Grave Stories

Come with me into the graveyard, all human life is here

The Lost Children of Holcombe

A  long track winding through a farmyard  leads to the Norman church of St. Andrew’s at Holcombe in Somerset. The  medieval village surrounding the church disappeared after the plague of 1348 when survivors moved to the new village a mile  away. The congregation continued to use the church until 1885, when a new church was consecrated in the village, and today the churchyard still receives burials. The old church,  built of coursed rubble with a slate roof, is now  under the care of the Churches Conservation Trust,  and witnesses only three or four services a year. But we obtained the key  from the pub in the village, and  viewed the box pews, the gallery, the carved hat pegs, the painted panels bearing the ten commandments in gold lettering, and the inverted Anglo-Saxon inscription on the recycled  stone in the porch.

Old St. Andrew’s church and graveyard
Inverted Anglo-Saxon inscription on recycled stone in porch

Walking through the Holcombe Valley and along the streams, gathering blackberries,  we caught glimpses through the trees of the tower at Downside Abbey. Returning to the graveyard we  could not have witnessed a  more tranquil scene, the leaves of ancient trees brushed by the soft autumn sun of a late afternoon, the older stones leaning companionably towards each other in the shadows, younger more upright ones sporting flowers.

But  amidst  this pastoral idyll, I found the most poignant of tombstones. A marble cross and five lambs mark the grave five children.

The inscription reads:

“In loving memory of

Bessie Pole, aged 10, Clifford Pole, aged 8

And Thomas Pole, aged 7.

Also Eveline Long, aged 11

And of Ewart Long, aged 8

Who were drowned in a pond in this parish

By the insecurity of the ice, Dec. 20 1899”

In the 1950s I was  part of the last generation of children who grew up relatively free from adult constraints, roaming unhindered and unsupervised with my friends wherever we chose from dawn to dusk and beyond. So I can easily imagine those children on that December day more than half century earlier, cheeks glowing, noses pink, muffled against the cold with coats, scarves, and hats, excited by the raw December weather, one of the younger ones dropping a glove and pulling the wet wool back on with exclamations of disgust. Then, enticed by the frozen pond, daring each other to step out onto it. One of the bolder spirits, moving gingerly at first, testing the ice, then, confidence increasing, jumping on it, and calling to the others. In turn they would have stepped onto the ice, following one another to the centre, and set about constructing a slide which would grow smoother as each one slithered over it laughing and shouting with delight. Then the sudden crack of the treacherous ice, the loss of balance, contact with the icy water, the panic and frightened screams, thrashing in the freezing pond as the ice broke up all around, struggling in vain to escape the danger, reaching out for the  safety of dry land. And silence. No doubt people saw them, heard them, tried to save them but the bitter water was quick and cruel.

Hundreds of us enjoyed the same pleasures on hundreds of ponds, it was part of the ritual of winter, a memory treasured in later, staider years. Sometimes the ice gave way, a momentary panic ensued, but  seldom with any great harm done, usually with no greater repercussions than freezing feet and wellingtons full of water. Then at home the clandestine attempt to dry out the wet socks in front of the fire before a parental eye caught sight of them.

But no providence protected these five children, a malevolent and  arbitrary fate plucked them away  to a cruel death .

Over a hundred years later  flowers and toys still appear  on the grave and visitors fall silent when they read the epitaph.

Flowers and toys left at the grave

I am surely not the only one imagining the ghostly figures on the pond, opening my mouth to call out a warning, but the words stopped as the waters close and silence ensues. Despite the warm afternoon we are all chilled by the random brutality of the grave’s story.

And yet the fates are not done,  for on the other side of the grave is another plaque:

“Also of

Harcourt Morley Long,

Who was drowned at Kilmersdon Common

July 27, 1894 aged 14 months

And was buried in this churchyard.”

The words come like a physical punch. Tragedy lies at the heart of the beautiful Holcombe churchyard and no pious words can gainsay it.

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An Unfortunate Encounter with The Rocket

Trains have always been my preferred mode of transport. On the roads, whether passenger or driver, I anticipate disaster: from the BMW hovering impatiently too close to my rear bumper; from the aggressive driver overtaking on a double white line with hand on horn; from my own nervous lane changing; from poor visibility, black ice or imagined faulty brakes. On boats a different problem assails me: a poor sailor, I have been immoderately ill on the short passage halfway across the Bristol Channel from Ilfracombe to Lundy Island. I have no fear of flying, but quail at the dispiriting queues at passport control and the sweaty removing of shoes and belts at security, followed by  the long hours  in airless airport lounges, surrounded by fretful people and the depressing acres of lurid duty free where the scent of a hundred sickly perfumes clogs the air.

But trains offer only delight, from the aimless progress of old diesels ambling slowly cross country pulling in at stations where, in homage to Adlestrop, no one leaves and no one comes, to the sleek inter-city expresses pulling grandly out of London stations. My memories of trains are entirely happy.

In  childhood the smell and sound of steam trains filling the station  meant a day trip to North Wales. We settled into our compartment where the seats were upholstered like sofas, sepia photographs of seaside towns decorated the walls, and  sagging rope luggage racks hung  above our heads. I struggled to release the stiff leather strap which secured the carriage window and, when it fell open with a heavy thud,  hung out engulfed in a cloud of smoke, inhaling the scent of burning coal and steam, waiting for the sea to appear.

On eastern European trains, I always experience a special frisson of excitement, fantasising about being a spy in Cold War days, woken at borders by men in black leather coats with hard faces and hats pulled down over their eyes  demanding to see my papers, questioning my motives for travel,  and  removing me from the train  at gun point on a trumped-up excuse  of wanting the correct visa. At this point I let the fantasy fade.

And nothing can equal the romance of a sleeper. Over  supper in the dining car fellow travellers urgently impart tales of their lives as though anxious to purge themselves of memories before we reach our destination. Cocooned in my bunk on Amtrak, cradled by the gentle rocking of the train, I remember fighting sleep to gaze out at an unknown, black  Appalachian night, illuminated only by the occasional soft lights of an isolated home, and listening for the melancholy whistle of the train. I would have happily journeyed on to eternity.

William Huskisson was  less fortunate in his experience of trains. Statesman, financier, and MP, we remember him more as the world’s  first railway passenger fatality. As MP for Liverpool, and a keen advocate of the railways, he was present  in 1830 at the opening  ceremony of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, the world’s first passenger service drawn by steam locomotive. He and  other dignitaries travelled on a train pulled by the Northumbrian and driven by George Stephenson. When the train stopped to take on water Huskisson was amongst those who ignored advice not to descend. He walked along to the Duke of Wellington’s carriage and stood talking to the Prime Minister. A train pulled by the Rocket, George Stephenson’s locomotive, approached on a parallel  track. While others resumed their seats, hastened across the track to safety, or stood  still close to the stationery coaches as the other train passed, Huskisson dithered. Twice he began to cross the track but scuttled back. Then he  tried  to climb into Wellington’s carriage, but the heavy door swung outwards, he fell onto the track and the oncoming locomotive mangled his leg.

With the injured man on a makeshift stretcher, Stephenson raced the Northumberland,  flat out at 40mph, breaking the world speed record, to Eccles. There a surgeon attended Huskisson, but the injury proved fatal, and he died later that night.

But if the wide reporting of this incident alerted the public to the dangers of the railways, ironically it also fostered awareness of their potential. The publicity afforded by the dramatic death, the breaking of the speed record, and Huskisson’s magnificent funeral, when 69,000 people lined the route, raised the profile of rail travel, drew attention to the new high speed railway line, and proved instrumental in inaugurating the Age of Railway Mania.

Huskisson  was  buried in St. James Cemetery in Liverpool. One of the most romantic of cemeteries, it lies below the Anglican Cathedral but long predates the latter having opened in 1829, just in time for Huskisson. This gothic enclave lies in a former stone quarry with the cathedral towering above it on a rock outcrop. Steep, winding, stone paths designed for horse drawn funeral carriages and enclosed by high stone walls lined with old gravestones lead through a dark tunnel into the graveyard. My last visit was on a sunny evening in mid-summer, but for the full spine-tingling, preternatural experience you should descend into this phantasmagorical world on a late afternoon in November as the light is dying.

The red sandstone cathedral rears above the cemetery on St. James Mount
Victorian graves in the old quarry

Huskisson’s grave lies at the centre of the former quarry marked by a circular mausoleum modelled on the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens.

Huskisson’s grave at the centre of the old quarry
Huskisson’s grave is modelled on the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates
Huskisson’s grave from above

Small consolation perhaps for Huskisson but he does have a record number of memorials, mostly commissioned by his devoted widow Emily. There is a plaque in Eartham church near his home, a  statue in Chichester Cathedral where he is resplendent in toga, and three identical statues of him sporting the robes of a Roman Senator in Pimlico Gardens at Millbank, in Duke Street, Liverpool, and in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool. Beside the track at Parkside outside Newton-le -Willows where the accident occurred a marble memorial tablet is a replica of the vandalised original now in the National Railway Museum in York and you can find another replica on Newton-le-Willows station. But his greatest memorial is surely his inadvertent contribution to the success of the railways.

Have mind of Huskisson when next you travel by train.

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Three Ladies Who Did Not Go Gentle

“Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” and “Let Me Die a Youngman’s Death” are two of my favourite poems about death.

 “Do not go gentle into that good night,

  Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

  Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

 thundered Dylan Thomas.

 A more light-hearted Roger  McGough pleaded,   

“when I’m 104

& banned from the Cavern

may my mistress

catching me in bed with her daughter

& fearing her son

cut me up into little pieces

& throw away every piece but one”

 Alas,  despite extensive trawling of graveyards, I  have never uncovered such a beguiling epitaph. Yet, a select few  have eluded what McGough stigmatised as a “clean & inbetween the sheets” death. Let me introduce you to three eighteenth century ladies whose colourful demise ensured that they did not “go gentle.”

Hannah Twynnoy was allegedly the first person killed by a tiger in England. Her story reads like the inspiration for one of Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales. In 1703 the animals from a  travelling menagerie were housed in the rear yard of the White Lion Inn at Malmesbury. Hannah, a servant there,  ignored repeated warnings not to tease the animals and persistently taunted the tiger. Tiring of this treatment, the latter  escaped his cage and mauled her to death. The epitaph on a stone in Malmesbury Abbey Churchyard records her fate:

In bloom of Life

She’s snatched from hence,

She had not room

To make defence;

For Tyger fierce

Took Life away.

And here she lies

In a bed of Clay,

Until the Resurrection Day.

Hannah Twynnoy, savaged by a tiger

 As a tribute to Hannah in 2003, on the 300th anniversary of her death,  Malmesbury girls named Hannah under the age of eleven each laid a single flower on her grave. My  own sympathies lie wholly with the tiger.

In Bunhill Fields  Dame Mary Page draws  more attention than the luminaries, Blake, Bunyan, and Defoe, with whom she shares a resting place. In 1728 she sought medical advice for a swelling of the abdomen. Her physician diagnosed a form of dropsy. The inscription which was  carved upon her tomb chest at her own request describes the excruciating treatment she received:





Dame Mary Page

Unfortunately, the treatment was clearly not successful. Current medical opinion favours the suggestion that the poor lady had Meigs’ syndrome, a form of ovarian cancer.

F J Baigent and J E   Millard in  “A History of the Ancient Town and Manor of Basingstoke”  tell the story of Alice Blunden,  “a fat gross woman (who) had accustomed herself many times to drinking brandy.” In 1764 she  imbibed a large quantity of poppy water, a herbal tea, which can function as a narcotic inducing a coma. She fell into a deep sleep from which she could not be wakened, and an apothecary pronounced her dead. Her relations, considering that “the season of the year being hot and the corpse fat, it would be impossible to keep her,” buried her without delay in the Holy Ghost Cemetery. A few days later boys playing nearby heard “groans and dismal shriekings”  and a voice crying “Take me out of my grave.” When the coffin was opened  “ the corpse puffed up as it had been a bladder and the joiner had made the coffin so short that they were fair to press upon her and keep her down with a stick while they nailed her up.” The body bore signs of self-inflicted injuries as Alice had sought to escape. Since there was now no sign of life,  they returned Alice to her grave until the coroner could be summoned next day. Disinterred for the second time she had “torn off  a great part of her winding sheet,  scratched herself  first in several places, and beaten her mouth so long that it was  all in gore blood.” This time the coroner pronounced her definitely dead, and Parliament fined the town for its negligence. Alice appears in a bronze panel decorating the Triumphal Gateway, erected in 1991 at the Top of the Town leading into the old town of Basingstoke,  where she hammers for all eternity on her coffin lid in a moonlit churchyard.

Mrs. Blunden hammers on her coffin lid for all eternity
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No One Does Death Like The Habsburgs Do Death

From an obscure castle in Switzerland in the eleventh century the Habsburg tentacles reached out across Europe and across the centuries perpetually grasping more territories. By dint of war, election, inheritance, skilful politicking, but most of all through judicious marriage, and  shored up by  the almost continuous presence of a member of the House of Habsburg as Holy Roman Emperor from 1438-1806, they expanded their holdings. In 1272 the Germans elected Rudolf I as their king, and his sons became Dukes of Austria in battle. In the fifteenth century Maximilian I acquired the Netherlands through marriage to Mary of Burgundy. A particularly auspicious marriage with Joanna of Castile, combined with his sister’s marriage to Joanna’s brother, enabled Philip I to claim Spain and its colonies for his son Charles V. Under the latter Habsburg power reached its apogee in the sixteenth century. In 1521 Charles’s brother Ferdinand had married Anna, the daughter of Vladislav II , King of Bohemia and Hungary, and his sister Mary had married Vladimir’s son Louis II. The marriage contract had stipulated that Ferdinand would succeed to the Hungarian and Bohemian lands if Louis died leaving no legitimate male heir. When Louis died at the Battle of Mohacs in 1526 the territories duly passed to Habsburg rule.

To preclude rival dynasties from emulating their tactics and to secure their position the Habsburgs, when not marrying into new possessions, intermarried. But this successful strategy came at a price and their consanguineous unions brought a range of physical and mental disabilities, miscarriages, still births, neonatal deaths, and the famous  Habsburg Jaw, a protruding lower jaw with a bulbous lip,  and Hapsburg Nose, long  with a hump and hanging tip. Between 1516 and 1700  88% of marriages in the Spanish branch of the Habsburg family were consanguineous: where most people have sixteen great great grandparents, Charles II of Spain had only nine. His mother was the niece of his father, his grandmother was also his aunt. Known as el Hechizado (the Bewitched) the poor man was short, lame, had congenital heart disease and epilepsy, suffered from depression, was impotent, and so developed was his Hapsburg Jaw  that he struggled to eat and speak. Extended periods of ill health dogged his life and when he died in 1700 leaving no heirs Habsburg rule ended in Spain with a Bourbon victory in the War of Spanish Succession.

In the Austro-Hungarian territories of central and eastern Europe however the Habsburgs clung to power into the twentieth century. Maria Theresa survived potential disaster,  despite the loss of Silesia to Prussia, and defended her right to inherit the rest of the Habsburg lands  in the War of Austrian Succession. In 1804 Francis I, although forced to accept the demise of the Holy Roman Empire under pressure from Napoleon, declared himself instead Emperor of Austria and in 1867 established the Dual Monarchy  of the Austro-Hungarian Empire  with Hungary as a nominal co-equal in response to Hungarian nationalism and growing Austrian weakness. Franz Joseph’s attempt to reverse declining fortunes and increase Habsburg territory with the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908 however proved disastrous. Serbia, closely related geographically and ethnically to these territories, was outraged. Serbian nationalism was inflamed and in 1914 a Serbian nationalist movement the Black Hand  sought the removal of Austria-Hungary from Bosnia Herzegovina and the formation of a southern Slavic state. Under their influence a group of Bosnian Serbs assassinated the Archduke Ferdinand, nephew and heir of the Emperor Franz-Joseph. Austria-Hungary responded by declaring war on Serbia and through systems of alliances Germany, France, and Britain were drawn into war. By 1918 the Empire had collapsed in defeat: the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, and Slavs all declared their political independence; Austria and Hungary sought to determine their own future. Karl I of Austria, IV of Hungary, the grandnephew of Franz-Joseph who had succeeded him in 1916, refused to abdicate, still believing himself the rightful Emperor, but Austria and Hungary became  republics, and the Habsburg Law of 1919 banished the Habsburgs until they renounced all claims to the throne. Karl went into exile in Madeira and spent his remaining years trying to restore the monarchy, making two unsuccessful attempts to regain the Hungarian throne in 1921 . At his death in 1922 his son Otto, raised by his mother to see himself as the rightful heir, became the pretender to the throne, making several attempts to promote Habsburg restoration in the 1930s. Not until 1961 did he reluctantly renounce his claim.

Given such tenacious seeking and clinging to power in life, the Hapsburg way of  death did not  surprise  me. In the stygian gloom of the Kaisergruft, the Imperial crypt beneath the Capuchin church in Vienna, scions of the House of Habsburg lie entombed. Established under the terms of the will of Anna of Tyrol in 1617, she and her husband the Emperor Matthias were the first incumbents. Since then, they have been joined by the bones of almost 150 other Habsburgs. Before entry into this grandiose burial chamber the Habsburg organs are removed as part of the embalming process for display before the funeral. Between 1654-1878 the mortal remains were then dispersed between three separate crypts: the heart placed in a silver urn went to the Herzgruft, a burial chamber in the Augustinian church in Vienna; entrails in copper urns went to the Duke’s crypt in the catacombs of Saint Stephen’s cathedral; and the bones were first placed  in a wooden coffin lined with silk, black with gold trim for rulers and red with silver trim for others, which was then enclosed in a metal coffin with two locks. One key  was kept by the Capuchin guardian of the crypt and the other in the Treasury of the Hofberg Palace. The baroque metal sarcophagi in the sprawling crypt are embellished with secular emblems of power, and although there is a tradition of battering the face of the corpse to make it appear more humble in the sight of god and an elaborate ritual whereby the funeral cortege abases itself before being granted entry to the church, these bombastic tombs speak of a dynasty unwilling  surrender  power even in the face of death.

Anna of Tyrol and Emperor Matthais, founders of the Kaisergruft
Leopold I with a toothy Death’s Head
Detail – Joseph I
Joseph I
Detail: Death’s head with Imperial Crown – Charles VI
Charles VI
Detail: woman in mourning veil – Elisabeth Christine, wife of Charles VI
Elisabeth Christine, wife of CharlesVI
Maria Theresa, the only woman to rule the Habsburg dominions in her own right, and her husband Francis
They appear to be sitting up in an enormous bed
with a plump putti holding a starry wreath above them
Franz Joseph
Elisabeth of Bavaria, aka Sisi, wife of Franz Joseph, famous for her extreme dieting and two hours of hair care per day; any hairs that fell out during this operation had to be presented for her inspection in a silver bowl. Assassinated by an Italian anarchist in Geneva. Her body was returned to Vienna.
Maximilian of Mexico: younger brother of Franz Joseph I , he was placed on the Mexican throne with the backing of Napoleon III and Mexican conservatives who sought to overthrow the liberal republican government of Benito Juarez. When Napoleon III withdrew his support and abandoned his Imperialist designs in Mexico under pressure from the American government Maximilian’s troops were defeated in the civil war and he was sentenced to death by court martial. His body was returned to Vienna.
Crown Prince Rudolph, son of Franz Joseph and Elisabeth of Bavaria. Died in a murder/suicide pact with his mistress Mary Vetsera at his hunting lodge in Meyerling. Declared mentally unbalanced in order to be allowed a church burial. Mary was not the first mistress to whom Rudolf had proposed a suicide pact. Her body was discreetly whisked away.
Franz Ferdinand, assassinated at Sarajevo. There is only a plaque in the Kaisergruft as he is buried with his morganatic wife at Artstetten Castle. Marriage to a lady-in-waiting was out of line with standard Habsburg policy.
Karl I, again there is only a memorial in the Kaisergruft. Exiled to Madeira, he is buried there.
Not The Kaisergruft. Karl I is buried in the Pilgrimage Church of Nossa Senhora do Monte in Madeira.

And after a morning in the company of the Austrian Habsburgs it’s time for coffee and cake in the Cafe Central.

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The Fair Maids, the Knight Templar, the Diarist and his Wife

The church at Norton Saint Philip boasts a clock by Vulliamy and Frodsham dating from 1848. It is not the oldest church clock in Somerset, but it is one of the few still wound by hand. Twice a week clock winders  winch up three weights in a pulley system and as they descend the clock strikes the hour, the half, and the quarters. Every sixth week we take our turn on the clock winding rota, climbing the narrow spiral staircase up the tower to a point where we look down on the bell ringers but up to those charged with care of the flagpole.

The clock winders eyrie
The winding mechanism
A clock winder
The weights
The minutes are the easiest wind

The base of the tower at the west end of the church is not its most attractive feature: here behind closed doors spare chairs are stacked, vases and watering cans jumble together, notice boards superfluous to current requirements lean drunkenly against the walls, plastic boxes spill electrical odds and ends, and what looks suspiciously like a hostess-trolley lurks in one corner. It has in truth a desolate air, the  few memorials lining the walls  have known better times and  they look down disconsolately on the dusty impedimenta. But these memorials  are the survivors: they were moved from the floors of the nave, chancel, and aisles to the tower walls during Gilbert Scott’s reconstruction of the church in the 1840s,  when others disappeared entirely. And high on the north wall are the  sisters whom I always greet: two small female heads, crudely sculpted with  flicked up hairdos reminiscent of Millicent Martin on TW3 in the mid-sixties, they are roughly attached to the wall.

They have no words of their own but beneath, in a shabby frame, a faded notice recalls a quotation from the diary of Samuel Pepys:

At Philip’s Norton I walked to the

Church, and there saw the Tombstone

whereon there were two heads cut,

which the story goes and creditably,

 were two sisters, called the Fair Maids

of Foscott, that had two bodies upward

and one stomach and there lie buried.

Pepys and his wife visited Philip’s Norton in June 1668. Foscott, now Foxcote, is a hamlet a few miles from Norton and when Pepys saw the tomb the effigy of the conjoined twins was cut in stone in the floor of the nave. Later the Somerset Historian John Collinson recorded in the third volume of his History and Antiquities of the County of Somerset  published in 1791 that “In the floor of the nave…are the mutilated portraitures, in stone, of two females, close to each other, and called, by the inhabitants, the Fair Maids of Foscott, or Fosstoke, a neighbouring hamlet, now depopulated. There is a tradition that the persons they represented were twins, whose bodies were at their birth conjoined together” and, he adds gruesomely, “that they arrived at a state of maturity; and that one of them dying the survivor was compelled to drag about her lifeless companion, till death released her of the horrid burden.” Today nothing  remains of the tombstone  save for the heads, the rest probably destroyed during Gilbert Scott’s restoration.

Pepys also noted that while in the church  he “there saw a very ancient tomb of some Knight Templar, I think.” The latter still lies in the south aisle but is now identified as a lawyer of the fifteenth century wearing a barrister’s gown. More loved than the Maids he is often in receipt of tribute, near disappearing beneath greenery at Christmas and well supplied with apples at harvest.

The Lawyer
His feet resting on his dog

Just a year after this visit Pepys himself had cause to erect a memorial: his wife, Elisabeth, died and he had a marble bust of her installed at Saint Olave’s in the City of London where he was a regular worshipper calling it “our own church,” and which was later described by Betjeman as “a country church in the world of Seething Lane.” Elisabeth’s bust was positioned on the north wall of the sanctuary so that Pepys could see her from his pew in the gallery, and in 1703 he was buried next to her in the nave. His own memorial  on the wall of the south aisle faces hers, and from their elevated positions they receive their many admirers.

Elisabeth Pepys
Samuel Pepys

Not so the Fair Maids, a little lonely these days in their tower with only the clock winders, flower arrangers, bell ringers, and flag hoisters passing busily beneath them as they go about their business. So, if you are in Somerset, follow Pepys’ example: come to this country church in Norton Saint Philip and visit my friends the Maids, say hello to the lawyer too, and listen to the hand wound clock striking the quarters.

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