Rogue One: The Strange Career of Bampfylde Moore Carew

Bampfylde Moore Carew.

A thief, conman, beggar, trickster, adventurer and teller of tall tales, Bampfylde Moore Carew is the most famous West Countryman they never tell you about in school.

I first learned of his existence in a book called Somerset Legends by Berta Lawrence, published in 1973, a copy of which I bought for 10p in a sale of cancelled books at Bridgwater Library when I was about thirteen. Reading this was the first time it ever occurred to me that my home county might be anything other than rather flat and rather dull, and I took the book away with me to university, and then to London, as an antidote to homesickness.

Now, thanks to the magic of online book archives, I’ve been able to go back to Ms. Lawrence’s source, namely a book called The Life and Adventures of Bampfylde Moore Carew, published in 1745. We would probably now recognise it as having been ghost-written for Carew by one Robert Goadsby, though its status as autobiography-biography, or perhaps even a form of picareseque proto-novel, remains muddy. It is almost certainly a pack of fibs built around some kernels of truth, but was nonetheless a bestseller in its day and reprinted, with further embellishments, many times in the century that followed.

Here’s the story it tells, as the precursor to the embroidered gangster memoirs of today, with a few details taken from other sources, and quotations taken from this Project Gutenberg version of an 1850s reprint.

Carew was born in July 1693 in Bickleigh, a village near Tiverton in Devon. His father was the rector of Bickleigh and his family was well-to-do. He was sent to Blundell’s, the famous West Country private school at, at the age of 12, but (according to his own account) ran away rather than face punishment for tearing up farmland with his horse-riding hunting pals and a pack of hounds. And this is where his life got interesting.

Painting of a gypsy camp.
Morland, George; Encampment of Gypsies; The Fitzwilliam Museum.

He joined a band of gypsies and made a living with them through trickery and petty crime. As a well-spoken, gentlemanly figure he was uniquely well placed to win over respectable folk and relieve them of their money, as in the case of Mrs Musgrove of Monkton just outside Taunton, in Somerset. (Now best known for its garden centre — such romance!) She called on young Carew having heard that he was an expert gypsy-trained treasure diviner. 

When he came, she informed him that she suspected a large quantity of money was buried somewhere about her house, and if he would acquaint her with the particular place, she would handsomely reward him. Our hero consulted the secrets of his art upon this occasion, and after long toil and study informed the lady, that under a laurel-tree in the garden lay the treasure she anxiously sought for; but that her planet of good fortune did not reign till such a day and hour, till which time she should desist from searching for it; the good lady rewarded him very generously with twenty guineas for his discovery.  We cannot tell whether at this time our hero was sufficiently initiated in the art, or whether the lady mistook her lucky hour, but the strict regard we pay to truth obliges us to confess, that the lady dug below the roots of the laurel-tree without finding the hidden treasure.

This is a classic con-man story in which the mark positively asks to be ripped off because of her greed, and her stupidity — perhaps one of the earliest in print?

Eventually he was convinced to come in from the field and return to Bickleigh where he was welcomed with tears of gladness and the ringing of church bells. But having had a taste of freedom and adventure, he got bored and went back to the gypsies, via their camp at Tiverton, and set out on a new phase of his career: he became a fake shipwrecked seaman.

Our hero’s wit was now set to work, by what stratagems he might best succeed.  The first that occurred to his thoughts was that of equipping himself with an old pair of trowsers, enough of a jacket to cover his nakedness, stockings such as nature gave, shoes (or rather the body of shoes, for soles they had none) which had leaks enough to sink a first rate man of war, and a woollen cap, so black that one might more safely swear it had not been washed since Noah’s flood, than any electors can that they receive no bribes.  Being thus attired, our hero changed his manners with his dress; he forgot entirely his family, education, and politeness, and became neither more nor less than an unfortunate shipwrecked seaman.

He learned the jargon and the manners of a sailor and in this persona conned multiple people out of “a considerable booty”, before reinventing himself again as a simple Kentish farmer who had lost his cattle in a flood:

His habit was now neat but rustic; his air and behaviour simple and inoffensive; his speech in the Kentish dialect; his countenance dejected; his tale pitiful—wondrous pitiful; a wife and seven helpless infants being partakers of his misfortunes; so that if his former stratagem answered his wishes, this did still more so, he now getting seldom less than a guinea a day.

Next, he adopted the persona of Mad Tom, a half-naked lunatic, roving the countryside and observing human nature, learning more “than most of our youths who make the Grand Tour”.

Carew the trickster disguised as a ghost at South Molton, Devon.

From Dartmouth in Devon He travelled to Newfoundland where he acquired a “fierce and large dog” and stayed just long enough to learn enough about fishing and sailing to take his shipwrecked mariner act to the next level. On his return, via Newcastle, he fell in love, eloping with one Miss Gray, marrying her in Bath, and settling in Bristol, where they turned heads with their dandy dress.

Going back on the road, he impersonated a clergyman to prey on Quakers; developed a wheeze whereby he would turn up anywhere there had been a notably large fire and pretend to be a survivor, with a singed hat for evidence; and strapped himself up to portray the part of a one-legged beggar. Circling back to Bristol, he pretended to be the son of a Newfoundland gentleman whom he vaguely resembled, lately arrived in England and in need of credit on clothes and provisions. On one occasion he witnessed a shipwreck off the Dorset coast and had the presence of mind to strip and fling himself into the surf to be rescued as a survivor or, as he tells it, to attempt to rescue one of the crew like some kind of superman, only to be quite innocently mistaken for a member of the ship’s crew.

Eventually, all this caught up with him and he was arrested at Barnstaple in Devon, and taken to court in Exeter, from where he was transported to Maryland in the American colonies. You might think this was the end of Carew’s West Country career but, no, he somehow escaped custody, convinced some Native Americans to remove his irons, and made his way back to England via Philadelphia, New York and various other fascinating places out of the scope of my project.

A parade of convicts.
British convicts in chains ready for transportation, via Early American Crime.

He carried on where he had left off (shipwrecked sailor act, turban-wearing Greek, French smuggler, Presbyterian parson, and so on), got caught again, and sent back to Maryland, from where he escaped a second time. (If he was making this up, he could have done with a firmer editor – who would invent this repetitive narrative structure?)

In the third and final phase of his career as a conman he tried some bigger schemes, such as convincing a group of his school friends to join him at St Matthew’s Fair in Bridgwater, Somerset, in the guise of a group of crippled, deaf, dumb, blind beggars. The mayor, though, suspected the trick and had them thrown in prison for vagrancy, but contrived to let them escape so that he could see which of them broke into a run on leaving their cell and then re-arrest them on more serious charges. (This sounds like something from one of the sillier spaghetti westerns to me.)

Although the book presents all of this with a sort of smirk, and its sales are evidence that people found Carew’s antics to some degree charming or at least entertaining, his admitted tendency to prey on the bereaved is simply grim. For example, he tricked a man whose son had died at sea into giving him money in exchange for a supposedly first-hand account of his death and burial, which of course Carew knew nothing about that he had not learned from gossip around the village. In another instance, at Buckfastleigh in Devon, he got an accomplice to dress as a victim’s dead grandmother as part of another ‘hidden treasure’ con:

In order for the execution of this scheme, Coleman put a woman’s cap on his head, washed his face, and sprinkled meal on it while wet, stuck the broken pieces of a tobacco-pipe between his teeth, and wrapping his body in a white sheet, planted himself in the road that Collard and Mr. Carew were to come; the moon at this time shone very bright, which gave an additional horror to the pretended spectre.  Our hero, by virtue of his supposed profound learning and most mysterious science, spoke to it in an unknown language, to the following effect:—“High, wort, bush rumley to the toggy cull, and ogle him in the muns;” at which command the terrific hobgoblin fiercely advanced up to poor Collard…

But this couldn’t go on forever and eventually, having made a small fortune, and growing old and ill, Carew retired to a cottage in the West Country, published his memoir, and died in 1759.

Frankenstein in the Quantocks

POSTER: "Andrew Crosse -- the man who created life!"

A gentleman scientist fills a laboratory with primitive electrical equipment and, through experiments considered blasphemous by his peers, summons life.

This is the plot of one of the elemental gothic horrors, that’s true, but it is also something that really happened, not among the romantic mountain peaks of Mitteleuropa but on Somerset’s Quantock Hills. And the scientist was not a doomed young Byronic hero but a distinctly middle-aged Englishman called Andrew Crosse.

Crosse was born  in July 1784 at Fyne Court, a country house built by his family in 1620s on the edge of the Quantocks between Bridgwater and Taunton. Though now we now think of the Quantocks as a landscape dominated by conifers it was then covered with ancient woodland, its heathlands bright with yellow furze and purple heather, pockmarked here and there with sandstone and limestone quarries, and richly populated with deer and other game animals. A place of ‘free, wild solitude,’ in the words of Crosse’s biographer, his widow Cornelia.

Fyne Court before the fire of 1894, via the National Trust website.

Andrew’s father, Richard, was strict to the point of being intimidating and though his mother cooed over her ‘little Andrew’ his parents sent him away to board with a tutor in Dorchester at the age of six. There he learned Ancient Greek, oddly before he had learned to write English, before moving on to a school in Bristol at the age of eight.

In Bristol, on a grim diet of black potatoes and ‘hashed mutton’, he developed an fascination with fireworks and electricity. His father had known the famous electrical experimenter Benjamin Franklin and perhaps that laid the foundations of his interest, but the real spur to action was a lecture he heard about at a tavern where he had got into the habit of taking meals to avoid the dreadful school dinners.

A school friend, John Jenkyns, provided Cornelia with a note for inclusion in her biography which recalled what came after that formative experience:

I dare say he has mentioned to you our first joint attempt in the science of electricity, and the wonderment occasioned to a circle of school boys by giving them a shock with a Leyden phial… charged by a broken glass of a barometer…

Crosse and Jenkyns used this contraption to tease – or, let’s be honest, bully – younger boys who were marched up to a terrifyingly gothic witch-like figure sitting next to a box. (The witch was Crosse in costume.) Inside the box there was a depiction of hell with a devil dancing in front of it, pitchfork in hand. (A clever trick in itself: the figure was hanging from a single human hair.) The little lads were made to look at this macabre scene for a moment before the jar was discharged, giving them a physical jolt to match and intensify the psychological one. (At my school the bullies just gave you a dead arm in the corridor but this is presumably what you’re paying for with private education.)

Andrew Crosse. (This picture is all over the internet but I can’t find the original source.)

Crosse left Bristol for Oxford in 1802 taking with him an ‘electrical machine’ that he had acquired from a ‘philosophical instrument maker’, and a hunger to learn more. After university he returned to Somerset and made an abortive attempt to study law while, now orphaned, he also managed the family estate. His true fascination could not be resisted, however, and he soon had a new electrical apparatus to play with – a huge cylindrical electrostatic generator attached to a battery made up of 50 Leyden jars. This machine was made by his friend George Singer, another electrician, as such scientists were then known, though the word now refers to a specific, less glamorous trade. They would spend all day running electrical experiments together and then, in the evening, walk on the Quantocks engaged in intellectual debate.

A battery of Leyden jars.
Leyden jars as depicted in an 1894 medical textbook.

In around 1807 Crosse was inspired to begin a new line of investigation. He kept finding himself drawn to Holwell Cavern, a fissure in the limestone rock the roof of which was covered in star-like Aragonite crystal formations caused by the dripping of mineral laden water through the rock. A true man of the Romantic age, he of course wrote a poem about the cave, which begins:

Now pierce the hill’s steep side, where dark as night
Holwell’s rude cavern claims the torch’s light;
Where, breathless, dank, the fissure cleaves in twain
Th’ unchisell’d rock which threats to close again,
And swallow in its adamantine jaws
The bold explorer of creation’s laws.

Crosse later said: “I felt convinced at an early period that the formation and constant growth of the crystalline matter which lined the roof of this cave was caused by some peculiar upward attraction; and, reasoning more on the subject, I felt assured that it was electric attraction.”

He took water from the cave and, back in his lab at Fyne Court, connected it to a battery and ran a current through it. Nothing happened for days and he was about to give up when, after almost two weeks, he spotted sunlight glinting on crystals that had grown on one of the wires.

In the years that followed, he married, had children, and continued working on his ‘electrical poem’. He argued politics and philosophy with his brother Richard, and travelled to Plymouth where, from the deck of a hired boat, he caught a glimpse of Napoleon Bonaparte imprisoned aboard HMS Bellerophon.

A painting of ships.
Napoleon’s Bellerophon depicted in ‘Scene in Plymouth Sound’ by John James Chalon, 1815, via Royal Museums Greenwich.

He also continued his experiments, constructing an ‘atmospherical conductor’, a copper wire of about a mile in length which he used to attract lightning during thunderstorms and bad weather, creating ‘terrific… noise and brilliant light’. Crosse himself described how one experiment created “explosions… [and a] stream of fire too brilliant to look at”. Calmly harnessing the power of the atmosphere he used the electricity to boil liquids, fuse metals and cause fires. Locals would turn up at Fyne Court and ask to be zapped to cure their various ailments which, according to Crosse, sometimes worked. It is easy to see how this kind of experiment inspired the modern vision of the mad scientist.

As recounted in Brian Wright’s 2015 biography, it was Singer who convinced Crosse to talk at one of the regular lecture events hosted by the parachutist, balloonist and showman-scientist André-Jacques Garnerin at a London theatre. On the night of Crosse’s lecture on 28 December 1814 two more famous figures from history happened also to be present: Mary Shelley and her husband, the poet Percy Shelley.

We know from her diary that Mary took note of Crosse’s lecture, whether she paid attention to its details or not. A year and a half later, at the Villa Deodati on the shore of Lake Geneva, she would write her most famous book, Frankenstein. Did Crosse inspire Victor Frankenstein? Perhaps partly, or perhaps Frankenstein inspired Crosse, because back in the peace and quiet of Somerset he continued his experiments into batteries and crystallisation in relative obscurity for another 20 years, long after Mary Shelley’s book had become a bestseller.

Crosse was in his early fifties when an accidental discovery, and the equally accidental announcement of its results, brought him fame or, rather, infamy. In 1837 he carried out a month-long experiment attempting to grow crystals by electrifying a chunk of porous volcanic stone. On the 26th day he observed what looked like insects. Then, on the 28th day, to his astonishment, he saw them wiggle their legs. A few days later they wriggled free and began to move around the frame where the experiment was being conducted. They were, Crosse concluded, mites of the genus Acarus, and there were soon a hundred or more, some with six legs, others with eight. Where had they come from? And how on earth were they surviving in an acid solution?

Sketch of a bug.
Pierre Turpin’s drawing of Acarus Crossii made using a microscope, from The Annals of Electricity, Magnetism and Chemistry, May 1838, via Google Books.

Crosse mentioned this odd occurrence to some friends in what he thought was private conversation but one of the group was the editor of the Somerset Gazette and couldn’t resist running an account of the experiment. That article was picked up and reproduced or quoted in newspapers across the country, usually under the headline EXTRAORDINARY EXPERIMENT.

Outrage commenced almost at once. Who did Crosse think he was, claiming to have created life, and bragging everywhere about his amazing discovery which was obviously a complete con? Crosse was hurt by those accusations: he hadn’t made any such claims and certainly hadn’t sought to publicise his experiments. He was blamed for crop blight and received a letter calling him “a reviler of our holy religion” – in other words, he was accused of playing God.

For another decade he and other scientists attempted to replicate the results, often with success, but without reaching any convincing conclusion. Was the electricity reviving fossilised insect material in rocks or soil? Was the water contaminated, or the apparatus? Or had Crosse really discovered the secret to summoning life?

These days, the consensus is that the equipment probably was dirty — inevitable, almost, in those days of imperfect sanitising techniques. Hardly the stuff of legends, and Crosse certainly did not go on to ‘create’ any more substantial form of life such as, say, a murderous, misunderstood monster created from cadavers rifled from graveyards.

Even though Shelley wrote her novel twenty years before Crosse’s mite experiments, and though in reality the links are tenuous, in recent decades the connection has become indelible, and it is probably fair to say that the Thunder & Lightning man owes his lasting fame to Mary Shelley. Peter Haining, that master of the fun but unreliable horror-history hackjob, called his 1979 book about Crosse The Man Who Was Frankenstein which, clearly, he wasn’t. And, well, I’ve done it here, haven’t I?

There is something irresistible about the idea of so macabre a fiction having any basis in reality, especially when that reality occurred in the wooded hills and heathland of Somerset where the red deer roam.