Huntspill vigil to foil body-snatchers

Down a by-road leading off the A38 at the West Huntspill Crossways Inn junction on the A38 lies the heart of the village of West Huntspill

Down a by-road leading off the A38 at the West Huntspill Crossways Inn junction on the A38 lies the heart of the village of West Huntspill. It is set amid sheep grazing on some of the country's richest pasture land, with ponds and brimful rhymes and rushes and fresh green hedgerows thrusting towards the sky.But this article is a glance back to some macabre moments in Huntspill's story and, in contrast, a reflection on the knightly figures who have had their place in the Huntspill story and, in particular, the knight and his lady whose effigies, shattered by a fire, lie in the church.First, happenings at West Huntspill in times when there was no certainty that "the rude forefathers of the hamlet" would 'for ever' sleep in the rural churchyards in which they were buried. Body-snatchers, or Resurrection Men as they were known, arrived under cover of darkness to remove bodies from newly-dug graves and sell them to those engaged in medical research who were ready to pay £10 for each.West Huntspill's parish records go back a long way and are extremely interesting. Details of christenings, marriages, and burials date to 1654. In 1735 the churchwardens made the following payments concerning Alice Hawkeswell, deceased; Part of the expenses at Bridgwater for when the body was found, 10s; for bringing her home again, 4s; for watching the body, 3s; paid George Baker for burial, 6s; for a new shroud, 5s; for a new bag to carry her body home in, 1s 10d; paid to the guard for watching the corpse, 7s.Many years ago a Bridgwater historian said he had no doubt that this was an instance of body snatching, and that by mischance in the body snatchers' plans the body had been recovered.He said that half-a-century earlier he had been told by a local centenarian that he had actually watched over graves so as to frustrate body snatchers.There is also the story of a tomb in the corner of West Huntspill churchyard near the Old Rectory garden, which was covered with a massive slab was the grave of a Miss Rogers who lived at Huntspill Court, and who was engaged to marry a sea captain.He was sailing home for the wedding when his ship was wrecked and he was drowned. His fiancee, stricken by the news, went into a decline and died, it was said, of a broken heart.At her request she was buried in her bridal gown, and wearing all her jewels. About that time there were rumours that Resurrection Men were prowling around the district disinterring newly-buried bodies for surgical purposes.To foil an attempt on stealing the corpse of the young lady of Huntspill Court it was said that the family retainers kept nightly vigil at the grave for some time, and that eventually a large stone was put over it.Colonel Bramble, a former noted Weston antiquarian, recorded seeing in Long Ashton churchyard well over a century ago a ledger stone, as it was called, some six feet by two feet and weighing several hundredweights. The stone, he was told, had within living memory been laid on all newly-opened graves to prevent them being rifled by body snatchers from Bristol.Possibly there was a good market for bodies with medical researchers in Bristol, because there is another story about body snatching at Long Ashton in which the macabre is mixed with humour. Some Bristol medical students are said to have planned to unearth a body from a newly-made grave and arrived in the dead of night to perform their grisly task. They got to work with the aid of a shaded lantern. Suddenly they heard a terrible groan behind them.Turning, they saw a white figure moving in their direction. Assuming it was the ghost of the person whose body they were unearthing they fled. As the sound of their carriage wheels died away in the distance, a rival group of medical students moved in and completed the task they had begun!Another West Huntspill 'body' story is that which arose in December, 1952, when men were digging a trench in Church Road, West Huntspill, for the sewerage scheme.At a depth of about five or six feet they found human bones. An inquest was held. A pathologist said that chemical analysis of the bones showed that fluorine was present in a fair quantity. He considered they had been buried for about 300 years. The remains suggested they were of a man of average height, between 35 and 40.So far as was known there had never been a burial at the spot. Nor had a house been nearby, but the burial had taken place where cross-roads were known to have existed.Returning an open verdict, the coroner commented: "Of course it is well-known that in the old days people used to be buried at cross-roads for various reasons, and that hangings used to take place at road intersections. It would seem that that was possible in this case; but, of course, evidence before me is quite insufficient to form or come to any actual verdict in that respect."Whose bones were they, one wonders? Was the man a criminal or a suicide? Had he been murdered, or was he one of Monmouth's revels caught in the district after the rout at Sedgemoor, and peremptorily hanged on the spot as happened in many cases? We can get no nearer the answer than did the coroner, for although West Huntspill's records date back far into the village's history they shed no light on the mystery.There is also the mystery of an effigy of a knight in armour who lies beneath a canopy in Huntspill's church of St Peter. Though reclining, he appears braced for any emergency.Shield and sword are at his side, and here is a warning 'Hands off!' about him. An ornamental belt encircles his waist, and beside him is an effigy of his wife. She wears a long, loose robe with close sleeves reaching down to her wrists. A large hood encircles her face.The effigies are reckoned to be of the late 14th century. Surviving the vandalism of hundreds of years, the nearest they ever came to destruction was on December 6, 1878, when a fire did immense damage to the church. Unmoved, unmovable, the knight and his lady lay there as the flames licked around them. The knight's shield was cracked by the heat and the lady's robe tinged red. Somewhat mutilated, they survived.Who were they? What part did this couple, immortalised in stone, play in the history of Hunstpill? How did it come about that they were buried in this remote village church, which stands like a great bastion amid levels so often swept by westerly gales and, in their time, subject to frequent inundation by the sea?It has been argued that the effigies are those of Sir William Cogan and his wife. Domesday Books tell us that the manor of Huntspill, which lent its name to one of the Saxon 'hundreds', despite its flooding hazards, was an area of considerable value. It had 100 acres of meadow, 200 acres of pasture, enough land to keep 11 ploughs busy, and 21 serfs or slaves and several other servants or cottagers bound to some sort of feudal service to the lord of the manor.Names cropping up in Huntspill records include old and famous families, including those of the Paganels (or Paynels), the Mariscos, Cogans, De Lay Hays, Verneys, Rodneys, Fitzwarrens, Bouchiers, Fanes, Arnolds and Cockerels.At one time a daughter in the Paynel family succeeded to the Huntspill estate and married Sir Milo Cogan, famous as one of the early conquerors of the Irish. His sons, William and John, each became Huntspill's lords in turn, and the latter's son, also John, who was a knight in the king's service, is known to have been buried at Huntspill.The Cogan name often crops up in Huntspill records, and a large area of the manor was once known as Huntspill Cogan. Later this part of the estate was named Grove Manor, and its owners were responsible for a third of the cost of maintaining the 'high bridge' over the Brue at what we know as Highbridge.In his 1791 Somerset history Collinson says that the former Saxon hundred of Huntspill owed its name from Hun or Hune, "a Saxon lord, and from the pill or bay which is here formed by conflux of the rivers Brew and Parrett, at the mouth whereof there is an ancient farm called to this day, Pill's Mouth".Collinson also stated that Huntspill once had a market and in 1791 still held three toll-free fairs annually.Although now St Peter and All Hallows, Huntspill church was formerly All Saints, a dedication later adopted by East Huntspill. East Huntspill's church was built in 1840 and its area became a separate ecclesiastical parish in 1845.West Huntspill church's splendid Jacobean pulpit, which has texts from King James' bible on its 10 sides, was formerly in Stogursey church. In Victorian days when there was the craze for 'restoration' that destroyed some of the finest features of churches, Stogursey got rid of its Jacobean pulpit.It turned up in a Bristol antique shop in 1875 and was bought for Huntspill for £10!* This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on August 14, 1981

You may also want to watch:

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter