The Monument to Anthony Williams, d.1836, at Blatherwycke, Northamptonshire
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Holy Trinity Church
Blatherwycke, Peterborough PE8 6YW
Holy Trinity Church
Blatherwycke, Peterborough PE8 6YW
Peeling off the legends – the grave of a former slave who became a valued estate servant
Members of the Society who went on the church-crawl in Northamptonshire in April 2019 will remember the stone of Anthony Williams, a former slave, at Blatherwycke. I prepared the notes for this trip, and for this grave I relied on information already available about the church. I apologise: on the preliminary reconnoitre Blatherwycke was the last church we visited, I found the grave in the churchyard, and DID NOT PROPERLY READ THE INSCRIPTION! I have since done so, and located a report of the inquest on Anthony Williams. So here is a more accurate account of the gravestone and the circumstances leading to its erection.
The grave is situated in the south-west quadrant of the churchyard, close to the churchyard boundary (a low retaining wall acting as retainer to the sloping land: it does not restrict the view of the stone, which rises above it), with its inscription facing west, like many other graves at Blatherwycke. It is also close to the path into the churchyard from Blatherwycke Hall (now demolished). (Figs 1 & 2)
The gravestone is plain, with some linear framing derived from Classical stylistic conventions – far less elaborate than those of the Sculthorpe family of the same date – and a well-cut inscription, which reads
IN MEMORY OF
WHO WAS DROWNED
IN BLATHERWYCKE LAKE
JUNE 11 1836
AGED 29 YEARS
HERE A POOR WANDERER HATH FOUND A GRAVE
WHO DEATH EMBRACED WHILST STRUGGLING WITH THE WAVE
HIS HOME FAR OFF IN THE BROAD INDIAN MAIN
HE LEFT TO RID HIMSELF OF SLAVERYS CHAIN.
FRIENDLESS AND COMFORTLESS HE PASSED THE SEA
ON ALBION’S SHORES TO SEEK FOR LIBERTY
YET VAIN HIS SEARCH FOR AYE WITH TOILING BROW
HE NEVER FOUND HIS FREEDOM UNTIL NOW
The grave is explained as being that of a black servant of the O’Briens of Blatherwycke Hall, who died saving his master from drowning [i], and the position of the gravestone is explained either by his race or by uncertainty over his eschatological status (he may not have been baptised): this is a typical example
‘This gravestone is now very difficult to read, but records inside the church tell us what the inscription says. Anthony Williams was a former slave. When he died, his religion was not known, so his gravestone was placed at the edge of the churchyard, with the inscribed side facing over the churchyard wall.’
The inscription is usually inaccurately transcribed: the version above is as close as I can make it, although the weathering makes the punctuation uncertain.
A newspaper account of the circumstances surrounding Anthony Williams’s death enables us to separate truth from legend:
‘An inquest was held in Blatherwycke on Monday, before Thomas Marsh. Gent. Coroner, on the body of Anthony Williams, a Black man, boatswain to Stafford O’Brien, Esq. of Blatherwycke Park. It appeared that on Saturday last he went on the pond alone in a small sailing boat, which was suddenly upset from the violence of a squall that occurred about five o’clock. As he was a remarkably fine swimmer, it is supposed that he must have become entangled with some portion of the rigg[?ing]. This poor fellow had been released from slavery a few years ago and in the service of Mr O’Brien he enjoyed that state of happiness consequent upon a transition from captivity to freedom; he would at any time have risked his life to save a fellow-creature, and he who had often known all the horrors of ship-wreck was at length doomed to die in a pond, within a few yards of the shore, but where no aid could possibly have been tendered. He was followed to his grave by a large number, who unfeignedly mourned the loss of a brave, fine-tempered, faithful, and honest fellow servant. Verdict, “Accidentally drowned” [London County Herald and Weekly Advertiser, June 25 1836, p.1]
So Anthony Williams was drowned, and was a servant to the O’Briens, but the detail that he died saving his master is a later elaboration.
The inquest report supplements the information given in the epitaph. The lines, ‘His home far off in the broad Indian main, He left to rid himself of slavery’s chain’ suggest that Anthony Williams may have escaped from the West Indies to leave slavery, and the inquest, with its reference to him as often knowing ‘the horrors of ship-wreck‘ reinforces the possibility that he escaped by joining a ship as a crew-member – while the slave-trade was outlawed in the year that Anthony Williams was born, slavery itself was not abolished in the British Caribbean until 1833. Many of the plantocracy had boatmen among their slaves https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/estate/view/12465.
The O’Briens do not appear on the UCL Slavery database, and this, coupled with the wording of the epitaph, makes it unlikely that they brought Anthony Williams to Britain as part of their retinue – an impression reinforced by the words ‘Friendless and comfortless, he passed the sea’. The most likely gloss is that Anthony Williams, an experienced mariner, was recruited by Stafford O’Brien in Britain as his boatman on Blatherwycke Lake, which was then considerable in extent and is now one of the largest artificial lakes in Europe. His employer, Stafford O”Brien (1783-1864) (Fig 3) was a jolly and benevolent character, as obituary notices show:
‘At Blatherwycke Park aged 80 Stafford O Brien esq. In former days no house in the county was more famous than Blatherwycke for its splendid hospitality and the Squire as he was familiarly termed for miles round was one of the most eager sportsmen of his day.’ (Obit from The Gentleman’s Magazine)
”The deceased was a noble specimen of the old English Squire. His extensive hospitality and his considerate kindness to his poorer neighbours will be remembered for many years to come and will long serve to keep his memory clean.’ (Peterborough Advertiser, 1 March 1864)
The inquest account shows that Anthony Williams was a popular and respected member of the household: there is every chance that his post was a congenial one.
The other tradition concerns the gravestone’s position, attributed to uncertainty over his religion, or discomfort with his race. It is unlikely that Anthony Williams, born into slavery, had not been christened, as one of the more repulsive aspects of the attitudes of slave-owners was that they were responsible for the souls of their chattel slaves, no matter how badly they treated them. His name suggests this: ‘Anthony’, while falling into the category of classical names conventionally given to slaves (‘Antonius’ – see Remi Kapo’s excellent website http://remikapo.org/slave-graves-and-other-memorials/) is also the name of several saints. ‘Williams’ presumably comes from the owner of the property on which he was born: there are so many proprietors in the Caribbean of this name that it is difficult to ascertain which one. If there had been any doubt about Anthony Williams’s baptism, then he would have been buried on the north side of the church, the traditional location for those whose eschatological status was uncertain (suicides, unbaptised infants). Its position is more likely to be due to a desire to bury Anthony Williams in one of the more privileged parts of the churchyard, in which there was little space left – the current churchyard extension is of quite an early date.
Nor is there any sign that anyone was uncomfortable with Anthony Williams’s race. The report of the inquest, like the epitaph, actually celebrates it – here was a black slave who had found freedom, and clearly popularity and respect, in Britain. The epitaph and inquest should be put in the context of the final – after many delays – passage of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, although this only freed children under 6: in practical terms slavery in the Caribbean did not end finally until 1840, although most slaves were freed in 1838. It seems likely that Anthony Williams would still have been under subjection had he lived in the Caribbean at the time of his death https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavery_Abolition_Act_1833.
The tombstone is positioned close to the route from the Hall to the church, where it would be seen by Anthony Williams’s fellows on Sundays. This may be the simple explanation for its orientation: it could be read on the way into church and its message pondered. Church attendance was probably compulsory – the church retains the servants’ pews https://www.flickr.com/photos/norfolkodyssey/27053326846/.
There are other possibilities. As it is oriented, the stone looks towards the lake in which Anthony Williams drowned: it may be that he is to be seen as regarding the location of his death. It also looks (more distantly) towards the Caribbean, the area described in the epitaph as his ‘home’. A later parallel for this may be found in the family graves of the Fitzwilliams of Marholm (Cambridgeshire) where the twentieth-century gravestones look south towards the family home Milton Hall. But since many of the gravestones at Blatherwycke have westward facing inscriptions there may be no more significance here than an adherence to local custom: the orientation of the inscriptions on the gravestones does not necessarily indicate the orientation of the burial: Anthony Williams was presumably buried with his head to the west, and feet to the east, as is conventional for laypersons.
The epitaph ends with a variation on the familiar trope of death as release, appropriate in the case of a former slave, if rather pat. The inquest report, with its noting of the irony that an experienced seafarer should meet his end drowning in a pond, also seems rather smug, but it gives Anthony Williams his due as an estimable person, whose death was a regrettable accident.
[i] Peter Hill, Folklore of Northamptonshire (Stroud, 2nd ed 2009) adds the detail that his master had fallen from his boat while fishing: completely untrue.