Forgotten Burials

Sheep in the Churchyard - c.1860's

Exactly three hundred years ago, on 27th January, Widow Peckham brought her base born child, Betty, to the Church to be baptized. Just five days later she went back there, to bury her. Elizabeth, daughter of Thomas and Mary Laundy lasted a few days longer: she was buried 8 days after her baptism but, for Thomas and Mary Longley, there were only three days between their daughter Susannah’s baptism and her burial. In all, the Reverend John Matthews was called on to conduct the burial service for twelve children or infants out a total of 21 burials in Steyning during the year ending in March 1720.

The records of burials in the churchyard here go back more than 450 years. Amongst them there were those distressing burials when all or most of a family were wiped out in the matter of just a few weeks; one assumes because of virulent diseases which could not be treated at that time. There was the Standred family in 1574, the Parson family who were living in Newham House in the 1620’s and the Kidd family in the 1830’s.

People who were travelling through Steyning and who were unknown to the Parish must have died particularly lonely deaths.

Sometimes they are named; sometimes not. In 1566, when the registers were written in Latin, there is one such entry 'sepultus est infirmus peregrinator' ('there was buried an enfeebled wayfarer'). In 1570, still in Latin, another entry reads 'sepulta est mulier aliena et nomine ignota' ('there was buried a woman unknown by name who was an alien'). It cannot now be known whether the use of the word 'alien' was meant to mean a 'stranger' (a fact already established by the ignorance of her name) or an actual foreigner – possibly one of those refugees who had fled to England to escape the persecution of Protestants on the continent.

In the year in which 'Betty, the base born child of Widow Peckham' died there was the burial of another traveller named as Edward Howard. But a number of these men and women must have been found dead before they could give their names. In 1618 the entry in the registers reads 'A poore travayler dyeing in Mrs. Ingram’s barn was buryed on October 16'.  The entries go on: in 1709 'A Poore Traveller was buryed June 13' or, in 1759, 'A Traveller (name unknown) was buryed June 27' and, in 1778, 'A woman (traveller) was buryed October 14'. In the 19th century the language used in the registers to describe these 'poore', these destitute individuals became more pejorative. In 1859 they recorded the burial of 'A Vagrant: name, abode and age unknown'.

There was one other slightly odd burial of an un-named individual. In 1595 an entry was made in the register which reads 'A woman of Chichester delivered of childe 28 of Marche was buryed the same daie by Thomas Belzin'. The entry is unusual not because she died in childbirth, that was common enough, but because it is the only burial in the registers which appears to have taken place on the same day as the death. It is also unusual because it was another 240 years before there is any other mention of who it was that did the burying. Moreover, Thomas Belzin was not the vicar of Steyning: it is quite likely that he may not even have been a clergyman.

You would search in vain for any of these burials in today’s churchyard, despite the existence of this careful written record – which was supplemented as well, as time went by, with more details of the location of the graves and the cost of the burials. Few could afford a memorial and even those that were set up became overlain by more recent burials as memories dimmed.

Many thousand people must have been buried in our churchyard over the centuries and those whose memorials still exist probably represent no more than a tenth of that total.
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