Thursday, September 14, 2017

An Exhumation in Bedfordshire

The graveyard at Clapham church.
Nothing quite brings out a crowd like an exhumation. On a dark, mild night in September 1876, in the graveyard of the church of St. Thomas a Beckett in Clapham, Bedfordshire, the body of the late Rev. John Frederic Dawson was disturbed from its eternal rest. With hushed villagers looking on, a long-running family mystery would be solved at last.

For many years a rector in Lincolnshire, the Rev. Dawson had retired owing to poor health, and moved to the Woodlands, his family seat in Clapham. Dawson had inherited the fine mansion and surrounding forest of oaks from his father, a former mayor of Bedford. The reader will want to know that the Rev. Dawson had been married twice. After the death of his first wife, he married his housekeeper, with some thought unseemly haste. Each wife produced a son. When the clergyman died in 1870, his eldest son, William, 37, naturally assumed he would inherit the Woodlands. His disappointment was therefore keen when the Rev. Dawson instead left the estate to his half-brother, John Frederic, a mere youth. 

William brooded upon this rebuff for some time; he insisted that his grandfather had, in fact, written a will, requiring that the Woodlands be passed on according to the principle of primogeniture, to the eldest son. But William's legal challenges all failed - he could produce no will, therefore there was no case. It does seem that the locals rather favoured William's side. Thus, there was a sensation when the carpenter who had screwed down the lid on the Rev. Dawson's coffin came forward (after seven years) to claim that a family nurse had - at the very last moment - slipped some papers into the fabric lining. 

With this new twist, William once more approached the Home Office and finally prevailed. An exhumation was authorised. The disputed property was just over the road from the church. As can be imagined, Clapham was in a "great state of excitement." At two a-m, watched by a crowd exhibiting the "greatest decorum," the somber process began. A one-ton slab had to be pulled back before the coffin could be raised. The coffin lid was unscrewed revealing that the Rev. Dawson's body was in a “wonderful state of preservation.” Apparently, there was not the slightest smell. Alas, for William, there was no will to be found. A diligent search produced only a packet of letters tied in a ribbon. Ironically, they were letters between the clergyman and his first wife (i.e. William's mother). By noon, the graveyard was quiet again. 
Woodland Manor today

The familial struggle had been long and costly; the property soon passed out of the Dawson family. Today, Woodland Manor survives as a restaurant, hotel and wedding venue. 

I am happy to report that sales of Clerical Errors: A Victorian Series, Volume 2 have been increasing. The second volume is available in both paperback and Kindle editions at and Thank you very much. If you do see your way to purchase a copy, please write a review on the Amazon website.

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