Some years ago the following tale was told by Geoffrey Hastings about a surprise find whilst heating engineers were attempting to install another heating system. A similar story told some time after by heating engineers at Branston . Lincs.
The contractors found it necessary to lift a large stone slab in the chancel, and by doing so gained an experience they would long remember.
It was a cold winters morning when I arrived at Gedney situated but a few miles from Wisbech where Fen gives way to Marshland. Referred to by many as a Young Cathedral the church was built mainly during the 14th and 15th centuries. It has a magnificent clerestory with 12 three light windows on each side which lend a bright airy cathedral-like atmosphere to the interior.
|However it was not to admire beautiful architecture which had compelled me to leave a nice warm bed prematurely ; for the contractors, having lifted the slab in the chancel, discovered immediately beneath a brick shaft which descended some 10 to 12 feet below. At the bottom and to one side of this shaft the bricks appeared to be rather new compared to the rest.|
After consultation with the vicar, the Rev.R.S.Bennett, it was decided to investigate what lay beyond; the wall or the grave? So one or two bricks were removed.
At first the vault, for such it was, appeared to be empty but after the removal of more bricks , and with the aid of torches, it was found to contain a single lead coffin. The outer wooden shell had rotted away at the sides and ends leaving the lead inner exposed.
|The aperture was enlarged to allow bodily access (1) and the vault was found to be approximately 16ft x 8ft x 4ft high with an arched roof. (Barrel vaulted). The solitary coffin was placed here in the year 1844; and details on the coffin plate coincided with a memorial on the wall in the chancel. It is to the wife of John Bayfield Millington a lay preacher in the parish of Gedney who died on the 23rd day of April, 1844, aged 40.|
The reason John does not rest beside his wife in this vault could be that shortly after the coffin was lowered it was forbidden to bury bodies inside a church. It would certainly account for the fact that only this solitary coffin occupies an otherwise empty vault. Other previous burials had been made in this vault which are evident by an impression in the floor of a brass which has unfortunately been removed.(stolen) (2)
|By the time I had arrived at the church
a further hole had been made in the brick shaft directly
opposite the first and whereas the first vault was almost
empty and completely dry, not so the second one. Through
the hole which was made in the wall it was possible, by
lowering an electric light into the vault to see it was
completely full. Coffins lay packed side by side and the
seepage water lay almost up to the coffin lids, many of
which had either burst or rotted completely away
revealing their grisly contents above and below the water.
The entrance to this vault was walled much thicker than the first and it was obvious this one would have remained sealed for several years. By the nature of the brickwork and plastering (3) I believe it was the custom here at Gedney to use these two chancel vaults turn and turn about, one being sealed and left until the other was full. When both were full then the earliest one would be cleared out (4) and the other sealed, and, as only people of great importance were buried in the chancel, this emptying would only have to be carried out every 150 to 200 years. This estimate is, of course, on the assumption that the death rate is not accelerated by plague, when the time could be much shorter.
Whilst in this vault I became aware , which is not surprising, of a rather nauseating smell, but I was assured by the vicar that this was not prevalent when the vaults were first opened, (5) the air in the vaults being as fresh as in the chancel above. An authority informs me this is often the case with underground vaults and is due to the disturbance of both the air pressure and the water.
On ascending I reflected how many other churches had similar vaults situated beneath their chancels which time has erased from the memory of man and, like Gedney, will one day be discovered by contractors carrying out renovations. My thoughts turned also to the resurrectionists and grave robbers of a bygone age; and my recent experience convinced me that they earned every penny of their ill-gotten gains.
In the vaults I was concerned with the job of recording everything before me. Now that I was again in the chancel I became aware that this was Gods house, and a strong feeling of guilt overcame me at having intruded into something very private and personal between these poor wretches and God alone.
Closing the wicket door of the south porch my gaze caught the latin inscription in raised letters above.
Peace to the Church and all who dwell
This is your home.
Pondering on this I made my way home. The feeling of guilt was with me stronger than ever. (6)
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