Did the Devil leave his hoofprints across Devon 160 years ago?

The Devil's Footprints. Illustration by Peter Daly.

The Devil's Footprints. Illustration by Peter Daly. - Credit: Archant

BRENDA DISKIN reports on the anniversary of a strange Devon phenomenon

The night of the 8 February 2015 is the 160th anniversary of a very strange event, that left the people of South Devon wondering whether the Devil himself had paid them a visit.

Mysterious hoof-shaped prints were said to have appeared overnight in heavy snowfall and were discovered by early risers the next morning. The prints, which were one in front of the other about eight-and-a-half inches apart, appeared to have been made by a biped. They were said to have covered an area of between 40 to 100 miles, passing over rooftops and through walls. One set of prints were said to have bridged the River Exe, continuing on the other side as if the creature had walked over the water. This was all supposed to have happened over a six-hour period, which would have meant that the perpetrator would have had to be moving at speeds up to 17 miles per hour.

People waited to see if the footprints would return over the next few days, but they did not. After a few days the news spread to the national press, including The Times and the Illustrated News, which brought more accounts to light.

According to the newspaper reports, the prints stretched over a long distance passing through solid walls and haystacks as though they were nonmaterial. This led to an excessive amount of speculation as to the cause and raised the interest of several scientists.

Most of the southern villages of Devon, from Totnes to Topsham, seemed to have been inundated with the prints. There was a true feeling of unease throughout the population especially when some of the clergy suggested that the prints belonged to the Devil, who was roaming the countryside looking for sinners.

Other explanations included escaped kangaroos, badgers, swans, otters and even a trailing rope from a hot air balloon sailing overhead. These could explain some of the tracks made that night but not all.

Most Read

Several sightings have been reported over the years of similar prints from different parts of the world.

In May 1840 a surveying party on an expedition led by James Clark Ross to Kerguelen Island reported finding similar hoofprints in the snow. They followed the trail of prints until it disappeared on the rocky soil.

Also in 1840, a story appeared in The Times of 14 March which told of footprints being found among the high mountains in the Glenorchy area of Scotland.

These prints had appeared several times during that winter and the previous one. They stretched for about twelve miles and because of their depth were thought to have been made by a beast of considerable size. It was stated that its walk was not of the generality of quadrupeds.

If this is so, then are these marks produced by some kind of natural phenomenon as yet unknown?

Could it be the result of freak atmospheric conditions?

As recently as 2009 the Daily Mail carried a report of a 76-year-old grandmother in Woolsery, Devon, who footprints in the shape of a cloven hoof in her snow covered garden.

Did the Devil visit Devon that night in 1855? Or is there another explanation?