How Tom Arnold’s coffin came through the wall
An article by Newall Duke originally published in the West Sussex Gazette on January 19, 1961
Cokes Cottage is a very old and unusually interesting house in the hamlet of Westburton between Bury and Pulborough, and until 40 add years ago it had always been two cottages. One in the past had been used by an ox driver and the other by a shepherd. The cottages were made into one house, and in 1931 were bought by Mr. Harold Cooper who now lives there.
Before making any alterations, he employed an expert in old buildings to come and see the house. He was amazed at the huge timbers and said that the trees providing them must have been growing before William the Conqueror reached these shores. He thought the house was 15th century and pointed out Roman bricks which no doubt had been brought from the Villa nearby.
During the carrying out of a few alterations suggested by the expert, relics of olden days were found. Numbers of oxen cues or shoes were found on a ledge under the thatch, and at the other end pieces of yew wood roughly hewn to fix sheep bells on to favourite ewes, and a broken crook.
There was one thing that puzzled the expert. At the north end of the house two large slabs of wood had been nailed high up on the wall. These were to be removed among other things. While the work was proceeding, an old man came by, a grandson of the old shepherd who had lived in one cottage.
He told a re markable story, and when Mr. Cooper heard it, he decided to leave the slabs of wood there, and there they are for all to see to-day.
He also told of his grandfather making a considerable income catching wheatears on the Down where he tended the flock, as it was an assembly hill before migration for these small birds. Gourmets would have them at price, and old Tom Arnold caught large numbers with his horse hair nooses.
So it came as no surprise to the neighbours to hear that old Arnold had bought the cottages for £100 and retired, and his second son had taken his place. He had reared a family of five daughters and two sons, and the two unmarried daughters did not have an easy task looking after the old man when retired, as his temper was very uncertain and became worse when he was bedridden.
One day he asked to see his old school-mate George Goodyer, the village wheelwright and undertaker. Both were nearly 90. His daughters thought it might cheer him up, so a day was fixed for the visit.
When old George came. he had difficulty in climbing the stairs and sat for some time without speaking.‘Old Shep,’ as he was known to all said, “You ain’t got much news now you have come.”
“I was a-thinkin’, Shep, it’ll be a tidy job gettin’ a coffin down they twisty stairs. They be as crooked as a dog’s hind leg.”
“I know all about that. I couldn’t get a 6ft board up here afore I knocked up, let alone a coffin. That’s what I got you here for now,” said Shep. “Now next time your boys are rippun’ out some boards at the saw- pit, I want them to cut a couple of slabs 3’ long and two inches thick and knock a hole in the wall at floor level and nail the boards over it.”
A few days later the work was carried out, watched with great interest by the old shepherd in bed. He shouted, “Don’t ram they boards on too tight, they’ll have to come off again before long.”
About a year later the old man died. All his children and their families came to the funeral.
The boards had been removed and the coffin made by his old schoolmate and his sons was pushed through the hole into the bedroom.
The eldest son had brought a lock of wool to put into his father’s hand. That ancient custom was to show the man’s calling and to excuse him to his Maker for absence from divine service while he was tending to his sheep.
The coffin was slid down a plank on to the shoulders of the bearers who had a two-mile walk to the church where he was to be buried. Twice the bearers had to be rested by putting the coffin on a gate, a custom from a time when coffins were carried long distances. And so, the old shepherd made his last journey. The slabs of wood were nailed on again that night, and are still to be seen. n Newall Duke was the pen name of Lawrence Newall Graburn, who was born at Wepham in 1881. His father was Newall
Graburn who was a tenant of the Duke of Norfolk at Wepham Farm. He in turn had inherited the farm from his father, Thomas Graburn, who moved to this area in 1861. Newall Graburn married one of the Duke family of longstanding local farmers.
Lawrence Graburn turned to writing after he was forced to give up his tenancy on the farm in the late 1930s during the agriculture depression at the time.
Lawrence loved the country life and the local characters and spent many hours over the years chatting to them in their homes or the local pub over a pint or two.
Many of his articles have a moral or a humorous twist to them that readersenjoyed.
Lawrence Graburn, aka Newall Duke
Lawrence Graburn (aka Newall Duke) outside Wepham House - c1905