Strange tales from Essex
Amongst the thousands of names and dates that make up parish registers, there are often recorded anomalous events, from freak weather to six-toed infants and strange deaths. HELEN BARRELL shares some of her weirder finds from the county of Essex.
“Here To be born & die of rich & poor makes all the history.” From West Bergholt’s parish register, 1771-1812.
Family history has become increasingly popular of late: now that so many records are available online, it doesn’t involve as much squinting at scratched microfiche or rummaging in parchment at county archives.
Parish registers are vital for anyone hoping to trace their family back before 1837, the start of civil registration (in England and Wales); commercial genealogy websites fight for customers by making these documents available. They began to be kept in England from the middle of the 16th century, but coverage varies depending on how well they have survived Civil War, fire, flood, theft, damp vestries and hungry rodents. Although parish registers’ main purpose is to record baptisms or births, marriages and burials, in many cases they were the safest place for the reverend incumbent or his clerk to record the life of his parish, however strange it might sometimes be. It is thrilling to identify your six-times-great-grandfather with his unfeasible 18th-century name, but serendipitous forteana in faded ink can also be found amongst the lists of names and dates. For some years, I have been transcribing the registers of parishes in Essex and have stumbled across all sorts of gems, some of which I will share with you….
The Great Storm of 1703 was perhaps the worst in Britain’s history. It killed over 100 people on land, and 8,000 mariners around the British coast. Hundreds of ships were lost, and more than 400 windmills were destroyed. A largely rural county on the North Sea coast, Essex would have felt the full force of this nightmarish storm, but its parish registers are, in the main, conspicuously quiet about it, perhaps because the ravages were so severe that there simply wasn’t time to record it. Rayleigh’s parish register spares a couple of lines to tell us that Queen Anne appointed a day of “Fasting and Humiliation”; the incumbent gave thanks that he had survived the storm unscathed. But a dramatic
description appears in Purleigh’s register: “Novemr. the 26th 1703, about one of the Clock in the morning, there arose the most outrageous tempest that ever was heard or read of in England, it was held till seven or eight a clock in ye morning, it lay’d naked most peoples dwelling houses, out Barns, Stables & all other out houses, & multitudes of them were levelled with the Ground, it blew down Steeples, unript our Churches, & made thousands of tall and sturdy Oakes, Elmes & other trees root body & branch to
submit to the violence of an outrageous blast, that brought them to the ground, & made them fit fuel for the flames.”
Lightning is often mentioned in the registers, not surprising when the church steeple would be one of the tallest structures in the village and therefore the most likely victim of a lightning strike. Barnston (1665), Bures St Mary (1733), Great Hallingbury (1738) and Great Burstead (1822) all record their spires being either damaged or destroyed by lightning. Abbess Roding’s church sensibly installed a lightning conductor, and this is mentioned in their register in 1903.
Hatfield Broad Oak’s curate made a note about an extremely violent hailstorm, which took place on 5 June 1795. “A tremendous Tempest of Thunder, Lightning, & Hail between the Hours of three and five in the afternoon ever remembered. The devastation made by it was almost incredible. The hail stones some of them measured four inches in Circumference, and they laid in some parts of the Town 5 feet deep for eight days. By the violence of the hail the Wheat and Barley suffered considerable damage. Most of the Windows in the Town were broke; and all the fruit Trees & gardens were totally demolished.” In July, he noted the inflation in the price of wheat (which caused riots in some parts of the country), though he adds: “But a prospect of a very fine Harvest & the Wheat & Barley come abt. surprisingly since the above Tempest – which was partial, and extended not quite a Mile in length and a quarter of a Mile in bredth.” The same register records another harsh hailstorm, affecting a far larger area, on 24 July 1824, “by which a very large portion of the crops in the county of Essex were destroyed, the stalks being as completely severed as if cut with a sickle.”
Six years later, on 7 February 1830, a severe frost is noted in Hatfield Broad Oak’s register: “A frost of 7 weeks broke up today. Temperature 12 degrees below freezing point! Many persons frozen to death.” On that same day, five-year-old Betsey Rogers was buried at Hatfield Broad Oak. A note in the register records that she was burnt to death, presumably as she tried to warm herself by the fire.
The practice of recording unusual weather events continued into the 20th century. Great Maplestead’s register records the damage caused by the 1987 hurricane: “On the night of October 16th 1987, there was the worst hurricane in the south of England since records were kept. Nationally 15 million trees were blown over. In this parish more than a thousand fell. Fourteen came down in the Vicarage garden; four of them were about 200 years old. There was some structural damage to the church and a few houses in the village. Here no one was injured.” It’s interesting how the tone little differs from that of 18th and 19th century notes on extreme weather.
Just as unusual deaths are reported in the media today, they also appear in parish registers. Burial records did not demand a cause of death (unlike death certificates, issued from 1837 in England and Wales), but if someone met a particularly unusual end, then it might have made it into the parish register.
Binge drinking is a longstanding pastime of the British. We find a burial in Beaumontcum-Moze in 1744 – in the middle of the 18th century gin craze – of John Brasted of Kettlebaston, Suffolk, who “dyed suffocated with Geneva”. Quite why he was so spectacularly tiddly 30 miles from home isn’t explained – indeed, the “suffocation” could even have been a poisoning caused by cheap, impure spirits. John Dimond, “a reputed good Fidler”, was buried in North Shoebury in 1764. He “had drunk too freely and fell into a ditch by the roadside from whence he had scrambl’d out, but ye weather very cold and wet, tis beleav’d he perish’d by those means, lay five hours perishing and was found in ye road just expiring, the Coroner’s jury brought it accidental death.”
In 1711, two men were smothered in an accident at Fingringhoe’s gravel pit. John Symons is recorded in the register as “a
“The hail stones some of them measured four inches in Circumference”
wicked and profligate man” so “the office was not read” at his funeral. The second man, Francis Baker, “suffered in the same calamity but lived some days after and seemed to die a good Christian”. How they had lived was clearly of as much importance as how they died.
Another death that might have left locals wondering if God was dishing out just desserts was that of William Taylor of Beaumont. In 1581, this unfortunate chap was “was kylled w. a bell out the churche Steple wh. fell opon hm and was found the cause of death.”
Strange coincidences can be found in Lexden, just outside Colchester. In 1828, John Beaumont was “killed by falling down a well”; 17 years later his son, Jeremiah, died “by the falling in of a well upon him.” Thomas Beaumont was buried in 1828 in Lexden, “found drowned” – whether or not this was in a well, too, the register neglects to say.
The wording sometimes makes these deaths sound more amusing than they are: in 1832, 77-year-old Robert Barnard of Hatfield Broad Oak died of “old age accelerated by a fall down stairs.” Many died by the dreaded “hand of God” – a death which undeveloped medical science could not then explain. The numerous deaths caused by waggons, carriages, and kicks by horses are the equivalent of our automotive accidents.
Unfortunately, many registers are frustratingly silent despite the parish not being short of bizarre events worth recording. A gravestone in the churchyard at High Ongar records two unusual deaths. The stone, paid for by subscription, was erected in 1828 to commemorate two local lads – John Lucas and William Mead, whose
names appear without comment in the register as if they had died perfectly ordinary deaths. The still-legible carving on their joint headstone tells us that: “These two young men while imprudently sheltering themselves under a Tree in this Church Yard during a Thunder storm were killed by Lightning.” The inscription continues in typically windy 19thcentury style, the stone having been erected to remind people that “In the midst of life we are in death” etc. To read the inscription on this stone, which is now leaning at a perilous angle, you have to lie on your back underneath it. Take care, gentle stranger: if it falls on you, there might be another opportunity for a moralising monument to be put up in High Ongar churchyard.
Sometimes nature throws a curveball and babies are born in unusual style. Polydactyl children are unusual enough to gain a mention in parish registers; in 1737, Mary Wighborough was baptised in the village of Tendring, near Harwich in north-east Essex: she had 10 fingers and 12 toes. She died not long after her birth, so her multiple digits might hint at other physical problems. Less than 30 years later, another polydactyl child was born in north-east Essex: Paul Ingate was baptised in 1765 in Brightlingsea, an oysterfishing village about 10 miles from Tendring. He was “born with six fingers upon each hand and six toes upon each foot.” He died two years later.
More unusual was the birth in 1687 of Samuel Gonner’s daughter in the parish of St Peter’s, Colchester. She was born “with but one head but three distinct tongues, four arms, hands and shoulders, four legs, thighs & feet; two bodies join’d together at the neck; the head standing with its face between the two bodies above the shoulders. Each body had one breast, back and all parts proportionable to a female child below the neck; it had two crowns separated behind on the head, with very thick curled hair.” The detailed description allows us today to suppose she was a conjoined twin. We shouldn’t be surprised at what happened next: “It lived about an hour and a half and was afterwards carry’d up to London for a sight.” There is no further mention of this little girl in the register: she was not, it would seem, buried in her home parish, so was perhaps interred in London after her remains had been exhibited there. Or she may even have been kept for posterity in a specimen jar and quietly floats there still.
Legend has it that during the Siege of Colchester, the Royalists placed a canon at the top St Mary’s-at-the-Walls’ church tower –
they called it Humpty-Dumpty. When the Parliamentarians successfully blasted the canon to smithereens, they took half the tower away with it; the tower today starts off in Mediæval stone and segues into brick. Less than 100 years after Humpty-Dumpty’s great fall, a child called William Halls was baptised at St Mary’s-at-the-Walls (the walls being the perimeter of Roman Camulodunum). A long note in the register accompanies his baptism, describing in detail the deformities that poor William was born with. His jaw, mouth and nose hadn’t formed properly, and he was also polydactyl; he only lived for 24 hours. The detail in this entry should not come as a surprise when we consider it was written by Philip Morant, antiquary and historian, who perhaps realised his key role in recording the world around him for the historians of the future.
In Manningtree in 1709, William Gibbins was buried, apparently “the tallest man in Brittain.” Was he indeed? Alas, nothing in the register has been left to tell us anything more about this intriguing chap – his height, for one thing, is a rather important fact that has been omitted.
More detail exists about Edward Bright, the semi-legendary 18th-century “fat man of Maldon” (see FT58:55), who tipped the scales at 43.5 stone (276kg). His waistcoat can still be seen today in Maldon Museum, the marshland town where he worked as a grocer and chandler (there is even a road named after him in the town). A bet was made in a pub that ‘seven hundred men’ could fit inside Bright’s waistcoat: the bet was lost because seven men from the Dengie Hundred (Hundreds are an old way of dividing up counties into smaller areas) could fit inside it, but clearly not 700. Pictures circulated of the seven men standing inside the waistcoast, and a bronze relief depicting this clearly chucklesome moment hangs on the wall of a Maldon shopping centre.
When Bright died of typhus in 1750, the vicar, William Benton, went to great pains to record in the register the remarkable arrangements made for the funeral: “His coffin was three feet six inches [107cm] over the shoulders, six feet seven inches [200cm] long, and three feet [90cm] deep. A way was cut through the wall and staircase to let it down into the shop; it was drawn upon a carriage to the church, slid upon Rollers to the vault made of brickwork: & interr’d by
“His coffin was slid upon Rollers & interr’d by the help of aTriangle and Pulleys”
the help of a Triangle and Pulleys.” Still marvelling at Edward – the size he had reached at a comparatively young age, and the fact that his libido had shown no sign of flagging – Benton records that “he was 29 years of age the first of March last; has left a widow now big wth her sixth child.” But all this aside, Benton finishes his long note in the register by fondly remembering Bright as “a very Honest Tradesman, a facetious companion, comely in his person, affable in his temper, a kind husband, a tender Father and valuable Friend.”
One of the most famous of the English witch-hunts began in the 1640s in Mistley, under the auspices of Matthew Hopkins, selfstyled Witchfinder General. In some cases, you can look through parish registers and reconstruct the families of the accused and their accusers. Mistley’s parish register gives us clues that explain why Hopkins was in the village in the first place: he was, it seems, the stepson of Mistley’s rector.
When he was buried in Mistley in 1647, a note beside his burial in the register says he was the “son of Mr James Hopkins minister of Wenham”. There are wills that pinpoint the Hopkins family as living in Great Wenham in Suffolk, not far over the border from Mistley. Hopkins’s father had died by 1634, and Mistley’s rector, Thomas Witham, had lost his wife (who rejoiced in the highly unusual but clearly Puritan name of Freegift) in 1633. It would make sense for James Hopkins’s widow to have married Thomas Witham, and a burial in Mistley in 1641 for one John Hopkins “sonne to Marie Hopkins (wiffe to Mr. Tho. Witham parson)” is very good evidence to suggest that Matthew Hopkins was Thomas Witham’s stepson.
This is important when we consider at what point Matthew Hopkins joined the witch-hunting fray. Thomas Witham’s daughter, Susan Edwards, accused local woman Elizabeth Clarke of using witchcraft to bring about the death of her son. At the time, Mistley had no incumbent: Witham went to London as a preacher in 1643 and, in the turmoil of Civil War, wasn’t replaced until his son John Witham took over in 1647. With Hopkins as stepson of the incumbent and son of a vicar himself, and with Susan the wife of an important and wealthy Mistley resident, they had authority in the parish and were plugged into social networks, which included the Justices of the Peace who would prosecute the ‘witches’.
So when Matthew Hopkins took to the stage as a Witchfinder, he was in fact avenging the death of his (step-) nephew. Whatever excesses his later witchfinding might have reached, it appears to have begun as a personal, family vendetta.
THE SKY ABOVE, THE EARTH BELOW
In 1884, an earthquake visited north-east Essex. It caused terrible structural damage, killed two people and (as you shall soon see) probably set the stage for a haunting. But it wasn’t the first time the area had known the ground to shake. Thursday 8 September 1692 was a memorable day, for at about two o’clock that afternoon an earthquake was felt across a wide area of Europe – not just in England, but also in France, the Netherlands and parts of Germany. At the very moment this quake struck, two stonemasons were at the top of St Peter’s church in Colchester, plastering the steeple. Both men swore afterwards (no doubt they swore at the time, too, when their scaffolding wobbled) that “the steeple parted so wide in the midst that they could have put their hand into the crack or cleft, and immediately shut up close again without any damage to the workmen who expected all would have fallen down or to the steeple itself. Most of the houses here and elsewhere shook, part of a chimney fell down on North Hill, and very many who were sensible of it were
taken at the same time with a giddyness in their heads.” This testimony was written in St Peter’s parish register by the reverend incumbent, who signed his name, thus giving the report an air of authority.
After several years of carefully recording in his parish register the storms and bad winters that damaged his parsonage, Reverend Roberts of Rayleigh found himself reporting strangeness in the skies. On 22 April 1715, “there was a total eclipse of the Sun between nine and tenn of the clock, and was visible here at Rayleigh, & when that glorious Luminary was obscured several stars appeared for some minutes.” Less than a year later, on 6 March 1716, “between seven & eight a clock in the evening were seen meteors or fiery Apparitions, which caused a Terror in the Beholding.” William Whiston’s pamphlet, pithily entitled An Account of a Surprizing Meteor Seen in the Air, March the 6th, 1715/16, at Night, reports his experience of seeing the meteor over Archway in London. He vividly describes the meteor, and the effect of strange lights on the clouds, and goes on to say that the Northern Lights were seen over London at the same time. By 1715, the Age of Enlightenment was holding sway over many minds; even so, a meteor shower dancing through the heavens with the Northern Lights must have been amazing to see; no wonder it “caused a Terror in the Beholding”.
THE PECULIAR HAUNTING OF REVEREND MERRYWEATHER
Langenhoe is a village of buildings scattered along the road to Mersea Island. This ancient road boasts a 2,000-year-old Roman burial mound, and locals claim to have heard a metallic clanking as they have passed it, as if a sword had struck the shield of a ghostly Roman warrior. But from the late 1930s and on into the 1950s, strange reports came from Reverend Merryweather, who claimed that Langenhoe church was haunted.
All manner of phenomena were reported: full apparitions of robed figures passed through long bricked-up doorways; Gregorian chants filled the church when it was otherwise empty; snatched words from ancient conversations were overheard; candles behaved oddly; even the ghost of a man in a tweed suit was seen. The haunting extended beyond the church: in a nearby farmhouse, Merryweather claimed to have experienced an invisible woman’s embrace. Reverend John Cranmer Dening visited Merryweather and wrote The Restless Spirits of Langenhoe: The Exciting True Story of a Haunted Essex Church. As the Anglican clergy aren’t supposed to commune with the spirits, Dening has to spend part of the book justifying his interest in paranormal matters. It perhaps helped that the haunting of Borley Rectory (see FT229:31), 22 miles (35km) from Langenhoe,
was fresh in the minds of the Essex clergy: the Bishop of Colchester had had his hair parted by a levitating stone at Borley, so he was open to Merryweather’s report of Langenhoe’s ghosts.
Some of Merryweather’s experiences can doubtless be explained away by the structural damage caused to the Norman church during the 1884 Colchester Earthquake. Virley’s church, six miles (10km) from Langenhoe, was utterly destroyed by the quake, and the damage to Langenhoe’s church would lead to its demolition in the 1960s. Cracks in the walls, both seen and unseen, would lead to draughts that blew out candles, and winds gusting through from different directions and at different speeds combining with varying air temperatures could well cause the auditory phenomena Merryweather experienced, particularly the ethereal Gregorian chanting. But how could it explain the visual phenomena? It depends on which theory of haunting one subscribes to, but perhaps the violent shaking of the earth had unsettled dormant memories within the stone-tape, or had reawakened slumbering spirits.
Not that this has much to do with parish registers, as Merryweather’s notes on the haunting were kept in a diary. But he believed that the ghosts he encountered were connected with the Waldegrave family (relatives of this author) who were linked with the Borley haunting: at one point, they had owned the manor of Langenhoe.
Langenhoe’s register covering 1792-1812 contains a photo of Merryweather tucked between the pages, as well as a postcard showing the earthquake damage suffered by the church. Added after a previous incumbent’s careful cursive records of baptisms and burials 100 years before, there are numerous notes in Merryweather’s hand about the Waldegraves, including quotes from Paul Tabori’s Harry Price: Biography of a Ghost Hunter and AC Henning’s Haunted Borley. Henning was Borley’s rector and had experienced ghostly phenomena too; he may even have been an acquaintance of Merryweather’s.
Merryweather must have made these notes during the haunting of Langenhoe; it is easy to picture him, like an MR James character, poring over books and parish records in the vestry of his haunted church, looking for an explanation for his uncanny experiences. And then, like so many others before him, whether writing about storms, earthquakes, polydactyl babies or a death caused by over-indulgence of gin, he recorded it in the pages of his parish register.
If you’re able to read old handwriting (or happy to learn how), and keen to find parish register forteana yourself, the Free REG project (www.freereg.org.uk) is looking for volunteers to transcribe parish registers from across the UK.
NOTES 1 Background on Matthew Hopkins’s involvement in witch trials comes from Malcolm Gaskill’s brilliant Witch finders: A Seventeethcentury English Tragedy (London: John Murray, 2006); see also his article in FT198:30-36. On finding the family link between Hopkins and Edwards, I contacted Gaskill as he hadn’t included it in his book. He explained that he had missed it when researching Hopkins, but that another historian, Frances Timbers, had spotted the Hopkins/Edwards connection. She mentions it in her article “Witches Sect or Prayer Meeting?: Matthew Hopkins revisited” in the Women’s History Review (vol. 17, 2008, pp21-37).
Perhaps the violent shaking of the earth had reawakened slumbering spirits
LEFT: Panic on the streets of Colchester during the Essex earthquake of 1884. BELOW: The church at Langenhoe sustained terrible damage.
LEFT: Eward Bright, the 18th century “fat man of Maldon”. BELOW: Bright’s waistcoat commemorated in a bronze relief.
ABOVE: Lightning strikes feature regularly in parish registers; churches were often victims.
ABOVE: The Great Storm of 1703, “the most outrageous tempest that ever was heard of”.
ABOVE: The photo of Reverend Merryweather tucked into the pages of the Langenhoe parish register, along with a postcard showing the badly damaged church following the Essex earthquake of 1884. BELOW: An illustration showing the interior of the church,...