Bampfylde Moore Carew: the early years

A legend in his lifetime

Bampfylde Moore Carew
Bampfylde Moore Carew

The aristocratic Carews of Bickleigh were by reputation doughty adventurers, but none more so than Bampfylde Moore Carew whose outrageous deeds were so extraordinary that before long his notoriety as a master of disguise and cunning deception spread across the land, far beyond his native Devon.

His exploits were chronicled during his lifetime in a popular collection first published in 1745 entitled The Life and Adventures of Bampfylde-Moore Carew [1]. As many as 30 editions were produced over the next 50 years. Indeed, this picaresque tale was a best-seller for the next one hundred years, and was also the subject of many pamphlets.

Our eponymous hero was destined to be no ordinary Carew; even his names were most unusual. In July 1693 at his baptism the infant boy was christened using the surnames of his illustrious godfathers, the Hon. Hugh Bampfylde and the Hon. Major Moore. But how was it decided which name to put first?

There was some contention between these parties, which of their names should have precedence, doubtlessly presaging the honour that should redound to them from the future actions of our hero. [2]

The matter was decided in favour of Bampfylde following the toss of a coin.

The hunting scholar

At age 12 Bampfylde was enrolled at the famed Blundell's School in Tiverton, where by all accounts he applied himself diligently to the study of Latin and Greek, the backbone of the curriculum. His father, the Reverend Theodore Carew who was rector of Bickleigh, hoped that one day his son would take the cloth also; but this was not to be.

At age 15 Bampfylde and some of his school-mates antagonized some local farmers and landowners by damaging their crops while hunting. Fearing the severity of their impending punishment, the boys ran away from the school.

Front view of the original Blundell's School, 1831
The original Blundell's School, 1831
Bampfylde Moore Carew

Discipline was strict on the school premises, and the birch was applied freely to miscreants. But out of school hours the pupils were given freedom to pursue their own interests, which for Bampfylde and his schoolmates meant indulging in their passion for hunting. The Tiverton scholars even had a pack of hounds to assist them in the chase. But on this occasion the youngsters got carried away in their enthusiasm for the noble sport:

It happened that a farmer living in a [part of the] country adjacent to Tiverton who was a very great sportsman, and used to hunt with the Tiverton scholars, came and acquainted them of a fine deer he had seen with a collar about its neck, in the fields about his farm, which he supposed to be the favourite of some gentleman not far off: this was very agreeable news to the Tiverton scholars, who with Mr Carew, John Martin, Thomas Coleman, and John Escott at their head went in a great body to hunt it: this happened a short time before the harvest; the chase was very hot, and lasted several hours, and they ran the deer many miles, which did a great deal of damage to the fields of corn, that were then almost ripe. ...Those farmers and gentlemen that sustained the most damage came to Tiverton and complained very heavily to Mr Rayner, the schoolmaster, of the havoc made in their fields which occasioned strict enquiry to be made concerning the ringleaders, who proving to be our hero and his companions, they were so severely threatened, that, for fear, they absented themselves from school.

Bampfylde and his co-truants, having laid low overnight, next day entered a nearby ale-house where they had a chance encounter with a lively gathering of gypsies. The wild carousing and merry-making of these folk reminds me of the time I witnessed the unruly antics of a band of itinerant Irish gypsies who had taken over a town centre hostelry for the evening from their temporary caravan encampment outside the town. In 17th and 18th century English parlance, calling someone a gypsy was to categorise them as a cunning rogue rather than of Romany descent, but in Bampfylde's Life they are called beggars, mendicants, and gypsies without differentiation. Today we might call them travellers, that is they are itinerants that live life like a gypsy.

...the next day happening to go to Brick House, an ale-house about half a mile from Tiverton, they accidentally fell into the company of a society of Gipsies, who were feasting and carousing. This society consisted of seventeen or eighteen persons of both sexes who met there that day with a full purpose of merriment and jollity: and after a plentiful meal upon fowls, ducks, and other dainty dishes, the flowing of cups of October, cyder, etc., went most cheerfully round, and merry songs and country dances crowned the jovial banquet; in short, so great an air of freedom, mirth, and pleasure, appeared in the faces of this society, that our youngsters from that time conceived a sudden inclination to enlist into their company.

Bampfylde the gypsy

After initial scepticism in view of the bearing and appearance of our young absconders, the gypsies decided that they were genuine in their desire to be admitted to their number, and following completion of the required ceremonies and oath-taking the matter was concluded to the satisfaction of all.

Very soon Carew was initiated into the wily ways of the gypsies and demonstrated his natural skill as a master of disguise and deception. It wasn't long before he entrapped his first gullible victim:

...Madam Musgrove, of Monkton, near Taunton, hearing of his fame, sent for him to consult in an affair of difficulty: when he had come, she informed him, that she suspected a large quantity of money was buried somewhere about her house, and if he would acquaint her of the particular place she would reward him handsomely. Our hero consulted the secrets of his art upon this occasion, and after long toil and study, informed the lady, that under a laurel tree in the garden lay the treasure she sought for.

Carew advised the dear lady that she should not dig for it until a particular date and time when her planet of good fortune would reign. She thanked him for his advice and rewarded him with 20 guineas. Needless to say, no treasure was to be found below the roots of the laurel.

Master of disguise

After 18 months in the company of the gypsies, on hearing of the sadness of his parents at his absence, the young Carew decided to visit home. He arrived in disguise, a stratagem which had learned to perfection by this time. Upon revealing his true identity his parents were overjoyed and did all in their power to persuade him to remain, but before long he was missing the conviviality and freedom of the traveller's life. The pleasures and entertainments that his friends laid on for him could not compare with

...the uncommon pleasure he had enjoyed in the community he had left, the freedom of their government, the simplicity and sincerity of their manners, the frequent change of their habitation, the perpetual mirth and good humour that reigned among them...

and before long Bampfylde slipped away without bidding farewell, and made his way to Brick House; the mendicants imbibing there welcomed him back to the fold and there was much rejoicing by all.

Within this gypsy society it was regarded as decent and honourable to deceive for financial gain whose who were not of their kind, provided no personal harm was done and the victims were not severely impoverished by such actions. This they justified on the grounds that "mendicants are in a constant state of hostility with all other people".

Bampfylde carried out his mumping expeditions with consummate skill, sparing no detail in his impersonation of characters seemingly deserving of charity.

These included a ship-wrecked seaman, an old woman, a householder whose house had been destroyed by fire, and a Kentish farmer whose lands had been flooded drowning his cattle. Later, while dressed in little more than a blanket, he feigned to be the poor demented Mad Tom.

Bampfylde Moore Carew in various disguises
Bampfylde in various disguises

This is how he assumed the appearance and demeanour of a ship-wrecked mariner:

...with an old pair of trousers, enough of a jacket to cover his nakedness, stockings such as nature gave, shoes, (or rather the body of shoes, for soles they had none,) which had leaks enough to sink a first rate man of war, and a woollen cap so black that one might safely swear it had not been washed since Noah's flood. Being thus attired, our hero changed his manners with his dress; he forgot entirely his family, education, and politeness, and became now nothing more nor less than an unfortunate ship-wrecked seaman.

The only trade that our young scoundrel pursued in earnest was that of rat-catcher. He paid an expert to teach him the techniques to use. Once he had mastered this skill he applied it without fear or favour, providing this service to his own community and the general public alike.

Carew keenly scoured the newspapers for reports of disasters so that he could find new disguises as an unfortunate victim of these tragic events. To authenticate his deception he would forge letters purporting to be from worthy individuals such as clergymen, noblemen, or others of good repute. To enhance his ship-wrecked seaman ruse, he even took a sea voyage to Newfoundland, picking up all the local knowledge he could, so that on his return...

...he was able to give an exact account of Newfoundland, the settlements, harbours, fishery, and inhabitants thereof, he applied with great confidence to masters of vessels, and gentlemen well acquainted with those parts; so that those whom his prudence would not previously permit him to apply to, now became his greatest benefactors.
Bampfylde Moore Carew with dog
Bampfylde with dog

Romance in Newcastle

A short while after this Carew took a trip to Newcastle in a collier; this time without disguise and looking at his best he met and fell in love with the beautiful daughter of an apothecary and surgeon. He was loath to tell this Miss Gray that he was nothing more than a gypsy, so with the connivance of the captain with whom he was acquainted, he told her that he was the mate of the collier and persuaded the young lady to elope with him back to Dartmouth against the wishes of her father.

On arrival at the Devonshire port he could no longer conceal his true occupation from his would-be bride. Naturally she was troubled by this revelation, but upon being told how worthy a family the Carews were, and that the community of gypsies was more happy and less disreputable than she imagined she was entirely satisfied.

The lovers in a few days set out for Bath, where they lawfully solemnized their nuptials with great gaiety and splendour.

The lovers spent some days in Bath living in grand style until Carew's money ran out. Then our newlyweds made their way across southern England, eventually ending up at the Dorset house of an uncle of Bampfylde. This kindly clergyman tried hard to persuade the Carews' black sheep to abandon his gypsy lifestyle, offering to assist Bampfylde so he could make a fresh start and embark on an occupation worthy of the family name. This was to no avail; Bampfylde chose instead to observe closely his uncle's speech and demeanour so that he could henceforth better impersonate a man of the cloth, and on their departure he acquired a cassock, bands, and a black gown. Dressed in this attire, he posed as a Jacobite clergyman from Aberystwyth who had fallen on hard times after he felt obliged to quit his benefice. This he did because his political leanings were no longer in keeping with the times following a change in government.

When he discoursed with any clergyman, or other person of literature, he would now and then introduce come Latin or Greek sentences, that were applicable to what he was talking of, which gave his hearers a high opinion of his learning: all this, and his thorough knowledge of those persons whom it was proper to apply to, made this stratagem succeed even beyond his own expectation.

Not long after this, on hearing that a ship bound from Philadelphia with many Quakers onboard had foundered on rocks off the coast of Ireland, he abandoned his clergyman's clothes for a plain suit and adopted a demure manner so as to pass himself off as one of the Quaker bretheren who where only too ready to part with their money on hearing of his recent misfortune.

Here we end the first part of the story of Bampfylde Moore Carew. The second part of this feature - the middle years - tells of his being crowned King of the Beggars, and also how he was arrested, tried, and transported to Maryland where he was to be sold into slavery on a plantation, but twice managed to escape, eventually returning to England.


A second 1749 edition was called An Apology for the Life of Mr. Bampfylde-Moore Carew. In Devonshire Characters and Strange Events Vol.2 (1908) Sabine Baring-Gould suggests that An Apology is the template for all later versions: "To An Apology for the Life of Mr. Bampfylde-Moore Carew ... all the Lives of this disreputable man are indebted". He was referring here to the second version of An Apology which he dated tentatively as 1753.
This was actually an autobiography, as dictated to the publishers Robert Goadby and W. Owen who embroidered the tales, making the book a more literary, semi-fictional work competing with Henry Fielding's recently published History of Tom Jones. There is a long and sarcastic dedication to Fielding in this version, whose morality (as expressed in Tom Jones) is questioned. This was later dropped, although some derogatory references to Fielding remain within the text in many later versions of the book (including the one linked to in Note 2).[return]


The drawing of Blundell's School by Mrs Boulton(1831) is reproduced from the Devon Libraries Local Studies Service Etched on Devon's Memory series. The engraving of Bampfylde Moore Carew at the top of the page comes from the Devon Libraries Local Studies Service website too.
The picture of Bampfylde in various disguises is taken from Two Accounts of The Life and Adventures of Bampfylde Moore Carew, The King of the Beggars published by The Kennard Press in 1985. This booklet consists of the text and line drawings from two 19th century pamphlets that are shortened versions of the full Adventures, with an engaging introduction by Hugo Breitmeyer. This picture shows what was the cover of the first of the two pamphlets.