Paine’s Grave, Kenneth Rogers


This story begins with the late Michael Lansdown, for so many years Treasurer of this Society. During the long period that he was editor of the Wiltshire Times, he ran, and largely wrote, a column under the name of The Gleaner, which often contained pieces of local history. In one of these (I do not have the date), he commented on the discovery in New York State of a tombstone thought to be that of Thomas Paine, author of The Rights of Man.

Michael went on to say that as a child he had been told that the small piece of waste land adjoining London Bridge was called Tom Paine’s Grave. For the information of non-Trowbridgians, London Bridge is at the extremity of the parish on the road to Wingfield; the name, recorded in the 17th century, is presumably ironic. He went to the Record Office to investigate and there he found that on the map attached to the Enclosure Award of 1816, there is a dot within a circle, marked Paine’s Grave. This is on a small patch of ground on the north side of the road, which was actually an allotment under the award, but has never been worth anybody’s while to fence in. I now quote; ‘Who was Paine? Was he a local suicide of the 18th or early 19th century? Did the name “Tom” then get added when the revolutionary writer became famous? Who knows?’

There the matter rested until the recent publication of volume 2 of John Young’s Wiltshire Watch and Clockmakers. His entry about William Paine of Trowbridge includes the following from the Bath and Salisbury papers of 1788: ‘On Monday morning last [15 December] one Paine, a respectable watchmaker of Trowbridge, hung himself in his bedchamber. The jury’s verdict felo de se. His body was buried in the highway.’ Paine’s Christian name comes from clocks that he made; one, of extremely high quality, is illustrated in Cescinsky and Webster’s English Domestic Clocks. The addition of ‘Tom’ arises only from its connection with the surname.

My first thought on reading this was why did I not know about it from our Vol. 36, Coroners’ Bills 1752-1796? Answer – the bill for that period is missing. How long did the practice of burying suicides in the highway continue? Answer – it was abolished by an Act of 1823 (4 Geo IV c. 52). From then on, coroners were to order private interment in the appropriate graveyard, (without any stake being driven through the body), between the hours of nine and twelve at night. The Act specifically forbade rites of Christian burial. Why did he do it? We are very unlikely ever to know.

A footnote to the episode comes from a pamphlet, A Brief Memoir of the Life of Mr John Fryer of Holbrook Farm, Trowbridge, who departed this life, January 17th, 1845, aged 95 years, written by his grandson [John Astley Fryer]. I cannot do better than to quote this at length:

‘…about 40 years since…a man by the name of Daniel Cox committed suicide at Trowbridge, and it was the custom in those days to bury all self murderers on the crossroads near to the town. The shrubbery near to our Farm was selected (though I cannot think myself that this could properly be called cross-roads) for his last resting place, and there he was actually buried. Several reports, as may be imagined, were abroad concerning it; some had undoubtedly seen his ghost while passing there of a night, others had heard footsteps, and different kinds of noises at various times; while many said that the ghost brought in Mr.Fryer’s cows into the barton every morning. My grandfather, not at all liking such things to be said, and more than that, the fact of his being buried so near the dwelling house, hired one or two men, who quietly set to work by night, and dug the body of this wretched man up, and conveyed him in a cart to London bridge, on the Wingfield road, where some more men were busy at work opening the same grave that Thomas Paine another suicide was buried in, and there also they put the body of this Daniel Cox, and filled the grave in again; all this was done during the night. Some men however, passing by the next morning, and seeing the earth had been fresh disturbed, reported the case to some more parties, when they commenced digging, found the body, (or rather, the coffin, as I should say) of Daniel Cox, and brought it back to the same spot where it now lies. The stone, where the grave was, may still be seen by the side of London bridge, near Trowle Common.

‘The idea of his being removed and brought again to the same spot, raised fresh thoughts in the public mind; persons were actually afraid to pass the road at night for fear of seeing him, and I remember a tale told about my uncle; he was returning home from Trowbridge one evening rather late (it was a beautiful moonlight night) and to come to the house he was obliged to pass over, or very near the grave; he whistled as the schoolboy did, “to keep his courage up”, when suddenly he heard someone coming behind him; on looking round, he saw the figure of a man approaching, all dressed in white – he was dreadfully alarmed, what to do he knew not, whether to run or to stand still, when the figure called out to him and said, “don’t be frightened, Mr. Fryer, it is only me”, and it proved to be a Weaver, who had thrown over him a large white cloth that they use, to keep himself warm, as he was going to fetch a surgeon from Trowbridge to see his wife who was taken suddenly ill.’

The inquest on Daniel Cox, who hanged himself, was held on 4 November 1802. Nothing else has been found about him or his death. The shrubbery was at the corner of Holbrook Lane and Bradley Road. The weaver was almost certainly wrapped in the long white bag which weavers are known to have used to carry home their work.