Blackmore’s Maid of Sker

Richard Doddridge Blackmore or R.D. Blackmore was born in the June of 1825 to John Blackmore and his wife Anne Bassett. He is said to be one on the most famous English novelists of his generation. His other writings include: Craddock Nowell, Lorna Downe, Alice Lorraine, Kit and Kitty and Tales from a Telling House. He died in the January of 1900 aged 74. He is remembered by a memorial at Exeter Cathedral.

Below is R.D. Blackmore's 'Maid of Sker' as told by Alun Morgan.

*These views are not mine but they are the views of the author (Alun Morgan) and this story is not meant to cause offence*

This story has not the slightest resemblance to the previous one and is a romance pure and simple. R.D Blackmore  (1825 - 1900) was the son of John Blackmore and Anne Bassett of Nottage Court. He spent his boyhood at Nottage and came to love the region with an intensity which was surpassed only by his love for Devon and Exmoor. His Maid of Sker appeared first in 1872 so the original legend must have been known to him, although he owes nothing to it.

Anyone who reads Maid of Sker today will probably be disappointed. Only a small portion of the books deals with the heroine herself; the rest is taken up by the exploits of tehr hero, old David Llewelyn  of Newton - Nottage, fisherman and sailor. Already old when the story begins, living in retirement in a cottage facing Newton Green, he nevertheless manages to rejoin the navy to fight in the French wars for a further period of eighteen years. Even for Newtonians, well known for their persistence and longevity, this was stretching it a bit. The truth is that Blackmore’s plot was poorly contrived, and had to be bent and twisted into shape as the story proceeds with the result that the reader has to swallow many improbabilities. This, of course, is nothing new with Victorian writers; Dickens was just as bad at times. The story of the ’Maid’ therefore veers bewilderingly between Sker, Newton and Barnstaple, with huge chunks of life at sea thrown in. Blackmore’s treatment of the heroine, with her dreadful lips (’I’se Bardie. Didn’ta know that? I waited so yong’) also grates, as does his tendency to sprawl. Nevertheless, although not as well told as Lorna Doone (which appeared three years before the ’Maid’ and which was regarded by Blackmore as inferior) the Glamorganshire romance is still worth reading for its description of storms and the countryside around the coast of the two counties which the author loved the most of all.

One summer’s night in 1782, David Llewelyn, fisherman and retired sailor of his Majesty’s Navy, leaves his cottage at Newton and goes to do some illegal fishing off Sker Point. The old house is the residence of a coarse farmer called ‘Black’ Evan Thomas, his kind but slovenly wife, Moxy and their six sons. Davy, not to be caught by ‘Black’ Evans, waits until nightfall and, when the sea is glowing with phosphorusm he begins to fish only to see a small white boat drifting towards the rocks, He catches the bat with his line, draws it in and finds ‘a wee maiden, all in white, having neither cloak nor shawl, nor any other soft appliance to comfort and protect her.’ He takes the little girl (two years old) to Sker House and begs the Evans family to look after her for the night.

He rows the little boat back to Newton and hides it near the old Red House, hoping to keep it for himself. Next day he returns to Sker to see how his ‘find’ is getting on, but suddenly a terrible sand-storm develops, the like if which he had never seen before. He sees a ship being driven ashore - a big foreign one this time - and several bodies are washed up on to the beach, most of them being negroes; but one is a young boy wearing a pinafore on which is embroidered  a crest. Davy assumes the boy to be a brother of the little girl he had previously rescued but has no time to think about it for the storm intensifies, with many funnels of wind whipping sand and sea into a fury. Later he finds that the sand has buried and killed five sons of ‘Black Evans’.

Next day there is an inquest at Sker House. The negroes are heaped into a mass grave but the five sons are given a decent Christian burial. The coroner cannot solve the mystery of the dead boy in the crested pinafore. Soon Davy is visited by an important person, Sir Philip Bampfylfe of Narton Court, Devon. Sir Philip examines Davy’s newly gained boat (the name of which the crafty old sea salt has obliterated) but unaccountably refuses to go to Sker  to see the little girl because the roads are so bad (the first example of Blackmore’s lack of plot planning).

Colonel Lougher of Candleston Court and his sister then appear. They go on a picnic to Sker and discover the Maid who has now made herself at home there and claims her name is Bardie. In the meantime Davy joins the crew of a ketch Rose of Devon trading between Barnstaple and Porthcawl. On the other side of the Channel, at Braunton Burrows, he sees  the strange figure of a man searching among the sand-dunes. It turns out that this man is Sir Philip Bampfylde who spends most of his time looking for his two grandchildren who have mysteriously disappeared. Back in Barnstaple Davy meets Parson Chowne, a frightening, spiteful character who suddenly shows a mysterious interest in the boy who drowned at Sker Beach. Chowne is the head of  ‘the naked people’, a cowed lot who always do the parson’s bidding. (how they existed in the winter with icy draughts coming down for Exmoor is not explained: Blackmore was still under the influence of Carver Doone, his villain of  Lorna Donne.
Davy sets up in business as a ferryman at Barnstaple and meets Captain Drake Bamfylde, the son of Sir Philip, who is suspected of murdering the two grandchildren and burying their bodies on Braunton Burrows. He returns to Newton to find Bardie ill, takes her to his cottage and there ‘the air of Newton saved her’. A long period in the navy follows when Davy eventually gets back the maid is twelve years old and attracting the attention of Lieutenant Bluett, the son of Colonel Lougher’s sister. A brief trip to Barnstaple follows and Davy, leading a press gang, carries off some of the naked people and forces them to serve before the mast. One of them is a young lad whom the sailors christen Harry Savage.
A further long period at sea follows and ends only when Davy loses and arm in a battle with the French. He returns to Newton, where he is treated as a hero, and is pleased to see that the aristocratic Bluett is now more interested in his charge, but is also horrified to learn that the occupant if Candleston Court, although fond of Bardie, view with apprehension the prospect of their heir marrying basely. Accordingly our hero sets out for Barnstaple with the object of solving all the mysteries, for he is sure that the Maid is of noble birth. He arrives just in time to find Chowne dying after being bitten by a mad dog, and extracts confessions all round. It transpires that it was Chowne who had abducted the grandchildren; he had forced the boy to become one of his naked people but the little girl had been lost when the boat which he was using had slipped out to sea. He had then completed the black deed by disguising himself as Captain Bampflyde and burying two dolls on the Braunton Boroughs, thus throwing suspicion on an innocent person.

Sir Philip Bampflyde returns to Newton with Davy and identifies the Maid by her fingernails. She is of course, Miss Bertha Bampflyde and her brother Harry Savage, late of the naked people, is Philip, heir to the title. Old Davy’s stolen boat is scrutinised and proved to have been Barnstaple made. The way is therefore open for the heroine to marry the man of her choice and link up two noble families. Old Davy, well content with his efforts, retires once more to his cottage, sallying forth only to tell stories to the children of Newton Green.

Thus for everyone in the story with the exception of the villainous Chowne, has a happy ending.

You can read the full version of R.D. Blackmore's 'Maid of Sker' here.

Illustration by Margaret Wooding
Image: Exeter Cathedral Memorial

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