© Kim Parker/Dorset OPC 2015
Bettiscombe is a secluded hamlet and civil parish on the North side
of the Marshwood Vale, 4 miles to the West of Beaminster. The name means ‘valley of a man called
Bett’ from an Old English personal name and ‘cumb’ for valley. Historically, the parish also
included a tiny patch of land at the centre of Wootton Fitzpaine, three parishes away to the
John Hicks, the Dorchester architect whose employees at that time numbered future author Thomas
Hardy, rebuilt St Stephen’s Church in the early perpendicular style in 1862. Some of the medieval
windows were retained and the medieval tower was left almost intact. Under the stone floor-slabs
of the church lie the remains of members of the Pinney family, the manorial lords who rose to
prominence here after the Restoration of Charles II in 1660.
Twenty-five years later, Charles II was succeeded by his openly Catholic brother James II & VII.
Any hopes dissenters had of this heralding an era of religious tolerance were soon dashed, so
many in the West country threw their support behind Charles II’s illegitimate son, the Duke of
Monmouth, and his ill-fated uprising. One of the rebels was Azariah Pinney, son of the lord of
the manor of Bettiscombe.
Azariah was condemned to death by the merciless Judge Jefferies at the Bloody
Assize, but his sister paid a hefty fine to get his sentence commuted to transportation as a slave
to the West Indies. After many years working on a plantation, he became a free man and eventually
acquired a plantation of his own, amassing great wealth. Generations later, in the early 19th
century, his descendant John Frederick Pinney sold the Nevis estates and returned to Bettiscombe
with a faithful African retainer.
It is this anonymous African retainer who gives rise to one of Dorset’s strangest legends – the
Screaming Skull of Bettiscombe Manor. On his deathbed, the servant swore he would never rest
unless his body were repatriated to his beloved Nevis and interred there. Pinney refused to pay
for such an extravagant burial and instead laid him to rest in St Stephen’s churchyard. Soon
afterwards ghostly disturbances began and piercing screams were reported to be heard coming from
Pinney allegedly exhumed the body and took it back to the manor house, where the skull has remained
until this day. It was said that if the skull were ever removed, the house would rock to its
foundations, and the person responsible would die within a year. In 1963 scientists examined
the skull and discovered that not only did it belong to a woman instead of a man, but she’d been
dead since the Bronze Age. So much for the tales of haunting! To this day, the true story of the
skull remains unknown.
Bettiscombe Church Tower
Kim Parker/Dorset OPC 2015
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resource materials for the site are always welcome
1841 Census [Mari Viertal]
1851 Census [Terry Pine]
1861 Census [John Ridout]
1871 Census [Mari Viertal]
1891 Census [John Ridout]
Marriages 1746-1900 [Kim Parker]
|Trade & Postal Directories
Burial Monument Inscriptions index
|Records held at the Dorset History Centre
Christenings 1746-1963. Marriages 1746-1808, 1814-1963.