The Legend of John Babbacombe Lee

A steep winding track, not much more than a rough pathway would have brought you right down to the beach where you're currently standing. It's dark and you're encircled by barely visible fishermen's nets, boats and equipment currently looking like nocturnal ocean creatures beached upon the shingle. You're looking over a black sea. Waves break very gently on the shore ahead of you. You're in a bay with steep wooded cliffs looming up behind you. All is quiet on this November night. To your right raised on a rocky outcrop you can just see the tavern. It's silent currently, the drinkers having long wounded their way to their homes. No light comes from any of the tavern's windows. Below the tavern is often at the water's edge, a fisherman's house its inhabants also slumbering soundly as the slow passing hours of early morning crawl by marked faintly at every quarter by a distant clock in a village far on top of the cliffs behind you. It's now after two and the winter chill has begun to flow into each part of you.

Immediately behind you at the foot of these woodsy cliffs, you turn to see the only other basic building in this little remote bay. Within the gloom you can just work out its that roof, its leaded windows and also the colonnade that runs on the front. This is no humble house but a fine house belonging to somebody with means. To the right of the house lies a boathouse.

However you can not see that.

Fleetly you you think you see a light pass a window in this house, sometimes you hear a voice, a cry then all is quiet once more. Unsure you turn back to the ocean. The darkness can play tricks on your senses. The gentle wind carries the fishy smell of the nets, the tang of salt from the water and currently something else. May be it's the smell of burning? Not the standard smell of coal fires but sweeter like wood smoke … A crawling sense of unease begins to unsettle you. Something definitely not right.

Had that actually been you on that South Devon beach on 15th November 1884 you would have had a different witness to the beginning of one of the most horrible crimes of the late nineteenth century in the Torquay area. Had you lingered on that beach for a couple of minutes more you've seen the house behind you erupt into activity with figures darting back and forth around that colonnaded house. You've seen a figure hurrying to the darkened tavern raising the alarm and setting the windows ablaze as initial reports of the murder began to flow beyond the bay.

The crime in question was the murder of Emma Keyse a spinster who lived inside the house, The Glen, with two elderly maids she had inherited from her mother as well as a cook and an odd job man. Miss Keyse was an austere Victorian of devout religious beliefs. The household had once been ready for the potential arrival and brief stay of the then princess Victoria; the royal family had often taken short breaks within the South Devon area. But the princess had never come and the household had long since sunk into the exception discreet poverty of many of the Victorian middle class. The house and also the estate it came with were up for sale at the time of her death.

From the time that the alarm was raised at the Cary Arms near Torquay, the legend of the crime grew as did the complexity of the events that followed it. The chief suspect for the murder was John Lee, the odd-job man though in reality he was not much more than a boy. The nature of Miss Keyse's murder was quite brutal. She had been clearly attacked with a sharp implementation and had then been set a blaze in an attempt to destroy evidence. The house was additionally set alight in a number of various places with a similar intention. Very quickly the Penny Dreadfuls of the time and the illustrated crime sheets located upon each grizzly facet of the story and retold it in pictures and words with great relish.

Circumstantial evidence and a troubled youth meant that Lee was an only too reliable perpetrator. Lee was arrested and marched from Babbacombe right down to Torquay police station from where he went to Exeter and was later placed on trial. An extraordinarily inept defense which saw his solicitor replaced as a result of insanity resolved in a very guilty verdict and therefore the inevitable death sentence. Throughout it all Lee remained curious calm and impassive something that the judge remarked upon. Lee responded by claiming that God knew of his innocence and he trusted in God.

That remark and also the events that unfolded at the execution contributed to the creation of the myth of John Babbacombe Lee. At the appointed time of his execution Lee had a hood and noose placed over his head. He was placed on the trap door and a leaver was dropped to release it. However rather than descending downwards to his death, the trap doors refused to budge. Lee was taken from the doors and they were tested and found to be working. Placed on the trapdoors for a second time the leaver was dropped and once more the doors refused to manoeuvre. Lee was taken away on the instructions of the prison governor and the carpenter was called for and alterations made. For the third time Lee was brought onto the trap door. By this point those attending were in a very heightened state of anxiety and distress and when for the third time the trap doors refused to fall away beneeth Lee the whole proceedings were brought to a halt as the chaplain, who briefly given, refused to carry on . John Lee, the man they could not hang, was then sent to serve out a prison sentence once he was released he became something of a celebrity. The events on the scaffold led to mutterings of witchcraft, sabotage and possibly divine judgment. It was a sensation and even Queen Victoria expressed a view on what had happened.

In the years that immediately followed Lee's release from prison his notoriety ensured a particular amount of financial gain and employment. A low budget motion picture was created in Australia and ever brought to England to great popular acclaim if not critical acclaim. His later years are shrouded in mystery with reports of Lee having gone abroad, bought in world war I, being dropped out of debris in the Blitz and having died at at least four occasions in as many different countries. The house on the beach, that was partially destroyed by fire on the night of the murder, was lived in for a year more by the remaining employees before it was destroyed and the land sold off.

The auction of the contents attracted local people as well as those from as distant as London. A fragment of the house remained beneath the café that was later built on the site; Miss Keyse's wine cellar. However, this too was destroyed as the café was destroyed in 1974.

Today, Babbacombe Bay feels less remote than Torquay and the rough track that led down to it has long since been widened and tampered despite it's still steep and winding. The fisherman has long gone from Babbacombe beach and there's currently no trace of the house that once stood there. The Cary Arms is still in existence though and still looks out over the scene of the murder. It's a gastro pub now.

Above the beach, the gardens of the glen still stay but they are currently quite deserted and wind their way up to the Babbacombe Theater where 21st century visitors to the area enjoy shows of many varieties from traditional performances to stand up comedians .

This area at the top of the cliffs referred to as Babbacombe Downs affords fantastic views of Lyme Bay and is popular with locals and visitors alike. At the far end of the Downs is the Babbacombe cliff railway that takes passengers down to and up from Oddicombe beach.

Modern guests to the South Devon area on summer breaks or winter visits can choose between a wide range of hotel accommodation including five star, gold award hotels located around the center of Torquay. Boutique style hotel accommodation is available that overlooks the very route taken by John Lee as he was marched down from Babbacombe to his fate at Torquay police station. These hotels many providing Wifi internet and licensed bars often provided a perfect base from which to explore the historic English Riviera and capture the fleeting images of the ghosts of Torquay's past.