The lonesome grave of a travelling labourer

As a native of Lancashire, I always return to my hometown of Preston to visit my family at Christmas, and one bright Sunday morning I visited the nearby village of Ribchester, probably best known as an old Roman fort. I often visited this place as a child, as there was (and still is) an excellent children’s playground there. We would also inevitably visit the ruins of the Roman bath house, which were not fenced off and to a small child presented an exciting labyrinth of tumbled stones and low walls to clamber over. In Roman times, Ribchester was called Bremetenacum Veteranorum – a possible translation of this is “the hilltop settlement of the veterans.” Some ruins of the fort, including the bath house and granaries, can still be seen today, and many buildings in the village are built with reused Roman stones and columns.

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Ruins of Ribchester’s Roman granaries

Ribchester is home to the church of St Wilfrid, an ancient church believed to have been founded by St Wilfrid himself in the 7th Century. St Wilfrid, Bishop of Ripon and Archbishop of York, travelled extensively across the north of England, founding churches and monasteries. It is possible that a church already existed when St Wilfrid came to Ribchester, but it is thought that St Wilfrid founded the first stone church on the site. This building was subsquently improved and enlarged between the 11th and 16th centuries.

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St Wilfrid’s is surrounded by a large churchyard, which contains a number of gravestones surviving from pre-Victorian times. It was while exploring and photographing this churchyard, making the most of the beautiful winter sunlight, that I came across an old headstone standing apart from the others.

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At first glimpse, it’s a fairly ordinary 18th Century headstone. However, when I crouched down to read the inscription, still well-preserved after so many years, I found that it told rather a sad and poignant story.

Here lieth the body of
Thos. Greenwood who
died May 24 AD 1776
In ye 52 year of his age
Honest, industrious
seeming still content
Nor did repine at what
he underwent
His transient life was
with hard labour fill’d
And working in a
marle pit was kill’d.

So, who was this man? Parish records show that a “Thos. Greenwood” of Dilworth (a nearby township, now part of the village of Longridge) was buried at St Wilfrid’s on 26th May 1776. Parish records show a Thomas Greenwood, son of another Thomas Greenwood, was baptised in Colne – close to Pendle Hill on the other side of the Ribble Valley – on 13th September 1724. There is no way of telling if this is the same Thomas Greenwood as the one buried at Ribchester but the dates of the records seem to match up fairly well, if we assume that “in ye 52 year of his age” means that Thomas was 51 when he died.

Records show that Greenwood was a common name in the Ribchester area at the time of Thomas’ death, so it is possible that Thomas had relatives in the parish of St Wilfrid’s. As an itinerant worker it is unlikely that Thomas was a wealthy man, so it is likely that his headstone was paid for by others, perhaps relatives or friends from Ribchester. Certainly the little rhyme on his headstone suggests that he was held in some regard, the eulogy painting him as a noble, tragic figure.

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The nature of Thomas’ death seems clear – he died in what we’d now call a workplace accident.  But where was he working?  His grave states that “working in a marle pit was kill’d” – a marle, or marl, pit was a deep pit dug to extract marl from the ground.  Marl, a mixture of clay and calcium carbonate, was a common form of fertiliser used for many centuries.  The ground around Ribchester is rich in clay and limestone, exactly the kind of place, geologically-speaking, for marl to be extracted.

Marl was greatly valued as a fertiliser and the remains of marl pits, now generally filled with water and appearing as ponds, can be found all over England.  The clay present in the ground means that water is slow to drain away from the site and as many marl pits were located on farmland, close to where the marl would be used as fertiliser, farmers found the ponds left behind by the pits as a valuable source of drinking water for livestock.  This tendency of marl pits to fill with water perhaps also points us to how poor Thomas Greenwood met his death – did he slip and fall, and meet a muddy end in a pit left in a dangerous state by heavy rainfall?

An 18th Century marl pit near Mawdesley, west Lancashire (image by Gary Rogers on Geograph.org, shared under the Creative Commons Licence)
An 18th Century marl pit near Mawdesley, west Lancashire, now filled with water (image by Gary Rogers on Geograph.org, shared under the Creative Commons Licence)

What would it have been like for Thomas Greenwood and other men who worked in marl pits?  A piece about marl pits in Cheshire describes how a group of five or six men would dig marl from a pit over a period of about two weeks, after which there would be much celebration and merry-making locally.  A farmers’ guide published in America in the early 19th Century describes some of the challenges faced by those digging marl – the clay-rich ground making digging extremely hard work, with clay sticking to the shovels; the importance of keeping pits well drained; and the necessity of ensuring that the pits were dug in such a way as to avoid the pit walls from collapsing.  Digging marl was clearly a tough task that was not to be approached lightly.

Did Thomas travel from place to place digging marl, or was he also involved in other tough, physical work in the Ribble Valley?  Once marl was spread on fields as fertiliser, its effects were long-lasting – perhaps about twelve years – so demand for marl would not necessarily have been constant.  The upper body strength required to dig marl also lends itself well to other jobs.  There is a long history of quarrying in the Ribble Valley and East Lancashire – in the nineteenth century stone was quarried in large amounts at Longridge Fell (close to Thomas’ last abode at Dilworth), with Longridge stone being used to build – amongst others – the docks at Liverpool and town halls in Preston and Lancaster.  Quarrying also took place in Clitheroe and Rossendale, and at other sites further afield in Lancashire.  Thomas could well have been involved in quarrying as well as digging marl.

The “transient life with hard labour fill’d” that Thomas led is another pointer that could suggest that some of his work might have involved quarrying. Before the Industrial Revolution quarrying in Lancashire was carried out on a relatively small scale, with most stone being quarried to meet local demand. This “on-demand” feature of quarrying would probably have created a situation where quarry workers would travel around the area, moving to where the work was and moving on when a job was finished. Was this how Thomas lived his life, moving between quarrying and marling jobs in rural Lancashire?

All of this is speculation, of course. How much can we really know about a person, when scant records only tell us when they were baptised and when they were buried? It is possible that no other written records of Thomas Greenwood exist or survive. The only thing we know for definite is the record of his burial at St Wilfrid’s. The Thomas Greenwood baptised in Colne in 1724 may have been someone else altogether – we just don’t know.

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Interestingly this is one of the few older gravestones that remains in the churchyard.  If at some point old gravestones were removed (this is likely, as old graves were often reused), it’s possible that Thomas’ gravestone was kept because of its poignant, rhyming eulogy.

Only a few gravestones remain in the oldest part of the churchyard
Only a few gravestones remain in the oldest part of the churchyard

It’s humbling to think that if this headstone with its rhyming eulogy had never been created, or had been disposed of, Thomas Greenwood would be completely forgotten, anonymous bones in an unmarked grave. Research and speculation paints a vague but poignant story of a hard life and a sad death. The presence of the gravestone points to the likelihood that someone cared enough about Thomas to erect a memorial and write a eulogy. The continued existence of the gravestone suggests that at some stage, someone might have been moved enough by the story it told to leave it in place.

An ordinary gravestone: the stories it can tell, or inspire.

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An earlier version of this article appeared on Historical Trinkets on 6th January 2013.  Thank you to all those who commented on that post and cleared up my confusion about marl pits!


References and further reading

Burials at St Wilfrid in the Parish of Ribchester, 1773-1782 http://www.lan-opc.org.uk/Ribchester/stwilfrid/burials_1773-1782.html

Baptisms at St Bartholomew in the Parish of Colne, 1722-1726 http://www.lan-opc.org.uk/Colne/stbartholomew/baptisms_1722-1726.html

Edmund Ruffin – A farmer’s register, a monthly publication devoted to the improvement of the practice, Vol. 11, 1835, accessed via Google Books

The marl pits around the Upton area http://www.historyofuptonbychester.org.uk/marlpits.html

Emma Jeffery – The Marl Pits of West Sussex, West Sussex Record Office Tithes Maps Project, 2008 http://peninsulapartnership.org.uk/abd/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/The-Marl-Pits-of-West-Sussex-by-Emma-Jeffery.pdf (PDF)

6 Comments on “The lonesome grave of a travelling labourer

  1. What a poignant post! Far more personal-feeling than most posts about cemeteries (as wonderful as those are too). Of course attempting to reconstruct a past from minimal and possibly not even relevant data is always a wonky proposition, but any attempts do make a difference as they bring life to long past centuries. Thank you!

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  2. It brought the cemetery alive for a bit and brought a bit of attention to Thomas; whichever one. Enjoyed it Thank you from me also.

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  3. How very interesting, Caroline! As you say, Thomas’s life might have been forgotten but for this one thoughtful memorial. Graveyards are so rich in untold stories. I must also tell you that one of my ancestors – a great-great uncle, I think – is said to have drowned in a marl pit, close to my grandad’s home in Shropshire. I knew what marl pits were for, but that link you included gives a lot more information about them that I didn’t know. Another fascinating post, and thank you! 🙂

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  4. Really enjoyed this one, the research behind your posts never fails to impress. Indeed, if not for the eloquent words on the tombstone, this Mr. Greenwood may have been forgotten forever. Great post.

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  5. How poignant a story. It makes one wonder how many others might be buried there whose gravestones are, indeed, lost to time or need for space. It also brings an awareness of how transient our own lives are.

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