The mystery of Jay’s grave

Expanded from an article in ‘Dartmoor – the country magazine,’ 2005.

Jay’s Grave, that poignant mound by the roadside near Hound Tor, is one of Dartmoor’s most famous sites. Almost everyone knows a version of the story. Kitty, or Mary, Jay (I’ve also seen her called Jane), was an 18th century workhouse girl who was apprenticed at a farm near Manaton. She was seduced, and became pregnant. The man abandoned her and, in despair, she hanged herself. As a suicide she was buried in unhallowed ground, but she was not forgotten as, no matter when you visit the grave, day or night, winter or summer, fresh flowers can always be found on it…

It is, of course, only a legend. In about 1860 a nearby landowner excavated the grave and found some bones, which were identified as probably those of a young woman. They were reburied, and the present mound and stone raised over them. But who she was, and what really happened to her, are lost to history.

It was the Widecombe writer Beatrice Chase (1874-1955) who, after telling the story of ‘J’s grave in The Heart of the Moor (1914), began the custom of leaving flowers. Other locals and walkers took this up, and so it continued for the rest of the 20th century. The flowers would always be there, and with the upsurge of interest in the occult in the 1960s and 70s, some writers began to imply – as I did, purely by the way in which I ended the first paragraph – that there might be something mystic or supernatural about their appearance and freshness.

It is easy to see why the story captured people’s imaginations, and why some should be moved to express pity or even guilt for the poor girl and her predicament. Countless articles, and many poems, songs and at least one novel (Lois Deacon’s An Angel from your Door, 1973) have been inspired by the grave and its lore.

As the Totnes poet Margaret Callaway put it, in a beautiful sequence of poems published in 1978:

In some strange way
Poor Kitty Jay
Is on our conscience yet

Anyone visiting the grave today will know that people still leave offerings, but these are no longer just flowers. We live in an age when roadside shrines mark the sites of accidents, scented candles and piles of flowers sit outside houses where someone has died, and ‘books of condolence’ are filled not with messages of comfort for the bereaved but personal messages to the deceased. Not since before the Reformation have the British been so uninhibited in response to the mysteries of life and death. So a simple bunch of flowers is no longer enough for this unknown girl who died in a forgotten year. A friend for whom the grave is a place of personal devotion, and who visits regularly, has listed all the things he has found on it since 2001: potted plants, coins, keys, messages, cards, angels, nodding dogs, a Beanie Bear from MacDonalds, a Paddington Bear, solar powered garden lights, a dalek, bracelets and beads, crosses of wood and twigs, Christmas wreathes, candles and the name ‘Jay’ spelt out in stones.

You may find this touching, or you may find it absurd. I am with those who think that a silent prayer or thought for the eternal life of whoever lies here is quite enough. Many of my friends are shocked that I usually pick up a handful of change, if there is any on the grave, but as I point out to them, money only has meaning or value when being exchanged for goods or services; sitting on a stone in the middle of Dartmoor it is doing no good to anyone (I fully expect death threats for this admission, but there it is).

Anyway, I suppose a nodding dog is better than passing by in complete indifference.