St Woolos Cemetery - The Haunted Holy Ground

From the book "The Haunted Holy Ground" by Mike Buckingham and Richard Frame published in 1988.

About the Authors






The Corpses And The Cold North Wind

By Mike Buckingham and Richard Frame
First published 1988

© Mike Buckingham and Richard Frame 2012

No sight could imaginably have been more eerie that which faced scientists as they prised the lids away from the ice-bound coffins.

In each of the three was the frozen corpse of a sailor, its face twisted mask of pain set for all time in the permafrost. The only smell of corruption was from some woollen material which had rotted. Otherwise the starved bodies were intact right down to the frozen opaque eyeballs which stared into the cold, blue polar sky.

The three seafarers had been among those hand-picked by Sir John Franklin to man the ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror which were to forge a way through the North West passage.

The expedition had been equipped with the best exploration technology of the time, but even then had been beaten by the polar wilderness. Of the rest of the expedition there was no trace: reinforced hulls, powerful marine steam engines, specialist clothing and ample canned provisions had in the end counted for nought.

In fact it was the latter technical aid which almost certainly doomed Franklin’s expedition. All of the three gruesome relics contained such high levels of lead as to have made madness and death inevitable.

Lead from the sealed cans had so weakened the men that all the cruel climate had to do was to erode their strength and willpower with numbing cold.

Buried in St Woolos is a man, Joseph Graham, who several years after the ill-fated Franklin expedition set out with a small flotilla under the command of Sir Edward Belcher, RN, the task of which was to establish the fate of Franklin and his men. All we know of Graham is that his ship reached the latitude of Franklin’s ships and made a safe return albeit without any news of its predecessors. Graham’s expedition did, however, find the graves of the three sailors although it was left to the expedition of 140 years later to exhume the three.

Not that the rescue mission upon which Graham embarked was without incident. Of the five ships of his expedition that set out from England for the Northwest passage only one returned the rest having been abandoned to the ice.

Nevertheless Belcher’s expedition of which Graham was part has earned a footnote in Royal Naval history since it was the first upon which sledges were used. A small party of men dragged sledges 1,163 miles over a period of ninety-four days in the Spring of 1853. There is every possibility that Graham was a member of this team, although his stone in St Woolos cemetery is mute upon the point.

Graham was one of the many Newport men whose names are etched in British maritime history.

The next time he comes to our attention is in 1868 when he was appointed the first superintendent of the newly-opened sailors’ home at 95 and 96 Dock Street.

In fact the sailors’ home is a little mystery in itself. Although hundreds of seafarers down on their luck must have found a safe haven there over the years, we know nothing more about it.

All we do know is that Graham made his final berth in happier circumstances than the men who perished on Franklin’s quest. He expired on his forty-fourth birthday and was buried not in the ice of the far north but in a brick-lined grave in the warm Welsh earth.

But perhaps winds, slicing down from polar regions did play a part in Graham’s story.

It was on a bitter January morning in 1988 when stonemason Les Thomas and two helpers moved his headstone which was in an advance state of disrepair.

A century of frosts alternating with summer sun had cracked the face of the stone. Had it not have been moved not only the inscription but the delicately-carved sailing ship and rope motif would have been lost forever.

It would indeed have been ironic if the cold which had so perfectly preserved the poor bodies of Franklin’s men had destroyed a memorial to one of the men sent to rescue him.