KEVIN DIXON: The Devil went down to Barton
On the night of 7–8 February 1855 the Devil came to Devon, writes local historian Dr Kevin Dixon.
After a heavy snowfall, trails of hoof-like footprints were seen in the snow. It was the residents of Exmouth who first discovered “strange cloven-hoofed footprints not from a four legged farm animal. The creature that had made these tracks walked like a man, striding and upright.”
These indentions were then titled the ‘Devils Footprints’ as they were interpreted as having been made by a cloven hoof.
Allegedly covering a total distance of between 40 and 100 miles, they “measured around four inches long, three inches across, between eight and sixteen inches apart and were mostly in a single file”.
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They reportedly travelled over houses, rivers, haystacks and other obstacles, were seen on the tops of roofs and walls, and were observed leading up to and leaving narrow drain pipes.
From Exmouth they ran through open countryside to Topsham and then continued on the other side of the Exe, extending via Dawlish and Teignmouth to Barton and Watcombe in Torquay.
There were also rumours about sightings of a "devil-like figure". Religious leaders advised their flocks that the Devil was walking the earth and they urged people to be vigilant. In response, some people armed themselves and attempted to track down the culprit.
A number of explanations have been put forward for the footprints.
It’s worth noting that, while the reports stated that they ran for over a hundred miles, no-one could have followed the entire route on the day they were discovered. Therefore, it’s understandable that descriptions varied widely.
Consequently, it’s probable that the footprints were an incidence case of mass hysteria. Animal tracks, possible hoaxes and various natural phenomena had been interpreted as having a single supernatural cause by a population raised on myth and superstition. It may be relevant that reports of similar obstacle-climbing footprints are also to be found in Scotland and Poland.
However, there is an interesting theory that is reminiscent of the Roswell UFO myth.
The author Geoffrey Household relayed a story he had heard that that "an experimental balloon" had been accidentally released from Devonport Dockyard. As the escaped balloon crossed Devon, it trailed two shackles on the end of its mooring ropes, leaving the tracks. The incident was then covered up as the shackles also damaged greenhouses and windows before the balloon landed in Honiton.
As a very loose link, here’s Mad Dog Mcrea’s version of ‘The Devil Went Down To Georgia’ performed in Torquay during Christmas 2011: