Monday, 25 January 2016

Vertical burial in the churchyard at Downe Kent

The January 2016 meeting of Downe Local History group was held in the parish church of Saint Mary where Howard Cheswick a long time churchwarden gave a history of the church and it's main features.
Howard  referred to discovery that the oldest wall of the 1291 chapel with original lancet window was built without foundation. The church in its form with a steeple was built by 1552 because an inventory of 1552 refers to three bells (which still are rung). Two of these bells are made by William Daw of London (1385-1418) and the third has a date of 1511 but an unknown maker. The vestry and boiler room beneath were Victorian extensions to the church.
Howard then described some of the prominent early families of Downe including Manning and Verzelini.
The incumbency of Charles Ffinden in the 19th century coincided with many internal and external alterations including the raising of the nave floor and installation of the present pews. Previously the pews were box pews and there is one burial in the burial register which refers to burial "in his own pew". The "restoration" of the church during Ffinden's time left a the church with a legacy of repair for present church members to deal with.
In 1990 these became apparent and resulted in major structural defects in the floor and drainage being addressed. The boiler room had to be extended and the crypt burials had to be removed and reinstated with rededication of the burials. During building excavation to the north side of the church to provide a larger boiler room  beneath the vestry and human remains were discovered in a vertical burial.
The mystery was who had been buried in such a manner?
In my experience the north side of churches often contain those referred to as suicides or lunacy causing suicide. Because of the extension of the church to build the vestry it is likely that the excavation had entered the area of earlier century churchyard burials beyond the foundations of the vestry walls.
So what do the Downe Burial Transcripts which I undertook some years ago reveal?
It appears from Howard's description that the burial took place earlier than the 19th century and I take that to be in the two volumes of register Composite register 1539-1733 and burials 1697-1812 which are transcribed Kent Online Parish Clerks Downe Burials on a single page. There is a nineteenth century suicide in a later burial register but no indication of type of burial and I think this unlikely to fit the description of the vertical burial.
There are two burials which could solve the mystery:
On 28 September 1713 John Michell buried on the North side of the Church after he had drowned himself in the River Ravensbourne.
0n 13 July 1758 the spinster Elizabeth BROWN was "buried on the north side of the church but denied Christian burial because she hanged herself."
Vertical burial is not unknown on the North side of churchyards but the sheer physical effort of digging a vertical burial (far greater than a conventional plot) unless chosen and paid for by the deceased point to strong motivation to dig a deeper 3 foot square (traditionally) burial. It is of course possible to dig a deep conventional grave space and surround the corpse with material which can be easily ecavated to add additional vertical burials if necessary and a pragmatic sexton and gravedigger may have adopted this approach at Downe. In 1758 the burial entry points to a strong motivation and although not referred to in 1713 the same reasoning would have applied namely that a suicide was denied right of burial within the Anglican church.
Both these burials fall within the period of the Burials in Woolen Acts. I have blogged previously about these acts in relation to the Bromley Saints Peter and Saint Paul registers from introduction of the Act here. I have also blogged about coroners verdicts in case of suicide Felo de Se verdicts in the district near Downe.
We will never know whose burial was disturbed at Downe by the building excavation but as in all cases reinterment of remains is conducted with a service by clergy. Over 200 years after ending life one of these two suicides was treated with respect and dignity at the time of reinterment.
© Henry Mantell Downe Online Parish Clerk 2013-2016