The Man They Couldn’t Hang

Below is a picture of a man enjoying his holiday on the south Devon coast, visiting Overbeck’s in Salcombe.

Kingsbridge estuary from Overbeck’s, Salcombe.

It is also a picture of a man about to leave his wallet on the car roof before driving up and down the twisted roads along that coast. That wallet contained over £200 in holiday spending money, all of his cards and, crucially, his wife’s bank card.

This could well have been the last photo ever taken of this man.

Obviously the wallet fell from the car roof. So, we had no money and no bank cards. Cue two hours of driving, walking and running up and down those twisted roads, re-tracing steps and swallowing accusations.

It’s not the first time this has happened to me. I’ve lost a lot of stuff. I left this very wallet in a cab with over £200 in last year and was lucky enough to have it returned. I got lucky again this time. A gentleman staying at the very swanky South Sands Hotel in Salcombe handed my wallet in at reception. They rummaged through it, found my business cards and called my office. A colleague sent Mrs W a message on Facebook and the holiday was back on track. I’ve never used those cards for actual business, only to retrieve a wallet that I can’t get rid of, no matter how hard I try.

This is a photo of a man that has taken his wife and friends on a walk from Bantham to Bigbury-on-sea. When the tide is out, “you can definitely walk across the sand to Bigbury.” Er, no, you can’t. Yes, the sea moves out, but the river Avon doesn’t. It stays there, separating Bigbury and Burgh Island from Bantham and me. “Er, let’s just wander up and down the river for an hour and then go back and play National Trust Monopoly.”

My friends Sarah and Phil forlornly consider what might have been.

This is a man about to take his wife on an eleven mile walk around the river Avon, from Bantham to Bigbury-on-Sea up and down the Avon estuary. A quick pint in the Pilchard on Burgh Island and then the ferry back across the river back to Bantham in time for tea.

Raring to go.

Actually, it is a photo of a man that couldn’t be bothered to check the ferry timetable, causing him to miss it by twenty minutes. Faced with the prospect of walking all the way back up and down the estuary (totaling 23 miles), and having already suffered burning sun, pouring rain and spiteful hail, I called Bigbury’s two taxi firms. One has gone bust and the other one’s only cab was in London, about half an hour from where I live, but five hours from where I was. Never have I come closer to attempting to swim across a river. Good sense prevailed and we walked the 11 and a half miles back. Mrs W didn’t say much, but I could tell there was something on the tip of her tongue the whole way back.

Despite doing as much as I possibly could to screw up most days of our holiday, we actually had a lovely time at Clematis Cottage in the village of Bantham. Apart from the brilliant village pub, The Sloop, there’s not a great deal there, but it’s perfectly placed near to an enormous beach where the Avon runs into the sea. This makes it ideal for surfing in front of the atmospheric backdrop of Burgh Island, where Agatha Christie set her murderous And Then There Were None. So the scene is one of dogs bounding after balls,watched by lazy cricketers, children channeling the water through the sand with spades, and surfers  being whisked around by the wind and the waves in a sort of modest regatta.

Clematis Cottage, Bantham

Avon estuary and Burgh Island in the late afternoon.

Overbeck’s in Salcombe is worth a visit for the views from the garden alone, although perhaps only if you’re a National Trust member as the views are about £7 cheaper (free) further up the coast. The garden itself is lovely, though, and the house reveals another one of those stories of batty men from days gone by, who happened to be very wealthy and in possession of a fine house and a ton of curious stuff.


Otto Christop Joseph Gerhardt Ludwig Overbeck, made his fortune through his electrotherapy device, the Overbeck Rejuvenator, and attempted to establish an underlying “theory of electric health”, which he advocated in his text A New Electronic Theory of Life (1925). In this book, Overbeck linked all manner of ailments with an imbalance of electricity. Restoring the natural balance of the electric body, Overbeck argued, could overcome all illness apart from those caused by germs or deformity. Even in his lifetime, he was widely considered to be eccentric and if you Google ‘Overbeck’s rejuvenator’ now, ‘Quack Medical Device’ is the top result.

Nonetheless, Overbeck sold enough to buy a beautiful house outside Salcombe. Here, he collected all manner of natural historical artefacts, and gathered specimens of tropical plants from across the world, opening the gardens to the public. He left the house to the National Trust on the condition that it was used for young people, so most of it is used as a Youth Hostel, which is as good a use as any. One of the lovely young men working there crawled underneath my car to look for my wallet, bless him.

Overbeck’s Rejuvenator. Quack device perhaps, but it has financed an idyllic youth hostel and tropical gardens.

My favourite curiosity was the set of handcuffs worn by John Babbacombe Lee, AKA The Man They Couldn’t Hang. Lee was famous a century ago for surviving three attempts to hang him for a murder that he was eventually cleared of. In 1885, he was convicted of the brutal murder of his employer, Emma Keyse, at her home at Babbacombe Bay in November 1884. The evidence was weak and circumstantial, amounting to little more than Lee having been the only male in the house at the time of the murder, his previous criminal record, and being found with an unexplained cut on his arm. Despite this and his constant claim of innocence, he was sentenced to hang. On 23 February 1885, three attempts were made to carry out his execution at Exeter Prison. All ended in failure, as the trapdoor of the scaffold failed to open despite being carefully tested by the executioner.

As a result, Home Secretary Sir William Harcourt commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. Lee continued to petition successive Home Secretaries and was finally released in 1907. The incident helped lead to a standard gallows design to prevent a recurrence.

The hand cuffs of John Lee, The Man They Couldn’t Hang.

At the end of this holiday, I felt a bit like Babbacombe Lee. I’d lost my wallet with all my wife’s holiday money, I’d tried to walk her and our friends into the river Avon, I’d force marched her twenty three miles to an island where Agatha Christie had plotted mass murder. Three times I’d risked the gallows and each time I survived to enjoy myself in a very special corner of England.

6 thoughts on “The Man They Couldn’t Hang

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s