While out scouting at locations for a forthcoming episode of the Bald Explorer my friend and fellow researcher Jimmy and I found ourselves in a cemetery. This is not usual for history enthusiasts like us. It is always interesting to read the names of those that have passed before us and on occasions attempt to find out more about them from old post office directories and town listings. The reason we were in this particular grave yard in Petworth, West Sussex, was to see a curious oblong shaped wall that resembled the remains of a mortuary chapel. We had been scanning the satellite photographs freely available on the Internet while comparing them to old maps from the 19th Century to see what had changed over the years and this had stuck as interesting.
We wondered what the story was behind the chapel and why there was only the rectangular wall of its footings left. We marked it down as one of the things to check out when we next popped over to the old rural market town for further research. As it happens, it wasn’t what we thought. Nothing unusual there, but the mystery deepened. Looking at the low walls and the small square rusty holes sunk into it, we could see that this was a very grand enclosed grave, probably a large family affair. Unfortunately, there was no name, or anything discernible to read and it been abandoned long ago. At one time, iron railings would have surrounded it and at the east end we deduced had been a pair of gates, the recces for the hinges could clearly be observed. No doubt the railings and gates had been removed during the 1940’s as part of the wartime requirement for metal and these historic relics might very well have been used to build parts of tanks, planes or weapons.
But who could this site have been for, we wondered? The Earl of Egremont was the big name that sprung to mind, but discounted almost immediately because as the owner of Petworth House in the 18th Century and with a large number of estates up and down the country, it seemed most unlikely that he would be buried in a small and otherwise parochial cemetery. I was pretty certain that a character of his magnitude and importance would have had a private burial ground attached to the large and impressive stately home. There is an old family chapel in there after all.
But then, that evening, I met Leigh Lawson, author of a book about the Rev Thomas Sockett who ran the Petworth Emigration Committee which in the early 19th century, with the approval and help of George O’Brien Wyndham, the third Earl of Egremont and effectively Lord of Petworth, sent 1800 of the poorest members of the community in and around Petworth and other parts of Sussex to Canada for a fresh start and a new life. She informed me that this family grave was indeed. I have to say that I am appalled at the state in which the people of Petworth over the past 180 years have allowed it to become.
The third Earl, more than any other of the various families that had lived in the manor and palatial house of Petworth, had generously assisted the inhabitants of the town. He had engaged more workers that he really required, set up charities to assist the poor and gave the town an enormous amount of money to building the necessary schools, prisons, town halls and other public requirements.
It maybe 175 years since his death, but you would think that the up keep of a small area for memory of his name wouldn’t have been much to ask considering all he did to put Petworth on the map and now bring a not insignificant tourist trade to the town.
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