Sunday, 4 August 2019

Bricked up alive?; the boy mummy of St Botolph's Without Aldgate

A Saxon saint, very popular in the early medieval period, St. Botolph had four churches dedicated to him in London, all close to the city gates. St. Botolph without Aldgate, being right on the edge of the city, survived the great fire but was rebuilt in the 1740’s. A chance remark by Ed Glinert in The London Compendium caught my attention; “When the church was rebuilt by George Dance the Elder in 1744,” he says, “the body of a mummified boy, frozen in a standing position, was found in the vaults and churchwardens charged members of the public twopence to see it.” This particular church inherited a famous mummified head from a sister establishment in the 19th century but I’d never heard of the mummified boy until I was browsing Glinert.  

Disappointingly I couldn’t find any references to the discovery of a mummy at St. Botolph’s in the 1740’s in the newspaper archives but both the Wellcome Collection and the British Museum have copies of a print, probably from the 1760’s which according to its inscription purports to show the ‘exact representation of a boy about 12 years old who was found erect with his cloaths on in a vault ... in the year 1742’. The inscription goes on to say that the boy ‘is supposed to have been shut in at the time of the plague in London 1665 as the vault had not been open'd from that period till the time above mentioned when the church was pull'd down. The extraordinary circumstances attending this body are, that the skin, fibres, and intestines, are all hard, and very little of the bones appears. It weighs about 18Ibs. He is in the possession of Mr J. Rogers of No 2 Maiden Lane, Wood Street, London. This print may be had price 2s, with a ticket for a sight of the boy.’

John Rogers of 2 Maiden Lane was, according to his business card, a coal merchant. We will probably never know where or how he acquired the body of the boy from St Botolph’s but churchwardens corrupt enough to turn the corpse of a child into a sideshow and charge tuppence a gawp for the privilege of looking at it would have no doubt been open to offers for permanent acquisition, at the right price. Rogers decision to commission an engraving of the mummy and sell them at two shillings a shot (which included the price of admission to see the cadaver) was inspired.  No one knows how many he sold or how much money he made but copies of the print still turn for sale from time to time (if you are tempted there is a slightly tattered one on sale on ebay at the moment, a bargain at just £250).  

The next description of the mummy was published in 1786 in Richard Gough’s groundbreaking work of antiquarianism “Sepulchral monuments in Great Britain.”  In a chapter entitled ‘Instances of extraordinary preservation of the Dead in their respective graves’ (which was widely reprinted at the time, included by the Philological Society of London) Gough discusses numerous instances of preservation from the ancient world to contemporary London; “To these may be added,” he says “the famous instance of a poor parish-boy supposed to have been shut into a vault in St Botolph's church, Aldgate, and starved to death, at the time of the plague, 1665, since which time the vault was known not to have been opened, where he was found, 1742, with the fancied marks of having gnawed his shoulder, only, perhaps because his head reclined towards it. The skin fibres and intestines were all dried and very little of his bones appeared. The body weighed about eighteen pounds and was as exactly a counterpart of Lichfield's as could be. No signs of any embalment appear, and the body is perfectly free from any fetid or other smell.” Only Gough’s account  mentions the grime detail of autophagy implying that the boy was bricked up alive in the vault and had, in a futile attempt to stave off death by starvation, tried to eat his own shoulder.

From an account in the Morning Advertiser of Saturday 03 January 1818 entitled Species of Natural Mummy we know that the 12 year boy of St. Botolph’s was by this time “in the interesting collection of Mr Symmons, of Paddington House.” The report goes on to say that “this curious morceau of mortality, after passing through various possessions, has become the property of the above gentleman, whose elegant and classic taste corresponds with the benevolence and amenity of his disposition.” The description of the mummy is taken word for word from John Rogers print; there is at least one version of the print surviving where the reference to Rogers is struck out and the name of John Symmons added in large florid copperplate.

John Symmons of Paddington House was born in 1745 in Pembrokeshire, the son of a local landowner who was the MP for the Cardigan Boroughs. He was well connected in society and was an important collector.  He was a Fellow of the Royal Society, a founder member of the Royal Institution and of the Linnean Society, and a member of numerous other societies including the Horticultural Society, the Literary Society and the Society of Antiquaries. At Paddington House he employed the nurseryman William Salisbury to look after his garden of 4000 species of plants which Salisbury documented in a catalogue published as Hortus Paddingtoniensis. Symmons married four times, generally to very wealthy women (his ultimate marriage being contracted in 1828 when he was 83 years old) and guarded the explosive secret that his parents had not been married at the time of his birth and that the legitimate heir to his father’s fortune was his younger brother Charles. He was, unsurprisingly, always financially generous to his younger brother who probably had no idea that he was the true heir to the Welsh estate of Llanistran.  Among Symmon collection was an ancient dagger found in Wales “supposed to be the Model of those which ministered to the Massacre of the Britons at Stonehenge.” This mythical incident, “the supposed massacre at Stonehenge,  Mr Evans in the running title of his book calls the treachery of the long knives and the story of this horrid slaughter is to be found in the most authentic and most ancient Welsh MSS and even in the writings of those contemporary with Jeffrey of Monmouth who rejected his fables.” The dagger, like the mummy of the St Botolph’s boy, disappeared for ever following Symmon’s death on the continent in 1831 and the breakup and sale of his collections by his heirs.