So bitter was that long-ago winter, that there were bread riots in Torquay as supplies were unable to get through and people died through a combination of poor nourishment and extreme cold. But even such pressing events were to fade from the mind of the people who awoke on the 9th February to find the countryside around Dawlish and Exemouth covered in strange footprints in the snow.
As the tale is often told, the hoofprints were uniform in size and appearance and resembled most closely those of a small donkey. The trail, it is said, was continuous and ran for many miles - each print in line with the next, and not side by side as one would expect an animal's prints to be.
Baffled villagers also discovered that the hoof marks apparently continued over rooftops, through a 6 inch wide pipe, across a wide river and even through a solid haystack. All witness accounts agreed that there were no signs of claw marks, tail marks or anything that would usually identify a commonly encountered creature.
In the absence of any concrete evidence to the identity of the feet responsible, the name 'Devil's Hoofprints' stuck to the phenomenon.
But what is the truth of these mysterious marks? As ever, the further one digs the less clear the picture becomes
The Reverend H. T. Ellacombe and "South Devon"
The most complete surviving contemporary records of the hoofprints were made by the vicar of the church of Clyst St. George. His notes on the case and correspondence he received from villagers around Devon survived in the parish records and were rediscovered in 1952 - renewing interest into what at that point had become a distantly remembered piece of local folklore.
The careful Reverend had noted weather conditions, the size and the shape of many of the prints and that his own dog had barked during the night.
Another key witness to the hoofprints was a correspondent to the Illustrated London News who called himself "South Devon." His accounts include most of the statements now widely taken to be the 'facts' of the case: he was the first to assert that the tracks were always equal in size and spacing. He also stated that the length of the marks ran to over 100 miles and made the first claims about the maker of the prints' ability to apparently leap over 14ft high walls and onto the roofs of houses.
His statements form the fulcrum of the story of the Devil's Footprints but there are interesting differences between his account, that of the Reverend Ellacombe and the later recollections of eyewitnesses.
Thanks to Ellacombe's papers, "South Devon" has now been identified as a Mr. D'Urban - 19 at the time of the incident and eventually to prove himself as an administrator of the local museum, but at the time referred to fondly (if slightly mockingly) as "young D'Urban" by the cleric. From his letters of the time, he describes himself as an experienced countryman and tracker of animals and not given easily to being fooled. Nonetheless, his letters seem to display a keenness to discount natural explanations for the prints (such as the freezing and unfreezing of animal tracks) almost out of hand and, some argue, exaggerate certain features of the case to enhance its mystery.
Another witness - the Reverend G.M. Musgrave was compelled to write to the Illustrated London News to argue that South Devon's account "hardly conveys a correct idea of the prints". He was among the first people to point out that many of the supposedly 'unique' features of the tracks - such as their unvarying size, the constant stride length and consistent appearance were not as uniform as South Devon had made them out to be.
Despite that, contemporary newspaper reports - as well as recollections made long afterward - do highlight that something was indeed remarkable about these prints. Had they been entirely natural (i.e. simply animal prints) it would be reasonable to suppose that these largely rural populations would have encountered similar events in the past. Moreover, there has never been a recurrence - the event stands alone in history. There have been a few scattered occurrences of distantly similar appearances in a variety of places, but if the prints were caused by meteorological conditions then they must be highly uncommon.
See also: folklore