Navvies Riot in Somerset

part 10 of series on Navvies

Source Sampford Peverell Society

The Navvies’ Riot

Article In The Taunton Courier, Thursday 25 April 1811



On Monday last a disturbance, of a very serious nature, occurred at Sampford Peverell. The annual fair, for the sale of cattle &c., was held there on that day. On the Saturday preceding, a number of the workmen, employed in excavating the bed of the Grand Western Canal, assembled at Wellington for the purpose of obtaining change for the payment of their wages, which there has been lately considerable difficulty in procuring. Many of them indulged in inordinate drinking, and committed various excesses at Tiverton, and other places to which they had gone for the purpose above stated. On Monday the fair at Sampford seemed to afford a welcome opportunity for the gratification of their tumultuary disposition. Much rioting took place during the course of the day, and towards evening a body of these men, consisting of not less than 300, had assembled in the village.

Mr. Chave (whose name we have had occasion to mention in unravelling the imposture respecting the Sampford Ghost) was met on the road and recognised by some of the party. Opprobrious language was applied to him, but whether on that subject or not, we have not been informed. The rioters followed him to the house, the windows of which they broke; and, apprehensive of further violence, Mr. Chave considered it necessary to his defence to discharge a loaded pistol at the assailants. This unfortunately took effect, and one man fell dead on the spot. A pistol was also fired by a person within the house, which so severely wounded another man, that his life is despaired of. A carter, employed by Mr. Chave, was most dreadfully beaten by the mob. Additional numbers were accumulating when our accounts [presumably meaning those who gave this account of the events] were sent off, and we understand their determination was to pull down the house.

We have neither time nor room for comments; but it is impossible not to feel the deepest abhorrence for the proceedings of a savage ungovernable banditti, whose ferocious behaviour we hope will be visited by the heaviest punishments of the law. Let Mr. Chave’s conduct have been ever so weak, or ever so criminal on the subject alluded to, it will form not a shadow of an excuse for the daring outrage of which these men have been guilty. The fate of their companions is of their own seeking, and to their conduct is it alone to be attributed. Chave has acted as most men would have done in defence of their home; nor will, or ought, the law to injure a hair of his head for the vigorous resistance he made to this attack. It is a most extraordinary circumstance that the whole village and neighbourhood should have been kept in a state of the greatest terror and commotion for more than twenty four hours, and no efforts of the Police or Military made to quell the tumult. In the name of Justice, where are the magistrates?

Article In The Taunton Courier, Thursday 2 May 1811

RIOT AT SAMPFORD. – The Coroner’s Inquest which sat on the body [sic!] of the man killed during the late disturbance, returned a verdict of justifiable homicide. The other person who was wounded is in a fair way of recovery. The rioters proceeded to no further violence. It was at Mr. Chave’s, a respectable farmer, of Sampford, that the fatal event took place. No extraordinary symptoms of riot were manifested until three o’clock on the Monday evening, and consequently a more ready interference by the Magistrates was not possible. It was entirely from their activity, and well-applied exertions, that no further mischief ensued.

Article In The Hereford Journal, Wednesday 8 May 1811

​An inquest was held last week at Sampford Peverell, before Charles Daly Pugh, Esq., one of the coroners for the county of Devon, on the body of a man named Helps, who was shot dead by Mr Chave, of the above place, on the preceding Monday, when the mob attacked his house and broke his windows, &c.  The Jury, after the examination of a number of witnesses, returned a verdict of “Justifiable Homicide.”

Canal towpath looking west, 1920

The Poltergeist of Sampford Peverell

One particular incident involving Navvy drunkenness occurred in 1811 in the village of Sampford Peverell, Devon and became a national news sensation.

A local man, John Chave, resident of a well-known ‘haunted’ house was approached by a group of drunken Navvies.

The house had, for the last year or so, been the subject of great journalist interest as it was said to have substantial poltergeist activity. Naturally, being so close to a famous phenomenon, the Navvies wanted to talk to Chave, and see the house.

Chave felt so threatened and scared by the Navvies’s drunken behaviour towards him that he took a shotgun and fired a warning shot.

Unfortunately, the shot hit one of the Navvies, a Mr George Helps, and killed him. The death was ruled as a ‘Justifiable Homicide’ which further fuelled tensions between local inhabitants and the passing Navvy community around the country.

(Incidentally, the ‘hauntings’ in Chave’s house turned out to be smugglers behind a false wall. The house has since been demolished.)


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