A little local history from Death & the Maidens’ own Lucy Talbot and her home town this week. Taking us back over 300 years to the July of 1674, when poor Mrs Blunden was buried alive at the Holy Ghost Chapel, Basingstoke. John Millet published his own version of events not long after. Although it is likely elements are embellished for the purpose of entertainment, no one can dispute the existence of Mrs Blunden and her unfortunate end.
“Take me out of my grave”
Everyone has a place they like to escape to for some time out of mind. For me, it is the Holy Ghost Cemetery, a short walk from my home in Basingstoke. Surrounded by trees and beautiful ruins; I love to walk through the grass and admire the graves, always finding something I haven’t noticed before. Usually I remain undisturbed, aside from the odd dog walker, those passing through on the footpath or a couple of drunks occupying a bench. The only sounds being faint murmurs of traffic and birdsong.
It always feels so calm and peaceful here.
The serenity I experience could not be further from that of Mrs Blunden who was laid to ‘rest’ within the grounds of the Holy Ghost Chapel over 300 years ago in the July of 1674. This is a well known tale in my home town and the below extract is an account of the circumstances surrounding her burial.
Poor Mrs Blunden was buried alive, not once… but twice!
This story was published by John Millet soon after these harrowing events occurred (date unknown) and was later included in “A History of Ancient town and Manor of Basingstoke” by F.J. Baigent & J.E. Millard (1889) which I bring to you from a little booklet I treasure created by The Willis Museum [S. Taplis, 2007].
“At Basingstoke (a place sufficiently known by reason of battle at Basing House) in the County of Southampton, there lives one Mr Blunden, a man of considerable repute in that town, being one that drives a great trade in Malt, etc.
His wife was a woman whom I shall not attempt to Characterise, because she was utterly a stranger to me, only thus far may I venture to describe her person, that she was gross, fat, woman and had accustomed her self many times to drink Brandy.
One evening above the rest finding her self somewhat indisposed, she sent her maid to an apothecaries in the town for a quantity of Poppy-water, whether by the direction of a Physician or out of her own head (as we say) I know not; but she drank so great a quantity of it that she presently fell into a deep sleep insomuch that all the people about her concluded her Dead, there being not the least palpitation of the heart, motion of the pulses, breathing at her mouth or nose, nor any sensible warmth to be discerned in the whole body.
The apothecary was immediately sent for, who by surveying the remainder of the Poppy-waters gave as guess at what she had take and concluded she would not recover her senses in eight and forty hours at least, and therefore he supposed never; From these words of the apothecary’s they concluded her Stark dead, and that night laid her out, and though one of the persons employed about her observed that when she made an impression on her face the blood seemed to follow her finger, and by a kind of blush in her cheeks to be ashamed of their inhumanity; yet such was either their haste of their stupidity, that they took little or no notice of it; Her Husband being then from Home was sent too, and acquainted with the suddenness of the disaster, who was much surprised thereat, but having suddain and urgent business to London and with all considering of buying mourning for Himself and family, giving orders nevertheless at his departure, that the funeral should be deferr’d till his return, which he resolved on the Saturday following, this being Tuesday the 29th of July 1674.
[Note 1: There is evidently an error as to the day of the month. Taking the narrative to be correct as to the day of the week, Mrs Blunden’s supposed death occurred on Tuesday, 14th of July, as the Parish Register records, – ‘Mr William Blunden’s wife buried July 15th. 1674.’ The 15th of July, in 1674 fell on a Wednesday, and to this extent the entry corroborates the narrative i.e. Mrs Blunden did die on a Tuesday, but it was on the 14th and not the 29th]
He was no sooner gone but his wives relations to whom the arrangements of things were committed, began to consider that it was a great while to Saturday, and that the season of the year being very hot, and the corpse fat, it would be impossible to keep her and therefore resolved to bury her the morrow which accordingly they did, though many people admired they would commit a person to the earth before they were fully satisfied she was Dead, especially in her Husband’s absence and contrary to his order. However it being none of their business, they offered nothing against so that on the morrow, all things being ready for the funeral (but the woman herself) away they carried her to Church and the coffin being set down upon two stools (as the manner of the County is) one of the Bearers perceived both the coffin and the stools to stir and was so unseasonably merry thereat as to whisper to his neighbour and tell him they had made Mistress Blunden’s coffin so short that she could not be easy, for he plainly saw her stir, To which the other replied that if there were any motion it proceeded either from the weakness of the stools or the crowds of people that jogg’d them and so there was no further notice taken of it, but after the usual ceremonies of the church she was committed to the earth.
The Friday following toward the evening some of the scholars of the town being at play in the churchyard near her grave they fancied they heard a kind of hollow voice, as it were under the ground to which laying their ears and listening more attentively they plainly heard somebody say, “Take me out of my grave.”
Which words the complaining voice repeated several times intermixing them with fearful groans and dismal shriekings. The boys wonderfully terrified here and ran away and told several persons what they had heard, but the relations were so unauthentic and the story so improbable that it was by all either slighted or childish or reproved as fabulous, but still they affirmed it so steadfastly that on the next day being Saturday it came to the school-master’s ear who immediately reproved some and chastised others for raising such reports.
Whereupon the boys being much incensed at their unjust correction went again the Saturday noon to Mrs. Blunden’s grave and not without fear laying their ear to the ground as formerly, they again heard the same words reiterated, if not with so distinct yet with a louder accent. Hereat emboldened with truth and childish rage they went again and testified what they had formerly asserted.
He somewhat startled thereat, began to consider of some passages and circumstance that were discoursed of in the town, both at the time of death and her funeral, and went presently to the place and by the direction of one of the boys, laying his ear to the ground he was presently confirmed in the truth of all they had asserted, though the voice then seemed very faint and languishing. Wherefore he would immediately have persuaded the clerk to have digged up the grave but he replied he darest not do it without authority, so that before they could get Minister and church wardens together to consult about it, the afternoon was almost spent, but at last the grave being opened and the coffin which they had no sooner done but the corpse puffed up as it had been a bladder and the joiner had made the coffin so short that they were fair to press upon her and keep her down with a stick while they nailed her up.
And now surveying her body they found it most lamentably beaten, which they concluded to proceed from the violence she did herself in that deplorable and astonishment that she had the last breath of life remaining and therefore they again let her down into the grave, intending to acquaint with such an accident in the mean time laying a charge on some persons diligently to watch her that night, they left her. But the night being unseasonably wet and now all hopes of her second recovery being past, ’tis believed those who were appointed to that office left her for on the morrow morning at their return to the grave they found she had torn off great parts of her winding sheet, scratched herself first in several places and beaten her mouth so long till it was all in gore blood.
This second neglect moved the hearts of all that heard of it especially those that were concerned in the first discovery and the coroner when he came to set upon her, found by all circumstances that her life was clearly thrown away and therefore bound over several persons concerned therein to answer it at the next assizes, where some were indicted as the authors of her death by their own hasty burying of her, and it would have gone very hard with them but that a physician in the town gave it upon oath that when the woman deceased and was in her trance he applied a looking glass to her mouth for a considerable time and yet could not discern the least breath to come from her, a trial he had often experienced and was never before deceived in so that they all escaped with their lives but only the town had a considerable fine set upon them for their neglect.”
[Note 2: Above reference to Lent Assizes of 1675. This and the statement on the title page proves that the pamphlet was printed before the Summer Assizes held in July of 1675. It is therefore valuable as a contemporary account of the occurrence.]
All that remains today of Mrs Blunden is a blue plaque and a rather strange and sad story. I like to think she is still here, brandy in hand propped up on a gravestone by the footpath ensuring the eyes of all that pass through are drawn to read of her peculiar fate on the wall.
Or better still, that wherever her spirit be, she is now resting in peace.
All pictures taken by Lucy Talbot at the Holy Ghost Cemetery aside from ‘News from Basing-Stoak’ the pamphlet published by John Millet which she has photographed from her original copy of the Willis Museum booklet