The Coopers of Colyton Common

Fond memories of Tommy and Priscilla have been shared with parish councillor and local historian Ken Clifford.

They were charismatic entrepreneurs of the countryside and were liked - and remembered - by everyone they met.

Gypsies Tommy and Priscilla Cooper were as synonymous with Colyton Common as the bleak landscape they called ‘home’.

Years after their deaths, stories about their remarkable lives have been collected by local historian and parish councillor Ken Clifford.

He received an overhwelming response after the Midweek Herald revealed Priscilla was a leading folk singer of her day - so admired, the great song collector Cecil Sharp twice travelled to her Romany caravan to record her voice at the turn of the 1900s. Those primitive recordings survive to this day, held in the vaults of the British Library.

“The big thing is that so many people have contacted me to say how happy it made them to read about Tommy and Priscilla in the Midweek Herald,” said Ken. “They remember Tommy and have been delighted to read about his wife.”

Ken hopes visitors, particularly those interested in folk singing, will be drawn to Colyton - to follow in the Coopers’ footsteps.

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“The response to The Herald’s original story was so great, I couldn’t possibly thank everyone individually,” he said. “I want to say one big thank you, to everyone.”

Thanks to that massive response, we can now reveal...

Priscilla Cooper wore the trousers in her caravan, but it is Tommy who people remember the most.

Although daffodils were grown by Tommy Cooper, in fields on both sides of Colyton Hill, it was not a flower that drew him to Devon. It was ferns.

The gypsy left his native Kent, together with Bill Cooper, William Packman and Vanny Low, and travelled by train in search of a plant that would protect fresh fish at London’s big markets from flies.

Three types of fern were sought after by traders in the capital, research by Ken Clifford has revealed.

Gyspy suppliers referred to them as Boreye, Angular and Polly.

Tommy quickly discovered all three species were readily available in the Colyton area, so he put down roots and stayed.

His companions moved on to South Devon and Cornwall.

The ferns were bundled by species, dampened and sent by train to London.

Tommy’s daffodil business followed. He rented fields from the parish council, as well as local farmers.

“I’m told his fields of yellow flowers were hell of a sight,” says Ken.

He believes Tommy Cooper was a shrewd businessman, with a keen eye for a bargain and who was never short of a bob or two.

The Coopers had a sideline - collecting rags. Their horse and cart did the rounds and, in the run-up to Christmas, they were especially busy. The Coopers supplied holly wreaths and mistletoe.

“Everything came from nature, except the rags,” said Ken.

“After Tommy’s death, his daffodil bulbs were dug up and sold. People came from as far afield as Cornwall to buy them.”

On Colyton Common a dew pond acted like a magnet for Tommy Cooper’s horses.

It was filled in following his death, but a shed he once lived in nearby survives.

It was moved, bit by bit, to Manor Farm and, up until a few years ago, was still used.

Although still standing, a storm has stoved in its front elevation.

Tommy was a great horseman and his knowledge of all things equestrian earned him the respect of farmers and huntsman.

The late Martin Salter, a former master of Axe Vale Hunt, was among those to recognise his affinity with horses.

The legend that was Tommy Cooper is recorded in the diary of former Seaton businessman Harry Clapp.

According to records kept at Axe Valley Heritage Museum, the Clapps were undertakers and supplied a hearse and five mourning carriages for the funeral of the Queen of the Gypsies.

It is not known for sure who the Queen was, but it was before Priscilla Cooper’s death.

In Harry Clapp’s own words, the Queen lived at Colyton Hill and was buried at Salcombe Regis.

Gypsies from all over England and Wales attended her funeral.

The horses used for the mourning carriages were kept at Huntshayne.

Mourners met on Colyton Hill, but, according to Harry’s written record, several were drunk and slept until funeral-goers returned for the traditional burning of the Romany caravan.

Then, he recorded, a “great fight” broke out and the following day Tommy was seen with two black eyes and a very swollen face.

(With grateful thanks to Ted Gosling, curator, Axe Valley Heritage Museum, Seaton.)

Although Tommy and Priscilla Cooper had no children of their own, they ‘adopted’ a neighbour’s son.

The boy was one of a large number of children belonging to Clinton Estate shepherd Albert Boyland and his wife, who lived at Stafford Cottages.

He regularly accompanied them on outings to collect rags and other business.

It is recorded by Colytonians that the boy “always went home wearing lovely clothes”.

One of the many stories to come out of our appeal for more information about Priscilla and Tommy Cooper has nothing to do with them at all.

However, it is about a gypsy - and a very lucky one at that!

Bernard and Betty Pearce recall that Tilly, who lived at Stockland, visited Colyton for a dance.

When she left the event to go home, she realised what a long walk she faced.

In a nearby field, she caught a pony and rode it home.

It was found by a constable tied to a tree after being reported missing.

When asked about the pony, Tilly freely admitted riding it home and asked: “Am I in trouble?”

“No!” she was told.

In fact, it transpired, the farmer had been trying to catch the pony for three weeks and was willing to pay her �10 the next time he saw her - for breaking it in!