Burial at the Crossroads

Featured in the May 2012 handbook.

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In Fond Memory Of The Late Mick Twyman.

Some unpleasant retributions have been thought up in times past to punish folk who have transgressed the rules of Church and State, but one of the worst related to those desperately unhappy souls who chose to take their own lives. I stress that the Law singled out the poor because the rich managed to avoid the consequence of such a death, as did the well-connected duellist. After all what is a duel but almost certain death for one, at least, of the protagonists? The simple fact is that money allowed the rich to bury their suicides and duellists with full religious ceremony in consecrated ground. Not so the poor, for whom a macabre medieval process swung into action. The Judgement for this ‘crime’ of ‘felo-de-se’ demanded that no religious service of any form be allowed for the corpse, which was to be buried at midnight on the outskirts of the locality at a spot where four roads crossed. As a final humiliation, a wooden stake might be driven through the heart, thus impaling the body to the ground in order to stop the tormented and restless spirit wandering abroad to cause mischief. This law was not repealed until 1823.

In January, 1863, the railway was in the course of construction between Margate and Broadstairs. As the navvies dug the deep cutting through the hill where College Road and St. Peters Road meet, where the bridge now is they came upon a coffin. Prising open the lid they found the remains of a young woman, the flowing hair of whom remained intact and it was soon established that the corpse was that of a felo-de-se from 40 years previously. Today the corpse would have been swiftly reported and given a decent burial, but the navvies had no qualms about exhibiting the coffin for 6d a peep, probably in aid of their beer fund. They also sold locks of her hair as talismans around the town, such things and various parts of executed criminals being believed to bring the owner good fortune.

The navvies did a roaring trade with their sideshow, but unfortunately for them the newspapers got hold of the story and insisted that the authorities put a spot to this bizar circus. They also recounted how the unfortunate victim had met her death as the result of a practical joke played upon her by young men whilst she had been intoxicated.

The Kentish Gazette, rightly horrified at such goings on called upon the authorities to retrieve the corpse and arrange burial for what was left of the girl, a move they had been seemingly reluctant to make previously. the entrepreneurial navvies were swiftly relieved of the remains of the poor girl, and a very sad incident brought to a close. Intrigued as we were by this case, it was obvious that further research would be necessary to bring out a few more details. Today, such an incident would be splashed across the tabloid front pages in very blatant fashion, but things then were very much understated. It transpired that her name was Ann Barford, who met her death at the age of 22 years, the warrant against her for felo-de-se being sworn on the 1st of May 1822, just a little over a year before the barbaric ritual of burial at the crossroads was abolished’ From the 8th July, 1823, burial in consecrated ground was permitted although still at night. Gone now was the stake through the heart, but still no religious service was permitted to be said over the corpse.

A check with the Registrar’s Office showed that the corpse of an unknown female was buried at Margate Cemetery at the right period in 1863 and it would be nice to think that was poor Ann Barford finding a proper resting place at last, but the next time you walk or drive over a crossroads on the edge of the town, spare a thought for those poor unfortunates who might still lie there in their lonely narrow slots beneath your feet.


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