SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT: It is not only the rich and powerful, and those given the most grand of burial tombs, who always have the most lasting of memorials, as DAVID MORGAN discovered in this tale from an earlier Elizabethan age
In 1583, during the reign of the first Queen Elizabeth, when her Archbishop of Canterbury, Edmund Grindal, died, he was buried in Croydon Parish Church. Over the centuries to follow, five further Archbishops would be buried here, in what is today known as Croydon Minster.
Grindal held three great offices at a time of great religious turmoil: first he was Bishop of London, then Archbishop of York and, from 1575, Archbishop of Canterbury.
He played a considerable role in the translation of the Bible into English. In 1568, The Bishops’ Bible was published, with Grindal having the responsibility for the books of the minor Old Testament prophets.
To many Croydon inhabitants, however, his ecclesiastical reputation was as nothing. He was hugely disliked. This was all because of a dispute over smoke.
Back in the mid-1500s, Croydon was considered a grimy place. One description stated that the “streets were deep hollows and very dirty”. The houses often had wooden steps leading into them and were darkened by large trees growing in front of them. Many inhabitants gained their livelihoods in one of two ways: by being smiths or working as colliers.
The colliers were charcoal burners who worked in the Great North Wood which lay outside the town and stretched all the way north to the River Thames. Someone covered in dirt might be referred to by an expression of the day: “as black as a Croydon collier”.
Such descriptions of Croydon were in contrast to the lush water meadows down by the River Wandle, where the church and the Archbishop’s Palace stood. The Palace will have had a team of gardeners who tended its orchards, vineyards and vegetable plots.
But there was the smoke. There was always smoke.
Smoke from the charcoal burners in the nearby woods would billow all the way down here, and Archbishop Grindal wasn’t happy about it.
Perhaps he had complaints from his staff that there was black soot on the washing after it had been hung out to dry? Perhaps the gardeners moaned about the constant coating of dust on their produce?
When, one day, Archbishop Grindal saw clouds of smoke blowing past his library window, he called his chamberlain and asked the reason. Was the town itself on fire?
His chamberlain explained that the smoke came from Beulah Bottoms, from the colliers, who were probably preparing for the Lord Mayor of London’s show. Charcoal was needed in huge quantities so that the City guilds could cook their vast banquets. Grindal sent his chamberlain to meet with the colliers and in particular, Master Grimes, who was considered the leader of the group.
Faced with the wrath of the Archbishop, Grimes simply stated that the colliers, on that occasion, were damping out their kiln of charred wood, creating plumes of smoke.
With Grindal asking for the amount of charcoal burning to be reduced, the powerful City guilds got involved. When the Archbishop threatened further action, the Guilds backed the colliers. The matter ended up in court and it was the charcoal burners who won. Their case was based on the premise that the colliers were not in a position to control the wind blowing the smoke from their kilns in all directions. It was, they argued, the Good Lord Above who determined the weather and the direction of the wind.
The jury agreed.
Grindal wasn’t too pleased with the verdict of the court. He maintained his displeasure and dislike of Grimes until the collier died, and beyond. In a most unChristian-like manner, Grindal refused to allow Grimes to be buried in Croydon’s churchyard, forcing his family to bury him in unconsecrated ground.
Consequently, Grimes’ only memorial was a wooden cross on a stone cairn behind Colliers’ Water Farm cottage where he had lived, carrying the inscription, “In memorium Francis Grimes Collyer”. In 1895, Grimes’s cottage, bearing the date 1590 on the gable, was pulled down along with the memorial to make way for Thornton Heath railway station. The exact date of his death seems to have been lost.
Other charcoal burners were buried in Croydon’s church graveyard. The church records show that Thomas Wode 1573, Richard Coates 1588, William Blake 1591 and Robert Curtis 1596 were all colliers.
Grindal was buried in the church in April 1583. His grand tomb was destroyed in the fire of 1867 that destroyed so much of the historic church. Today, only a framed remnant and a Victorian brass plaque mark his once very grand burial place.
Grimes, however, despite his being denied a churchyard burial, lives on in surprising ways.
First, he can be found in literature. Damson and Pathius is a comedy play written by Richard Edwards first performed in 1566. In it, Edwards introduced a character “Grimme, the Collier of Croydon”.
Ulpean Fulwel wrote a comedy in 1568 with three characters – Tom Collier, Nicol Newfangle and the Devil – all dancing to the tune of “Tom Collier of Croiden hath sold his coal”.
There was also a play entitled The Historie of the Collyer, which was acted in 1576 or 1577 before Queen Elizabeth. Another Tudor play, Quip for an Upstart Courtier, written in 1592, contained the line, “Marry, quothe he that looks like Lucifer, though I am black, I am not the divell, but indeed a Collyer of Croydon”.
The fascination with Grimes, the Croydon collier, was a lasting one.
A play published around a century later, in 1662, featured our collier as one of the leading characters. The author of Grim the Collier of Croydon or The Devil and his Dame is not certain, but it could be John Tatham, a Restoration playwright, the work based on earlier ideas.
Grimes’s name lives on in other ways, too, such as through a wildflower. Pilosella aurantiaca, more commonly known as Fox and Cubs today, is mentioned in a 1633 book called Herbal by Gerard. The author then called the plant “Grimme the Collier”. This seemed a strange nickname for a plant.
Some speculated that it was that the plant’s hairs might resemble dust on a collier’s beard. Others wondered if the plant was found more frequently in the Croydon area than in other parts.
Whatever the reason, today the website of no less an authority than the Royal Horticultural Society still gives Grim the Collier as an alternate name for this member of the Hawksweed family.
There are no plants called “Archbishop Grindal” that we’ve been able to find, though.
The Archbishop, who earlier in his life had fled England to escape possible execution under Queen Mary, experienced the often fierce winds of change in his church career. Yet ultimately he was defeated by the winds from the charcoal kilns of Grimes, and it was the modest collier who lived on as the cult hero.
Previous articles by David Morgan:
- The Victorian tax master who made Haling Cottage his home
- Church career which led Quinn to the not-so-high and mighty
- Mustard keen to unravel the mystery behind Minster memorial
- The church fire that consumed a thousand years of history
David Morgan, pictured right, is a former Croydon headteacher, now the volunteer education officer at Croydon Minster, who offers tours or illustrated talks on the history around the Minster for local community groups.
If you would like a group tour of Croydon Minster or want to book a school visit, then ring the Minster Office on 020 688 8104 or go to the website on www.croydonminster.org and use the contact page
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