There is an intriguing notation on the OS map of Dartmoor (now my new best friend) ...a marked trail called Dr Blackall's Drive, which needed some exploring so my Walking Friend and I tramped out there in early May.

Dr Blackall's Drive map

For anyone heading down this way and wanting a safe, easy-ish walk on Dartmoor with stunning views then this is the one for you. Plenty of parking at Bel Tor Corner (Bel Tor sadly on private land...I'd really like to rock that logan stone) and a short walk south brings you to one end of Dr Blackall's Drive . As you round the corner by Mel Tor some of Dartmoor's most breathtaking views await...

Dbd 2

High above the gorge of the River Dart... and here's the view looking west, back across the Dart valley...

Dbd 5

You can hear the river and easily track its progress as it winds through the trees, here looking down towards on of Dartmoor's legendary wild swimming spots of Sharrah Pool (I just don't fancy the climb back up the hill)

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And there are always ponies...

Dbd ponies 2

Bookhound and I went back a week or so later and heard the cuckoo from the start of the trail to the end. There's a short piece of video with a lot of cuckoo-ing over here <<<<<< on the Instagram feed in case you missed it.

But what interested me more was 'Who was Dr Blackall?'

It is generally known locally that Thomas Blackall lived at nearby Spitchwick Manor in the late 1800s and had the carriage drive created to enable his guests to enjoy the spectacular views across the Dart Gorge in reasonable comfort...though it must have been a bumpy ride and at times slightly precarious. A friend added that she had heard he had a disabled wife and the carriage drive had allowed her to see the sights. The family also had a residence, Maryfield, in the Pennsylvania area of Exeter.

I did some online searching and then headed to the library for free access to all the records and came up with all sorts of interesting connections... you might need you Concentrating Hat on for this...

Dr Thomas Blackall (1814-1899) was the great grandson of a Bishop of Exeter, Ofspring Blackall (d 1757) and the youngest son of Dr John Blackall of Totnes (1771-1860), an eminent physician mentioned in dispatches for his discoveries on the origins of renal disease and also angina. Bishop Blackall...you will want to know this...fell off his horse and died of gangrene when John's grandfather Theophilus was ten years old. Young Theophilus eventually married Philippa, begat another Theophilus who married Elizabeth who begat John who married Laura who begat Thomas of the Drive...are you keeping up...

This might help a little (click to enlarge)

Dr Blackall's Family Tree

A St George's Hospital trained doctor with a practice in Mayfair, Thomas Blackall, as the only surviving son of John and Laura was apparently able to retire to Devon when his father died and he inherited the estate. It would seem Thomas never married, though successive census returns from 1861 onwards reveal the presence of a 'visitor', one Julia Tindall (thirteen years his junior) and her daughter Caroline, and it is Julia Tindall who inherits the Blackall estate on Thomas's death in 1899. Dr Blackall's will reveals a plethora of generous bequests to countless godchildren, household staff and local charities but none so generous as that to 'my friend' Julia. Julia Tindall gains Spitchwick Manor and extensive surrounding lands along with all the coal, wood, hay, straw, the greenhouse, the flowers, the plants in pots, the pots the plants are in, the dogs, the horses, the carriages ...the list is endless and clearly intended to ensure Julia's complete possession that brooks no argument and no contesting of the details.

But here's an interesting thing...

Where are all the Jane Austen aficianados among you...

Does the Reverend Samuel Blackall ring any bells with you...

The Reverend Samuel Blackall (1770-1842) met Jane Austen at the home of the Lefroys and Jane comments on the meeting in a letter to her sister Cassandra dated Saturday November 17 - Sunday 18 November 1798, the 'friend' in question being Samuel...

'She showed me a letter which she had received from her friend a few weeks ago (in answer to one written by her to recommend a nephew of Mrs Russell to his notice at Cambridge), towards the end of which was a sentence to this effect : 'I am very sorry to hear of Mrs Austen's illness. It would give me particular pleasure to have an opportunity of improving my acquaintance with that family - with a hope of creating to myself a nearer interest. But at present I cannot indulge any expectation of it,'

Samuel declares his interest, though Jane has her own ideas about that...


'This is rational enough; there is less love and more sense in it than sometimes appeared before, and I am very well satisfied. It will all go on exceedingly well, and decline away in a very reasonable manner. There seems no likelihood of his coming into Hampshire this Christmas, and it is therefore most probable that our indifference will soon be mutual, unless his regard, which appeared to spring from knowing nothing of me at first, is best supported by never seeing me.'

Intriguingly, Jane then adds this...

'Mrs Lefroy made no remarks on the letter, nor did she say anything about him as relative to me. Perhaps she thinks she has said too much already.'

Wouldn't I just love to know more about that little encounter because It is generally agreed that this Reverend Samuel Blackall was the older brother of Dr John Blackall and therefore the uncle of Thomas, of Dr Blackall's Drive.

The Janeite world was set alight with controversy a few years ago with the publication of a book (An Imaginary Romance - Jane Austen : An Unrequited Love by Dr Andrew Norman) claiming that a meeting between Jane and an Unknown Man in Totnes sometime after 1801 led to a love affair that was eventually broken up by Cassandra out of jealousy, and that the Unknown Man was in fact the very same Reverend Samuel Blackall. Before you knew it the press had made him the real-life Mr Darcy. It's a brave soul indeed who sets an investigative foot in Jane Austen territory (in fact, I can't believe I'm even dipping a little toe in) and the book and the theory is given short shrift by Deirdre Le Faye in her review, though I have it on loan from the library and am revelling in some of the other more definite connections that confirm my own discoveries.

Meanwhile the Reverend Samuel Blackall married Susanna Mary Lewis in January 1813 and moved to the living of North Cadbury in Somerset, though the union did not go unnoticed by Jane Austen...here writing to Frances Austin in July 1813...

'I wonder whether you happened to see Mr Blackall's marriage in the Papers last Jan. We did. He was married at Clifton to a Miss Lewis, whose father had been late of Antigua. I should very much like to know what sort of a Woman she is. He was a piece of Perfection, noisy Perfection himself which I always recollect with regard. 

Nothing misses Jane's attention...

'We had noticed a few months before his succeeding to a College Living, the very Living which we remembered his talking of and wishing for; an exceeding good one, Great Cadbury in Somersetshire. - I would wish Miss Lewis to be of a silent turn & rather ignorant, but naturally intelligent and wishing to learn; - fond of cold veal pies, green tea in the afternoon, & a green window blind at night.'

I'm not even going to try and read any inference or impose an interpretation on that....

The Blackall family tree has proved fascinating not least because every generation favoured the names Theophilus, Samuel, Henry and Thomas for their sons, so I have had great fun unravelling and double checking and delving into the detail. Most tantalising was the apparent presence in the Devon Heritage Centre of a series of letters written by the Reverend Samuel Blackall to his mother about his travels from 1802 to 1806 or thereabouts. I had the said letters requested online and was on the doorstep of the records office in a heartbeat, only for my hopes to be dashed when it transpired that the letters have 'not been found since 2007.' I did however see plenty more documents of interest that joined up all the dots.

I leave you with the thought (look away now all Jane Austen experts) that had Jane married the Reverend Samuel Blackall she would have benefited from the dozen large silver knives and forks (with case) that Samuel was left by his father (Theophilus) in his will. And if they had gone round to brother Dr John Blackall's for tea there they would have encountered his share, a dozen desert spoons, and Jane could have dandled our Thomas (of the Drive) on her knee because he was born in 1814, and even read him a paragraph or two from Pride and Prejudice, published the year before.

But she would have benefited from something else too...

Dr John Blackall by Ramsay Richard Reinagle (1775-1862) - Royal College of Physicians  LondonJane would die three years later so any marriage to Samuel would have been cut short, but then you wonder whether Dr John Blackall, with his expertise in renal disease and as her brother-in-law, might have been involved in diagnosing and treating Jane's illness at an earlier stage because by all accounts he was a meticulous and skilled practitioner...this from his obituary..

"Dr. Blackall was truly learned. His information on medical matters, singularly extensive and accurate, had been qualified by a wide and varied research into many departments of human knowledge. His diagnostic powers were of the very highest order. Though it may be perhaps said that caution was one of the chief of his medical characteristics, yet this quality by no means prevented him from exercising a remarkable degree of boldness where experience or analogy justified such interference. Above all, as he was clear in his perception of disease, so was he simple in the character of his remedies; patient in waiting for results, far seeing, firm, and self-relying. Personally, he became identified with his patient. Feeling an almost sacred responsibility in the health of those entrusted to his care, his solicitude for them was constant, and no labour was thought too great, no investigation spared that would tend to add to their comfort and well-doing."

I came to this conclusion before reading Andrew Norman's book and I now see that he, as a retired GP, thinks along similar lines arguing that Jane might have consulted John at some stage, though there seems to be no evidence for this.

Incidentally, this portrait of his father was bequeathed to the Royal College of Physicians by Dr Thomas Blackall along with sufficient funds for its restoration, and doesn't Dr John have a kindly and reassuring face.

Goodness, it could all have been so different, and now I'm thinking 'if only.'