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'A Tale that will make the Stoutest Tremble': An Accidental Death in Eighteenth-Century Derbyshire

Peter Collinge | Keele University
Issue 02 - December 2020
Dovedale, Derbyshire
Dovedale, Derbyshire
Dovedale, Derbyshire

Dovedale, Derbyshire. Photographs courtesy of the author.


  n 1761 the Revd. Dean Langton fell to his death in a riding accident in Dovedale, Derbyshire. His travelling companion, Miss Laroche, had a miraculous escape. The event was widely-reported and elaborated upon in eighteenth-century newspapers, magazines, guide books, and poems. It has also enjoyed a long, yet not always accurate, afterlife which gives the story a contemporary resonance. Both then and now, dubious information, unreliable narratives, and discrepancies in reporting affect reputations.

A Composite Interpretation

The following utilises the most frequently occurring words and phrases contained in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century texts describing the incident to create a composite rendering of what happened. On 28 July 1761 the Revd. Langton, Dean of Clogher, Ireland, and Miss Laroche, guests of Wenman Coke, at Longford Hall, Derbyshire, were amongst a party making an excursion to Dovedale. After viewing the scenery, drinking and dining on a cold collation near Reynard’s Cave (a favourite picnic spot) the party prepared to return. As they proceeded along the bottom of the valley, a spirited Mr Langton proposed ascending a steep hill on horseback. Miss Laroche, with more courage than prudence, begged to accompany him in his bold adventure. Sitting on the same horse (some versions have Laroche sitting behind Langton, others in front), they set off. Having reached a considerable height, the dean mistook a sheep track for the road. Upon realising his error, he attempted to turn the horse around. The poor animal, unable to sustain the fatigue of the task imposed upon it, lost its footing and rolled with Langton and Laroche down the steep slope. Over and over and down and down they went. The dean paid the ultimate penalty for his rash act. Precipitated to the bottom, bruised and mangled, after being rescued and taken to an inn in Ashbourne, he died. Miss Laroche was providentially saved; her descent retarded by her hair or clothes becoming entangled in a bramble or thorn bush. A more fanciful version in Samuel Bentley’s poem The River Dove (1768 revised 1774) had Laroche ‘Suspended unhurt in mid-air’. When rescued, she was insensible and continued so for two days before recovering slowly.

   When compared to two letters written by people intimately connected to the event, this composite account, based on second-hand, and sometimes colourful, versions by the likes of William Bott, Joseph Farington, Richard Warner, Daniel and Samuel Lysons, the Revd. Tenison-Mosse, and correspondence in the Gentleman’s Magazine, is shown to be riddled with discrepancies and inconsistencies. Individually the differences are often minor but have a cumulative effect. In these versions, Langton and Laroche are depicted as spirited, headstrong and imprudent, if not downright foolhardy. Moreover, in reading these accounts, we learn more about the horse than Miss Laroche, who is not accorded a first name. Depending upon which version you read, the horse either survived unhurt at the top, fell partway but incurred minor injuries, or was found slightly bruised (or dead) at the bottom of the dale. Variations in the fate of the horse, raise questions about the core of the story and about William Langton and Miss Laroche themselves.

19th C. hand-coloured engraving of Dovedale by Percy William Justyne (1812-83). Property of the author.

19th C. hand-coloured engraving of Dovedale by Percy William Justyne (1812-83). Property of the author.

Two Letters

Written within a week of the accident, two letters cast different perspectives on the day and on Langton and Laroche. One by Wenman Coke appeared later in The Athenaeum (10 May 1862) and the other, by Miss Laroche, appeared in a footnote to Joseph Farington’s Diary of 1802, published in 1922. Coke was not present when the accident occurred. His letter, written to one of the dean’s sons, recounts that Mrs Coke, Langton, Laroche and their servants went to see Dovedale together. On setting out for their return, Langton was walking alongside his horse until Laroche complained of being tired. It was then that Langton proposed that they should both ride together on his horse. Upon nearing the summit, the horse, Langton and Laroche fell. Langton’s fall was broken by him being caught on a shrub.  He was found in about half-an-hour, but it took around three to rescue him. His head was ‘beat to mummy’, a pulpy substance; his face a jelly of blood. One eye was out and the other damaged. His body was covered with violent bruises. He revived a little after a passing physician bled him and was brought to Ashbourne where medical men were sent for, but to no avail. He died on 30 July 1761 (two days later than stated on Langton’s memorial in St Oswald’s church, Ashbourne). Laroche, who fell fifty yards lower than the dean was much less hurt but had several bad wounds.

    In Coke’s version, Langton was not initially on his horse, did not propose some rash expedition and did not press Laroche. Instead, prompted by Laroche’s comment, he offered to assist a tired lady. Langton fell less far than Laroche, who far from having more courage than prudence, merely expressed the opinion that she was tired. It seems eminently sensible that she should accept the offer of assistance as the only way of exiting the dale was along paths and tracks up the hillside. Writing in 1795, ‘T. O.’ of Kensington praised Langton for his gallantry but lamented that his temerity had overtaken his prudence. Coke’s version of events does lead us to contemplate, however, the possibility that if Laroche had not complained of being tired and the dean had not offered gentlemanly assistance, he may have survived.

   Laroche offers the most detailed account of the accident whilst simultaneously exonerating herself of any culpability. ‘Prepare yourself my dear Mother’, she began, ‘to hear a tale that will make the stoutest tremble and acknowledge the wonderful hand of God’. Except for Langton with his mount by his side, the party left their horses and carriages in a pasture near the road, walked down into the dale and dined by the river. When they set out to return, the dean mounted his horse. Laroche complained of being tired, so Langton pressed her to join him on his horse. The horse and riders moved faster than those on foot and were quickly out of sight. They took the wrong track, which soon petered out. Near the top of the dale, Laroche began to feel afraid and was ‘seized with a horror’ as the hill was almost vertical. Langton warned her not to interfere with the reins, but to rely on him. It was too late. They tumbled and rolled down the hillside. Throughout, Laroche was in full possession of her senses. ‘Dashed from rock to rock’, she felt every blow. Near the bottom, her hair became entangled in a furze bush. She grasped hold of it with both hands and with great sang-froid lay still and composed herself; disentangled her hair and tied a handkerchief around her head. After a while, she looked up and saw Langton about halfway down and directed him towards a solitary tree. By this time, Langton’s servant, who had seen the rider-less horse, was sent by Mrs Coke to search for the pair. When he found Langton, Laroche warned the servant not to approach ‘lest he set the dean rolling’.  Fortuitously, a group of men (including a physician) then appeared on the scene. Langton was rescued and bled, but as he was ‘old’ and ‘bulky’ had little chance of recovering. Laroche was carried down and laid on the ground before being transported to Ashbourne. There she stayed at an inn for two days before being carried on a feather bed to Longford. Despite rolling down the hillside, Laroche broke no limbs: ‘my stays [corset] preserved my stomach and breasts, the other parts of my body bruised as you may imagine’.

   Entering Dovedale by the side of Thorpe Cloud (941 feet) was usually done on foot. Likewise, Laroche stated that the party entered on foot but that Langton, like Viator in Izaac Walton’s The Compleat Angler, also took his horse. Later commentators drew comparisons between Viator’s fear that he would break his neck, or that his horse would fall on him, and Langton’s action.  In preparing to return to their carriages, Langton, being ‘old’ (he was 62) and ‘bulky’ and the ground slippery, was already mounted on his horse, before Laroche complained of being tired. Due to propriety and the physical constraints of her corset and clothing, she was probably riding side-saddle, which may have aided her survival. Conscious throughout, she bandaged her head, hoped her instructions to the dean would prevent further injury, and warned Langton’s servant of the danger his master was in. In Laroche’s narrative, she comes across as someone remaining calm and thinking clearly rather than rash or reckless.

Image of Dovedale, Gentleman’s Magazine, vol. 64, pt 2 (1794), p.1074.

Image of Dovedale, Gentleman’s Magazine, vol. 64, pt 2 (1794), p.1074.

A Confusing Literary Afterlife

In the immediate aftermath of the event, widely differing reports began to circulate. With separate incidents sometimes coalescing, they have continued down to the present. The first reports appeared in newspapers. In an item that contained only nodding acquaintance with the actuality, the Bath Chronicle in 1761 was not alone in its misreporting. While returning to his brother’s home from a visit to Chatsworth, Langton rode too close to a precipice. The ground gave way, and both he and the horse fell and died. Of Miss Laroche, the Chronicle and many other papers said nothing. A distant echo of this account appeared in The Daily Telegraph in 2003. Christopher Somerville suggested that having made the ascent, Langton leant too far out of his saddle to admire Dovedale’s rock formations from Lover’s Leap. Skidding over the edge, horse and rider died. In a story not restricted to Dovedale, a 2014 blog on Buxton Museum’s website illustrates how separate incidents, real or otherwise, can merge together. In this version, the horse has disappeared altogether. Langton’s death is coupled with the almost certainly apocryphal survival of a woman jumping off Lover’s Leap only to be saved by her skirt acting as a parachute. A follow-up blog concluded by asking whether Langton would have lived if he had been a cross-dresser. In Bygone Derbyshire (1892) William Andrews recounted an event of about 1760 when a girl reputedly threw herself from the top of another Lover’s Leap, this time in Middleton Dale. Her clothing, caught in brambles and rocks, broke her fall. She too survived relatively unscathed and was able to walk home, albeit with assistance. The phrases used by Andrews and the similar date, however, suggest a merging of two separate stories.

   Deploying the language of the sublime, the picturesque, and of gothic novels, more fulsome descriptions of Langton and Laroche’s ill-fated outing began to appear. At the same time, fascinated tourists, eager to see Dovedale’s rugged landscape of pinnacles, precipices, towering rock formations and caves, also heard tour guides recount the story with ghoulish relish mixed with dire warnings. Some dropped hints of impropriety.  William Gilpin thought the ‘dreadful story’ roused the mind and added ‘double terror to every impending rock’. Occasionally, visitors could become so alarmed at what they were told that, having entered the dale, they refused to proceed. Writing to the Gentleman’s Magazine in the 1790s, J.P. Malcolm declared that his enthusiasm to climb the sides of the hills was extinguished upon learning of the ‘horrid catastrophe’.

    In more than twenty versions of this story covering nearly 250 years, all agree that Langton died. Beyond that, few details emerge of Langton’s and Laroche’s backgrounds, and when they do, especially in Laroche’s case, they often serve to obfuscate rather than illuminate. Either writers reproduce the account, sometimes verbatim, from earlier sources irrespective of their accuracy, or they seek to establish a personal connection by claiming specific knowledge of the event or people, often by attempting to correct an earlier error. In doing so, however, a correction is nearly always accompanied by further distortion as the following illustrates. A drawing of Reynard’s Cave and letter by J. P. Malcolm in The Gentleman's Magazine in 1794 prompted others to recall the events of 1761. ‘H. R.’ of Nottingham responded with a description of the accident including a sketch of Langton and Laroche in mid-fall. ‘H. R.’ concluded that Miss Laroche was married not long afterwards, but did not know the gentleman’s name. Nevertheless, it was hoped that she enjoyed both comfort and happiness. This prompted another response by ‘Obadiah’ to say that ‘H. R.’ was mistaken. Miss Laroche had never married but lived at Stoke Cannon near Exeter but was unfortunately crippled by rheumatism. This was refuted by yet another correspondent, ‘Danmoniensis’: the Miss Laroche of Stoke Canon was the sister of the Miss Laroche involved in the accident. The latter had married John Fulford of Great Fulford, Devonshire, both of whom were now deceased. A footnote to Wenman Coke’s Athenaeum letter (published 1862) stated that Miss Laroche married Baldwin Fulford of Devon, whereas the footnote in Farington’s Diary, like ‘Danmoniensis’, stated that Laroche married John Fulford.

     Despite the contradictions, there are some threads. The links to the south-west of England and the Fulfords and the Farington footnote have made it possible to discover more about Miss Laroche. After leaving Longford, she went to Bath to aid her recovery. There she met John Fulford. Their marriage, announced in the Gentleman’s Magazine (2 June 1762), was conducted by the Archbishop of Canterbury in Lambeth Palace Chapel. Elizabeth Laroche (1730-91), of King Street, St James’ Square, London, was the daughter of John Laroche, M.P. for Bodmin, Cornwall, and sister of Sir James Laroche.  Rather than the impressionable youngster implied by the story, she was thirty-one at the time of the accident. After their marriage, John Fulford embarked on a ruinously expensive remodelling of Great Fulford House in Devon, and the pair had their portraits painted by society artist Thomas Hudson. They had no children. Following his death in 1780, Elizabeth lived quietly, but hospitably, regaling visitors with her eventful picnic in Dovedale. She died in October 1791.

   ‘T. O.’ stated in the Gentleman’s Magazine that Langton had been Dean of Coleraine, but that position did not exist according to ‘A. M. T’, another correspondent. Despite this lapse, there is less confusion about Langton (1699-1761) overall.  He was the son of George Langton of Langton-by-Partney Lincolnshire and Mary Tyndale of Westminster. In 1728 he married Mary Roberts. They had six children. Langton, a member of the SPCK since 1740, had been appointed Dean of Clogher in 1743, a position in the gift of the Dukes of Devonshire. The Sunday prior to his death Langton had preached at All Saints, Derby. His words on the theme of mortality were taken as prophetic, ‘It is appointed to all men once to die’.

    As news of Langton’s death and Laroche’s escape spread along the country’s coaching routes, so too did the distortions. The result was an event recast in the manner of an episode in a gothic drama set in a location that inspired terror and awe in equal measure. Laroche was depicted as an impressionable young woman and Langton as an over-bearing cleric. While such colourful repetitions of the story endure, however, Langton and Laroche’s reputations suffer. The incident was certainly dramatic, but too often the sensational circumstances have overwritten close scrutiny. Indeed, like other events embedded in the collective consciousness, simple repetition appears to validate its accuracy. Revisiting the event, however, is a timely reminder of the importance of seeking out not just stories, but their origins and sources. Without doing so, stories grow with the telling. Fact merges with fiction, and wittingly or unwittingly, distortion creeps in.



Further Reading:


Peter Collinge was awarded his PhD on Georgian businesswomen in 2015. He is a postdoctoral researcher at Keele University on the AHRC-funded project ‘Small Bills and Petty Finance: co-creating the history of the Old Poor Law, 1700–1834’, and is the co-contributing editor of the forthcoming ‘Providing for the Poor: The Old Poor Law, c.1750-1834. He has published articles about eighteenth-century women, Georgian businesses, spa life, and workhouse gardens. 

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