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.
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.
Dying is rather unfortunate anyway, but in Beaumont-cum-Moze, the causes of death are given far more often than they are in other burial registers that I’ve seen. So here, then, are unfortunate ways to die in Beaumont-cum-Moze.1)Before 1678, Beaumont and Moze were two separate parishes.
It’s not unusual at all to find people being buried in a parish that they don’t usually live in – either because it’s where they’re originally from and they want to be buried beside their family members, or because they died too far from home.
I found one burial from 1718, and two from the 1730s for men from Sunderland, County Durham – James Dun on 22nd October 1718, John Whitfield on 16th June 1735, and Timothy Ruston on 23rd August 1739. Not long after Timothy’s burial, on 24th Feb 1739/40, John Richardson from Scarborough, Yorkshire was buried.1)More from the 1752-1812 register: John Richardson from Sunderland, aged 36, buried on 30 March 1776, William Hardcastle, aged 13, from the ship William of Sunderland, buried 23rd December 1808.
These seemed rather odd – Wivenhoe is nearly 300 miles away from Sunderland by road, and 250 miles from Scarborough. Of course, with Wivenhoe being a village which had a port and ship yards for centuries, it’s possible that these men were sailors, involved with transporting something down the North Sea coast. But what?