Friday 9 September 2022

The ghosts of St Mary's churchyard, Wanstead E11


If you believe that sort of nonsense there are at least four apparitions that haunt the churchyard at St Mary’s in Wanstead, though two of them are a double act, so perhaps they only count as one?  The dullest, in hue at least, is the grey lady who has been unsuccessfully scouring the churchyard on moonless nights for at least a hundred years, looking for her missing husband. Gray ladies are, of course, ten a penny and no one pays much attention to her. There is a skull and crossbones headstone for a Thomas Turpin in the churchyard; the occupant is reputed to be Dick Turpin’s uncle. The housebreaking, highway robbing 18th century thug supposedly visits his uncle periodically though without Black Bess, which is quite unusual for a sighting of Britain’s busiest ghost. If you don’t see him in Wanstead then you need to take yourself off to St George’s Field in York, close to where he was executed in 1739. He can also be found haunting various pubs including the Bell Inn in Cambridgeshire, The Chequers in Bickley in Kent, and the Old Swan in Milton Keynes, where you at least can get a decent pint of beer while you wait for busy Dick to show up. If you still don’t have any luck, try the Bath Road at Longford, the deserted village of Stretton Baskerville in Leicestershire, Stubbings in Berkshire, Edlesborough in Buckinghamshire, Hounslow Heath, Traps Hill in Loughton, or Garswood near St. Helens. There are more but I can’t bring myself to list them all; Turpin really is Britain’s most unquiet spirit.

The third ghost, definitely my favourite, is a skeleton who wheels a coffin loaded onto a handcart around the burial ground.  Some say he is looking for his wife but if that is the case why is he pushing a coffin? Is he going to put her in it? Doesn’t he realise he is too late? At some point in his circumnavigation of the churchyard he passes an ornate tomb where a white lady (fully fleshed) emerges and embraces him. Some say that the corpse of the lady in white was stolen by body snatchers but this does not make the meaning of the pantomime with the skeleton any clearer. 

The grave of Thomas Turpin, allegedly uncle to dastardly Dick, Essex's most famous thug

There has been a church on the site of St Mary’s for at least 800 years; the first record of the parish dates from 1208.  Some of the memorials in the churchyard predate the current church; the oldest headstone is for James Waly who died in 1685. The new church was built between 1787 and 1790, the architect was Thomas Hardwick. JMW Turner was briefly in the employment of Thomas Hardwick and his boss sent him off to Wanstead to produce a watercolour of the old church before it was demolished. Turner’s picture shows a square towered church surrounded by a churchyard filled with headstones and chest tombs. A gravedigger stands waist deep in a half excavated grave observed by a gentleman in a bright blue frock coat, black felt hat, breeches and white stockings who leans casually on his walking stick. The new church Pevsner described as being “worthy in its appearance of the noble aspiration of the mansion." The mansion has, of course, been long demolished but the elegant Georgian church is now Grade I listed. 

The oldest newspaper story I could find mentioning the churchyard (apart from the graverobbers of 1824) was this from the London Mercury, 27 August 1837, about the overly hasty burial of an initially unidentified body found in Epping Forest:

SHOCKING OCCURRENCE — An inquest was held on Saturday evening last at the Eagle Inn, Snaresbrook, on the body of a gentleman of the name of Cooper, which had been found in a very decomposed state in Epping Forest. A lengthened investigation took place, but as no satisfactory evidence was produced the jury returned a verdict ‘that the deceased was found dead in Epping Forest, with a pistol wound through his body; but whether such was inflicted by his own hand or by any other party there was no evidence to the jury;' and the body was interred on the following morning in Wanstead churchyard without funeral rites. (There was nobody to pay the parson.)

In consequence of a letter written by Mr. Baker, a surgeon, and which appeared in some of the Sunday journals, the friends of the deceased called upon that gentleman, and on Sunday they proceeded to Snaresbrook for the purpose of identifying the body, but, to their great astonishment, they found that the inquiry had been held and the deceased interred; but, on the clothes being produced, the identification of the unfortunate gentleman was fully established. He was a single, man, and had held responsible situations under Government. He left his residence in Crown street, Westminster, on last Friday fortnight, at which time he was in a very low dejected state of mind, arising from his affections having been blighted. Soon after he absented himself his brother, who resides in the Regent's Park, received a letter from him (deceased), of which the following is a verbatim copy:

"Thursday Evening.  Dear Brother, I thought it best to send a few lines to you, so that you might break the melancholy news to my poor dear mother, who, I am afraid, will take it greatly to heart. I do indeed intend to make my exit. I have provided myself amply with the means to effect my purpose; it is, indeed, a premeditated act, and which I have contemplated for a long time; this is all owing to my dear Emma. I wrote to her, saying she would hear disagreeable news of me, but of what nature I gave her no reason to guess. Dear brother, support and strengthen our dear mother for my sake. So far from being dejected I feel quite happy respecting the change I am about to undergo. Farewell for ever.  F. Cooper"

The deceased was respectably connected. On Monday Mr. Baker, the surgeon, applied to the Lord Mayor for his opinion respecting the indecent manner in which the deceased had been interred.

Another body found floating in a pond on Wanstead Flats in 1856 was never identified. This is from the Essex Standard of Friday 08 August 1856;

An inquest was held on Friday last, before C. C. Lewis. Esq. at the Eagle Inn, Snaresbrook, touching the death of a man unknown, found dead in a pond at the rear of Clark's Buildings, Wanstead.— A witness having deposed to the fact of finding the body, the jury returned a verdict of "Found dead in a pond; but how deceased came to his death there is no evidence to show." The body is described as from 35 to 40 years of age. 5ft. 8in. or 9in. high, dark complexion, hair and whiskers; dressed in blue striped blouse, black waistcoat, cord trousers, blue striped shirt, cotton handkerchief, blue ribbed stockings, blucher boots, and black cap with peak. The body was interred the same evening in Wanstead churchyard.

A seaman’s funeral at the churchyard from the Shipping and Mercantile Gazette of Monday 16 January 1882:

The remains of Captain Sim, the much-respected veteran Mariner, aged 94 years, were conveyed to his last resting-place on Saturday in Old Wanstead Churchyard. Numerous friends (about 150) were there to pay their last tribute of respect; amongst them were many ancient Mariners—viz., Captains Carr, Mainland. M'lntyre, Price, Frost, Paddle, Ike; also Messrs. George Ward, Strang, T. B. Walker, Wilkinson, Sherman. &c. The deceased always took great interest in the Merchant Seamen's Orphan Asylum. The worthy Secretary and his wife, with 12 of the Seamen's orphans, were in attendance, the girls with baskets of white flowers to strew on the coffin; also some of his female attendants, one with an anchor of white flowers, and others with white wreaths of flowers. There were several mourning coaches and private carriages.

Another funeral, this one from the Leytonstone Express and Independent - Saturday 21 April 1883:

A TOUCHING SCENE—On the 10th inst., in the presence of as large an assemblage as has been seen since the death of the late rector, there was buried in Wanstead Old Churchyard, a young girl, Sarah Ann Smith, aged 15. who, with her parents was well known in Wanstead. She was a member of the Girls' Friendly Society. About 30 of her fellow members followed her to her last resting-place, all of whom bore some tokens of mourning and flowers. We understand that the circumstances of her death were very sad. She was living in Clapham and was killed by an accidental fall from a high window. Great sympathy has been felt for her parents who are much respected in the neighbourhood, where the deceased was born and brought up.

From the Staffordshire Sentinel of Tuesday 19 March 1929:

RAIL CRIME MYSTERY, Mrs. Winifred East, of Gordon Road. Wanstead. the victim of the London tram murder. whose decapitated body was found on the line at Kidbrooke. S.E. early last Thursday. was buried this afternoon in St. Mary's Churchyard. Wanstead. Scotland Yard officers to-day visited Swansea in connection with their inquiries into the mystery.

The Derry Journal of Monday 18 March 1929 gives more details of the circumstances surrounding Winifred East’s death:

WOMAN’S TERRIBLE DEATH, HEADLESS BODY FOUND London detectives are probing the mysterious facts connected with the death of Mrs. Winifred East (28), the wife of an auctioneer, whose decapitated body was found on the Southern Railway between Kidbrooke and Eltham. A young man who is known to have entered the carriage in which Mrs. East travelled, and left at a later station, is being sought the police. When the driver of the electric train had just passed Kidbrooke station he saw in the distance dark object lying between the two sets of rails. As he came closer, he saw that it was the decapitated body of a woman. He reported the matter to the stationmaster at Well Hall, the next stopping place. After establishing the woman’s identity, the police searched the train in which she was known to have left Barnehurst, and the discovery of number of her personal belongings under a seat were able to determine the actual compartment in which she travelled. The coach was run into a siding, and Supt. Brown and other C.I. D. officers made a close examination of the compartment.

The murder was never solved. 

And finally, a rather harrowing story which has nothing to do with the churchyard but occurred in the local area. It is a little masterpiece of stomach-churning concision from the Illustrated Police Budget of Saturday 21 January 1899. Whatever happened to poor Mary Bradord?:

Strange Affair at Wanstead. It reported from Wanstead that Mary Bradford, aged 26years, who has been employed as a kitchen maid at a large private residence in Cambridge Park, Wanstead, for about two years, complained to a fellow-servant on Friday of being unwell, and went upstairs, saying she would be down again directly. As she did not return, the other servant went to her bedroom door, which she found locked on the inside. Hearing a baby cry, she asked Bradford if she was better, and received a reply that she would be downstairs immediately. The girl left and returned to the kitchen, followed shortly afterwards by Bradford. The housemaid then left the kitchen and went to Bradford's bedroom, which she found in great disorder and confusion. On lifting the lid of an old deal box she discovered the dead body of a newly-born female child, wrapped in a coarse apron. Returning the kitchen, she taxed Bradford with being the mother, and it is stated that Bradford admitted that she was. and begged her fellow servant to “try and forget it.” and keep it quiet from the people of the house. The other girl, however, informed her mistress. A doctor was sent for, and it is alleged that stated he would communicate with the coroner for the district. At half past eight the following morning the housemaid took some breakfast to Bradford and on entering the bedroom was astonished to find the bed empty and the girl gone. The dead body of the child had also disappeared. The housemaid states that about a quarter of hour earlier she heard someone in the hall quietly, but took no particular notice of the fact. The police had made every inquiry, and although four days had elapsed no tidings of either the girl or the dead child had been discovered. How she could travel in her weak state of health, without attracting the attention of anyone seems marvellous. She had always stated that she had no friends or relatives in London, and it is surmised that she has drowned herself after disposing of the child’s body. It may be added neither the girl’s mistress nor her fellow-servants suspected her condition. A thorough search has been made throughout Wanstead Park and Epping Forest of all the bushes and ponds, but without result. The police are pursuing their investigations at all the workhouses and infirmaries, but up to the present are without a clue. It has been ascertained that about three weeks ago Bradford told her fellow servant that she had been married to engineer.

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