A very grave quest

The World War I Roll of Honour, with Neural Lacy’s name second to bottom on the far left column, above ‘Houlsyke’. His mother never got over his death


St James the Greater Church, Lealholm, where my great grandparents lie in unmarked graves.


You might remember a few weeks ago I wrote about the fact that my mum’s family could not afford headstones when the grandparents on her mother’s side died. It was a source of great sorrow to my nana that her parents were laid to rest in unmarked graves.

Although my mum knows which graveyard they are in (St James the Greater Church, Lealholm, on the North York Moors), she does not know where exactly they are, and I have made it my mission to find out so that we can go and lay some flowers and pay our respects on her and my nana’s behalves.

Although I have found some clues, my first trip to the churchyard this weekend didn’t throw up much more insight, apart from the fact there were quite a number of unmarked plots. But all is not lost as I have a couple of leads to follow up which I will do in the coming weeks. I will let you know how I get on.

The graves we are talking about are those of John and Mary Lacy, and Mary, as you might recall, is the person who created one of the three samplers on our kitchen wall. Her birth name was Atkinson, and everyone called her ‘Polly’ rather than Mary.

After I returned from the Moors, I found an email in my inbox from Gillian Hunt, who was so helpful in the quest to find out more information about the samplers, and about the life story of Hannah Raw, whose creation we have on our wall but about whom we knew nothing (she was not a relative as far as we know). Gillian is a family history enthusiast and, happily for me, is also very knowledgable about samplers. She promised to find out more about Mary Atkinson’s, and has come up trumps once again.

She writes: “If you look at the cat motif and the building you can see how much more detailed and 3D they are than the simple figures on Hannah’s sampler. This indicates it is later in date and is influenced by the Berlin wool-work craze. This was effectively the needlework equivalent of paint by numbers. Hand-painted charts of coloured squares were bought or given away in needlework magazines and the stitches recreated the design on canvas using brightly coloured wools. The cat motif appears on a number of samplers I have seen. Mary’s sampler also has initials and alphabets but, unlike Hannah’s, it has an ‘improving’ verse. These were often quite morbid for young girls to be stitching.’

The verse Gillian is referring to reads ‘Prepare to meet thy God’ which cheerfully  means, ‘Death might not be far away, so always say your prayers just in case you pop your clogs tomorrow’.  I know from my own research for another topic that picture books written to entertain children back then were a far cry from the sweet, uplifting stories we might see now. They were full of death and damnation, illustrating quite graphically what would befall a child that skipped church on a Sunday. Down into the flaming pits of hell they would tumble!

Like me, Gillan has a fascination with headstones and epitaphs. She writes: “Gravestones are very interesting and an indicator of social history. I have a terrible reputation among my friends for always being in churchyards because I am interested in the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic…Unlike most influenza outbreaks (or Covid) which were more likely to take the very young and very old, Spanish flu killed those between mid-teens to late 30s.”

Incidentally, while I was in Lealholm, I ventured inside St James’ Church, and on the wall was a handwritten list of all the local soldiers who had perished during World War I, and there were three Lacys included. I mentioned this to Mum when I returned home, and she told me the story of my nana’s cousin, who was killed when he was only 19, and his poor mother never got over it.

“He had an unusual name that began with ‘N’, and I can’t remember it apart from the fact that I had never heard of it,” she explained.

I went back to the picture I had taken of this memorial, and sure enough there near the bottom was Private Neural Lacy. Has anyone heard that used as a first name before?

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 21st and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 19th April 2023