Monday, 26 December 2011


In the year 1888 there lived at Topsham a villainous reprobate who spread falsehoods blackening the name of a young woman called Harriet Louisa Finch Pearce. Harriet was the daughter of a market gardener who lived on the High Street. She was thirty three and engaged to be married to a Topsham baker called Louis Ware.

The scandal was so foul that poor Harriet could find no better solution than to drown herself in the Estuary. She told her brother that rather than see her name in the paper she would 'make a hole in the water' but he could not believe that she was serious in her intention.

On the morning of June 18th she rose up early and this time told her brother she was off to Devonport because she could not bear to stay in Topsham to hear the awful scandal which had been circulated about her. Her journey that day should have been by way of the ferry across the Exe, there to catch the early train to Plymouth but events proved that Harriet had been planning a longer and a sadder journey.

A passing stranger found some of her clothes and jewellery on the public footpath opposite the stable yard of the Retreat. Later a fisherman called Edward Hall found her corpse below the summer house and brought her home.

'Touchstone' who in those days wrote up the local news for 'Trewman's Exeter Flying Post' reported as follows:

"The spirit of the poor young girl at Topsham who has gone down to her death will surely haunt those who started against her the foul slander which was the cause of her broken heart and unhinged reason. She was, as Shakespeare says:
'slandered to death by villains,...
boys, apes, braggarts, Jacks, milksops!'
I need scarcely say that I would not stand in the shoes nor feel the remorse of the individual who aspersed the good name and fame of Miss Pearce for all the gold that could be gathered together within the limits of the little town on the Exe."

Touchstone's 'only regret' was:

"that the name of the creeping snake in human form who first assailed her character should be kept from the eyes and ears of the outside public."

I don't think there are many young women in Topsham these days who would 'make a hole in the water' if they were libelled. More 'suing' than 'suicidal' perhaps. Nor these days are there many local reporters quoting from Shakespeare, more's the pity.

But shed a tear with me for unhappy Harriet Pearce!


  1. That one won't get into the "Tales of Old Topsham" feelgood booklets... I've no doubt the blame was collective; even now, Topsham, as is the case with any village (they can call it a town all they like - the dynamic here is village), is a metaphorical photomultiplier for toxic rumour, and I'm sure it was even worse in the 19th century.

  2. Poor Harriet! I wonder if she was given a 'Christian' burial! I enjoyed your piece on Keats. I have no evidence that he and Tom hopped over the rock pools of Dawlish but he probably did. Mrs Patmore certainly did and showed her pretty ankles. Charming image!

  3. but he probably did

    I'm sure he did. There wasn't much else to do in Dawlish then. In fact, there still isn't much else to do in Dawlish *now*: potter on the beach / beach paths, look at the birds on the Brook, or go to a pub.

  4. Oh, and in the 1880s you could get killed in a cliff fall: