Last week I gave a talk to a Church Group in Crawley and bought a copy of the parish magazine. I was interested to read about a grave at Worth Church for an unfortunate woman who was shot.
Yesterday I travelled back up to Crawley to visit Worth Church which, in my opinion is one of the most interesting churches in the Sussex. It is a Saxon building (rather spoilt by the unnecessary addition of a Victorian spire.) It is surrounded by a modern estate and the constant drone of the M23, however this is one of the oldest churches in England. Its massive Saxon arch is the third largest in the country.
However, I had come not for the architecture but to find the grave. The churchyard is quite large but my wife quickly managed to identify the last resting place of Elizabeth Clifton. The stone is not easy to read being covered with lichen but you can just make out the text..
who died at
The Grove in this parish
by the accidental
explosion of a gun
11th September 1826
Aged 35 years.
The letters M.S at the start of the epitaph stand for Memoriae Sacrum which is Latin for ‘Sacred to the memory of..’
The Sussex Advertiser of 18th September 1826 gives the full story of the unfortunate incident. Henry Clifton was the bailiff for General Cartwright, the owner of Worth House and to protect his master’s property from poachers he kept a loaded gun under his bed. On 11th September Henry decided to go rabbit shooting with a friend and fetched the gun to the kitchen to clean it. As he was brushing the lock mechanism the gun went off.
The contents of the gun hit Henry’s poor wife Elizabeth who was standing nearby, probably at the kitchen sink. The blast hit the backs of her legs which were severely lacerated, particularly her left leg which was cut to the bone. Medical assistance was swiftly sought and soon afterwards a surgeon determined that her leg should be amputated, Before the operation could be carried out however, she died.
An inquest was held by the Sussex Coroner, George Gwynne at Turners Hill. Henry stated that he had not realised that the gun was loaded and a verdict of ‘Accidental Death’ was returned and a deodand of 5 shillings placed on the gun.
The term ‘deodand’ is an interesting one. A deodand was something forfeited because it has caused a person’s death. In the past this could for instance be a horse. It means ‘to be given to God‘. The item would then me sold and the money would go to the Crown with the understanding that the profit would go to some pious use.
It was often not possible to forfeit an item, so, as in this case, a price was put on the item which had to be paid by the owner to retain it.
A year before this tragic accident the Stockton and Darlington Railway made its first run and it was the new age of steam that finally saw an end to the centuries old custom of deodand. In 1841 an accident occurred on the Great Western Railway near Reading, Berkshire and eight people were killed. The jury at the inquest put a deodand on the railway engine (a locomotive called ‘Hecla’) but it was clearly impractical to forfeit it.
As a result, the Fatal Accidents of 1846 was passed which gave the families of victims power to recover damages following fatal accidents.
Elizabeth Clifton was buried to the west of Worth church and her headstone can still be seen today.
(My thanks for Mark Chappel of Worth Church drawing my attention to this incident)