case with respect to the Monmouth men who it was intended should be executed. Let it not be supposed that transportation to the West India Islands for ten years was a punishment of absence alone from their homes a very severe punishment of itself. Those who had purchased or laid out money to procure convicts did so for the sake and with the expectation of profit ; they became the absolute masters of the recent slaves, and could only be repaid by the sale of individuals or from the result of their labour…………”

“These persons became either in reality slaves or banished persons, according to their circumstances. Of so great a number my researches have only slightly developed the history of four individuals.”

One of these fortunately happened to be Azariah Pinney, of whom Mr. Roberts gives (p. 243) the following account, the materials for which, he states in a foot-note, were derived from letters supplied to him by a member of the family then living at Somerton House, Somerset :

“Mr. Azariah Pinney having been sentenced to death for high treason, was pardoned and given to Jerome Nipho, Esq. Rich and poor were alike given to some individual for his benefit, as shown in the preceding list of prisoners to be transported, and were conveyed to Bristol. Mr. A. Pinney’s destination was the Island of Nevis. His father clearly refers to this as a matter of choice, and would, had he been consulted, have advised about it. He parted with a wife and child, and proceeded at the age of 24 years to his place of banishment. Mr. A. Pinney soon ceased to be a slave

Mr. Azariah Pinney sailed in the “Rose Pink” Captain Wogan and soon experienced the evils of shipwreck and fever. In one of his father’s account books £117 3s. is entered for expenses to send him away to Nevis.

The banished gentleman had to pay ten days’ expenses at Bristol. He visited London and York before sailing. Mr. Azariah Pinney kept a diary, now lost, for his son’s information and improvement. He became a nourishing man, and his son was eventually Chief Justice of Nevis. Still his letters have complaints of storms, hurricanes, earthquakes, and a ruinous invasion of the French.”

From the kindness of Colonel Reginald Pinney I am able to give an extract from the will of the Rev. John Pinney, of Bettiscombe, dated April 10th, 1702, which refers to the Monmouth Rebel and his son John :

“I give to my son Azariah fifty pounds sterl., one feather bed one bedstead and furniture for it, if he shall live to return unto England. I also do acquit him of all debts owing to me, and to his son John. I do give all my books and manuscripts provided he be consecrated and employed in the ministry.”

From what I have said we know that Azariah’s son preferred the law as a profession and eventually became Chief Justice of Nevis, and here he died and was buried in 1720.

Related Sources:

  • Dorset County Museum: Haunted Objects – The Waddon Skull

Extract taken from “A Book of Folklore” by Sabine Baring-Gould, 1913.

The Waddon Skull

The Waddon Skull © DCM

“There was a “screaming skull” at Waddon, in Dorsetshire, about fifty years ago, kept respectfully in a recess on the stairs; but as it was liable to be fractious and cause disturbances in the house, it was given to the Dorchester Museum, where it now is. The story about it is that it was the head of a black servant, and it bore on it the mark, of a cut from a sword. The servant went to his master’s room at night, and the latter, believing him to be a burglar, killed him by mistake. He was killed in the bedroom over the dining room. The owners of Waddon were the Grove family of Zeals, in Wiltshire. When Miss Chafyn Grove died some years ago, her cousin, Mr Troyte Bullock, inherited, but with the property had to take the name of Chafyn Grove.

A few miles distant from Waddon is Bettiscombe. Here also is a “screaming skull”. The house was rebuilt in Queen Anne’s reign, but the richly carved wainscoting and fine old oak stairs pertain to the earlier house that was pulled down when the present mansion was built. This was done by Azariah Pinney, who had joined Monmouth’s forces, and was exiled to the West Indies, he being one of those who escaped sentence of death by Judge Jeffreys at the “Bloody Assizes”, held at Dorchester, after the Rebellion. His life was spared through the influence of a friend at the Court of James II. He remained in the West Indies for a period of ten years, and then returned with a black servant, to whom he was much attached; and then the man died; but whether the skull be his, or, if so, why it was preserved above ground, none can say. It would seem probable, however, that it was taken along with the wainscoting out of the earlier house.”


  • Further analysis of the Bettiscombe Skull and the Waddon Skull can be found in the Proceedings of the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society Volume 119, 1997 : A tale of two skulls: superstition in Dorset at Waddon and Bettiscombe’ by MS Ross and Linda O’Connell, pp51-58