Thursday, 30 May 2013

A terrible death

Genealogists often find themselves wandering around graveyards (usually, it seems, in the rain!), checking names and dates on the stones. Many graves give us additional information, like the leaf designs on medieval graves that tell us the occupant was a forester. Unusual inscriptions are worth researching, and sometimes reveal macabre tales.

One such grave is that of Thomas Meaykin, at the church of St Lawrence the Martyr ­(also known as ‘the chapel in the wilderness’) in Rushton Spencer, Staffordshire. The inscription, on a weathered stone beneath a yew tree, reads:  

Momento Mori [Be mindful of death]
Thomas, son of Thomas and Mary Meaykin
Interred  July 16th 1781
Aged 21 years.
As a man falleth before
wicked men: so fell I.
Bia Thanates [death by violence]. 

Thomas left the tiny village of Rushton and went south, ending up in the comparatively large and prosperous town of Stone. There he found work as an odd-job boy for the local apothecary, a post which included taking care of the horses. The tale goes that the apothecary’s daughter developed a crush on Thomas and, after putting up a weak resistance, knowing his notoriously ill-tempered boss would not approve, Thomas succumbed. The affair was the talk of the town, and local gossip went into overdrive when Thomas unexpectedly died following a very brief illness. He was buried, many thought with an unbecoming speed, at St Michael’s church on 6 July 1781.

Rumours abounded about Thomas’s death, with people pointing out the apothecary’s knowledge of, and access to, poisons, and how he might quite like Thomas out of the way.  When, some time later, Thomas’s favourite horse was found at his grave, scraping at the ground, it was taken by many as a sign. The rumours gathered steam, and a year after Thomas’s death an exhumation was ordered to settle the affair.

When the coffin was opened Thomas Meaykin – who had been buried on his back – was lying face down.

The theory at the time was that he had been drugged so deeply that he appeared dead, and that he had then re-awakened in the ground – a fate which doesn’t bear thinking about. No one was ever brought to trial for his murder, however, presumably because there was no actual evidence.

Parish records show that Thomas’s remains were taken to St Lawrence’s, where they were reburied on 17 July 1782. In what today might seem a further indignity but which was believed at the time to bring him eternal rest, his body was buried the wrong way round, with his feet to the west rather than the east, so preventing his spirit from walking. 


 St Lawrence's, Rushton

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

A streetcar named …

HS2 might be hitting the news at the moment, but Three Shires has been looking into the arrival of Britain’s first street railway (basically a tram pulled by horses), which was making waves in 1860. Patented by an American – one Mr George Francis Train (really, we’re not making this up) – and installed at his own expense, the new railway stretched for 1.5 miles between Woodside Ferry and Birkenhead Park.

Each carriage could carry 20–30 people inside, with the same number on the open top deck. Two horses pulled each car, and they were said to keep up a steady 7–8 miles an hour with no ill effects. Each pair of wheels had its own broom which swept stones and other debris out of the way.

The street railway was said to be far more comfortable and reliable than the old-style trams, and the line was so successful that it was soon extended. Three similar routes were opened in London, but these met with strong local opposition and did not last long.

Francis Train sold the Birkenhead Street Railway Company in 1876, when it became the Birkenhead Tramways Company. The tramline lasted until 1937, when the petrol motor-bus became the new state of the art.

The picture shows the street railway at its opening on 30 August 1860. Mr Train is standing top left, with his arm outstretched, and, no doubt, his fingers crossed!