Wednesday Weirdness: Folklore Roots for The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Ghostly hounds always go down well here at The Witch, The Weird, and The Wonderful, and today I welcome Mark Norman to talk about possible folklore roots for one of Sherlock Holmes’ most well-known cases.


The phenomena of the Black Dog – apparitions of spectral hounds – are most prevalent in the UK, although they are a worldwide tradition. Despite there being almost 1,000 years worth of sightings to draw on (the earliest recorded report in the UK being probably that cited in the Anglo Saxon chronicle in 1127) it is an area of folklore about which many people are not overly familiar. The most popular appearance of the motif is arguably in the Sherlock Holmes novel The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Oddly enough, the Hound is not typical but quite exceptional to the usual run of such creatures. No family hound chases the head of the house to his death, that is quite certain, and so the Hound is not based directly upon any known prototype in Devon or elsewhere. However, the development of the legend in a fictional form is of great interest, since legends in general sometimes come to birth by a similar mental process.

The Hound of the Baskervilleswas published in serial form in the Strand Magazine between August 1901 and April 1902. John Dickson Carr, in his Life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, tells us that in March 1901 Doyle was in a low state of health and went down to Cromer for four days, accompanied by his friend Fletcher Robinson. The weather was bad, and on the Sunday they stayed in their sitting room and Fletcher Robinson entertained Doyle with “legends of Dartmoor, the atmosphere of Dartmoor. In particular his companion’s imagination was kindled by the story of a spectral hound.” And so the idea for a plot was born. Fletcher Robinson’s family lived at Ipplepen in South Devon. In a few days only, April 2nd, Doyle was staying at Princetown exploring the moor for himself. He went to view Fox Tor Mire and this was to become Grimpen Mire in the story.

At some early period Doyle went to Ipplepen to stay with the Robinsons, and was met at the station by a smart young coachman called Harry Baskerville, descendent of a family that had once owned two manors locally but had fallen on hard times. Doyle was impressed by the name and asked to be allowed to adopt it. Harry Baskerville drove Doyle about to further sites, which in old age he named for a reporter. However, no hint has ever been brought as to the identity of the spectral hound apparently known to Fletcher. There are many vague stories of hounds on the edges of Dartmoor, the best known probably being that of Lady Howard of nearby Tavistock.

Another possible source could be that of the legend of the Demon of Spreyton, this being located on the fringe of Dartmoor National Park, although the mention of the Black Dog in this is a relatively small part of the story. The events took place in Spreyton in 1682 and were recorded in a wonderfully named pamphlet of the time, “A Narrative of the Demon of Spraiton. In a Letter from a Person of Quality in the County of Devon, to a Gentleman in London, with a Relation of an Apparition or Spectrum of an Ancient Gentleman of Devon who often appeared to his Son’s Servant. With the Strange Actions and Discourses happening between them at divers times. As likewise, the Demon of an Ancient Woman, Wife of the Gentleman aforesaid. With unparalell’d varieties of strange Exploits performed by her: Attested under the Hands of the said Person of Quality, and likewise a Reverend Divine of the said County. With Reflections on Drollery and Atheism, and a Word to those that deny the Existence of Spirits.” You wonder if the contents of the pamphlet were as lengthy as the title!

In summary, the Demon of Spreyton was a series of poltergeist-type events where the second wife of Philip Furze of that Parish infested the house, tearing clothes and moving household items. Reading the full account it is obvious that the happenings were all down to the young servant, Francis Fey, who related the incident. But in the course of these events it is reported in the pamphlet that the spirit of the woman appeared in various forms, including “a dog, belching fire”.

It is curious that no one enquired about the origin of Conan Doyle’s Hound at the time of publication, nor can members of the Sherlock Holmes Club throw any light on the problem for certain. One member, Dr Morris Campbell, wrote a paper claiming it is the Black Dog of Hergest in Herefordshire. The family was that of Vaughan, related by marriage to the Baskervilles on an adjoining estate. However, the Hergest creature has no features in common with Doyle’s Hound.

Hergest Court

The Black Dog of Hergest is associated with “Black Vaughan” who was killed at the Battle of Banbury in 1469. There are two versions of the story. In the first, Vaughan is said to have returned and appeared in various forms such as a fly and a bull until he was exorcised. Campbell states that Vaughan upset farmers’ carts and the like. He was reduced in size, stage by stage, until he could be shut in a snuff box. This was buried in the bottom of Hergest Pool in a wood, with a big stone on top, and so he was bound for a thousand years.

In the second version, Vaughan is supposed to have been accompanied in life by a demon dog. This haunts Hergest Court, and is seen before a death in the Vaughan family. Also, he inhabits a room at the top of the house and can be heard clanking his chain. He is also seen wandering, minus the chain, particularly in the vicinity of a pond, the “watering place” on the high road from Kington. The dog is supposed to have been seen by many people, according to a witness recounting in 1909.

It is said that the ghost was believed in by all the people of Kington. Citing A.R. Williams from the 1927 edition of Word-lore, Robert Tyley writes:

“A neighbour told my uncle that on a moonlight night he was crossing the Arrow by the bridge below the Court and distinctly saw a huge black hound walking in front of him, but beyond the bridge the beast was not.

The Pool was also feared. In the 1700s and earlier many awful things happened to passers-by: horses bolted and threw their riders, riders were found unconscious. Stories always told that ‘something’ had emerged from the Pond and chased them. Whatever it was, accidents were frequent.

There had been an enquiry into the identity of the ghost which identified it as a “Father Vaughan”, of wicked life, who had lived at the Court. Thirteen priests assembled in Presteign Church to try and deal with the spirit. They formed a circle and lit candles and invoked the wicked spirit to appear. In the centre of the circle they had ready a small iron box. When the spirit came twelve of the priests fainted, and their candles were doused. One stood firm and though his candle burnt blue, he conjured the spirit into the box, which he at once locked. Then it was thrown into the Pond.

Many years later, a foreign owner of Hergest Court drained the Pond. The box was found in the sludge and opened. The same troubles as before began to happen again until a further gathering of parsons at Kington Church laid the ghost under a huge oak in the grounds of Hergest Court for sixty years.”

It is tempting to ask whether the coachman, Harry Baskerville, was distantly related to the Herefordshire family. There was a real Hound of the Baskervilles, reflected in the family crest, but it was a friendly one. It does not terrorise or chase the head of its house – indeed nor does any other family dog in England. Apart from the name there is really nothing to connect the Hergest dog with the Dartmoor Baskerville hound.

There is a stronger possibility for the original of Conan Doyle’s beast which was suggested by a writer in Devon and Cornwall Notes and Queries. Ipplepen, where Fletcher Robinson lived, is not very far from Buckfastleigh, on the edge of Dartmoor. The parish runs up the great slopes northward, and these are scored by long, deep, narrow valleys, cut by the streams hurtling down to join the River Dart on the in-country. Tucked away in these remote areas are mysterious little old farms, manors and cottages. One of these is Brooke, where Richard Capel (or Cabell, spellings vary from report to report) lived and died in 1677. Local tradition credits him with a reputation not unlike that of “Black Hugo” in the novel, though no details are given. His death was said to be suitably unpleasant for a hunter of village maidens: he was chased across the moor by the whisht hounds until he dropped dead.

Another version of the story says that as he lay dying in his house, whisht hounds bayed outside. If we accept the last, then it could be seen to be a death warning as is found in many families. But if we accept the former, then this is a local story that Robinson may well have known and passed on. The equation of pack and single hound occurs commonly in folklore.

In 1972 Cecil Williamson, recognised as one of the founders of modern British witchcraft as well as being responsible for amassing much of the collection housed by the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, Cornwall, visited the churchyard at Buckfastleigh. Whilst there he saw a dog which he described as being quite substantial looking, but when he tried to touch it he found that his hand passed straight through.

There is a postscript to the legend which is worth repeating. The remains of Buckfastleigh church, which was almost completely destroyed by fire in an act of vandalism in July 1992, are perched on the top of the hill overlooking the village. It is here that Squire Capel is buried outside the south door in an altar tomb. It is said that the parish were in a quandry about how to bury such an evil man in such a manner that his brutal spirit would not rise up and continue to plague them. Finally they buried him deeply with a heavy stone on his head. They piled the large altar tomb over his grave and then constructed what appears to be a symbolic prison to contain the tomb. It is solidly built, with a wide iron grill on the side facing the church, and on the opposite side is a strong wooden door with a locked keyhole. Young boys used to dare each other to walk clockwise around the building thirteen times and insert a little finger into the keyhole, which the prisoner would then gnaw at the tip. This is an example of a typical playground ghost-type game in the same vein as Bloody Mary or, following the film of the same name, Candyman.

There are, as is plain, some small parallels between the Hergest and Buckfast legends but this is not uncommon in folklore as stories develop over time and become attached to differing locations from a common root theme.

It is most likely that Conan Doyle would have used an amalgamation of information and legend to base his story on, from those cited here as well as general examples of spectral dogs such as the whisht hounds, yeth hounds and others. This is the general way in which stories develop after all, both from a fictional and from a folklore perspective. 

Mark Norman is a folklore researcher and writer who lives on the edge of Dartmoor, in Devon. He holds what is thought to be the country’s largest archive of UK Black Dog traditions and eyewitness accounts and his book on Black Dog Folklore in the UK will shortly be published by Troy Books.

He welcomes anyone interested to his research page where he is happy to discuss any aspect of his work.

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