Accidental fire reveals hidden graves

Pictured is local historian John Spargo, left, and volunteer Paul Bagni, right
Pictured is local historian John Spargo, left, and volunteer Paul Bagni, right

An accidental fire uncovered historical graves which had been all but forgotten about in a village churchyard.

When volunteer Paul Bagni set fire to a tree while lighting an autumn bonfire at North Marston Parish Church, little did he know that he would uncover a slice of Victorian history.

During the clean-up operation he discovered a cluster of gravestones, and called out the North Marston History Club’s John Spargo to take a look.

Mr Spargo said: “I researched the story behind these graves to find they offered a fascinating insight into the life of Victorian North Marston.

“I found the funerals associated with two of these burials had been recorded in detail in the parish magazine at the time, The Schornian, as both deaths were significant events for the village.”

Perhaps the most interesting grave uncovered was that of Frederick Lestrange Walsh, who died from scarlet fever at just 11-years-old.

The youngster was a pupil at nearby Schorne College, and his father was a vicar at Arborfield in Berkshire.

Details of the death, which was treated with typical Victorian fervour, are retold at length in the newsletter.

And Mr Spargo believes that was to emphasise how seriously the boarding school was taking the potentially disastrous outbreak.

He said: “The vicar, Samuel James, writing in the Schornian described Frederick’s funeral in detail and with all the melodrama associated with the Victorians’ obsession with death and bereavement, mirroring Queen Victoria’s decades in mourning for Prince Albert.”

Touchingly, markings at the grave show that after their own deaths, Frederick’s brother, sister, mother and father were also laid to rest beside him.

The second grave uncovered belonged to John Bett Ward, who died in 1887 aged 76.

Mr Ward has a greater connection to North Marston, as he served the parish as sextant and clerk. But, it appears that later in life the respectable gentleman fell on hard times.

An article in the The Schornian reads: “He would wile away hours in perfect solitude in the church, performing on the harmonium, and no doubt dreaming of old times before he was driven to parish allowance and almost destitution.”