Category Archives: Essex

The Fingringhoe skeleton

The skeleton from the 1857 Waterloo Bridge Mystery

The skeleton from the 1857 Waterloo Bridge Mystery

Have you heard “The Reclusive Skeleton of Fingringhoe” episode of Punt PI? In this Radio 4 series, comedian Steve Punt puzzles his way around cases of high strangeness, such as the Mull Air Mystery and The Crying Boy Paintings. It’s like Fortean Times on the radio. You’ll hear my dulcet tones chiming in, to talk about some of the research I did into the mystery of the skeleton. When a skeleton turns up, as they sometimes do – the image at the top of the page is from the 1857 Waterloo Bridge Mystery1)It wasn’t strictly a skeleton as there was some flesh accompanying the bones – although not very much. – they exert fascination. How can we identify a person just from bones? Without the flesh, can we find out how they died?

The skeleton in the Fingringhoe case was found in 1949, in the apparently abandoned cottage of an actress called Ada Constance Kent, who hadn’t been seen since March 1939. She was reclusive and rather eccentric, so was the skeleton hers? But what about the children who had got inside her house and played there? I’ll leave you to listen to the programme, and if you’re interested in reading about what happened in the 1940s, then see the chapter in Patrick Denney’s Foul Deeds & Suspicious Deaths in Colchester (Patrick pops up on the radio programme too!).

I looked into Ada’s family background, tracing her in the censuses. I went off-piste a little and traced her mother, aunt and grandmother. These bits weren’t used on the programme, but it helped me to see Ada in context, as an ordinary girl from a riverside village in north-east Essex, who apparently came to an extraordinary end.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. It wasn’t strictly a skeleton as there was some flesh accompanying the bones – although not very much.

More unfortunate ways to die in parish registers

All Saints church Great Oakley, by Helen Barrell

All Saints church Great Oakley, by Helen Barrell

A while ago I compiled all the unfortunate causes of death to be found in the parish registers for Beaumont-cum-Moze – perhaps the most unfortunate was William Taylor, who was killed by the bell falling out of the belfry. Burial registers aren’t really supposed to include cause of death, so they appear infrequently. But when they do, they give us a view into the lives lived (and the deaths died) in the past. Drowning and burning seems to have been more common than it is now, with people relying on well-water (and with all those rivers and creeks along the coast) and open fires. Of course, these are the deaths which have been described in the register – so they might be unusual, hence why they warrant a mention. And many causes of death not recorded may have been stranger still – it entirely depends on the whim of the minister or clerk entering the burials in the register. “Shall I mention that this poor chap was struck by lightning while harvesting turnips? Hmmm… nope.” It’s worth searching for your ancestors in newspaper databases in case they did have an unfortunate death which required an inquest.

Here’s some more, this time from Brightlingsea and Elmstead. The date is the burial date.

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At sea & in the air: Wivenhoe’s Green boys

grandma-beach

I’ve mentioned Grandma’s photo album before, when it turned out that the unnamed WW1 soldier posing in a Brighton studio was in fact her Uncle Bill. The photo above, of Grandma on a family seaside outing, interested me as it showed two of her cousins, and aunts of hers who I knew nothing about. She had written on the back identifying the people in the photo as:

  • back row: left to right – Aunt Rose, Aunt Elsie, Mum
  • front row: left to right – Eileen, Amy (my grandma), Jack, Les, Ron

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Mistley and the Witchfinder

796px-Matthew_Hopkins

I knew I would come across the burial of Matthew Hopkins, “witchfinder general”, when I came to transcribe Mistley‘s earliest parish register. It was still a strange feeling, to add his name to the database along with all the other residents. But along with Matthew, there was one other Hopkins in the register, and his burial seems to explain just what Hopkins was doing in Mistley in the first place, and perhaps how his campaign took hold.

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Georgian “Cluedo” in Manningtree’s parish register

house-plan

Image courtesy of the Essex Record Office

Well this is a very odd thing… a plan for the ground floor of a house, from Manningtree‘s register covering 1695-1775. It looks bizarrely like a board from the game “Cluedo”, not least because it even includes a billiard room. From the top, there’s the drawing room, something-or-other room, Ante? room, breakfast room and dining room. Some hastily added stairs, and bay windows.

But who sketched this? A vicar dreaming of his perfect house? Is there a house somewhere in Manningtree which was built to this plan?

Double women in Weeley

Source: Pinterest

Source: Pinterest

Along with the notes in Weeley’s register showing that people having civil marriages during the Commonwealth were sometimes backing it up with a church wedding afterwards, there’s something else intriguing about the register at that period.

We’re used to seeing marital statuses for women such as single woman, spinster, widow or maiden (How sure they were of that…? Ahem), but Weeley’s earliest register throws a new one into the mix: the double woman.

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Black History Month – Harwich and Boreham

portrait-sailor

Portrait of a late 18th century sailor (from Wikipedia Commons)

It’s time for some parish register finds which show black people living in Essex hundreds of years ago. Last year, it was coincidentally in October that I spotted William Essex, “a black native of Madagascar” in Wivenhoe’s baptism register – so these are the people I’ve found since, in Harwich and Boreham.

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