A quest to discover the true origin of one of the most quintessentially English folk songs has taken a surprise twist.
The exploits of “Uncle Tom Cobley and all” – immortalised in Widecombe Fair – has been synonymous with the Dartmoor village for more than 130 years.
However, research by historian Todd Gray has shown there were more than 50 versions of the ditty sung across the country, performed long before the most famous one came to prominence.
In his new book, Dr Gray shows how Widecombe Fair became popular with revellers from Torquay to Liverpool throughout the late 19th century.
The discovery of lyrics for the song in a newspaper show it was sung in Feniton in 1867 as well as a parody two years later in Dartmouth.
The man who first published the lyrics, Sabine Baring-Gould, believed the ballad had its origins in the 18th century but could find no supporting evidence.
The real origins of the song have always been a mystery but Dr Gray’s research suggests it was known in Exeter as early as 1761.
The lyrics referring to Widecombe Fair became well-known after being published in 1889, and then played across England on a concert lecture tour.
However, Dr Gray suggests a vast array of towns and villages, mostly in the South West, had their own version of Widecombe Fair, with locally relevant lyrics and characters.
Dr Gray, from the University of Exeter, said: “Widecombe Fair is based on people having fun, and designed to be sung with a crowd, and that’s why the tune has been so popular.
“We now know it is much older than thought, and not particularly associated with Widecombe. The song was sung across the country, with the lyrics changing to refer to the location.”
In his book, called Uncle Tom Cobley & All, Dr Gray describes how local versions were sung across Devon, before and after Widecombe Fair became famous.
It was also performed across the country in places as far afield as Cambridge, Birmingham, Worcester, Liverpool, Bath, Bristol, London and Leicester, and can even be traced to Sydney, Winnipeg, Montreal and Calcutta.
Articles in newspapers in Aldermaston, Penzance, Bolton and Kenilworth described it as a Devonshire song. In Surrey, Eastbourne and Worcestershire it was recorded as a Somerset song.
In 1875 it was sung as Uncle Tom Cobley and I at Tewkesbury.
In Hastings in 1874 and in London in 1885 it was called Tom Pierce. Another variant, Tom Pearce’s Grey Mare, was heard at Chard in 1852, but in the 1880s at Horsham, Northampton, Buckingham, Leiston and Daventry it was known as Tom Pearse’s Old Mare.
Dr Gray added: “Uncle Tom Cobley and All is Devon’s most famous phrase and the song was its unofficial anthem.
“Widecombe Fair moved from being sung in pubs to being performed in concert halls and drawing rooms and was one of the country’s favourite songs.
“I’ve found more than 50 different versions, and no doubt there were more. Perhaps the Widecombe version is the most famous because the setting is so appealing and atmospheric.”