Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Charles Dickens




Next year is the 200th anniversary of the birth of one of our greatest writers, Charles Dickens. Whilst his connections with Yorkshire, especially Malton, are well documented I hadn't realised that he had visited Filey. Here is an extract from his comments on visiting St. Oswald's Churchyard. Taken from "Household Words" in 1851.




The sea-side churchyard is a strange witness of the perilous life of the mariner and the fisherman. It is only by a walk in it that we acquire a clear conception of the real nature of that mode of livelihood which such hundreds of thousands, all round these islands, embrace, as a choice or a necessity. We resort to pleasant places in the summer time, and see the great ocean glittering and rolling in playful majesty, and our hearts leap at the sublime spectacle. We see white sails gleaming on its bosom, and steamers trailing their long clouds of smoke after them, as they busily walk the waters, bearing joyous passengers to many a new scene. We meet the hardy blue-cloth sons of ocean, on the beach and the cliff; see them pushing off their boats for a day's fishing, or coming in in the early morning with their well-laden yawls and cobbles, and the sea and its people assume to us a holiday sort of aspect, in which the labour, the watching, the long endurance of cold, the peril and the death are concealed in the picturesque of the scenery, and the frank and calm bearing of the actors themselves. What a different thing is even a fisherman's life when contemplated as a whole; when we take in the winter and the storm to complete the picture of his existence ! But, as few of us can do this in reality, if we wish to know the actualities of a sea-faring life, we may get a very fair idea of them in any seaside churchyard.

Our first visit was to the churchyard of Filey, a mere village, well known to thousands of summer tourists for the noble extent of its sands, and the stern magnificence of its so-called bridge, or promontory of savage rocks running far into the sea, on which you may walk, at low-water; but which, with the advancing tide, becomes savagely grand, from the fury with which the ocean breaks over it.

In tempestuous weather this bridge is truly a bridge of sighs to mariners, and many a noble ship has been dashed to pieces upon it.

One of the first headstones which catches your eye in the little quiet churchyard of Filey bears witness to the terrors of the bridge. - "In memory of Richard Richardson, who was unfortunately drowned December 27th, 1799, aged forty-eight years :-

"By sudden wind and boisterous sea
The Lord did take my life from me;

But He to shore my body brought -
Found by my wife, who for it sought.
And here it rests in mother clay,
Until the Resurrection day.

"Also of Elizabeth, wife of the above, who died January 19th, 1833, aged eighty-nine."

This fisherman was lost on the bridge, and his wife sought his body on the bridge for eleven weeks. She was possessed with an immoveable persuasion that there some day she should find him. All through that winter, from day to day, till late in March, she followed the receding tide, and with an earnest eye explored every ledge and crevice of the rocks, every inch of the wild chaos of huge stones that storms had hurled upon the bridge, and every wilderness of slippery and tangling sea-weed. It was in vain that her neighbours told her that it was hopeless; that they assured her that she would get her death from cold; every day the solitary watcher might be seen, reckless of wind, or storm, or frost; and, at length, she did find the corpse of her husband, and saw it consigned to "mother clay."She must have had a frame as hardy as her will and strong as her affections, for she survived this strange vigil of conjugal love thirty-four years, and to the age of nearly ninety.

Near this stands a stone in memory of a master-mariner and his wife, both lost, in a severe gale, in a passage from London to Shields; another lost on a voyage to Quebec; and two brothers, one drowned in the Thames, and the other perishing at Constantinople. In the churchyard are numbers of such records. Humble as are the epitaphs on these graves, that hold no bodies in nine cases out of ten, they have generally a touch of real nature in them compared with the hacknied lines we generally find in churchyards. One tells us, that -

"From home he went, with mind most free, His livelihood to gain at sea: He ne'er returned, ' twas not to be - He ne'er returned,' twas God's decree. Oh! sad to tell, a furious wave Cast him into a watery grave - A grave in motion-termed the deep."

A boat sinking, carved on the stone, symbolises his fate; while opposite a lucky old mariner has had a boat in full sail placed on his headstone, and gives God hearty thanks for having saved his life some dozen times. Two disconsolate parents address us thus:-

"Unfortunate parents tell,
That this our son a victim fell,
In steering homewards they were caught,
With gust of wind upset the boat,
There three were cast into the sea,
And he launched into eternity,
He was a son both good and kind,
May he in God a Father find."

Some very philosophic friends have inscribed the following lines, and, for a reason implied, avoided all suspicious encomium:-

"Most epitaphs are vainly wrote: The dead to speak it can't be thought; Therefore the friends of those here laid Desired that this might be said. That rose two brothers, sad to tell, That rose in health, ere night they fell- Fell victims to the foamy main; Wherefore awhile they hid remain. Friends for them sought, and much lament, At last the Lord to those, them sent. So child and widow may bemoan O'er husband's and o'er father's tomb."

But Filey churchyard has touches of love and land stories as well as of the sea. Here is one, and a recent one too. Close on your left hand, immediately as you enter the gate, there is a stone by the wall bearing the names of Elizabeth Cammish, aged twenty-one, who died August 1848; and Robert Snarr, engineer, aged thirty-one, who died March 1849. Elizabeth Cammish died of consumption. She was betrothed to Robert Snarr, whose affection for her was so strong that he continued to regard her parents as his own, and used to be much with them, and also was very often seen lingering about the grave of the lost Elizabeth. One day he was seen very early at her grave in the morning. He was about to quit the place for an engagement in Northumberland. It was a farewell visit and his last. Elizabeth's mother had said to him, "Robert, in my grief I have forgotten to pay the doctor on account of Elizabeth's illness; I must go and pay it."

"It is paid, mother,"replied Robert, for he always called her mother. The sum was upwards of twenty pounds. Elizabeth's mother frequently insisted on his receiving the money again from her, but he steadily refused. And that morning, on his return from Elizabeth's grave, the old lady said, "Robert, you are leaving us, you don't know what you may want. I will pay you this money."

"Do you wish to insult me, mother?"he replied, "Keep it, if anything happens to me, bury me with it; but in life I will never receive it. What is mine would have been Elizabeth'? if she had lived, and I have had a melancholy satisfaction in paying this debt for her." Within half-an-hour after those words were spoken, the young man was brought back a bloody corpse from the railway by which he had set out on his journey; and that money did bury him in the same grave with Elizabeth Cammish. The romance of life is not extinguished; even railways contribute to it.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your blog. Very interesting

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