The Headstones of St Clement’s in Sandwich

I’ve always had an interest in social history so when I heard that St Clement’s church in Sandwich was looking for people to help with a survey of headstones, I volunteered.


A considerable amount of work clearing brambles and ivy, and the trimming of tree branches had already been put in motion. As a consequence some interesting graves had ‘reappeared’, including the handsome chest tomb of Samuel Foart Simmons, who became physician extraordinary to George III at the time of his final episode of ‘madness’. Born in Sandwich, he was educated at a seminary in France and studied medicine in Edinburgh and Leyden in Holland.


Headstones in the old churchyard give a tantalising glimpse into life in Sandwich during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Using the local history section at Sandwich Library, in addition to census records, newspaper archives and websites dedicated to tracing military and naval ancestors, it has been possible to begin to flesh out some of the stories. Newspaper reports give some hint of local preoccupations including concerns about diseases such as cholera, typhoid and tuberculosis also known as consumption. Did TB, a constant contributor to early death, explain why some  gravestones record the untimely passing of whole families within a short span of years? Were the young couple who died after a short illness, and within hours of one another, in 1919 victims of the Spanish flu pandemic?


The census reveals the commercial life of the town and the occupations of its inhabitants which included grocers, innkeepers, carriage proprietors, merchandisers, and solicitors. Women were homemakers but also housekeepers, boarding house managers, servants and shop assistants. Sandwich’s major link with the sea over the centuries continued with boatbuilders, fishermen, sailors, customs men, and the military who passed through on their way to far flung countries of the world. John Lynch, born in 1847 at Shingle End in Sandwich Bay, began his service with the Royal Navy in 1862 patrolling the seas around Japan, South America and the Magellan Straits. Just seven years later, this dark-haired, grey-eyed young man, drowned off Vancouver’s Island in British Columbia whilst serving on HMS Charybdis. His heartbroken parents raised a memorial headstone for John and his younger brother, William, who had died as a child.


Vladimir Provatoroff’s family fled from Russia after the Russian Revolution in 1917, and after living in Berlin and Paris arrived in London and later in Sandwich. His wife, Waveney Trew, was a playwright, model and member of the Bright Young Things set in London during the 1920s, moving in the same circles as Noel Coward and Tallulah Bankhead. Vladimir was a businessman and would become a member of the Special Operations Executive in WW2.


Research into burial and mourning etiquette and superstitions, has revealed several fascinating insights into customs and superstitions around death. The closing of curtains and covering mirrors in the house with black material would ensure that the deceased’s image wouldn’t get trapped in the glass. It was also thought you might be next if you saw yourself in a mirror at a house where someone had recently died. To prevent bad luck all clocks were stopped at the time of death. Family photographs were turned face down to protect family and friends from possession by the spirit of the recently deceased. The coffin would be taken out of the house feet first so that the dead person couldn’t look back and call someone else to follow them.


The inscription on the tomb of Maris and Abigail Adkins who died in the early 18th century issues its invitation to the observer: “Come Reader: view and meditate.” And the churchyard trail leaflet planned for early next year should enable people to do just that.


by Jean Garforth

Find out more about St Clement’s church by visiting their website.

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