Since I started investigating the embroidered samplers owned by my mum, I’ve developed a fascination with graveyards and headstones, especially those in the moorland villages where my ancestors are buried. You might recall a couple of weeks ago I mentioned that I was contacted by Carol McLee, Chairman of the Cleveland, North Yorkshire and South Durham Family History Society. Her team have transcribed the headstones of hundreds of graves, including those at the Church of St Thomas in Glaisdale where Hannah Hall (nee Raw) is buried.
I got hold of a list of the transcriptions of some of the older graves, and started to read them. While some were quite straightforward, with little information other than names, dates and a good old god-fearing exclamation, others gave hints as to how the deceased had met their maker.
One inscription noted that William Abbot, a master mariner, died aged 62 in December 1879. On the same grave, it is noted that his youngest son, also called William, ‘drowned at Wvburg, Finland, 26 July 1880, aged 20 years.’ The writer in me knows there is a story to tell there. Did Mr Abbot senior die at sea? After all, the 19th century was a perilous time to be a sailor. But maybe he didn’t, as the inscription states he died ‘in Glaisdale’ which is away from the coast. I don’t think it is unreasonable to surmise that his young son followed in his father’s footsteps with a career at sea, and met his misfortune on the ocean waves. It also means that poor Mrs Abbot, who is buried in the same plot and died eight years later, lost both her son and husband within a few months.
One inscription that particularly moved me was the following (you might need tissues for this): ‘In remembrance of Sarah, wife of William Winter of Lealholme, who died 6 May 1889 aged 34 years. Same year three of their children, Edith Ellen, 5 May aged 6 years. Hannah Mary, 6 May aged 11 years. Joseph William, 9 May aged 4 years.’
It means William Winter lost his wife and three of this children in less than a week. How could this be, and why was William not buried in the same plot with his family, even if he died later? My appetite – some might call it an addiction – for true crime was awakened and I began to wonder if there was a sinister explanation. Was William a killer? Was that why he wasn’t laid to rest with his family? I discussed the possibility with my mum and she, less sensationally but more rationally, suggested it was likely to be a crime-free case of scarlet fever, which was prevalent back in the 19th century.
I had to find out though. If William had murdered his family then it would a news story, wouldn’t it? So off I went to my trusty resource, the British Newspaper Archive, and sure enough, after a few searches, I found exactly what I was looking for. I could recount the story, but the North-Eastern Daily Gazette from 10th August 1889 does the best job of telling us what happened:
‘Scarlet fever has broken out at Lealholm…and in one poor family has played havoc. Within the week a child of William Winter, a labourer, was seized with the fever and died. The mother, who nursed the child, then took the fever and succumbed. A second daughter, aged eleven years also died, so that there were three persons lying dead in the cottage at one time. They were all – mother and two daughters – buried on the same evening in Glaisdale Churchyard. There are two other children in the same house who are stricken down with the fever, and they are not expected to recover.’
What an awful tragedy, and sadly I found the third child Joseph’s death notice in the paper a couple of days later. However, I could find no mention of the fourth, and they are not mentioned on the grave inscription either, so I am hoping, for poor William Winter’s sake, that they survived. William escaped the disease and lived for another 40 years, passing away in 1929 at the age of 76. He is buried in a separate plot elsewhere in the graveyard.
So absolutely no sinister explanation whatsoever. Is it true that your mother is always right?
Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug
This column appeared in the Darlington and Stockton Times on 31st and Ryedale Gazette and Herald on 29th March 2023