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The Burial of Joseph Ramsey of Akenham

One attends a funeral with a certain level of expectation as to how the event will proceed, but nothing could prepare anyone for the events of the funeral of Joseph Ramsey, age 2, which took place at Akenham on 23 August 1878.  Not that you would initially know that this child was buried on this day as the parish register only records two burials in 1878

Akenham in the 1870s appeared to be a small and peaceful Suffolk parish, but it was home to one of the great ecclesiastical scandals of the 19th century.  A scandal which went well beyond the parish boundaries, even the county boundaries, and occupied the national press for over a year culminating in a High Court case and a change in the law!  Something which is reflected in the entry in the above burial register.

Stirrings of Discontent

Extract from East Suffolk Illustrated, published 1908/9 showing Akenham church

Peace in the parish was disturbed following the appointment of Rev George Drury as rector of Claydon and Akenham in 1846. He was of the High Church and introduced candles, a cross on the altar at Claydon, vestments, daily communion and incense none of which went down well with the local Protestant parishioners and resulted in the Bishop of Norwich intervening.  All the items he introduced were actually illegal at the time and other priests had been prosecuted, and some imprisoned, for similar actions.

Extract from East Suffolk Illustrated, published 1908/9 showing Claydon church

Rev Drury also did not endear himself to his Protestant congregation with the establishment of two religious communities.  First a Benedictine community for men led by his friend Joseph Leycester Lyne, known as Father Ignatius, at Claydon Rectory in 1863.  Father Ignatius preached Hell-fire and extreme Catholic teachings from the pulpit and attracted people to the church from far and wide; some to worship and others to protest resulting in the services turning into scenes of riot, protest and violence.  Again the Bishop of Norwich had to intervene and Father Ignatius was banned from preaching in any churches in his Diocese in 1864.  Undeterred in his hopes for a monastic revival Rev Drury founded a convent of Benedictine nuns in Claydon in 1866 and this survived through to 1882.  The situation however continued to deteriorate and Rev Drury, who also preferred the title of Father, was accused of keeping a harem.  Tensions were running high in the peaceful Suffolk village to such an extent that on one occasion a mob broke into the convent and ‘rescued’ one of the nuns who was then conveyed to the lunatic asylum on her father’s orders and remained there until his death.  Rev Drury was quite clearly not at peace with his congregation as he had built a 9ft wall around the rectory!

Tensions in the village continued to rise when the parishioners elected as churchwarden Mr Smith of Rise Hall, a local landowner and a nonconformist.  Rev Drury obviously refused to recognise the election of a non member of the Church of England congregation despite the Bishop of Norwich’s opinion on the matter.  The situation turned into a Mexican Standoff with Rev Drury refusing to recognise Mr Smith as warden and hand over the keys of the church and from Mr Smith and the parishioners’ point of view his actions only served to further illustrate the stubbornness of the incumbent and his refusal to listen to the villagers.  The funeral of August 1878 was the final straw which brought the tensions in Akenham to a very explosive head.

The Day of the Funeral

Akenham Hall (K489/2/3)

Joseph Ramsey was the son of  Edward Ramsey a Baptist employee of Mr Gooding (a nonconformist) of Akenham Hall; and as such Joseph had not been baptised as they advocated adult baptism as opposed to infant baptism. In the eyes of the Church of England the only difference this should have made was that Rev Drury was not allowed to read the burial service from the Book of Common Prayer over the coffin, but he would have been expected to accompany the coffin to the burial site and to be present at the interment.

What exactly happened at the burial of Joseph Ramsey is unclear but all the evidence agrees that the coffin arrived accompanied by Rev Wickham Tozer, a Congregational minster from Ipswich, Mr Smith, and Mr Gooding (well-to-do nonconformists) and about 20-30 mourners. This was an unusually large number of mourners for the burial of an infant of a working-class family, as infant mortality was common place at the time.  On arriving at the churchyard Rev Tozer attempted to hold a service at the edge of the field owned by Mr Smith of Rise Hall and situated across the track from the

Rise Hall, Akenham, 1999 (K681/1/2/15)

churchyard gate.  Whilst this service was in progress it is stated that Rev Drury approached the group to take charge of the coffin and accompany it to the grave, but the mourners counter claimed that he attempted to break up the service.  Both sides agreed that ‘firm words were spoken’ with the Rev Tozer waving a fist in the face of Rev Drury and that the parents of Joseph Ramsey implored Rev Tozer to ignore Rev Drury and continue with the service.  This just resulted in Rev Drury locking the churchyard gate and ‘storming off’ without burying the child.

With the churchyard gate locked to them the assembled mourners passed the coffin through the hedge and buried it without any form of service in the churchyard. Harsh as this may sound it was illegal for Drury to read the burial service over an unbaptised child, but it was also illegal for a nonconformist minister to read a burial service in a churchyard.  This left nonconformists, who at the time had little option than to be buried in a parish churchyard, caught between a rock and a hard place and unable to receive burial rites.  With no Baptist chapel in Akenham or Claydon and no Baptist minister there was no chance of Joseph Ramsey having a Baptist burial service in a chapel prior to burial in the churchyard.  It was quite common at the time for a nonconformist service to be held in the home of a member of the church so the holding of a service in the open air opposite the churchyard is both unusual and contentious.  Looking at the events and facts almost 140 years later it looks as if the nonconformists who gathered there on the 23 August 1878 were setting up Rev Drury for a fall.  The villagers knew the type of man he was, High Church and dogmatic, and probably had a good idea as to how he would react to this sort of provocation.

The Aftermath

The events of this ‘interesting and unusual’ burial however did not stop with the burial of Joseph Ramsey as a detailed account of the incident appeared in the East Anglian Daily Times [EADT] the following Monday under the heading

‘Burial Scandal at Akenham’

The report accused Drury of trying to prevent a Christian burial and of having stated

‘your religious convictions… and feelings have nothing to do with it – your proceedings are altogether wrong and I must teach my parishioners that I cannot sanction them’

He was also accused of stating that Joseph was not a Christian and of storming off when Rev Wickham Tozer refused to shorten his service. The article concluded with the comment

‘We leave the facts to tell their own tale, reminding our readers that this staunch upholder of ecclesiastical law is already under admonition from his own Bishop for lawless proceedings in his own church’

The article brought about an instant reaction with the EADT being bombarded with letters about the funeral and the tensions within the parish.  The articles proceeded to include comment as to Rev Drury’s ‘style’ of High Church along with hints and innuendos about the convent. His whole character came into question with the issue that he has been fined for assaulting someone with a red-hot poker and that he had thrown water over another person being brought in to play.  Even his very clothing was subjected to comment with the note that he wore ‘peculiar toggery’.

It however emerged in due course that the original report has been written by none other than the Rev Wickham Tozer and that some of the letters attacking Rev Drury came from people directly involved with the funeral. Rev Drury did not however take this ‘assault’ on his character lying down as he sued Frederick Wilson the editor and owner of the EADT for libel and won!  Financially it was a shallow victory of just 40s damages plus costs but his friends and supporters rallied round and Rev Drury is reported as having been given a hero’s welcome on his return to his parish.  Clearly not everyone was as odds with the style of this clergyman

The trial in the High Court also unearthed a few odd facts about the day of the burial:

1          Rev Wickham Tozer was not the Ramsey’s minister
2          Rev Tozer had not met the Ramseys before the day of Joseph’s burial
3          Rev Tozer was asked by Mr Smith and Mr Gooding [the two leading landowners and nonconformists in Akenham] to conduct the impromptu service
4          Mr Smith and Mr Gooding were related to the editor of the Christian World magazine who picked up the Akenham story and widely ‘promoted’ it
5          Mr Smith and Mr Gooding had asked Rev Tozer to compile the written account of the proceedings, and had been given the right of correcting the final draft which found its way to the EADT

The more you investigate the more it seems that a group of disgruntled villagers set out to discredit Rev Drury with whom they were in dispute and that his behaviour played straight into their hands. Rev Drury might have won the High Court case, but a national fund was set up to pay Frederick Wilson’s costs of £1,000.  The sum was actually exceeded and some of the money raised went towards the provision of a headstone for Joseph Ramsey.

This strange incident from a sleepy Suffolk parish had a far reaching impact in that it is considered that it led directly to the passing of the Burial Laws Amendment Act of 1880.  Even more surprisingly Rev Drury remained at Claydon and Akenham until his death in 1895 having served the parishes for 39 years! And yes, he is buried at Claydon.

He is described in the Cambridge Alumni list as

“A strong ritualist, well known throughout the diocese for the uncompromising advocacy of his opinions. Established a Sisterhood at Claydon which caused much excitement. In 1878 was successful in an action for libel arising out of the burial of an unbaptised child in Akenham churchyard. Improved the church, erecting with his own hands a stone pulpit and some stained glass; rebuilt the chancel from his own designs.”

Suggested Further Reading

If you would like to pursue this strange case in more detail the following may be of interest:

East Anglian Daily Times – available at Ipswich Record Office
The Akenham Burial Case by Ronald Fletcher
In a Country Churchyard by Ronald Fletcher [Chapter 4 – A National Scandal: The Akenham Burial Case]

Both books are available for loan via the Suffolk Library Service