Birth and Deaths
Many thanks to Robert who has been researching about the historical records of Bearfield from the 1800s.
Bearfield Church burial ground memorial
To the left side of the downpipe, there is a light shadow where a memorial stone was once sited.
For safety reasons, in 2018 it was laid flat in line with the concrete footing at the front of the building.
In May 2022, the stone was refaced and resited by James Long (Masons) of Trowbridge.
The Ian Askew Charitable Trust provided a grant for the majority of the work.
A plaque was made by West Riding Sign & Print.
The text on the plaque reads:
Bearfield Church grounds was a place of burial up to 1856.
There are official records of more than 120 persons, both young & old who were buried here from 1837, many more could have been interred before this date.
This is the marker of their resting place.
Bearfield Church burial ground
From 1837 it was a legal requirement to record burials and as the grounds of Bearfield Church was a burial site, there are official records from this date. Copies are lodged with the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre in Chippenham.
It is possible that the grounds of the church and the church itself were used as a burial ground before this date. A plaque in the church refers to the commemoration of deaths in the 1820s. The record ends in 1856 when the Bradford on Avon municipal burial ground was established on Holt Road. Up until that time, 130 persons were buried around, or on rare occasions, inside the church.
The records of burials give the name of the person, the date of death and burial, their age, parents names, the cause of death and sometimes other notes. The majority of the burials were conducted by Rev Joseph Rawling, this was the second minister of the church by this name, being the grandson of the first.
The records are incomplete. Some entries do not have the date or death, parents’ names or the cause of death. There are missing ages for the dead. The family names are echoed in the baptism records of the church, so it is fair to assume that some families had a long association with Bearfield Church. The Bainton, Batten, Farr, Hiscox, Sims, Walton and Whittaker names are repeated, sadly often with the death of children.
The church was the burial ground for the locality as well as the church. Families that did not have a connection with the Church of England, had not been baptised or confirmed would not be buried in their grave-yards.
The age profile of the dead is approximately in thirds, one third being over 60, a third of working age 12-60 and a third were children. Of this latter group, 75% were under 5 years old and the majority of these, under 2. There is one set of twins and one child who was buried on the date of their birth.
Where it can be ascertained, most were buried within a week of death but in October 1840, 4 died of fever and were buried over a fortnight later. Burials occurred on all days of the week and the weekend, perhaps due to the nature of the death and the need to bury the dead for health reasons.
The cause of death shows to some degree the advance in medical understanding over the period but also suggests the increasing industrialisation of the town. Deaths caused by ‘the stone’ are perhaps termed a tumour in later years, fever and consumption, dropsy and smallpox are all listed. ‘Waste of nature’ and ‘decay’ are vague and descriptions for the death of the young and old, alike. ‘Rather sudden’ as a cause of death is more mysterious. As to industry, injury caused by horse and cart and crushing in a quarry suggest the dangers caused by the change from a rural to more modern life.
Several burials, connected with the Rawling family are recorded as being sited inside the church, near the pulpit. If one considers the use of the grounds of the church, prior to the building of the current church hall as a burial ground. Then, the number of burials that are recorded as well as those that may well have taken place before the advent of official records. Taken together, with a 2m2 measure for a burial site, the church ground outside the footprint of the church building and the manse structure is likely to be filled with bodies, edge to edge and front to back, in the front lawn and the rear lawn with the church hall footprint included. Whilst, there might be multiple burials in a single grave, a family plot so to say. There is no specific evidence of this and given the nature of the ground in the town, stony hill-top, a double-dug grave might be less common that today.
Today, there are no grave markers for the burials and no memorial for the dead. A headstone style of marker is in the grounds of the church and was, in the past upright against the wall. Any lettering is long since eroded but the stone could itself be used as a plaque bearer, if the headstone was suitably sited.
Between 1847 and 1883, the baptisms of over two hundred infants, children and adults were recorded during the pastoral ministry of Joseph Rawling, with a few more attributed to Mr John Sharp. Most baptisms occurred in the late 1850s and late 1860s, with a high number in 1874 and 1880.
Traditionally, the Anglican church had been the place for child baptism or christening and along with this the naming of the child and a conferring of legitimacy. The Baptists, as a non-conformist church, baptised adults. But Bearfield, a congregational chapel appeared to offer baptism to those who were not attenders of the Church of England by practise.
Joseph Rawling was the pastor of the church for a significant period, presiding over these baptisms and the burials of up to 150 persons in the church grounds. He and his family lived in the house next to the church. There are a few years of cross-over between the two records, the burial record being from 1837 to 1856.
The book which records the baptisms was likely made by a J Rawling, printer & bookbinder, Bradford as there is a marker on the inner cover. Pastor Rawling could have been a minister, who as well as being a local tradesperson also pastored the church. From errors in the baptismal records, it is possible that Mr Rawlings was educated to a good but not high standard. Misspelt names, illogical dates and the incompleteness of some entries suggest that either he rushed some of the register entries, did not hear what the parents were saying or the parents themselves only spelt phonetically but they did appear to have exactness for dates of birth, though five have no recorded date of birth. Mr Rawling did, however, have a beautiful copperplate handwriting style. Though, this in itself can present deciphering problems with individual letters and thus the exact spelling of names. For example, children called Linear Bainton or Hansent Knott seem unlikely. Parents recorded as George & Esther Comley, but also as George & Hester and George & Ester are likely the same. And Benjamin & Charlotte Bray, referred to as Isaiah & Charlotte or Isiah Benjamin & Charlotte have been regarded as the same.
With this in mind, there is a copy of the original entries and a supplementary sheet with the errors corrected. The spelling of names is made more consistent, for example when the same couple have another child and the wife’s name is spelt differently thought clearly the same. Where dates are in error, for example the date of birth after the baptism, this is corrected using the context of the position of the entry in the register. These aside, there are my interpretation errors, of the written names which might be approximated and thus the original is lost in time.
In the baptism register, some family names are regularly present either because of large numbers of children or the extended family came to be baptised in the same church as each-other. Families who were attending Bearfield in extended family groups or had a long association with the church had surnames of Bainton (2 couples), Bollen (2), Bray (5), Comley (also Comely) (2), Dix (2), Farr (2), Fowells (Fowles) (2), Gay (2), Hanks (2), Mizen (2), Morris (3), Orchard (2), Powell (2), Sims (2), Tribe (2), Tucker (3), Vennell (2) and Walton (4).
On some dates, a whole family is baptised together, a so-termed ‘baptism party.’ When Richard & Naomi Bray baptised Albert Alfred at 57 days, Septimus James (5 years) and Gideon (7 years) were also baptised. This may be because families moved into the area and wished to baptise their youngest, a sign of arrival in a more settled place for the family perhaps. On discovering that not all the children in the family were baptised, Mr Rawling may have offered a family baptism. In some cases, several families were baptised on the same day, not necessarily being related. When John & Rhoda Penny brought Alfred (under 2 years) and Sarah Ann (5 years) for baptism, George & Ruth Dix brought Emily and John & Pelineu (Polina) Bailey brought another Emily too (both girls being under a year old). In fact, over the period of the record, the time between birth and baptism steadily decreased, indicating that parents were baptising earlier in their child’s life, and again, suggesting a more settled, urban family setting with families putting down roots soon after marriage. A tenth of all baptisms occurred in the first month of life and two thirds were of children under six months.
It was not only infants and children who were baptised, but several adults outside family groups are also recorded. William Byfield was baptised at 21 years, ‘a young man when baptised’ is recorded, William Haswell at 17 and John Gray at 20. Whilst most children are recorded with two parents, some have one, the mother and a few, named adults who do not appear to have been married. James Cox & Sarah Ann Bricker brought James for baptism and William Grange & Susan Macy brought Alice Elizabeth, both in the autumn of 1868. It is possible that such baptisms might not have been permitted elsewhere. There are baptisms of infants at a few days, suggesting that they were not thought to have long to live. Jeremiah & Emily Cray had their son Alfred Hosea baptised on his birth date in 1856. There appear to be sets of twins in the record, John & Rolanol (sic) Bailey, Benjamin & Isaiah Bray, George & Alfred Hanks. But the further one investigates it could also be that Mr Rawling baptised pairs of children from a family, on the same day, so not necessarily twins.
The names of children, often the firstborn male or female child are those of their parent but not routinely. Sometimes, they are the second name. For example, the Allen family, parents Frederick and Julia named their children George Frederick and Rose Julie. But also, the first son of a couple might take a family name, the two Comley couples named their first sons George Frederick too.
How should this record of historical baptisms be preserved and offered to future generations? The original copy is lodged with the Wiltshire & Swindon Historical Centre, along with the copies of burial records for the church grounds. We have this narrative, the copy of the record and some further analysis of this. Some family researchers might be interested to know about their family dates, names and that they were part of the Bearfield Church congregation at this time.
In these days, when children might not be baptised or christened very often, or even named in a ceremony, the dedication of children to the keeping hand of a Heavenly Father might seem to be an old-fashioned notion. When a family is welcomed to Bearfield Church, the adults might become members but there is less recognition for the children. Perhaps some way of welcoming them should be included, not necessarily entitled baptism but nonetheless a more formal inclusion into the family of the church.
When young people or adults wish to signify their conversion to a Christian way of life, waterbaptism is often a sign. Given that there might be a series of faith-steps between a child’s or teen’s commitment to Christ and wishing to be baptised, a simple stage which gives the opportunity for them to affirm their faith-pathway might be a staging post to further commitment. We do not know what form the baptism of these named in the record took and whether it was different for those of different ages. What we can be sure of is that the families wishing to have their children baptised and those adults who were baptised, wanted to be joined with the church meeting at Bearfield and this was the recognised way to do this.