A LACEMAKERS TOMBSTONE IN NEWPORT PAGNELL CHURCHYARD
A broken ledger slab with a lengthy inscription in Newport Pagnell churchyard caught my eye one morning in 1994. I recalled being shown this slab as a child when it was still on top of the fine table tomb on which it had been placed in 1788. I was told, by my grandmother, that the epitaph was by the Olney poet William Cowper but that no-one now knew who Thomas Abbott Hamilton was.
The inscription reads:
Beneath this Stone
ARE DEPOSITED THE REMAINS
THO'S ABBOTT HAMILTON
who departed this Life
July 7th 1788
IN THE THIRTY SECOND YEAR OF HIS AGE
Pause here and think, a monitory rhime
Demands one moment of thy fleeting time
Consult Life's silent clock, thy bounding vein
Seems to say - Health here has long to reign
Hast thou the vigour of thy youth? An eye
That beams to delight? A heart untaught to sigh?
Yet fear. Youth oft times, healthful and at ease
Anticipates, a day it never sees
And many a tomb, like HAMILTON'S aloud
Exclaims, Prepare thee for an early shroud
Here also is interred
the Body of
Father of THO'S ABBOTT HAMILTON
Who died December 17th 1782
Aged 64 Years
ANN MARY AND CATHERINE BARRINGER
Daughters of John Hamilton
who died in their infancy
A little research has revealed that Thomas was a lace dealer in Newport Pagnell which was a centre of the lace trade. Being a lace dealer is of course no great claim to fame, there were many lace merchants in the town at the time, but his tombstone is now the only surviving memorial to a lace dealer in the churchyard. In addition the epitaph by the Olney Poet William Cowper, is I believe is the only known epitaph by Cowper apart from two at Weston Underwood which were for pet dogs.
We know very little else about Thomas Abbott Hamilton except that his sister Ann married the Revd Samuel Greatheed, who was an assistant to the Revd William Bull at the Newport Pagnell Theological College and later a Minister at Woburn. William Cowper was a great friend of William Bull and may have known Thomas or his brother in law through his connections with the College.
Thomas' parents were John and Sarah Hamilton, his father also a lace merchant died in 1782 and was buried in the churchyard with two of his daughters who had died in their infancy. When Thomas died he was buried in the same grave as his father and two young sisters and the fine tomb with its unique inscription was then placed over it.
In the September shortly after his death Thomas' sister Ann aged 30, married the Revd Samuel Greatheed. John Hamilton’s widow kept a Millinery and Haberdashery shop in the town and when she retired in 1791 the sale of her stock took place at the Saracen's Head Inn. Mrs Hamilton must have died soon after this and was followed in 1807 by her daughter Ann Greatheed.
Ann's executors were William Hamilton, Mary Marinellan widow (nee Hamilton) and James Abbott Hamilton, gent, all of Sanquhar, Dumfries. They were the only surviving children of Robert Hamilton late of Sanquhar, Gent., who was the nephew of and devisee of John Hamilton late of NP, Lace Merchant, deceased and was the cousin and heir of Ann Greatheed deceased, late Ann Hamilton spinster who was sister and heir of Thomas Abbott Hamilton.
Well how did Thomas Hamilton's fine tomb disappear and only part of it a broken ledger slab on a crumbling base of loose stone rubble survive.
In the 1950's the churchyard contained many old memorials some leaning with the weight of their years and partly illegible due to the growth of algae. The churchyard had been closed almost a century earlier on the 1st March 1861 but despite this was well maintained, as was the new cemetery which had been opened as an extension for burials in 1861.
By the 1960's both the old churchyard and the cemetery had become somewhat overgrown and their maintenance an embarrassment. The Newport Pagnell Urban District Council were concerned about the state of the churchyard and wishing to see it tidied up used as a public open space, discussed the problem with the P.C.C. in June and October 1964. The council proposed that it should take over the maintenance of the churchyard and suggested that the church grant a license to it for the maintenance of the churchyard under the Open Spaces Act of 1902. The church authorities agreed and after further discussion the council suggested the removal of some headstones in order, as their surveyor advised, to make it easier to cut the grass.
The license (for 50 years) was granted on the 10th of March 1966. It was agreed that the Council should record and remove most of the stones in the churchyard but that certain important stones should be retained. In 1967 a company called Hunts Land Services were contracted by the Council for the removal of the stones, the levelling of the churchyard and reseeding with grass. Local people that remember the work taking place say that all the stones were removed and the ground levelled by JCB and then ploughed over before the reseeding.
Only nineteen stones were left. The table tombs were smashed up and the decorative end panels used as hardcore to create plinths no more than 30cm high for the ledger slabs, of which certainly that of Thomas Abbott Hamilton was not placed over the correct grave. Fortunately the Hamilton ledger slab survived this drastic reorganisation of the churchyard in 1967 but was re-laid (not over the grave) on an insubstantial base which has collapsed and the stone has been broken into two pieces longitudinally. Over the years the inscription has become less clear.
The original tomb and base
Broken and on the wrong base
Following my discovery in 1994 I brought the problem to the attention of the Newport Pagnell Historical Society and on their behalf have sought to get the stone repaired and re-laid on a more substantial base.
I approached H.W.Mason and Sons the oldest established firm of stonemasons and undertakers in the town and the Milton Keynes area. I received a lot of support from Roy Mason who provided the stone for the base free of charge. The Newport Pagnell P.C.C. covered the cost of obtaining the faculty for removing, repairing and replacing the stone. Milton Keynes Borough Council covered the cost of lifting and repairing the stone which was laid on a new base near the north-east corner of the church where it will be more easily accessible to visitors.
On behalf of the Historical Society I raised the cost (estimated at £1028.13) of the restoration of the inscription consisting of 651 letters which need to be cleaned out and recut where necessary. Finance for this was kindly provided by the following bodies:
The Trustees of the Harry Middleton Gift, £400, the Francis Coales Charitable Foundation £300, the Newport Pagnell Lace Circle £150, the Buckinghamshire Archaeological Society have contributed £25 and the Cowper Museum at Olney £50 and a personal contribution of from the Chairman of the Lace Guild.
The work was carried out in 1996; a very worthwhile project since it preserved part of our local heritage and makes people more aware of the former importance of the town as the centre of the local lace making industry. The Cowper Museum at Olney informs its visitors about the stone and the unique inscription by Cowper and no doubt some of the many tourists that visit there will include Newport Pagnell in their itinerary.
Roy Mason lays the cement
before applying the new slab
The new slab in its final position
Hopefully Milton Keynes Council may provide an information panel near the stone informing interested visitors of the importance of Newport Pagnell as the centre of the Lace Trade in the 17th and 18th centuries and the importance of the epitaph by William Cowper.