12/30/2020 5 Comments
Buried under an old yew tree in the graveyard of Holy Trinity Church in the picturesque Peak District village of Ashford-in-the Water lies a lost grave and a mystery… This blog (a version of which was first published on the old Peak in the Past website in February 2017 which has since been reconstructed) tells the story of an investigation which was sparked by our reminiscence activities with local care home residents in Bakewell. The story centres on the distant childhood memories of a lady in her 90s, which led us to the discovery of a hidden Victorian grave and an attempt to unravel the mysterious death of the young son of a ship's captain and how he came to be buried in a secluded spot in the Peak District some 70 miles away from his home. Uncovering the lost grave has enabled us to unearth an astonishing tale of a seafaring family which involves adventure on the high seas, tragedy, shipwreck and undiscovered buried treasure...
Pictured above: 1) The old yew tree in Ashford-in-the Water Churchyard under which the 'lost' grave was located; 2) Ashford-in-the-Water Church (Holy Trinity) viewed from across the River Wye (from postcard sent 1907)
One care home resident who has shared memories of the Peak District in past decades through the Peak in the Past project is Nellie Blundell (nee Thorpe). Nellie was born and brought up in Ashford-in-the-Water. She was born in 1922, the youngest of ten children of Francis Thorpe (a railway worker) and his wife Jane. Nellie is able to recall vividly many of the former illustrious residents of Ashford-in-the-Water and district from the first half of the 20th-century such as Charles Boot J.P. (1874-1945) of Thornbridge Hall and the Cavendish Family of Churchdale Hall (where Nellie’s mother worked carrying our domestic duties) as well as former residents with more humble backgrounds - the farmers, shopkeepers and trades-people who contributed so much to the local economy and community in decades’ past. During the Second World War, compelled by a sense of patriotic duty, Nellie joined the Women’s Royal Navy Service (WRENS) and was posted to Rosneath on the west coast of Scotland. The Second World War led Nellie to meet her husband Geoffrey Blundell (who was also serving in forces) following a chance meeting at a bus stop in Taddington where Geoffrey had been posted to rig up searchlights.
Pictured above: 1) The Thorpe Family of Ashford-in-the-Water with Nellie the baby, c.1923; 2) Geoffrey and Nellie Blundell in their services' uniforms, c.1945
Further details of Nellie's reminiscences of Ashford-in-the Water can be found on our reminiscence page. But, amongst Nellie’s many fascinating recollections of her home village was an intriguing memory which prompted us to set out to try to uncover a long-lost mystery. Nellie had a childhood recollection of stumbling upon a curious Victorian grave in Ashford-in-the-Water churchyard of a young boy who was not local and who, she seemed to recall, was from a family all the way over in Liverpool. The grave lay flat on the ground under a yew tree and was half-buried under foliage. Something about this lonely, untended grave captured Nellie’s interest and, whenever she visited her own family graves in the churchyard, she would try and sweep away the dead leaves and earth which invariably covered it on each visit, obscuring it from view. She had always wondered who the boy was. What was a child from Liverpool doing buried in a grave some 70 miles away in Ashford-in-the-Water and why had he died so young? Nellie heard rumours that the boy may have drowned in the River Wye (back in the 19th/20th centuries drownings in the river which runs through the village were not uncommon!) but she had not been able to find any definite answers about the boy and how he died. Nellie had always wanted to learn the truth about the boy and asked if we might be able to help her discover more by delving into the archives.
Our first task was to track down the grave. It had been some years since Nellie had last seen the grave and she was not able to recall the child’s name or when he was buried only that he was a young boy thought to be from Liverpool who died sometime back in the mid 1800s. Following Nellie’s directions, at first we were puzzled and wondered whether she may have been mistaken. We found the yew tree easily enough (located to the right of the path leading up from the main front entrance to the churchyard) but there was no sign of a grave matching the description in the vicinity. However, after rechecking the instructions for locating the grave from Nellie, on a second visit to the churchyard we "dug a bit deeper", sweeping away a carpet of dead leaves and earth around the precise spot where Nellie remembered the grave having laid - close to the wall which fronts onto the road. To our astonishment, as we peeled back the layers of earth, a mysterious gravestone was gradually revealed which had been completely hidden from sight. The inscription read ‘In Memory of Charles McAllister, son of Niel and Margaret Shannon of Liverpool, who died at Ashford, October 3rd 1853 aged 4 years.’
Pictured above: Peeling back the layers of earth to reveal the lost grave under the yew tree in Ashford-in-the-Water churchyard
So who was this little lad? How did he die and why was he buried in Ashford-in-the-Water? We began our search for further information by locating details of his family on the 1851 census: the Shannon family were recorded as living at 75 Upper Canning Street, Liverpool with Charles, then aged one, living with his parents, older brother and sister, great uncle and aunt and two servants. Charles’ father Niel Shannon was listed as a ‘Master Mariner’, born on the Island of Arran, Scotland. A search of historical newspapers (available online via the British Newspaper Archive) revealed how Niel Shannon (1812-1865) captained the Royal Mail steamships ‘America’ and 'Europa' (part of the Cunard line) during the early 1850s where he made frequent trips across the Atlantic to USA and back. Via the genealogy website www.ancestry.com, it was also possible to track down Captain Niel Shannon's master mariner certificate awarded to him in November 1850.
Pictured above: Captain Niel Shannon's master mariner certificate, awarded 25 Nov 1850
It appears that young Charles was named after his grandfather Charles McAllister Shannon (senior) who died in New South Wales, Australia in September 1846. Charles McAllister Shannon (senior) was born in Scotland and served as a captain in the Argyllshire Militia, before emigrating to Australia from Scotland in 1838, becoming superintendent of the Moleville Station on the Clarence River in New South Wales - an indication of the seafaring spirit of the Shannon family and their inclination to roam.
The discovery that the boy’s father Niel Shannon was a ‘master mariner’ lent extra intrigue to the rumours Nellie had heard that he may have drowned. Having established the name of the child and his date of death, we tracked down a copy of Charles’ death certificate in search of confirmation of the cause of death. The death certificate however revealed how Charles died in Ashford-in-the-Water (actually one month shy of his 4th birthday) simply of ‘scarlet fever’ (a common cause of infant death at the time).
So, there was no dramatic tale of drowning in the case of this particular son of the master mariner, but a mystery still remains as to why a young boy from Liverpool ended up dying (and being buried) in Ashford-in-the-Water. So far, we have been unable to find any evidence to suggest the family had any association with the village. Perhaps the family brought their stricken son to Ashford-in-the-Water hoping that the fresh Peak District country air might cure him of his affliction.
Pictured above: Extract from Charles McAllister Shannon's death certificate attributing his cause of death in Ashford-in-the-Water on 3 October 1853 to 'scarlet fever'
A little over a month after the tragic death of their young son in Ashford-in-the-Water, Niel Shannon and his wife Margaret had a daughter Margaret Agnes born in Liverpool at the end of November 1853. Charles also had another younger sibling Niel Shannon (junior) (sometimes spelt Neil Shannon in historical records) born in Liverpool in 1851 who went on to become a ship’s captain like his father. Although Nellie’s supposition that Charles McAllister Shannon may have drowned proved not to be the case, there is a cruel postscript to this story, involving Charles' younger brother, which may account for the theory Nellie had of Charles' own death. We discovered through historical newspaper research that the fate of drowning did in fact befall his brother Niel Shannon (junior) . Niel (junior) was captain of the SS Catterthun, a steam passenger ship which was shipwrecked in August 1895 after striking a reef in a storm near Seal Rocks off the coast of New South Wales in the early stages of a voyage from Sydney to Hong Kong. 55 people lost their lives in the disaster including Captain Shannon who was swept off the deck of the sinking vessel by a huge wave as he supervised the launch of lifeboats in a bid to save the lives of his passengers.
The sinking of the SS Catterthun was widely reported in local newspapers all over the UK at the time and it is quite possible that the villagers of Ashford-in-the Water heard about the sad fate of the brother of the young boy buried in their churchyard, who was lost at sea on the other side of the world, several decades after Charles' death. Perhaps, over time, the tales of the brothers became confused and conflated, prompting the mistaken story Nellie had heard that the boy whose grave she tended over many years had drowned.
Pictured above: 1) Captain Niel Shannon (1851-1895), younger brother of Charles McAllister Shannon (1849-1853) who was buried at Ashford-in-the-Water, taken from online article available via www.greatlakesadvocate.com.au; 2) Newspaper report on Captain Niel Shannon's death on board the SS Catterthun, from the 'Liverpool Mercury', 28 Sep 1895 (p.5)
Notably, the SS Catterthun had a valuable cargo of over 9,000 gold sovereign coins on board when it sunk. This prompted a large-scale salvage operation in the aftermath of the disaster which resulted in diving operators recovering some 8,000 coins. The missing gold was never found. To this day, the wreck of the SS Catterthun lies some 60m deep off Seal Rocks just north of Port Stephens, New South Wales, Australia, and remains a popular site for divers to explore.
Although both Shannon brothers, Charles and Niel (junior) ended up in what we might conclude are unusual, 'concealed' graves, their respective lives and final resting places could not be further apart: with Charles buried under a yew tree in a picturesque Peakland churchyard shortly before his 4th birthday and Niel experiencing a life brimming with adventure, sailing the seven seas, before being shipwrecked and lost at sea on the other side of the world (along with the "treasure" on board his ship). But, it is fascinating to think how our recent rediscovery of Charles' hidden grave in Ashford-in-the Water serves as an unlikely gateway to the remarkable story of the seafaring Shannon family. If anyone gets the opportunity to visit Holy Trinity Church at Ashford-in-the-Water, reaching over the wall of the churchyard from the pavement to the right of the front entrance, and brushing away the foliage under the yew tree there, as we have done, can allow the mind to sweep across oceans and back in time.
Pictured above: 1) The SS Catterthun (captained by Niel Shannon) sourced from the website: www.wrecksite.eu; 2) Salvage crew with some of the boxes of gold sovereign coins recovered from the wreck of the SS Catterthun in the aftermath of its sinking, 1895, taken from an online article available via www.greatlakesadvocate.com.au; 3) Modern-day diver exploring the engine of the wrecked SS Catterthun sourced from the website: www.michaelmcfadyenscuba.info (photograph from Hi8 video)