Hannah and her sisters: faded gravestone gives up its secrets

SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT: This week, using just fragments of documentary evidence, DAVID MORGAN has managed to piece together a wealthy family’s history going back to the revolutionary age of the 18th Century

Historic building: Croydon Parish Church, as it was then known, in the mid-1800s

Although the stone is worn smooth by the elements, and the letters etched into it have lost much of their distinctive edge, another of the old gravestones set into the paths in the grounds of Croydon Minster has yielded up some of its secrets.

On the south side of the church, about halfway towards the Tudor Gate, is an oblong slab. The name Hannah is clearly visible. Many modern-day Hannahs have walked passed this stone and never even given it a second glance. Who was this Hannah though?

A careful inspection of the faint inscription revealed the following:

“Hannah, widow of the Rev Smith, Rector of Carlton, Norfolk, who died 6th April 1794 in her ninetieth year. Also the remains of Paulina Smith, daughter of the above who died Jan 15th 1815 aged 78”

1794: The Reign of Terror was underway in Paris, with executions during the French Revolution.
1815: The year of the Battle of Waterloo.

Alas, Smith alone: not much remains of the memorial stone at Croydon Minster to Hannah Smith

Paulina Smith’s will should provide us a useful starting point to find out more about them.

“I, Paulina Smith, spinster of Croydon, Surrey, desire to be buried in Croydon Church, next to my mother who lays next to my Aunt Mackett. My mother Hannah died 6th April 1794 in her 90th year. I desire a stone to be placed over our grave that she was the widow of Rev John Smith, Rector of Carleton in Norfolk.”

She concluded this first part of her will, perhaps in spinster fashion as one who was careful with her money, by stating that she didn’t want the expenses of her funeral to total more than £30 – about £3,000 in today’s values.

The fact that she wanted to be buried next to her mother and her aunt inside “Croydon Church” showed that the family must have had money and influence. The historical record of burials inside the church reveals that Paulina, her mother and her aunt were buried as close to the High Altar as possible.

High church: attached to the south wall of the chancel, this brass is a memorial to Sylvester Gabriel, who died in 1512

Only one other person was buried as close to the High Altar as they were, and that was Sylvester Gabriel, a Master of Clare College, Cambridge, in the 1480s and a prominent member of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s staff. We have outlined before how ornate was the expensive and prestigious Medieval bronze work used in the church to mark Gabriel’s lifetime.

Burial in such a prominent place in the church was originally thought to give the deceased an advantage in escaping purgatory, because they had a proximity to the holiest part of the building.

As the years went on, it was the publicly acknowledged position of a memorial which gave one a certain status in death.

The telling of any tale linked with Croydon Minster invariably involves the fire of 1867. The stone which Paulina wanted to be placed over her and her mother’s grave, must have survived the fire, but it was not put back as part of Sir Gilbert Scott’s new design.

The memorial stone would then have been placed in the graveyard, before being moved for a second time when the graveyard was changed into a memorial garden and the headstones redistributed. This one was designated for use as a pavement slab.

Individuals mentioned in Paulina’s will give us an insight into her life.

Mary Piggott, who was Paulina’s “nurse when I needed one in illness” was left the considerable sum of £5. Mary Piggott and her husband George died a few years later, both in their 80s and they, too, were buried in Croydon churchyard, in 1822 and 1824 respectively.

Paulina remembered her servant Frances with another gift of £5 and an annuity of £20 to be paid quarterly as long as she remained unmarried. Paulina’s nephew Charles Smith was the biggest single beneficiary, with a bequest of £2,000 – £200,000 in 2022 values.

Paulina’s father, named on the gravestone as Rev John Smith, had died on April 11, 1758. The records of Carlton St Peter in Norfolk show his appointment almost 30 years earlier in July 1728. Often rectors of that time had an income from more than one church, but this doesn’t seem to be the case with Rev Smith.

Hannah’s sister was called “Aunt Mackett” in Paulina’s will. Where does she fit into the story?

Aunt Mackett was Mary Mackett, who was buried in August 1786 aged 83. Like her sister she survived the illnesses and diseases of the day to reach a ripe old age. Hannah and Mary’s maiden name was Browne.

Fired: Medieval churches were always vulnerable to fire

Mary was married on the August 29, 1748, in Merton Parish Church by Mr Blackiston, the vicar.

Her groom was Robert Mackett from the parish of St Benet Sherehog in the City of London. Croydon’s church was far from alone in being badly damaged by fire: St Benet Sherehog had been a Medieval parish church built before 1111 (on a site now occupied by No1 Poultry), but which had been destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, when the parish joined with St Stephen Walbrook. Mary was from that parish as well.

Mary Mackett was married for 11 years before her husband died. He had worked for the East India Company for a time as a supercargo. That is the person who was accountable for the goods being collected from ports in India and China. The ship’s captains were responsible for the safety of the ship.

One captain, Henry Speke, who commanded HMS Sandwich, an East India regular, left £3,000 in his will “to his brother-in-law Robert Mackett”. In Robert Mackett’s will, and subsequently Mary’s, there was no mention them ever having any children. Robert Mackett, who died in 1759, was described in his will as a merchant living in Bucklersbury, Middlesex. Bucklersbury was adjacent to the parish of St Benet Sherehog where he was living when he married. Bucklersbury Passage can still be found in the City of London today, close to Bank Tube station.

One of the witnesses to Robert’s will was Charles Browne. He was a close associate and friend of Capt Henry Speke and his wife Elizabeth. Was Charles a relative of Hannah and Mary? Robert’s will gives no further clues about his own life, as he left everything to his wife Mary, without naming any of the properties or the value of any goods.

At some point after her husband’s death, Mary Mackett moved to 4 Cook’s Court, Carey Street. This was the address given in her will when she died in 1786. It was a property right next to the Old Bailey. To be “in Carey Street” was an expression which would have meant that you were in financial trouble, as the bankruptcy courts were situated on this road in the Thomas More buildings. Mary had no financial worries though. She was a wealthy widow.

Her will stated that if she were to die “in the house in Croydon” then that is where she should be buried. The church and graveyard here have many examples of similar interments.

Much-changed: today’s Croydon Minster has been subject to much alteration in the last 150 years

This first bequest in Mary Mackett’s will is for “her dear Sister Smith”. She is left £100. Hannah, her niece, was appointed as the sole executrix. A nephew, Charles, living in Southampton, was left property in Hampshire. A niece, Elizabeth Speke, the daughter of the ship’s captain, was left £100.

One final fragment from her will said that if she was to die in Croydon, then she and Mrs Shadwick would like to be buried here. It is not clear who Shadwick was; perhaps a companion. Whoever she was, she never did get buried in Croydon.

Hannah’s stone is the last remaining, publicly visible part of the family story. The 200-year-old tale has involved a daughter, a niece, a spinster, a widow, a vicar, a merchant, several wills, a house in London and a house in Croydon. All from just a faded name on a Croydon gravestone – enough to offer family researchers the chance to discover further snippets of information.

Previous articles by David Morgan:

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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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3 Responses to Hannah and her sisters: faded gravestone gives up its secrets

  1. Another fantastic article by David Morgan! His pieces are always so interesting and give a marvellous insight into Croydon’s past,.

  2. Grace Onions says:

    Thank you David, it’s great to learn about the lives of those many years ago and interesting connections to places long gone.

  3. Lewis White says:

    Awesome! Amazing info-packed article. Thanks David and IC.
    Just reflecting that the inscriptions on these slabs is becoming worn out, and will soon be worn away. Perhaps a photo survey could be made before it is too late.

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