NICOLA CARPENTER describes the gruesome discovery of a mummified baby during renovations of a Berkshire church
Thatcham is a small Berkshire town on the banks of the Kennet and Avon Canal and the river Kennet. Thatcham boasts the beautiful stone St Mary’s Church, first built by the Normans in 1140 AD. Over the years the existing stone church was extended and added to.
On a February evening of 1929 a public meeting was held in the parish hall to discuss the deteriorating state of the church belfry and the bells it contained. It was decided that the belfry would be reconstructed, the original six bells repaired, a new bell added and the oak bell frames replaced with iron ones. The congregation set to work rising the funds needed and in the November of 1929 the work began.
The restoration work went well, but soon the belfry was to reveal a gruesome secret. On 25th November Cecil Maskell, a carpenter and his working companion Joseph Adnams were removing the ceiling of the ringing chamber and the floor to the belfry above it. Whilst clearing out the rubble with shovels the pair were to make a discovery that would stay with them until the grave. Cecil shovelled up what he believed to be an old bell rope guide that had fallen from the belfry above. Upon closer scrutiny it was found to be a tiny, perfectly formed elm coffin. How it got there was a mystery. Work men had inspected the belfry the week before and had not found the coffin. It had to have been secreted somewhere above the belfry, in the clock tower, where the vibrations of the work carried out below must have dislodged it.
Cecil and Joseph stared at the coffin unsure what to do at first, before deciding to open it. The coffin lid had been fastened with four small nails which were soon pried. What Cecil and Joseph saw shocked them, the mummified remains of a baby, wrapped in a patterned shawl and resting on a brown paper bag. The vicar of Thatcham, Revd Reginald Moore was soon summoned. As soon as he was shown the coffin and the remains within he contacted the police. Sergeant Simmonds removed the coffin to the parish hall whereupon he set up an inquiry. Dr James Beagley examined the body and confirmed that it was that of a newborn infant, of which some parts were in a good state of mummification, however the sex was now impossible to determine. He concluded that death had occurred maybe 12-15 year earlier. A more worrying discovery contained within the coffin was a piece of strong string about a foot in length near the neck of the baby.
Had this been a murder? If so, why had a murdered infant been given such an elaborate burial and if not why had so much effort been put into concealing the tiny coffin.
The Newbury Weekly News reported:
“The evidence revealed one factor which could not be regarded as anything but a sinister aspect – within the wrappings round the body was a stout piece of string, part of which had rotted. From its position in relation to the body, and other circumstances, Dr Beagley gave it as his opinion that the most popular conclusion to arrive at was that death occurred from strangulation.”
But perhaps there was a far more innocent explanation. During the inquest one witness Mr Maccabee recounted a past practice for the burial of stillborn babies. He said,
“Years ago, when there was a stillborn child, it was a rule to take it to the sexton with two shillings for its burial, and it used to be kept for some time until the burial of an ordinary person, so that it could be buried in the same grave.”
It was entirely possible for babies such as this to be kept for burial for three or four months at a time. Could the coffin have simply been forgotten?
The Newbury Weekly News thought not:
“There is the possibility that it may have been the intention of the person or persons who concealed it to secrete it temporarily; if so, why was it not removed later? One cannot imagine its existence being totally forgotten.”
With very little to go on other then speculation the coroner recorded and open verdict. It would seem that the mystery of the baby in the coffin would be taken to the grave for a second time. Revd Moore arranged that the child should be given a proper Christian burial. A new coffin of elm was commissioned, should the original hold more clues to who this baby was and why it died. On the 6th February 1930, Thatcham’s mystery baby and the secret of St Mary’s was finally laid to rest.
For more creepy topics from Berkshire’s NICOLA CARPENTER, you can read her blog here.