Friday, 27 July 2012

If only all gravestones were this helpful

I came across this very informative grave in the churchyard of All Hallows, Woolbeding.

Behind all that very useful information - I wish all graves included such detail - there is a sad story. 

Trevor Aston's father had a mental breakdown in 1929 and the family moved to Sussex where his mother got work in an orphanage in Woolbeding. Trevor was clever enough to get a place at Oxford and after graduating in 1949 with a first in modern history he became a tutor at Corpus Christi and he was to remain at Oxford for the remainder of his life. He was very active in the university especially in the library as his gravestone indicates but he suffered from manic behaviour with its highs and lows. His extreme behaviour had ended his first marriage and was in the process of finishing his second, he was an alcoholic, had alienated his colleagues and he was about to lose his job when he took an overdose of drugs on the 17th October 1985.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
The Times Newspaper 2nd December 1985 / 26th November 1994

Friday, 20 July 2012

Murder most foul

Benjamin Russell was a smuggler and thief.  He was, however, a very small cog in a very big business.  He lived in Burwash and to supplement his income - he was probably a general labourer by day - he ran a small bar in his cellar selling the rum and beer that he was able to acquire via the smuggling trade.  His part of the smuggling trade saw him involved in activities which had to be undertaken late at night just as he did on a moonless night in May 1826.  He and his partner in crime, 19 year old Daniel Leney, set off at midnight to a nearby farm where they stole a large bag of grain.  To make life easier they separated the bag into two sacks and taking one each they set off for home.  Leney soon found he was some way ahead of Russell so he returned to find Russell struggling with the weight of the larger sack.  They swapped sacks and carried on but again Leney found himself ahead of Russell.  This time, however when he returned he found Russell's body lying on the ground.  He was dead.

Leney hid the sacks of grain and ran to Russell's house where he woke Russell's wife Hannah.  She in turn ran to her father in laws house and woke him.  It was 1am on Wednesday morning and all three were aware that if Benjamin Russell's body was found where it was everyone would know he had been up to no good and more importantly the farmer would know who had stolen his grain.  So Leney and Russell senior moved the body to a nearby wood and they concocted a tale which had Leney spending the night with the Russells before leaving with Benjamin Russell in the morning.

They hadn't thought it through however and people soon grew suspicious.  Where were you going at that time?  Why were you in the woods?  Why were you not with Russell when he died if you went out together?  Unfortunately peoples suspicions were not that Russell and Leney had been out stealing grain (that was probably common knowledge) but that Hannah, his wife, had done away with him.  After all they had argued a few weeks earlier, Hannah had claimed that he had another woman and she had been heard to say she wished him dead.  There was no doubt in the minds of the local population - it was murder most foul.

Hannah Russell and Daniel Leney were arrested.  Hannah for the murder of her husband and Leney for aiding & abetting her.  Although details of the smuggling came out at their trial it made no difference, the evidence from Russell's post mortem sealed their fate - a large amount of white powder had been found in his stomach which had been identified as arsenic.

Due to a technical issue their hangings were delayed but on the 3rd August 1826 at midday Daniel Leney was hung.  Hannah would no doubt have been hung soon after but for the intervention of Dr Gideon Mantell, the doctor, geologist & palaeontologist.  He had been present at the trial and had had doubts about the medical evidence given, even sending a note to the defence lawyer suggesting some lines of questioning - advice which had not been used.  Having not been present for the remainder of the trial he had assumed that there was other evidence which had lead to their conviction so when he found it was only the medical evidence and some circumstantial details he came forward and spoke to the High Sheriff.  He could prove it was not arsenic found in Benjamin Russell's stomach which along with other evidence that showed Russell had been having heart problems for several months prior to his death made it clear Russell had died a natural death resulting from a heart condition made worse by the exertion of carrying the sacks of grain.

Hannah was given a royal pardon and released from gaol.  Her compensation was enough money to get her home.  There was not much that could be done for Leney.  

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

History in the making

The Olympic torch relay has arrived in Sussex this week.  Midday today it came through the county town of Lewes.

Friday, 13 July 2012

From cathedral to chapel

St Wilfrid is a name which crops up a lot in Sussex, with churches, schools, roads and a hospice named for him.  St Wilfrid was a Northumbrian abbot who was made Bishop of York in about AD664; according to some reports he was shipwrecked off the coast of Sussex in about AD666 and narrowly escaped being killed by the none too friendly natives.  Not a great start to his association with the county!  He returned to York but following a dispute with the King Egfrid (Wilfrid had helped Egfrid's wife become a nun) he went back to Sussex where  King Ethelwald of the South Saxon's had already been converted to Christianity and wanted the same for his people.  He gave Wilfrid land at Selsey where he built a cathedral somewhere close to, if not on  the same spot as the current chapel in Church Norton and Wilfrid spent the next five years successfully converting the heathens of Sussex to Christianity.  Of course this is a very simplified account and there is dispute as to whether Wilfrid was the first and/or the only person in Sussex at the time who was preaching and converting to the Christian faith.  However that Wilfrid did establish the centre of Sussex Christianity in Selsey at this time is not in dispute and it remained there until shortly after the Norman Conquest.  His cathedral is long gone (probably as a result of coastal erosion) and the Normans removed the See from Selsey to Chichester in 1075 where they began building the new cathedral.

A new church was built at Church Norton, dedicated to St Peter, to serve the local population but by the nineteenth century it was isolated from its main congregation, the town of Selsey having developed about two miles away.  It was therefore decided to move the church from Church Norton to the centre of Selsey so in 1864 work began removing all but the chancel from Church Norton to Selsey brick by brick.   The new church in Selsey was also dedicated to St Peter. 
St Wilfrid's, Church Norton (2012)
The chancel remained at the original site where it was used as a mortuary chapel for many years.  In 1906 the chapel acquired some fittings from St Martins in Chichester when it was demolished and then in 1917 it was rededicated to St Wilfrid and it became part of the parish of St Peters, Selsey.  Finally in 1990 it was made redundant and it is now in the care of the Churches Conservation Trust, several services are held there still each year including one of the 12th October - the feast day of St Wilfrid.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Calendar complications!

" This year by an Act of Parliament it was approved that the Civil and Ecclesiastical year should begin on the first of January 1752 and by the Same Act the Stile was altered from the Julian to The Gregorian Account by the Annihilation of eleven Days in the month of September 1752"  (extract from Ardingly parish registers)

As it often turns out nothing in family history is straight forward and there are many pitfalls for the researcher.  One such pitfall is the change to our calendar in 1751.

The calendar we used to use pre 1752 was introduced by Julius Caesar in 45BC (and known as the Julian calendar) and it was a fairly accurate calendar – each year was only out of sync with the solar year by 11½ minutes.  Not much but by the 16th century this had accumulated to a difference of 10 days! Pope Gregory XIII took the view that 10 days was too much (it upset the timing of Easter!) so he had a new calendar devised which was far more accurate – it is only out of sync by 26 seconds per year.  Introducing the calendar however was less than easy – most Catholic countries followed his papal bull instructing the move from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar in 1582 but England was no longer a Catholic county having split in 1531.  In the intervening years a strong anti-Catholic feeling had developed so there was little chance of us doing anything suggested by a pope however sensible it might be!  We continued with the Julian calendar but by the mid 18th century we were 11 days out of sync and it was finally time for us to accept the Gregorian calendar.

Another complication was that prior to 1751 the official new year began on the 25th March (also known as Lady Day) although the popular start to the year was the 1st January.   Other countries had already begun to use the 1st January as the official start of the new year; Scotland had started in 1600 so James VI would have been used to working with a year that began in January but when he became James I of England he would have had to change to a year that began in March.

The Calendar (New Style) Act 1750 changed all this.  As a result 1751 became a short year running from 25th March to the 31st December and the following year 1752 ran from 1st January to the 31st December but missed out 11 days in September, a period chosen for having the fewest festivals and saints days. Effectively our ancestors went to bed on the 2nd September and woke up on the 14th September.  

I have read and heard it repeated many times that people rioted about the loss of their 11 days but nowhere have I seen any evidence for this, none of the documents which refer to these riots actually gives a source or names any parish.  It is far more likely that if there was any disruption it was because people were afraid that debts such as rent and tax would become due 11 days earlier.  In fact such dates were simply moved forward 11 days so they were paid after the usual number of days had elapsed but most dates remained on the same day so in most cases saints days, festivals and birthdays remained on the same day they had always been.  However some people like to add to the confusion - George Washington was born on the 11th February 1731 (1732 according to the Gregorian calendar) but with the change of calendar he moved his birthday forward by 11 days and began celebrating it on the 22nd February (the date on which America bases its federal holiday).  By the way, the 25th March plus 11 days and accounting for a leap year which didn’t happen takes us to the 6th April – still the start of the tax year.

So how does this affect family historians?  It sounds fairly straightforward but as I said at the beginning nothing is straight forward in practice.  Many people used the 1st January as the start of the new year long before 1751, the parish registers of Arundel in West Sussex were already starting their year in January whilst the Horsham parish registers ignored the change and did not start the year with 1st January until 1764. 
And it does matter – a child baptised on the 3rd February 1658 can be a sibling to a child baptised on the 28th March 1658 whilst a couple can marry on the 8th May 1732 and have a legitimate child baptised on the 21st January 1732.  When you use indexes and transcripts you should always check to see if dates have already been converted to the Gregorian calendar – is it the 5th February 1702 (old style) or 5th February 1703 (new style).  There is also the issue of how you write dates pre 1751?  I generally use 5th February 1702/1703 whilst others prefer 5th February 1702 (os) to indicate old style/Julian calendar or 5th February 1703 (ns) to show new style/Gregorian calendar.