Somerset County Herald 01 Apr 1939 Local Notes and Queries Suicide Graves

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Somerset County Herald and Taunton Courier Saturday 01 April 1939

Page 4 Column 2


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3343. - SUICIDE GRAVES. - Tom HOOD ends his poem “Faithless Nelly Grey,” with the words: “They buried Ben in four cross roads with a stake in his inside.” Are there any spots in Somerset at which suicides have been buried in this traditional manner? Is it known when the custom started, and when it ceased? - PERCIVAL WYATT.

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3343. - SUICIDE GRAVES. - The Act of 4 George IV., which was mentioned by Father HORNE in his reply to this query last week, and which directs that “a felo de se may be buried in the unconsecrated portion of a churchyard between the hours of nine and twelve at night.” gave rise at Ilminster to what is still known as Strangers' Knap. This is unconsecrated ground in the south-west corner of the churchyard in which suicides were formerly buried. The burials took place at night in accordance with the Act; in addition, it was here the custom to draw the bodies of such suicides up into Strangers' Knap over the churchyard wall, so that they should not be carried over consecrated ground. The stake was formerly thrust through the suicide's body because this was the proper procedure to follow with vampires, and suicides were among those who were believed to be liable to become vampires. Any body, whether that of a suicide or not, over which a bird had flown, was also on Exmoor believed to be liable to become a vampire: and for this reason any corpse found lying in a field or on a road, whether stranger or neighbour, and whatever the cause of death, was also formerly buried at a cross-roads with a stake thrust through its breast. Further, any animal or person who had received the attentions of a vampire was liable in turn to become one, so that even if a person had died in his bed, dying a natural and sanctified death, and being laid out for burial in the proper manner, there was still suspicion of possible vampirism attached to his corpse if a cat found its way to the body, so that it was considered safest that such a body, also, should be buried at a cross-roads with a stake through it. There are vague echoes of this belief lingering still on Exmoor, for one of the reasons given here for watching the dead is “to see the cat doesn't get at the body.” It seems probable that the fact that, at Minehead, bodies washed up from wrecks in earlier times were buried in unconsecrated ground under Culver Cliff, while later ones were given Christian burial in the churchyard, might well be due to the passing away of this belief in the vampire nature of bodies over which the seagulls had wheeled, while the Act of 1882 mentioned by Farther HORNE, which allowed a suicide Christian burial may well also have had its influence here. Father HORNE mentions that there are twenty or so Somerset cross-roads which were named from the suicides buried there; I wonder whether he would be so very kind as to give the names of them? - ISABEL WYATT.

3343. - SUICIDE GRAVES. - There are many spots in Somerset, situated at four-cross-roads, where suicides are said to have been buried at night, without any coffin and with a stake driven through the body to keep the ghost from walking. There are also many cross-roads in this country which are generally known as so-and-so's Grave, and in many cases they are so marked on the Ordnance Survey Maps. About 19 years ago Father Ethelbert HORNE gave in the Herald Notes and Queries columns the following list of nine of such names:-

1.- TUCKER'S GRAVE. - An inn near Faulkland, in the parish of Norton St. Philip, has this title as its sign. Father HORNE (writing in 1920) said: I was informed by a woman, a native of Faulkland, that as a child (she died at the age of 80 about 20 years ago) she was afraid to pass this place in the dark, as the stake was not supposed to “hold” Tommy TUCKER.

2.- COMBER'S GRAVE. - Father HORNE said: “ A Mrs. COMBER was found in a well on Norton Hill and was buried at the cross-roads just beyond Midsomer Norton Church on the Bristol road. A good deal of information regarding this suicide has been found in an old Overseer's book.”

3.- CANNARD'S GRAVE. - This also gives its name to an inn, and is situated on the Fosse Way main road to Ilchester, a mile from Shepton Mallet. A story told is that CANNARD was an innkeeper by day and a highwayman by night. That he promised his dying wife to amend, but returned to his old ways, and that her ghost appeared to him in consequence, and he was so upset by the apparition that he committed suicide.

4.- HELLICAR'S GRAVE. - Marston Backlane, Frome. Father HORNE said he knew a person whose grandfather had told him he was present when this suicide was buried.

5.- PAIN'S GRAVE. - Situated at the first cross-roads on the road from Doulting to Cranmore.

6.- CORNISH'S GRAVE. - In the parish of Mells, not far from the Mells-road Station.

7.- MILLARD'S GRAVE. - South of Frome. Further description wanted.

8.- NAN BULL'S GRAVE. - At the four-cross-roads where Hewish-lane, Crewkerne, intersects the road from Maiden Beech Tree to Roundham's Foot.

9.- MARY'S GRAVE. - At Chantry, near Mells.

In addition to these names given by Father Etherlbert HORNE there are:-

10.- WEBBER'S GRAVE. - At four-cross-roads on the way from Wellington to the Monument by way of Foxdown Hill. Local tradition says this was the burying place of a defaulting lawyer who was subsequently struck with remorse for his mis-deeds, and committed suicide, and was buried at these cross-roads.

11.- CULLIFORD's (OR CULLIVER'S) GRAVE. - At the junction of the Yeovil Hewhill road where a lane leads to Burton, East Coker. The Rev. Chas. POWELL, a former vicar of East Coker, believed that this was the burial-place of a suicide.

12.- RIGHTON'S GRAVE. - At four-cross-roads about mid-way between Moorlinch and Stawell.

13.- MARY HUNT'S GRAVE. - Cross-roads about half a mile north of Cricket Malherbie, where that parish adjoins the parish of West Dowlish, near Oxenford Farm. A young woman named Mary HUNT committed suicide somewhere near this spot and was buried at these cross-roads at midnight with a stake driven through her body. But the sympathies of the people living in the neighbourhood were with the poor girl who had found life's burdens too great to bear, and I have been told that a number of them met and disinterred the body from its dishonoured grave at the cross-roads and buried it in a grave which they had dug for it in the churchyard at (I believe) Dowlish Wake, and they defied the Rector and all the other powers of that day to remove it. This story was told to me about forty years ago by an old gentleman who assured me that his grandfather was one of those who took park in the disinterment and reburial in the churchyard.

14.- TYTIBYE'S GRAVE. - About two-thirds of the way up Jew's-lane at Wiveliscombe there is a cross-way leading down to Greenway-lane. It was here that the body of a man named TYTIBYE, who committed suicide, was buried with a stake driven through him.

There are also Higgins' Grave, West's Grave, and Beggar's Grave, the last-names being near Butleigh.

The “Sherborne Journal” of 6th May 1814, reported:- “A girl of the name of SHERSTONE, 20 years of age, servant to Mr. Isaac MULLINS, farmer, of Yeovil, put a period to her existence on Monday morning last, by taking a portion of arsenic: the Coroner's Jury sat Saturday on the body, and brought in their verdict felo de se. She was buried at the Cross Roads near the town.”

At a cross-roads between Galhampton and Bruton an old soldier named William COLES was buried after having committed suicide in the spring of 1805 at the age of 80. There was afterwards erected on the spot a post, to which was affixed the inscription:-

Oh, Reader, pause – may this unhallowed sod

Remind thee of thy duty to thy God-

Thou shalt do no murder.

An old story that used to be told at Over Stowey, and which is perhaps still remembered by some of the older inhabitants, said that many years ago an old woman had been found hanging dead in her lonely cottage up on the hills above the village in circumstances which clearly pointed to suicide. She was buried at the cross-roads at the top of Bincombe Green, between Over and Nether Stowey, with a wooden stake driven through her body to keep her spirit from walking. But in spite of the stake, the restless ghost of the old lady did walk and was seen by many, travelling dismally up along the lonely lane to her lonelier cottage, for many a long year after. At length a man who had been a sailor came home to his native village to die, and hearing about the troubled spirit's wanderings he was stricken with remorse and confessed on his death-bed that he had killed the old lady for the sake of her scanty hoard of money, and then hung up the body in such a way as to make it appear a case of suicide. Then the local authorities took up the old woman's bones from their dishonoured grave at the cross-roads and buried them with all ceremony in consecrated ground, and her ghost has never been seen since.

The four-cross-roads about 6½ miles from Ilminster on the road to Honiton are known as Giant's Grave, and a road near by is called “Giant's Grave-road.” but I have never been able to obtain any information. - M.

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