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Charles Dickens account of Filey and Scarborough graveyards

Charles Dickens wrote many factual books. This article was published in "Household words"in 1851

The sea-side churchyard is a strange witness of the perilous life of the mariner and the fisherman. It is only by a walk in it that we acquire a clear conception of the real nature of that mode of livelihood which such hundreds of thousands, all round these islands, embrace, as a choice or a necessity. We resort to pleasant places in the summer time, and see the great ocean glittering and rolling in playful majesty, and our hearts leap at the sublime spectacle. We see white sails gleaming on its bosom, and steamers trailing their long clouds of smoke after them, as they busily walk the waters, bearing joyous passengers to many a new scene. We meet the hardy blue-cloth sons of ocean, on the beach and the cliff; see them pushing off their boats for a day's fishing, or coming in in the early morning with their well-laden yawls and cobbles, and the sea and its people assume to us a holiday sort of aspect, in which the labour, the watching, the long endurance of cold, the peril and the death are concealed in the picturesque of the scenery, and the frank and calm bearing of the actors themselves. What a different thing is even a fisherman's life when contemplated as a whole; when we take in the winter and the storm to complete the picture of his existence ! But, as few of us can do this in reality, if we wish to know the actualities of a sea-faring life, we may get a very fair idea of them in any seaside churchyard.

We lately took a survey of two such on the Yorkshire coast, and the notes which we there and then jotted down will afford some notion of the strange and touching records of such a place. Our first visit was to the churchyard of Filey, a mere village, well known to thousands of summer tourists for the noble extent of its sands, and the stern magnificence of its so-called bridge, or promontory of savage rocks running far into the sea, on which you may walk, at low-water; but which, with the advancing tide, becomes savagely grand, from the fury with which the ocean breaks over it.

In tempestuous weather this bridge is truly a bridge of sighs to mariners, and many a noble ship has been dashed to pieces upon it.

One of the first headstones which catches your eye in the little quiet churchyard of Filey bears witness to the terrors of the bridge. - "In memory of Richard Richardson, who was unfortunately drowned December 27th, 1799, aged forty-eight years :-

"By sudden wind and boisterous sea
The Lord did take my life from me;

But He to shore my body brought -
Found by my wife, who for it sought.
And here it rests in mother clay,
Until the Resurrection day.

"Also of Elizabeth, wife of the above, who died January 19th, 1833, aged eighty-nine."

This fisherman was lost on the bridge, and his wife sought his body on the bridge for eleven weeks. She was possessed with an immoveable persuasion that there some day she should find him. All through that winter, from day to day, till late in March, she followed the receding tide, and with an earnest eye explored every ledge and crevice of the rocks, every inch of the wild chaos of huge stones that storms had hurled upon the bridge, and every wilderness of slippery and tangling sea-weed. It was in vain that her neighbours told her that it was hopeless; that they assured her that she would get her death from cold; every day the solitary watcher might be seen, reckless of wind, or storm, or frost; and, at length, she did find the corpse of her husband, and saw it consigned to "mother clay."She must have had a frame as hardy as her will and strong as her affections, for she survived this strange vigil of conjugal love thirty-four years, and to the age of nearly ninety.

Near this stands a stone in memory of a master-mariner and his wife, both lost, in a severe gale, in a passage from London to Shields; another lost on a voyage to Quebec; and two brothers, one drowned in the Thames, and the other perishing at Constantinople. In the churchyard are numbers of such records. Humble as are the epitaphs on these graves, that hold no bodies in nine cases out of ten, they have generally a touch of real nature in them compared with the hacknied lines we generally find in churchyards. One tells us, that -

"From home he went, with mind most free,His livelihood to gain at sea:He ne'er returned, ' twas not to be -He ne'er returned,' twas God's decree.Oh! sad to tell, a furious waveCast him into a watery grave -A grave in motion-termed the deep."

A boat sinking, carved on the stone, symbolises his fate; while opposite a lucky old mariner has had a boat in full sail placed on his headstone, and gives God hearty thanks for having saved his life some dozen times. Two disconsolate parents address us thus:-

"Unfortunate parents tell,
That this our son a victim fell,
In steering homewards they were caught,
With gust of wind upset the boat,
There three were cast into the sea,
And he launched into eternity,
He was a son both good and kind,
May he in God a Father find."

Some very philosophic friends have inscribed the following lines, and, for a reason implied, avoided all suspicious encomium:-

"Most epitaphs are vainly wrote:The dead to speak it can't be thought;Therefore the friends of those here laidDesired that this might be said.That rose two brothers, sad to tell,That rose in health, ere night they fell-Fell victims to the foamy main;Wherefore awhile they hid remain.Friends for them sought, and much lament,At last the Lord to those, them sent.So child and widow may bemoanO'er husband's and o'er father's tomb."

But Filey churchyard has touches of love and land stories as well as of the sea. Here is one, and a recent one too. Close on your left hand, immediately as you enter the gate, there is a stone by the wall bearing the names of Elizabeth Cammish, aged twenty-one, who died August 1848; and Robert Snarr, engineer, aged thirty-one, who died March 1849. Elizabeth Cammish died of consumption. She was betrothed to Robert Snarr, whose affection for her was so strong that he continued to regard her parents as his own, and used to be much with them, and also was very often seen lingering about the grave of the lost Elizabeth. One day he was seen very early at her grave in the morning. He was about to quit the place for an engagement in Northumberland. It was a farewell visit and his last. Elizabeth's mother had said to him, "Robert, in my grief I have forgotten to pay the doctor on account of Elizabeth's illness; I must go and pay it."

"It is paid, mother,"replied Robert, for he always called her mother. The sum was upwards of twenty pounds. Elizabeth's mother frequently insisted on his receiving the money again from her, but he steadily refused. And that morning, on his return from Elizabeth's grave, the old lady said, "Robert, you are leaving us, you don't know what you may want. I will pay you this money."

"Do you wish to insult me, mother?"he replied, "Keep it, if anything happens to me, bury me with it; but in life I will never receive it. What is mine would have been Elizabeth'? if she had lived, and I have had a melancholy satisfaction in paying this debt for her." Within half-an-hour after those words were spoken, the young man was brought back a bloody corpse from the railway by which he had set out on his journey; and that money did bury him in the same grave with Elizabeth Cammish. The romance of life is not extinguished; even railways contribute to it.

But for abundant and overwhelming evidences of the dangerous life of sea-faring men, a churchyard of a town like Scarborough is the place. There the old Church of St. Mary, at the foot of the Castle Hill, exhibits as densely crowded a scene of tombstones as any graveyard of the metropotis itself. It has been the great depository of the deed there for, probably, a thousand years. When the Saxons lived on the spot, it most likely received their remains. When the Danes, under Regner Lodbrog scoured this coast, fortified Flambro' Head, and built Whitby, or llvitbege - their White-town - where Pierce Gaveston held the castle for the foolish Edward II when Robert Aske and his "Pilgrimage of Grace,"were its masters, and when Sir John Meldrum, the Parliamentary general, Was killed before it. Through all these times this thronged cemetery was receiving its generations of the dead. Yet still how many stones are mere memorials of those whose bones are scattered over the wide earth, and throng the deepest depths of the sea, "We can only indicate a few of the multitude who have perished in every imaginable region, and have mementos here. "William Allen, drowned at Charente, Nov. 1829, aged thirteen years; sad Joseph Allan, son of the above (sic), drowned by the overturning of a life-boat, Feb. 17th, 1836, aged thirteen years."

There are records of three persons drowned by the upsetting of that same life-boat. One man was drowned in Russia, another on a passage to New Brunswick, another on a passage to Mauritius. Robert Scott was drowned of Elsinore and his son off the Cape of Good Hope. William Ticklepenny suffered on Osgodby Sands, Jan. 1828. Were not Osgodby Sands always under water, and that it is added that William Ticklepenny" lived respected and died lamented,"we might, from the phraseology, have supposed that he was hanged. The whole crew and passengers of the "Selina" were wrecked on the Ram Head, drowned, and buried at Plymouth, but have a stone of memory here. There are various records of persons who were drowned in the wreck of "Betty's Delight,"near Scarborough, in 1844. Another who died at St. Domingo and is buried at Port au Prince. Some drowned in Lynn Deeps - on the passage to Dover – “on the coast of France from the dreadful effects of war" - two are there who died on board of a man-of-war - some buried at sea - some bound for London - some for Jamacia - in Yarmouth Roads - off Whitby - in a yawl in sight of the town - off Sunderland-by overturning of a boat at Flamborough Head - St. John's, New Brunswick - on the coast of Holland - off Jersey - at Batavia - in Java - coming from America - and one of coup de soleil at Calcutta.

Such, and from such varied regions the earth are the memories of sudden death which you meet with here. Few, indeed, are the "water-rats,"as Charles the Second used to call them, who can place on their head-stones so jovial a sort of even-song as this:-

"Tho' boisterous blasts and Neptunes waves,
Have tossed me to and fro,
Yet after all, by God's decree,
I 'm sheltered here below:

Where I do safe at anchor ride,
With many of our fleet,
Who once again must all set sail,
Our Saviour, Christ, to meet."

If you turn from the churchyards to the histories of these places, you are met again by the records of terrible wrecks and disasters at sea. The "Glory," of Yarmouth, perishes with all hands; "Betsy and Ann" find the waves as faithless and fickle as their namesakes find their crews on land. The "Friendship" is broken on the rocks; "Hope" slips her anchor in the imminent moment; and even the "Happy Return" finds no guarantee for ever reaching home again in so auspicious a name. You would imagine any man mad, from all that you see around you, who would think of trusting himself to the ocean : but you look in the weather- beaten faces that you meet, and there is no melancholy, no despair there. The tar is still the jolly tar; you have the cheerful Yo hevo! song out heartsomely from the port, and the sailor bound for the most treacherous coasts? or on the most dangerous service, even in quest of the useless and impracticable North-West Passage, satisfies himself with the threadbare saw, that "we must all die some time."