Posted on: October 18, 2015

I’ve long been fascinated by the legend of Sawney Bean and his cannibal family, who preyed on hapless travellers on the west coast of Scotland centuries ago, and it seems that the north coast of Devon has it’s own version of the grisly tale.  I recently came across a mention of them in Mark Wallington’s book Five Hundred Mile Walkies, about his mammoth trek along the South West Coast Path in 1982.

Like their Scottish counterparts, the infamous Gregg family lived in a cave, a mile underground, on the coast.  When the cave was finally stormed by men of the law they found it festooned with a multitude of “arms, legs, thighs, hands and feet, of men, women and children, hung up in rows, like dried beef and a great many lying in pickle”.  The horrible clan, numbering about 50 altogether, and also like the Beans, the result of incestuous union, were hauled before the magistrates in Exeter.  The entire family were sent to the gallows and hanged.  A stretch of Clovelly Bay was named – appropriately enough – the Devil’s Kitchen.

Many believe that the story is nothing but colourful fiction though, thought up by local smugglers to keep away inconvenient nosey-parkers.  This was certainly something smugglers liked to do.  Many coastal ghost stories originated from them.  It doesn’t seem to be very clear exactly when the Gregg family were said to have lived.  The story of them first appeared in an 18th century book entitled The History of John Gregg And His Family of Robbers And Murderers, by an unknown author.  This book, 8 pages long, has the family being responsible for a 1000 murders, and being burnt alive (not hung) for their crimes.

So much of the story is similar to the legend of the Bean family, that it seems most likely some resourceful Devon smuggler borrowed it almost word-for-word (even down to having the King leading the vigilante party), and customised it for their own purposes.

Even so, there are some who still believe in the old legend, and who insist that descendants of the murderous clan, even more devolved and sub-human than the originals, still exist in caves on Dartmoor … and are responsible for any people who go missing in the area.  Now there’s a plot for a modern day zombie novel/movie if ever there was one!



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