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






A Suspicion Of Scandal

By Mike Buckingham and Richard Frame
First published 1988

© Mike Buckingham and Richard Frame 2012

These days we assume that some degree of ceremony should attend burial, but such was not always the case. In fact up until Victorian times burial was a low key affair. Having been laid out by a family member or a neighbour who specialised in such matters the body was taken to the local church on a bier provided by the church and after a service taken to the churchyard.

Death, after all, was a common occurence and all but the very youngest would be familiar with it.

From the point of view of the poor this was a satisfactory arrangement. Life was hard enough and little sentiment could attach to death.

With the arrival of the cemetery in the 1830s this began to change. The first private cemetery to be opened was Kensal Green, North London in 1836, an event which presaged new funereal fashions.

By the 1840s burial was becoming a spectator event and cemeteries were seen as places where even in death, the wealth and positon of a man could be attested.

The ‘respectable poor’, in the matter of burial as in so many others, attempted to emulate the more prosperous classes. Poverty was a disgrace according to the Victorians, and there could be no greater disgrace than a paupers’ grave.

By the 1850s it was common for ordinary working people to join burial benefit associations which for the price of a couple of pence a week would ensure the funerary trappings by this time deemed proper.

Wherever there is an insurance scheme there is also the possiblitiy of fraud, a fact which was as true of the nineteenth century as it is the present. It is this possibility which leads us to the story of Joshua James, from Maindee in Newport, who was unceremoniously resurrected a year after ‘benefit’ burial.

Some time after James’s burial in January, 1876 a certain Mr William Dugmore, a tailor of Newport and something of a prankster wrote to the Secretary of State for the Home Office claiming that James had been in a trance when examined by the doctor and pronounced dead.

The funeral had gone ahead Dugmore’s letter said, but alleging some financial irregularity he claimed that only stones had been lowered into the ground with the coffin.

We can only imagine the thoughts running through the head of Doctor Jennings, the man who had signed the death certificate, as at last the spades thudded against the top of the coffin.

Would there be a body within or would there be nothing but stones? If the latter there would surely be awkward questions to answer. Perhaps he exchanged nervous glances with Mr Needham, the master of the workhouse, who also stood at the graveside, along with the coroner, Mr W.H. Brewer and Mr J.F. Mullock, of the burial board.

The tension built up as the top of the coffin was levered away to reveal the mortal remains of Mr James.

The gravediggers were not inclined to tarry and having replaced the lid filled in the grave once more with some speed.

Perhaps it was a macabre hoax or perhaps the disgraced Dugmore really thought he had caught the authentic whiff of scandal.

There has been reports of faked burials in other parts of the county and Dugmore may have sincerely believed that something was amiss. The Secretary of State took the matter seriously, after all, and it would have to be a very rash man who would cause an exhumation for a joke in view of the severe penalty such a tasteless prank would have incurred.

But are there graves even now in St Woolos which if opened, would be found to contain nothing but stones or bags of sand? Until the Day of Judgement we shall never know.