The Devils Footprints


Ghost Lights

The Devil's Footprints

  Did the Devil walk in England 150 years ago? This incident is one of the world's great
  mysteries. Though the details are less than satisfactory, there can be no doubt that
  something strange took place on the night of February 8th, 1855, in Devon, England.

  In February 1855 Britain was in the grip of an unusually hard winter. The temperature across
  southern England was well below zero and it snowed every day, for six weeks. During the
  night of February 8thh there was a 2" fall of snow and a hard frost in South Devon. In the 
  morning, folks emerging from their homes in, Lympstone, Woodbury, Topsham, Exmouth
  Dawlish, Teignmouth, Torquay and other places were surprised to see the tracks of a
  mysterious creature leading in single file through their towns. The footprints' began at
  Totnes and ended at Littleham, covering a distance of over 100 miles as they meandered around some 18 communities in between.

The idea that the marks had been made by the Devil himself caused great excitement. In a single night the creature had traveled over 100 miles, crossed a wide river and skulked around towns. It had walked up walls and along rooftops, and occasionally it seemed to have actually passed through things. South Devon was gripped with fear. Doors were barred after dark. Armed search parties from Dawlish followed the trail. When it led into a thicket, dogs were sent in but they retreated, howling dismally.

The footprints appeared in inaccessible places - on roof tops and narrow walls, leaping over gates and haystacks, through gardens and courtyards with high walls and fences, and across open fields and extensive woodland. They passed under a gooseberry bush and through a 6" pipe. The creature had crossed over a two-mile wide estuary, and continued on the other side. Nothing had impeded its progress or broken the even 8“ spacing. Prints were found on each side of both a haystack, and a 14-foot wall without displacing the snow on either side. The tracks approached the doors of several houses then retreated. At Woodbury, they led to the church door and seemed as if they’d been cut with a hot iron - or fiery hooves. There was no standing or resting point.

The tracks were like those of a donkey, but they were in a single line typical of a two-legged creature not double tracked as those of a four-legged one. They were 8 - 8½" (20 cm) apart and measured about 2" by 4" (5 x 10 cm). In many places they appeared to be cloven. Every village reported the same size print and stride. Sometimes the marks had penetrated the hard ice. Witnesses said they seemed "branded in the snow".

On February 16th, The Times called the incident an 'Extraordinary Occurrence'. A discussion developed and spread. On 24th February, the Illustrated London News explained why "The Great Devon Mystery" could not be attributed to animals. Talk of the "Devil’s Footprints" filled national newspaper letters columns for weeks. Several newspapers investigated and unearthed interesting details, but on the whole they made light of the story. Attempts to find a logical explanation were hampered by differing descriptions from witnesses. Some said birds may have made the marks on roofs. But birds don’t leave hoof marks and it seems unlikely that country folk would not have recognized bird tracks. Some local clergy claimed that the Devil had singled out followers of the priest, Edward Pusey, who controlled several Devon parishes and was trying to re-introduce Catholic ritual into the Church of England. The Western Times pointed out that Pusey’s parishes of Woodbury, Topsham and Littleham had been visited - but - but didn’t mention that the prints were also found in other parishes.

Suggestions as to what, or who made the footprints abounded. Candidates included: mice, rats, swans, rabbits, deer, a donkey, otters, toads, cranes, wild cats and even a rope attached to a balloon. Rev. Musgrave suggested a kangaroo (one had recently escaped from a private zoo nearby), but no reports mentioned tail marks. Someone suggested that they were made by a pony with a broken shoe but others pointed out that in many places, the tracks showed the hooves to be cloven. Rev H.T.Ellacombe was a leading investigator. "There is no doubt as to, the facts - that thousand's of these, marks were seen on the snow on the morning of the 9th, extending over many miles," he wrote. "It was as if the snow had been branded with a hot iron" He sent drawings of prints (and a sample of white excrement) to naturalist Sir Richard Owen and, Oxford don Dr I. A. Ogle. Sir Richard’s verdict was badgers. Other attempts to explain the prints included the theory that they were condensation marks, and claims that the people had become hysterical through cold and hunger. All the theories explained something, but none of them explained everything.

The late Theo Brown of Exeter University read Rev. Ellacombe's notes and concluded that those concerned were content to leave things unsolved rather than spoil a good story! She ends; 'To this day, no one has offered an explanation which takes account of all the available evidence ... we still have no idea what creature could possibly have made it [the track]’. So the affair of "The Devil’s Footprints" remains a mystery. No known animal could have traveled the distance in one night, let alone crossing a three kilometer wide estuary. Nor does any known hoofed animal walk in a line of single footsteps.

Whatever the explanation, for a long time afterwards, many feared to go out after dark, convinced that the Devil himself had walked through Devon.

By Sylvia Richards 11th January 2010