38A.13 – Wildsmith Burchell

“In Memory Of Wildsmith Burchell, Native of Arundel, Sussex, who died August 3rd 1839 aged 20 years.

This Stone was placed by his disconsolate Mother, to perpetuate the Memory of a beloved Son, the youngest of 10 Children, suddenly left Orphans in the Year 1820

With that name and that epitaph, you have to ask – who was this? His entry in the burial register told me almost everything I needed to know, but I can’t tell his story in the right order by telling it in the order I learned it, so in order:

Wildsmith Burchell (or Birchall, or Barchell) was born in 1819 and baptised at St Nicholas, Arundel’s parish church. His parents were James and Ann (Coker) Burchell who married in Reading in 1797. James and Ann did indeed have ten children, but James died in 1820; just a few days shy of a year after Wildsmith, the baby of the family, was baptised. The use of “orphan” in the epitaph threw me for a loop until I worked this out – it’s just a more archaic use of the term.

Wildsmith’s baptism record, February 21st 1819

Left widowed at the age of 44, with ten children, Ann soldiered on. James had been a baker and his income was likely not a very high one but Ann did not remarry, and stayed in the area. Other Burchells can be found in the baptism records so she may have had a decent level of family support and not felt the need to remarry for financial security.

One of those other Burchells, Arthur, was a Sergeant Major in the 19th Light Division. Maybe that’s where Wildsmith got the idea of joining the armed forces – and he became a Dragoon. A member of the 1st Royal Dragoons, in fact, which must have been exciting for him. At this point in the 1800s you could join the army as young as age 17, so he wasn’t likely to have served for long before he died.

You’re probably wondering why he’s here, like I was. The answer lies partly at the feet of Honest John. In November 1838 there was mass resistance to the new Poor Law legislation that had been passed four years earlier, and while the Fieldens might not *always* be popular in this group…would this mass action have been as successful or moved so quickly and fiercely without people knowing someone powerful was supportive of their aims? Possibly not. But the speed and fierceness of the response alarmed the authorities so much that they called the army in to keep the peace in Todmorden (by which I mean they marched up and down a lot and were barracked not far from Waterside, to remind the Fieldens that this was bigger than them). And who came when they were called? Why, the Royal Dragoons! And they (or perhaps a rotating roster of Dragoons from different areas?) stayed in Todmorden until the end of August 1839 when they were told to stand down and returned to Sheffield.

So that’s how Wildsmith got here and why he was here when he died. How did he die? Interestingly, on the 2nd of August 1839 there was unrest in Hebden Bridge when a number of millworkers were given indications that they might not be paid, and they went on a part-angry, part-drunken rampage and the Dragoons were required to mobilise and come down from Todmorden to keep the peace. No newspaper records spoke of any violence against the Dragoons or any incidents once they arrived that would make you think that he would have suffered a fatal injury that day. So I ordered his death certificate, which gave the cause as consumption. He wouldn’t have been well enough to go out at all!

His death was witnessed by a Robert Daughters, a young man from Bermondsey who had also joined the army. Robert served until he was blinded in combat, and spent some time at Chelsea Hospital before being discharged home where he appears living with his parents in 1851. He died in 1857.

Wildsmith’s burial record gives us a picture of what that part of the graveyard looked like in 1839, not so long after the church was opened. It reads “Wildsmith Birchall, private 1 Regt. Dragoons. Buried in new ground at the foot of the lilac. Aged 20 years. Josh. [Joseph] Cowell”

Detail from burial register for Christ Church, 1839

Ann’s hard work after her husband died paid off in terms of making sure Wildsmith had a memorial, but she had help too – one son became a Customs and Excise Officer and another followed her in the grocer business. Between them all, they were able to do something remarkable from a long distance. Not everyone who died young and was buried here had a marker, as a glance at the lower yard makes very clear. Ann herself had a long life, and she died in Arundel in 1853 at the age of 77.

Rest in peace, disconsolate mother.

One Comment

  1. Pingback:39.5 – Jim, Jim, Judy, John and Jeremiah Crossley – F.O.C.C.T.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *