Ophelia of the West Country

Here’s a story from one of my favourite local history books, ‘Rural Rides of the Bristol Churchgoer’ by local newspaper editor Joseph Leech. In 1843 & 4 Leech visited churches in the Bristol region anonymously, and published his  reviews, much to the terror of local vicars. the results are a wonderful insight into the art and architecture of the region, but also brilliantly observed social histories. This is one of the saddest stories I have ever come across, his visit to Stapleton, then on the bleak outskirts of the city where a Poor House had been built, to replace a prison for French prisoner of war.

“The churchyard seems to be almost wholly used as a Golgotha for the neighbouring poorhouse, as the long ranks of little red clay-mounds, with a small inscribed footstone to each, indicated. I seldom saw a more desolate and cheerless-looking resting-place for the dead in my life; not a shrub or altar-tomb, that I could see, rose to vary the dismal and monotonous dreariness and flatness of the place. I walked round it after service and there were two old women standing by a parch of newly-broken earth, which had lately received some mortal remains; though little was the care devoted to other graves, this had evidently received less. The two old women were whispering mysteriously as they stood by it.

“Whose grave is this, my good folks?” said I.

“The poor young woman was buried at midnight, without a prayer said for her poor soul,” said the older of the two, slightly shuddering.

“Yes,” added her companion, “and they might have found ‘tempry sanity’ for this poor wildered creature as well as for another.”

My curiosity was excited, and seeing it was an incident one does not everyday met with in a country churchyard, I begged they would tell me all about it, which was, as well as I could gather from them, to the following effect. It was, in fact, a rude version of a rustic Ophelia’s story. It appears that her name was Esther Tilly: she was the daughter of a farmer living in the adjoining parish, or somewhere on the borders of Horfield and Stapleton, and having fallen in love with a young man, a kind of farm-servant named Williams, her father forbade her the house, and she went to reside with a relative, still continuing her love, ‘not wisely but too well,’ for the young man Williams: some flaw, which, joined perhaps to her other troubles, had the effect of ‘driving her to desperate terms,’ and one evening, after writing a letter informing her lover other determination, she proceeded to a little pond in her parent’s orchard, and throwing herself in, she was seen by someone at a distance to float for a moment until

‘Her garments heavy with their drink,

Pulled the poor wretch’ [Hamlet      IV : vii]

To muddy death.’An inquest was held, and the jury, arguing I suppose according to the clown’s logic, ‘If I drown myself wittingly it argues an act, and an act has 3 branches – it is to act, to do, to perform; argal, she drowned herself wittingly, found a verdict of felo de se, and the body was buried that same night by torchlight, between the hours of 11 and 12 o’clock, without the solemn rite of Christian sepulture, and with all the haste that accompanies a hurried work of horror, beneath the broken earth by which we then stood. But it was not in their end alone that the story of the poor country girl and the ‘pretty Ophelia’ agreed: their burial was marked by a singularly similar incident, for, on the body being lowered into the ground, the young man, Williams, bursting through the circle of torch-bearers, threw himself on it and in the frenzy of his feelings reminding one of a similar act of the excited Hamlet a the grave of Ophelia –

‘Hold off the earth awhile

‘Till I have caught her once more in my arms’ [Hamlet V i]

The story appeared to me a particularly sad one; and I confess I could not help wishing with the old woman that the jury had charitably interpreted the act as one of temporary insanity. In the case of a fine lady some would not have as summarily decided on the state of her mind: and I think with the clown that ‘great folks should not have countenance in this world to drown and hang themselves any more than their even Christian’; and it would have lessened the horror of a sad tale had Hope, like a charitable angel, been allowed to hover over the unhappy remains.

‘They threw quick lime too, into the grave,’ said the old woman, seeing me gaze down on the rough red cheerless-looking earth at my feet; ‘and cast her body in as if she were a dog or a particide [parricide] instead of a poor distraught girl.’

I said nothing but turned away, for the cold began to creep up my legs; the cutting blast came across the bleak churchyard, and, whistling through the loose stones of the ill-built wall close by, piped an appropriate dirge above the grave of the poor suicide.



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