In this article
The Lapford giant who became a Highland Games champion
The constable who supervised savages
The mother who couldn’t marry
Britain’s busiest post handler?


The Cockwell family moved to Lapford in 1873 when John Down Cockwell became the new village policeman. His previous posting had involved sniffing out three pieces missing cheese and dealing with a frozen body in a moorland snow drift, but little more of note. However, his new posting to Lapford offered a new challenge— savages! He arrived at a time of regular disputes between the local community and the Cheriton family of Nymet Rowland who had recently gained notoriety as The North Devon Savages following wildly exaggerated national media reports..

There was little doubt that the Cheritons were a irksome and troublesome family, living on the breadline but their behaviour hardly warranted the vociferous and largely inaccurate character assassination by the national media. In October 1870 The Daily Telegraph called them a “tribe of filthy, vicious and desperate wretches” who behaved with “scandalous immorality and violence”. Stories that they lived naked in pits had brought tourists to the gate of Upcott, their Nymet home, further fuelling local recrimination against the family

“The Cheriton family in Africa would be bad enough; in an English village and under the lee of a Christian church, these creatures become simply unbearable.”
Leeds Mercury, October 24, 1871

Offences by the Cheritons were regular but most were minor in nature and hardly the stuff of savages. Most involved straying animals. Acts of hostility towards the family were sometimes of a more serious nature. PC Cockwell had the unenviable job of keeping the peace. Some of his dealings with the Cherition family can be found in Tales from the policehouse (1873-1880).

Lapford school….Lapford school
Susan b.1864 ShuteSep 1873Sept 1876
John b.1866 ShuteSep 1873Oct 1876
Annie b.1868 ChurchinfordNov 1873May 1880
Thomas b.1870 Clovelly12 Apr 1875Deceased
William.. b.1872 Spreyton07 May 1877Mar 1884
Charley b.1874 Lapford22 Jul 187801 Oct 1886
Lousia b.1876 Lapford25 Apr 188101 Oct 1888
Albertb.1879 Lapford24 Sep 188322 Apr 1887


John and his wife Susanna (‘Susan’) had eight children all of whom attended Lapford School a short distance from their home at No2 Stonegate. John died in 1880, aged 41, leaving Susan to raise the large family alone on a widow’s gratuity of £40. She remarried in 1886 becoming the third wife of village thatcher and church sexton, Henry Northcott. They lived together at today’s Vine Cottage until Susan’s death in 1911 (although in the 1891 census she is, for an unknown reason, living apart with her youngest children in Barnstaple, Albert having been removed early from Lapford school).

Louisa Cockwell b.1876, Lapford
The Globe Inn, 1914, three years after Louisa departed
and two years before it was completely destroyed by fire.


Between 1893 and 1903 Susan’s daughters Annie and Louisa each had two sons. Nothing unusual, except records show the four boys shared the same father. Annie had married Geordie, George Shell, and they were running the Globe Inn at Woodbury when Annie died, aged 32. Sister, Louisa moved in to look after her young nephews but quickly fell in love with her sister’s widower. The law at the time prevented George and Louisa from marrying but she adopted George’s surname for the rest of her life.

Tragically, George died when Louisa was just 29 leaving her with four young children and a pub to manage. The law that would have allowed her to marry George was changed just three years after his death.

The Globe Inn was a local landmark on the Exeter to Budleigh Salterton Road at the top of Globe Hill. Louisa ran the inn until 1911 when she returned to mid-Devon to work as a housekeeper in Penstone, a hamlet 5.5miles SE of Lapford. She later worked as a housekeeper in Belstone, on the edge of Dartmoor, and died there at Moorland South Cottage, aged 64.


William Cockwell (b.1872) grew up in Lapford …. in fact he grew to 6ft. 4in. tall! This stature was quite unusual at the time. He left Lapford for Scotland and in 1888 impressed in a Highland Games competition, becoming the first non-Scot to win the game’s “carrying the weight” contest, a feat which captured considerable attention at the time. The games were at Glenmoristan and were not a major gathering but the story of the Lapford boy who dared to take on the Scots at their own ‘heavy sports’ was appealing. It appears have become embellished with time. When William’s death was reported in The Western Times, it was claimed that William had become the first Englishman to win the Scottish weight-lifting championship!

William only stayed briefly in Scotland. He moved to London, together with his brother Albert, to work as a carrier for the GPO at Liverpool Street Station – a fitting job for a “carrying the weight” champion! He rose to a senior position, in charge of organising the shifting of huge volumes of packages and letters arriving and leaving each hour. At the time Liverpool Street was the country’s busiest station. William, with his towering figure, became a well know figure to rail users who were impressed with his military-like operations, constantly creating order out of seemingly impending chaos.

“He was known to thousands at the largest railway station in London”

Western Times, 21 April 1933

Mail Porters, Liverpool Street Station, 1905

Post from Liverpool Street left on a fleet of awaiting horse drawn vehicles but as early as 1911 work began on a driverless subterranean postal train. Due to labour shortages brought about by WW1 the system didn’t open until 1927. William was promoted to the GPO headquarters and would have seen first hand the changes brought about by the new “Mail Rail” system. He retired from the GPO in 1932 and died the following year. Hidden from view, few people knew of the mail system operating deep below London’s streets. It continued to be used to transport mail across London up until 2003. It is now a tourist attraction.

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