The story of the Clovelly Cannibals, and their link into Dartmoor legend, was told by Tracey Norman, as follows, in her Folkmoor column in The Moorlander

Some time prior to 1700, the north Devon coast around Clovelly was terrorised by the family of John Gregg. It is believed that over a thousand people were attacked, murdered and cannibalised by the family, who lived in a large cave system and reportedly never set foot in the town. This reign of terror lasted for twenty-five years, during which time their numbers increased – mainly as a result of incest. They developed a fearful reputation as zombies as well as cannibals, perhaps because many of them suffered from physical and mental issues.

Eventually a posse of over 400 people stormed the cave system and rounded up 50 members of Gregg’s family. The cave reportedly contained numerous body parts, as well as men, women and children hanging like sides of beef. The family was taken to Exeter, where they were hanged the following day without the formality of a trial.

This story appeared in a broadsheet pamphlet around 1700 – only about three copies now exist. Interestingly, around the same time, The Legend of Sawney Bean was printed – a story identical in almost every way to that of Gregg, if you substitute a few place names. It has since been proved that the Sawney Bean legend was the work of none other than Daniel Defoe, who had links to both Scotland (home to Sawney Bean) and Devon.

Did Defoe hear the Gregg story in Devon and then write The Legend of Sawney Bean, or did a smuggler either read or hear of the Sawney Bean story and bring it to Devon as a way to keep prying eyes away from his illicit nocturnal activities? There were certainly numerous locations along the North Devon coast which had links to smuggling.

And what of the link to Dartmoor? Interestingly, the legend of the Greggs persists. There are some even today who believe that there are descendants of John Gregg living on Dartmoor, now more zombie than human, hidden away in caves and occasionally emerging to attack and cannibalise anyone who wanders too close…

Tracey Norman is an actor, author and historian living in Mid Devon, producing plays, books, audiobooks and live events. Her company Circle Of Spears will be presenting Ghost Stories at Okehampton Library on November 30. Her play Witch has been performed more than 60 times since its premiere in July 2016 and she is always looking for new venues for it.


Tracey Norman and company …

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