IN 2017 a group of volunteers set about recording the forgotten stories of gravestones within the churchyard of St Nicholas Church, Mid Lavant.
The group utilised an innovative photographic technology, reflectance transformation imaging (RTI), which captures the shape and colour of a surface and allows the re-lighting of the object from any direction. This process highlighted text and images that were no longer legible using the naked eye.
The project has brought to light some captivating stories of life in the village. The text that follows will highlight some of the stories that have come to light as a result of the project.
Born in 1735, William Cleverley was a cordwainer like his father. The cottage they lived in on the Midhurst Road still stands, although it was badly damaged by fire in 1771 and was rebuilt by public subscription. Another of the Cleverley homes is now located in the Weald and Downland Museum. Despite his social status, William’s early life was unhappy. His wife and son died by the time he was 37 years of age and his relationship with his father was strained. In his will, William Cleverley senior left him a mere 1 shilling (5p) ‘on request’.
The wealthy Henrietta Poole came to Lavant in 1795 and began building her house, Lavant Lodge in 1797. Situated just south of the Earl of March, it is now divided into three. William Blake was a regular visitor and during this time he wrote ‘Jerusalem’, perhaps inspired by the views towards the Trundle from Henrietta’s home. Henrietta was also a close friend of the poet William Hayley, who introduced her to Blake. She lived in Lavant until her death in 1827.
Joseph Harvey was footman to Henrietta Poole for at least two years and after her death he worked for the equally wealthy Catherine Smith. But Joseph was no ordinary servant. He owned a property in East Lavant and, in 1841, was one of only eight men from East Lavant who was entitled to vote in Parliamentary elections. In addition, Joseph owned two of the expensive and exclusive seats in St Mary’s Church, seats which he rented out. Little about Joseph’s background is known, and the question that remains unanswered is why a man of such wealth remained in service all his life.
The most tragic story uncovered was that of John Spershott. Born in 1816, John was the eighth and youngest child of Lavant’s miller. John was a labourer when he was caught on July 9, 1835, engaged in a crime so ‘unspeakable’ that the newspapers refused to say what it was. He was hanged in Horsham goal in August, 1835. It is not clear why an 18-year-old boy was hanged for his homosexual activity, or why the newly appointed rector, Charles Blagden, was prepared to have him buried in (what is now a rare) brick vaulted tomb in the graveyard. The heartfelt inscription
‘He is gone, he is gone, the dear Boy at whose birth I hail’d as a Stranger’ gives a clue about his parents’ anguish. His family continued to live in Mid Lavant and participated fully in all the activities of the village.
Dean of Chichester from 1859 to 1875, Walter Hook, had made his name in Leeds where he promoted the need to educate children and make the church accessible to poorer people. A Dean of his standing would usually be laid to rest in his cathedral. However, he chose instead to be modestly buried with his wife, Anna, in Mid Lavant’s churchyard, where ‘the breezy slopes of the Sussex Downs seemed, like Nature’s green pillows, to invite repose’.
One hundred and 31 men from Lavant served in the First World War and the churchyard of St Nicholas’, Mid Lavant, contains one Commonwealth War Graves Commission gravestone. This stone belongs to Private Leonard Small. Leonard became a member of the Training Reserve Battalion, due to his young age, and died in Woolwich on February 3, 1917, London, along with three other lads aged 18 and 19. It is possible that there was an explosion at the Arsenal.
Richard Andrews was Lavant’s wheelwright. Dated 1733, his headstone is the fifth oldest in the churchyard. As was the fashion of the time, it is elaborately and expensively carved, depicting a skull and crossbones. Eighteenth century, it would have been painted in bright colours. He was successful enough to be able to employ an apprentice, who wisely married Richard’s daughter.
This article has been compiled from information within the publication, “Four hundred years of Life and Death in a Country Parish”. Many more stories and a guide to all the stones are included in a booklet which is available to purchase from The Lavant History Project.
By Amy Roberts, collections officer at The Novium Museum and Caroline Reynolds, Lavant History Project