Reflections: Digging up the history of the New Forest from gravestone epitaphs
The August Reflections’ article covered the local history that could be found by spending time inside some of our churches. This month we will review the history that can be seen in the churchyards. It is well worth looking at the details on the graves as they not only tell us about the person but sometimes hint at the events surrounding their deaths. Some epitaphs however, are so intriguing that they call out to be researched further.
In St Nicholas Churchyard Brockenhurst, there are a number of well-known graves of great local interest, such as that of Brusher Mills the snake catcher, or the immaculately kept New Zealand, Indian and Commonwealth war graves. If the visitor were to walk off the beaten path they would find, hidden away among the long grass and bracken, the grave of Lt. Colonel Conwyn Mansel-Jones who was awarded the Victoria Cross, the order of St Michael and St George, the Distinguished Service Order, the Legion of Honour and was mentioned six times in despatches.
He was serving as a captain in the West Yorkshire Regiment during the second Boer War. In the battle to capture the Tugela Heights on the 27th of February 1900, the West Yorkshire Regiment were met with stiff resistance and came under heavy shell, machine gun and rifle fire. For a short period of time their advance was checked. Captain Mansel-Jones, although seriously wounded, rallied his men and led them up the hill in the face of the enemy fire and by his example encouraged them to capture the position.
After recovering from his wounds, he remained in the army until 1910 when ill health caused him to retire. He was recalled to the colours in 1914 and served throughout the Firest World War, attaining the rank of lieutenant colonel. His work was recognised with the six mentions in despatches. After the war Colonel Mansel-Jones and his wife Marion moved to the New Forest, living at Weirs End in Brockenhurst.
Colonel Mansel-Jones was involved in many aspects of local life in the New Forest. He worked hard to support the preservation of the New Forest and the way of life of the commoners. He was a committee member of the New Forest Association, and the New Forest Agricultural Show. He also served on the New Forest Advisory Committee. He was a leading supporter of Lymington hospital and organised a number of fundraising events for them. At the time of his death, Colonel Mansel-Jones was chair of the hospital management committee. He was the treasurer of Brockenhurst British Legion and a member of the village bowling club.
On the 6th of June 1942, this newspaper reported that Colonel Conwyn Mansel-Jones VC, at the age of 71 had passed away at Lymington hospital after a short illness. He was buried with full military honours in St Nicholas Churchyard. His wife passed away in 1949 and is buried with him.
The Fisher family of Brockenhurst
I am indebted to Professor Adrian Smith of Southampton University for bringing to my attention the grave of the Fisher family of Whitley Ridge, Brockenhurst. The patriarch, Herbert William Fisher, was an academic and historian. He had been a tutor to the future King Edward VII and was later his private secretary and Keeper of the Privy Seal. Fisher died at the age of 77 and was buried in St Nicholas Churchyard in 1903.
Herbert had married Mary Louise Jackson in 1862, and they went on to have 11 children, many of whom made significant contributions to British life. Herbert Albert Laurens Fisher became a historian and a Liberal politician and was president of the board of education during the First World War. Two sons served in the Royal Navy and fought at the battle of Jutland in 1916. Charles Dennis Fisher was killed on board HMS Invincible, while his brother William Wordsworth Fisher commanded a battleship in that action and later became an admiral.
Another son, Edmund Fisher gave up a successful career as an architect to serve during the First World War. He was initially rejected by the military as he was aged 45 in 1914. He volunteered to work in a French army hospital before being commissioned into the Royal Field Artillery in 1917. Sadly, he died of peritonitis in 1918 and is buried in the family grave at Brockenhurst.
Edmund’s son, Herbert Douglas Fisher, was born in 1910. He went on to work in the pottery industry as a manager in the early 1930s. Witnessing the struggles of the working class at first hand radicalised Edmund, and his political leanings became increasingly left wing. He later became a member of the communist party. His political views and his support for the workers proved too much for his employers and, during his career, he was sacked from two pottery companies. In November 1937 Edmund left England and went to Spain to fight in the Republican International Brigade against Franco’s fascist forces. He went missing in action in March 1938, and his body was not recovered. He is commemorated on the family memorial in St Nicholas Churchyard.
All Saints Churchyard, Minstead
Some epitaphs on headstones leave the visitor wanting more. One example can be seen in All Saints Church at Minstead. Located on the left of the pathway leading to the church is a large gravestone on which is inscribed ‘To the Memory of Thomas White who died 31st Oct. 1842 aged 81 years. A faithful friend. A Father dear, A Husband lies buried here. In love he lived. In love he died. His life was craved, but God denied.’
There is a word missing from the epitaph, but this has not been caused by erosion over the years, it has been neatly cut out by a stone mason. After Thomas died, his widow became aware of village gossip suggesting that her husband had not been quite as faithful as she imagined. Mrs White put the record straight by having the incorrect word removed.
Christchurch Priory Churchyard
Another intriguing epitaph can be found on a chest tomb near to the entrance to Christchurch Priory. Etched onto the side of the grave are the words
‘We were not slayne but raysed,
Raysed not to life
Bvt to be bvried twice,
By men of strife,
What rest covldth living have
When dead had none,
Agree amongst yov
Heere we ten are one.
Hen : Rogers died Aprill 17 1641
Sources vary as to an explanation of this strange wording. One suggestion is that the 10 men were from a shipwreck and, having been buried on the beach, were exhumed and moved to the Priory churchyard. Another explanation is that the men were killed when working in a gravel pit when they were accidentally buried. They needed to be dug out to enable them to receive a Christian burial in the churchyard.
A more plausible explanation is that Henry Rogers, who died in 1641, was a prosperous wine merchant who had been mayor of Christchurch on seven occasions between 1615 and 1639. Is it possible that he was wealthy enough to warrant a lead coffin?
The English civil war began in 1642. Christchurch was captured by Parliamentary forces in 1644 who stabled their horses inside the Priory. In 1645 Royalist forces captured most of the town, but some parliamentary soldiers were besieged in the castle and the priory.
Lead was needed to make musket and pistol balls. Were the bodies thrown out of their coffins and the lead used to make shot? Later, the discarded bodies may have been placed in one stone tomb. The JR initials at the end of the epitaph might be those of John Rogers who was the mayor of Christchurch in 1644 and 1645. Further research is certainly required.
St Mary Magdalene Churchyard, New Milton
Some epitaphs on grave stones do not do justice to the achievements of the person buried. One example, in St Mary Magdalene Churchyard, is the grave of the distinguished author Elizabeth de Beauchamp Goudge who lived from 1900 to 1984. She was better known as Elizabeth Goudge who was a very talented and well-respected author of both short stories and children’s stories. She published many novels from the 1930s through to the 1970s, and was awarded the Carnegie Medal for literature in 1946 for the children’s story The Little White Horse. Harry Potter author JK Rowling is reputed to have said that, as a child, this was her favourite novel. Rowling acknowledges that this tale had some influence in her creation of the Harry Potter stories.
Goudge first became acquainted with the New Forest when she was sent to a boarding school in the area. In later life Elizabeth and her parents lived partly in Barton Lane, Barton-on-Sea and partly in Oxford where her father was Professor of Divinity. Her autobiography The Joy of Snow gives some detail of her experiences living in this area. Her father died in Barton in 1939 and her mother was later interred with him.
Although Goudge was no longer living in Barton at the time of her death, she is buried in her parents’ grave with the simple epitaph of ‘and their daughter, Elizabeth Goudge. Beloved author. 1900-1984’. No mention was made of the honours bestowed on her for her writing.
Incredibly, a descendant of Catherine the Great of Russia lies buried under an orthodox cross in the NFDC part of the churchyard. Countess Helene Schouvaloff was born in Moscow on 24th November 1904. Her father was Count Alexander Pavlovich Shuvalov who served in the Royal Court of Tsar Nicholas II, and her mother was Princess Elena Pavlovna Demidova. Tracing her lineage back through her father’s family line, it appears that her paternal fifth great-grandparents were Charles Peter Ulrich, who was Tsar Peter III, and Sophia of Anhalt-Zerbst, Empress Catherine II of Russia, commonly referred to as Catherine the Great.
Leaving Russia after the revolution, Helene moved to Paris where she married. At some point this marriage was dissolved. An alien passenger embarkation form dated 9th September 1936 shows Helene Schouvaloff and Andrew Schouvaloff aged four embarking on a ship from Southampton to New York. Helene’s occupation was given as milliner and her address was recorded as the Park Lane Hotel.
In 1939 at Cirencester, Helene married Noel Stubbs, an RAF officer, and Countess Helene Schouvaloff of Moscow became Mrs Helene Stubbs. In retirement they lived at Wootton Hall Lodge, Tiptoe Road, Hordle. She died at Hordle Grange nursing home on the 6th May 1992.
Several other headstones in this part of the churchyard also have the Russian orthodox cross displayed. The men and women in these graves are the displaced eastern European refugees who were living at Barton House, on the sea front opposite the present day Cliff House Hotel. This humanitarian facility was run by the British Council for aid to Refugees from 1954 to 1991 and provided a haven for those who had fled their homeland.
These are just a few examples of the fascinating local history stories that can discovered just by walking through a local churchyard and taking time to read the inscriptions. A wealth of history material can be gleaned, along with an insight into the lives of those who lived in our towns and villages. If you have uncovered some interesting stories in your local churchyard, please get in touch with me.
Nick Saunders MA is a local historian and writer. He is chairman of the Milton Heritage Society and can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org