What! I was writing this blog page on this unique demised custom…then it was revived! Good news for this is perhaps strangest of demised customs was the annual inspection of the Gibson Tomb at Sutton in Surrey held every 12th August. A record in the charities reads:
“In the will of Mrs Elizabeth Gibson, spinster, dated 7 December 1786 “ I give the sum of £500 four percent Bank Annuities unto the Minister and Churchwardens (for the time being) of the said Parish of Sutton in the County of Surrey, in trust, to pay and apply the interest to the future repair of the said monument and vault as often as need or occasion shall require; and in the meantime I direct the interest of the said £500 to be laid out in the purchase of shoes and stockings for the poor people and children of the said Parish at the discretion of the Ministers and Churchwardens for the time being.
Mrs Mary Gibson by her last Will gave and bequeathed to the Minister and Churchwardens, for the time being, of the Parish of Sutton in the County of Surrey; £500 three per cent consolidated Bank Annuities on trust to be applied as follows: Five pounds to the Minister of Sutton for the time being for ever for preaching a sermon on the twelfth of August every year. Five pounds to be distributed that day at Church to the poor in every year by the Churchwardens. One pound to be paid to the Clerk of the said parish for the time being on that day in every year. Four pounds to be divided between the Churchwardens on that day in every year, on condition that the said Churchwardens do attend on the said twelfth of August in every year and survey and examine the monument and family vault of the Gibsons, and if any reparations or amendments are wanting that they do apply and certify the same to the Governors and Guardians of Christ’s Hospital, and if they should refuse or neglect to repair and amend the aforesaid monument within the limited time that the said Churchwardens of Sutton for the time being give notice of such refusal or neglect to the Governors and Guardians of the Foundling Hospital. October 1793, Giles Hatch, Rector. Richard Mugridge, Thomas Young, Churchwardens.”
Dying to have a look!
From a simple bequest developed a ceremony with much pomp and circumstance. A sermon would be preached on the day. On the allotted day of 12th August the Vicar would attend in full vestments accompanied with a choirboy who held the key upon a cushion. At the tomb would often be a small group of curious bystanders all hoping to get a look at this curious custom. The door was unlocked and the attendees poured in!
Then it was all change, the sermon was the first to go and then the new appointment of a rector of the church in 1985 appeared to cement its fate forever. He believed it was a rather ‘undignified side-show’ and ceased the annual inspection, although in keeping with the bequest the tomb was still inspected for damage except it was not publicised. The custom survived albeit in a less spectacular fashion – however it survived. Then his inheritor went further and refused point blank to inspect claiming it was unsafe- as a result the tomb has laid unopened and uninspected for over 10 years. Sadly not event Christ’s School is interested anymore and so the custom is became another victim of health and safety culture! The event even reached the national newspapers with the Independent in 1994 taking up the mantle but the rector wouldn’t budge. They noted:
“He advanced several reasons for the ban: that questions had been asked about the pagan style of the ceremony; that it was not in keeping with the living church; that Mary Gibson would not have liked it; and that it was not good for the church to be ‘involved in anything which can seem queer’.
But his arguments failed to satisfy the Gibson camp which is outraged. They appealed to the Folklore Society, to experts on British burial, and finally to the Archbishop of Canterbury. To no avail. Mr Hazelhurst continued to exclude the public.
The torch-bearer for the Mary Gibson fan club is Millicent Hamilton Bradbury, 79, an amateur historian from Hammersmith, west London, who has spent 15 years researching the family’s obscure history. ‘We were very grieved,’ she said.
Mr Hazlehurst is unrepentant. ‘We had comments from people saying if we believed in the resurrection it seemed rather funny we were paying so much attention to these coffins in the tomb. The way crowds of people came with children to look at the coffins was rather macabre, and didn’t speak to the living faith.’
However, a ray of hope has appeared for Mrs Hamilton Bradbury with the news that Mr Hazlehurst is leaving. ‘You can imagine,’ she confided gleefully, ‘we shall be getting on to the next rector at once]”
It may have worked, for then perhaps out of the blue in 2015 the church returned to their inspection, Wednesday the 12th at 1pm. Large crowds had assembled outside the church. The rector and church wardens carried the bible aloft accompanied by a choir boy with the key on a cushion. A service was held around the mausoleum remembering Mary and reading her will. Then the key was inserted into the lock, the door opened and fortunately little evidence of damage was there! The custom was reborn…without the scrum of the public joining in it can be noted. It just goes to show no calendar custom can be lost forever…2015 looks like a great year for the revival!