John Aubrey, the 17th century Wiltshire antiquarian wrote about the monuments of Britain, under this title. However, this article is about monumental inscriptions in the churchyards of parts of West Dorset. The Somerset and Dorset Family History Society decided in about 1996 that it should record the inscriptions of gravestones, possibly inspired by our President Sir Mervyn Medlycott who single-handed recorded several churchyards in his area.
I was a member of the West Dorset Group and we were led by our Chairman, Harold Faulkner, who with his wife Pat requested permission from various parish ministers and churchwardens to carry out the work and then drew up plans of the particular churchyard. Finally Pat typed up the results. Not all parishes agreed as they did not want the lichen disturbed, or other wildlife. We agreed to carry out the work with the minimum disturbance and not of course on Sundays or other church occasions. Naturally, we required good weather.
My initiation was at St Swithuns, Allington, Bridport and had not realised how much time was required. So my only memory from that occasion was of several graves of Doctors, explained by the earlier local hospital in Allington.
Broadwindsor is memorable for our work being delayed by a visit from a group of Morris Dancers nearby, which we all enjoyed. As we commenced our task we noticed a small cremation tablet inscribed “In loving memory of R.C. (Dick) Day died 14 Feb 1989 aged 82” and then a local man passing through the churchyard asked what we were doing. One of our members asked if he knew Dick Day and he replied “his finger is buried there, look in the book My Story by Leonard Studley. Leonard, a retired farmer, attended our monthly meetings in Beaminster, always wearing an immaculate bow tie. He told us that Day had been baptised Reginald but known to his friends as “Dodger”. He had been working on a farm machine pulping mangolds for cattle feed when it jammed and Dodger attempted to clear the jam with his fingers, just as another lad turned the handle, chopping off a finger near the middle joint. A local doctor soon attended to Dodgers hand. However, a local elderly lady said that unless the finger was buried in consecrated ground the stump would never heal. The lady was respected in the village, always wearing black and performed the “last rites on people—to lie ‘um out”. So they returned to the farmyard and found the grisly finger among the mangold pulp and buried it with a matchbox for a coffin, under a yew tree in the churchyard. The “cure” was effective and the stump healed. Dodger frequently said, “I want to be buried under the yew, with my finger” and when he eventually died his ashes were scattered under the tree. But Leonard said that no one asked him and the tablet is on the opposite side of the tree, from the finger. However, we found it a peaceful spot.
Some headstones were already illegible and eroded, so the work entailed washing the inscription with clean water and then reading it as accurately as possible. It was best to work in pairs, one reading and the other recording and checking. Good sunlight, from the side, provided the best contrast, but alternatively, a mirror could be used to reflect the light. If this was not possible a torch was used from the side, with stone and reader covered in a ground sheet to shade other light. So should you be walking past a church and see a huddled form against a headstone, do not be alarmed, it may be someone discovering their family history. Frequently another eye at a different angle could see what the close observer missed. When our leader, Harold, walked round to check progress if we said we could not read a word he would say “It’s as plain as the nose on your face” and he was always able to read that particular word.
We were generally a happy bunch and often found inscriptions amusing. In Beaminster churchyard we found an inscription referring to an actor who died after a fall. Someone suggested “from the stage” and I think this proved to be so. It was a hot day and our erstwhile Chairman, Ray Paul, was noted wearing a hat with a bright white handkerchief on the back of his neck, “Foreign Legion” style, which caused a giggle. Occasionally we had to restrain some of our members from extreme actions, such as using bleach or “Brillo” on the stones. Our friend and recent Chairman, Brian, was prevented from bringing his wire brush, or chisel. He was once found standing on top of a table tomb, brushing ferociously with a yard brush.
In the summer of 1997, we embarked on the parish church of St Mary, Bridport, in South Street, assisted by some members of Bridport History Society.
I purchased a copy of the records subsequently so that I can quote in detail, where there are items of special interest. For example, a medium size table tomb records members of the Downe family, possibly the originators of Downe Street. Another records two William Balston’s. There are two large table tombs to members of the Gundry family and some smaller graves, names needing no explanation in Bridport. Some of the tombs and headstones bear engravings and embellishments of flowers, ivy leaves, angels, scrolls, trumpets, willows, hourglasses, shells and a skull.
Other recorded names also relate to the towns staple industry of rope, nets and twine, including Whetham, Tucker, Hounsell, Seymour and Ewens.
Another large decorated table tomb records the death of Nicholas Bools and family, including two daughters, one the wife of John Thoyts, Lieutenant Colonel of the Royal Horse Guard Blues. Bools had been one of the early shipbuilders at Bridport Harbour.
Inside the church, there are many monuments. A large brass plate records two Professors of Music named Hayes, related to two Rev Broadley’s, one Rector of Bridport, the other Vicar of Bradpole and Rural Dean. There was a photograph of Albert Stone, who was organist from 1888 and a plaque records that the first organ was built in 1815, rebuilt in 1884 and restored in 1984/1988. An illuminated script with the church history listed the Rectors of the Parish from Peter de Colyngton 1317 to John West Gann 1987. A brass plaque refers to an historic time in the national history, “in memory of Edward Coker, Gent, Second son of Capt. Robert Coker of Mapowder, slayne at the Bull Inn, Bridport An Do 1685 by one Venner who was an officer under the late Duke of Monmouth in that rebellion”. Another brass plaque shows the coat of arms of the ship H.M.S. Bridport together with its White Ensign.
A marble monument relates to Charlotte Carpenter, died 1816, only child of the late Rev Edward Roberts. Also of Henry Roberts, eldest son of Thomas and Charlotte Carpenter aged about 14 years, a midshipman on board H.M.S Scout, sloop of war which foundered at sea in November 1801 on the banks of Newfoundland on her voyage to Halifax in Nova Scotia when all hands perished.
The Ringing Chamber and Bell Tower has a photograph of the Ringing Guild Members in 1897 and details of the bells being recast variously in 1843, 1887, 1897, 1924.
Two particular monuments in Bridport require special mention and are well known. The Town War Memorial faces South Street and is the object of annual commemoration and needs no further detailing as it may be clearly examined. The other is the monument to Giles Lawrence Roberts, M.D.F.R.C.A. who died Sept.16th 1834 aged 69 years, just inside the wall behind the war memorial. It is a tall obelisk topped by a large sphere and standing on five steps. Also recorded is Joseph son of Rich & Mary Roberts, died Dec. 29 1769 and John their son who died in infancy and finally Phoebe wife of Giles died Jan 5th 1810 aged 56 and also their daughter Phoebe who died in infancy. The obelisk carries crests and globes and references to “The Good Samariton”. He was well known in Bridport and further afield for producing an ointment termed “The Poor Man’s Friend” and for pills for various conditions. It has been said that he often did not charge poor people for medication and he is now remembered by a small close off South Street bearing his name. His shop is now the Heart Foundation charity shop almost opposite the Town Hall.
Unfortunately, due to family illness, I was unable to continue with the project and it was finalised by Marilyn Sealy who brought it to a successful conclusion.
Finally, the completed typed scripts were printed and bound by the Somerset and Dorset Family History Society and copies distributed to the relevant church, museum, etc., and may be sold to any interested individuals.
John Betjeman penned a poem about Dorset Churchyards (which I have savagely abbreviated) :
“Rime Intrinsica, Fontmell Magna, Sturminster Newton and Melbury Bubb, —-
While Tranter Reuben, T.S. Eliot, H.G. Wells and Edith Sitwell lie in Melstock Churchyard now. —-
While Tranter Reuben, Mary Borden, Brian Howard and Harold Acton lie in Melstock Churchyard now. —-
While Tranter Reuben, Gordon Selfridge, Edna Best and Thomas Hardy lie in Melstock Churchyard
now”. Read it in full if you can!
The next meeting of Bridport History Society is not in a churchyard, but in the United Church Main Hall at 2.30 pm on Tuesday, June 11th for a Summer Special from Bruce Upton and Jane Ferentzi-Sheppard, “Pubs, Drinking, Poverty” : surviving life in Bridport in the 1800s’. All welcome, visitor entrance £3.
Cecil Amor, Hon President, Bridport History Society.