This article appeared in the Spring 1970 (Issue #19) edition of the Kent Archaeological Review.
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Digging up the Past (4) --
Douglas Jerrold at Reculver in 1843.
THE recent series of excavations by the CIB have been well recorded in the Review, and many readers will now be familiar with the Roman fort and its Saxon church, either as diggers or as visitors. Long before organised work began there, the curious antiquaries of the past had been around the place, sometimes to put a tenative spade in the ground, sometimes simply to buy-up the treasures turned up by the local yokels in their daily round. Many of these earlier visitors put pen to paper afterwards-fortunately, for planning an excavation today can thus take into account the reported and often unrecognised features seen by them. Less archaeological, but more entertaining, in his approach was Douglas Jerrold, a regular contributor to the early pages of "Punch" and founder of his own Illuminated Magazine" in 1843. In that year he wrote about a recent visit, and some extracts may be of interest. To those who know Reculver well over a longish period, in particular, his words will ring very true, even after a century and a quarter.
The Village of Reculvers is a choice work of antiquity. The spirit of King Ethelbert tarries there still, and lies enshrined in the sign of a public house. It would be well for all kings, could their spirits survive with such genial associations. There are some dead royalties too profitless even for a public sign...
Here on the sanded floor of King Ethelbert's hostelry, do village antiquarians often congregate. Here, at times are stories told -- stories not all unworthy of the type of Antiquarian Transactions -- of fibulae, talked of as 'buckles,' and other tangible bits of Roman history. Here, too, have we heard of a wonderful horseshoe, picked up by Joe Squellins; a shoe, as the finder averred, as old as the world. Poor Joe! What was his reward? It may be a pint of ale for that inestimable piece of iron! And yet he was a working antiquarian. Joe Squellins had within him the unchristened elements of FSA.
The sea had spared something of the old Churchyard; although it has torn open the sad sanctity of the grave, and reveals to the day, corpse upon corpse-layers of the dead, thickly, closely packed body upon body. A lateral view of rows of skeletons . . . for a moment staggers the mind with this inward peep of the grave. We see at once the close dark prison of the churchyard, and our breath comes heavily and we shudder. It is only for a moment. There is a lark singing over our head-a mile upward in the blue heaven-singing like a freed soul; we look again and smile serenely at the bones of what was Man.
This "lateral view" doesn't happen now, thanks to the stone apron between the church and the beach, but a mini-version was visible after the storm-surge of 1953, when plenty of bones were exposed for a short time. Now Jerrold continues in full Victorian journalistic spate:
Many of our gentlecountrymen, fellow Metropolitans, who once a year wriggle out from the slit of their tills to give the immortal essence sea air, make a pilgrimage to the Reculvers; this Golgotha, we have noticed it, has to them especial attractions. Many are the mortal relics, borne away to decorate a London chimney piece. Many a skeleton gives up its rib, its ulna, two or three old vertebrae or some such gimcrack to the London visitor for a London ornament. Present the same man with a bone from a London hospital, and he would hold the act abominable, irreligiously presumptuous. But time has "silvered over" the bone from the Reculvers; has cleansed it from the taint of mortality; has merged the loathsomeness in the curiosity; for Time turns even the worst of horrors to the broadest of jests...
One day wandering near the open graveyard we met a boy carrying away with exulting looks a skull in perfect preservation. He was a London boy, and looked rich indeed with his treasure.
'What have you got there?' we asked.
'A man's head -- a skull,' was the answer.
'And what can you possibly do with a skull?'
'Take it to London.'
Jerrold had difficulty in finding out what the lad was going to do with it, but after a time he tried persuasion.
'Come, here's sixpence. Now what will you do with it?'
The boy took the coin -- grinned -- hugged himself, hugging the skull the closer, and said very briskly,
'Make a money box of it!'
Jerrold of course had to draw a moral from his encounter, and did so with gusto, following up his sarcastic reference to the Metropolitans wriggling out from their till-slits.
A strange thought for a child. And yet, mused we, as we strolled away, how many of us, with nature beneficent and smiling on all sides -- how many of us think of nothing so much as hoarding sixpences -- yea, hoarding them even in the very jaws of Death.