"In Cornwaile's fair land, bye the poole on the
Tregeagle the wicked did dwell.
He once was a shepherde,
contented and poore,
But growing ambytious, and wishing for more,
Sad fortune the shepherde befelle."
If we are to believe the legend, the blackest character in the history of Cornwall must surely be John (Jan) Tregagle of Trevorder, near Wadebridge, who sold his soul to the Devil. His wicked misdeeds were legend and the tales of his return from the dead and the many attempts to lay his unquiet ghost stretch across the whole of the county.
Tregagle was a well documented historical character, born in the early 17th century, possibly a lawyer who became Steward to Lord Roberts of Lanhydrock near Bodmin and a Justice of the Peace. In 1642 he married Jane Grenville, daughter of a local knight, and his rise to wealth and power began. An opportunist, he spied for the Parliamentary forces during the English Civil War.
In 1645 he apparently loaned money to two local landowners in return for a lease on their lands at St. Breock. When they fell into debt with the repayment, he sued them for possession of the lands and evicted the tenants. In his role as JP he prosecuted local white witch, Anne Jeffries of St. Teath, who was a devout, God - fearing woman with a healing touch but whose real crime to speak out of favour of the King.
On 3rd October 1655 Tregagle was buried in St. Breock Churchyard, and from that moment on the legends began. During his life he must of upset a lot of people, for we are told now that he married and murdered heiress (though he had but one wife who outlived him), defrauded people of their land and possessions, murdered his children, seized the estate of an orphan whose parents he also murdered, and sold his soul to the Devil.
At a hearing in Bodmin Assizes after Tregagle's death the defendant rashly summoned his spirit back from the dead to bear witness, and Tregagle it's said, instantly appeared telling the court that now they had called him back they would never make him return again.
According to just some of the many legends about him, the ghost of Tregagle can be heard howling in the wind when Atlantic storms blow in, that he has been reincarnated variously as a giant bird and a huge black dog haunting Bodmin Moor and tales of his ghostly presence abound from Launceston to Land's End. Exorcists bound him to empty the bottomless Dozmary Pool with a leaking limpet shell. He unexpectedly finished the task, almost drowning the folk of nearby St. Neot village, and when he escaped to seek refuge in the hermitage at the top of Roche Rock he was then bound to weave ropes of sand at St. Minver. The locals complained of his howling and had him moved to Helston, where he was forced to carry sacks of sand across from Bareppa to Porthleven. The Devil tripped him up, and Helston became land bound.
Tregagle's name was to frighten naughty children and it has become part of the mythology of Cornwall. The standing stone of Porthpean, near St. Austell, is "Tregagle's stick". The sea cave under Carne, at Veryan, is "Tregagle's Hole" and he cries in the storm winds from Goss Moor and Bodmin Moor and right down the coast between Padstow and Helston.
Why is Tregagle depicted as such a villain? Documented history suggests that although he was clearly a hard man motivated by wealth he was nowhere near as black as he was painted. Misreading of old documents could hold part of the answer. Perhaps it was not Tregagle himself who was summoned back from the dead. His son was also John Tregagle (whose gravestone is on display at St. Breock church), as was his grandson and great grandson. And, maybe, in those days lawyers were just as unpopular as they are now!