The Call of Chambercombe: A True Story of the North Devon Coast

Ilfracombe, The Chronicle Press (1959)

Summary prepared by Brian Randell

The book has a preface by L.C.L. Pincombe, the then (1964) owner of Chambercombe Manor. He makes no claim as to the truth of the story, and does not comment on the subtitle. Instead he writes "Like many other ancient building in this country, legends have become associated with the old Manor house which have been re-iterated for decades by folk of the neighbourhood and which in more modern times have found their way into print in a number of strange versions. One of the most interesting stories connected with Chambercombe, beautifully told, was written and published about a century ago in a national magazine then known as 'The Leisure Hour.' It is as a tribute to this author, whose name remains undiscovered despite many attempts to trace it, that the story is reprinted today and the present owners of Chambercombe Manor house hope that the reproduction of it will be regarded as an event of literary importance and local interest."
It is in effect a story within a story, since the anonymous author adopts the device of having a traveller, forced by floods to stay at an inn, The Nag's Head, being given two old manuscripts to read by the landlord, one Johnson, which the landlord claims had been found by his grandfather whem renovating a house near Chambercombe.
The story the traveller reads in the manuscripts starts in 1663, and concerns a William Oatway, who was a youth of seventeen at this time, and whose father, Alexander, was owner of Chambercombe but also leader of a group of wreckers based on Hele Bay. William follows the wreckers on one of their expeditions, and rescues Ellen Gregory, the sole survivor of the wreck of the 'Granada', who many years later he meets again and marries.
After rescuing Ellen he flees from the law, which suspect him of being a wrecker, to his late mother's family, the Slades - who are living at Wallredon House, near Tavistock, and who send him on to Cornwall. After spending two years in Cornwall, gaining experience of both mine and farm management, he returns to Wallredon House for some years before marrying and becoming tenant (for ten years) of a farm at Rockscombe, aiming to be able to retrieve Chambercombe.
He then becomes steward of Lundy Island, at the invitation of "a descendant of the Grenvilles". The book tells the story of a set of French marauders, led by a Lieutenant Reilland, tricking their way onto Lundy Island and laying ravage to it and killing most of the inhabitants, after bringing a coffin full of weapons ashore under the pretext that it contained the body of their dead captain. The Chambercombe book states that William Oatway and his family were spared through the intervention of a Captain Wallis who had been a passenger on the marauders' boat, and that William's daughter Kate later married Captain Wallis.
Years later, William Oatway back at Chambercombe (though only as a tenant), becomes involved in a plan to reopen the mine at Combe Martin, and in 1695 rescues another girl from a wreck, who however dies shortly thereafter. He succumbs to temptation and uses her jewelry to finance his acquisition of Chambercombe, concealing this, and the fact of the rescue, from others. He and his wife then find that the dead girl was their own long-departed daughter. Full of remorse they seal up the room where she died. His wife's health gives way and she dies the next Spring. William leases the Chambercombe estate to a farmer on the condition that the house remains uninhabited, moves to a small cottage, and spends the rest of his years "going about doing good".
[My belief is that the story is fiction, built around real places and perhaps incidents, that "explains" the existence of a secret room at Chambercombe Manor. The only claim that the story is true seems to be that made in the book's subtitle, which was not given in the original articles (see full citation below), but rather has been added by the (Ilfracombe) Chronicle Press.]
Chambercombe: A Tale of North Devonshire, The Leisure Hour: A Family Journal of Instruction and Recreation, No. 721 (21 Oct 1865) pp.657-661, No. 722 (28 Oct 1865) pp.673-677, No. 723 (4 Nov 1865) pp.689-694, No. 724 (11 Nov. 1865) pp.705-708, No. 725 (18 Nov 1865) pp.721-725, No. 726 (25 Nov. 1865) pp.737-742, No. 727 (2 Dec 1865) pp.753-756, No. 728 (9 Dec 1865) pp.769-774.

Brian Randell, 29 Aug 2002