Sunday, January 20, 2019

John Brown, The Sexton of Hexham

"Go; of my sexton seek, whose days are sped:
What! he himself? and is old Dibble dead?
Yes! he is gone; and we are going all;
Like flowers we wither, and like leaves we fall".

Amongst the almost infinite variety of characters which present themselves to our daily observation, there are some so much influenced by their pursuits, and so identified with their professions, as continually to remind us of them. We cannot behold their persons, without thinking of their occupation, and feeling those sensations, whether agreeable or repulsive, which the recollection is calculated to excite. Of this description of character was old John Brown, the Sexton.


It mattered not on what occasion, or at what time or place, you saw him, he was still the sexton. As to place, the church was his centre of gravity; he lived in its neighbourhood, followed his occupations under its shadow, and seldom went beyond the precincts of his charge. Morning, noon, or night, if you met him, he was still about his business; commonly with the huge keys of the church doors in his hand, or sticking out of his pocket. Ringing the morning-bell had naturally produced the habit of early rising; and the principal recreation that he indulged in, was a walk as far as the great tree in the neighbouring abbey grounds, after performing this service.

Twice a week, besides the sabbath and holidays, the prayer-bell required his attention; for he added the office of parish clerk to that of sexton, or held them jointly with his son, of the same name; and then he generally had the rope in his hand when the clock struck six to ring the evening bell.

His other avocations were of a still graver nature. Tolling the death-bell sometimes occasioned him to climb the belfry late at night, in winter as well as summer; and an alarm of fire would at any hour immediately call him to his post, to give the needful summons. But habit had rendered him proof against those fears, which to some minds would have peopled the old church, at such seasons, with ghostly inhabitants.

Digging of graves is an employment which, to most men, would be extremely revolting; it is, however, what all will allow to be necessary; it was moreover, John's business, and he went about it with avidity. This is, in all respects, a serious occupation, and, what is perhaps but little considered, a very important one. No small skill certainly is necessary, in many church-yards, and Hexham is one of them, so to inter the dead, as not to disinter those who have been recently buried.

John knew as well as any man the difficulties of his profession, and, it seems, it had its mysteries too; for, though he did not by any means encourage the inquiries of the curious on these points, he sometimes let fall an intimation of certain liberties which, circumstanced as he was, he no doubt too often found it convenient to take with his subjects! "No one knows a sexton^s duties but a sexton", he would say; and few, we are persuaded, have discharged them better. He was always about his business. If not employed in digging a grave, or burying the dead, his mattock was at work knocking down the weeds, collecting fragments of broken coffins, or removing exhumed bones from the surface of the grave-yard.

His most prominent and, at the same time, praiseworthy characteristic was, attending to the duties of his calling; and his care to prevent the interference of unqualified and prying persons, was scarcely less remarkable. Many a time have I dreaded his frown; and more than once felt the weight of his heavy hand. Sometimes I have fallen under his displeasure, for getting into the church when there was no service, or remaining in the burying-ground after the funeral was over; and, once I was so unlucky as to be caught upon the leads the church, after the ringers had left the belfry. On this occasion, after a severe handling in the capture, he brought his prisoner before the priest: this last affair left such a horror, both of the place and of the parties, as to have a salutary effect; but it was long ere I got rid of my deep-rooted grudge both against the minister and the sexton.

John Brown was not a sexton of the description portrayed in Blair's Grave. I will not cite a line of that often-quoted poem; for, though exquisitely drawn, it is not the character I am describing. Indeed, they have scarcely any thing in common, except a knowledge of their profession. John Brown was not that facetious being, whose disposition is so little in keeping with his avocations. "Clerk's ale" has gone out of fashion now, "Easter dues" are no longer collected in our Parish — and little remains of the old customs. On occasion of going his annual round at this festival, he washed his earthy hands, and appeared comfortable in his person. Yet he was neither a droll nor a toper, but a stern and trusty man; and I am persuaded, that if every church-yard had a sentinel as uncompromising as was John Brown, a resurrection-man would have but 'few temptations to violate" the sanctuary of the dead.

When old John drew near his end, he conducted himself with more than his usual gravity, and discovered a disposition the very reverse of ostentatious. It is the custom of the bell-ringers in Hexham, and probably in other places, on the death of one of their number, to honour him with a muffled peal at the funeral; and, as John was one of the eight, this tribute was his due, independently of his more important offices, which entitled him to still greater distinction. Indeed, when his long and faithful services are taken into account, I do not know that half the parish would have considered it too high a token of regard, to have attended his funeral. But John, it seems, did not relish parade; and in his circumstances, it is to be hoped that his thoughts were employed on more profitable subjects than the anticipation of posthumous honours. Certain it is, that he forbade the accustomed peal, and discouraged the intention of any unnecessary ceremony. "I have been a plain man all my life", said he, to those around him, "and I wish to be buried in a plain manner — and hope you will make no needless fuss about me".

This prohibition was a source of disappointment to many, and even to me, who by this time had got the better of my boyish antipathy; and would have had some special notice taken of a man who had been so especially useful to society. But John had given his protest against it, and his injunction was carefully observed. This respectable old man had, however, the singular honour to be buried by his own two sons; he had initiated them into the mysteries of his calling, and they have been fortunate enough to succeed him respectively in his offices of parish clerk and sexton.

It may not be amiss, in closing this sketch, to glance at an event, in itself interesting, but rendered still more so as it opened the way to John Brown's introduction to that station, vrhich he occupied in such a creditable manner for a period little short of half a century. He came into office when Francis Bell died. Poor old Frank, whatever might have been his faults, seems to have discharged his official duties with scrupulous attention, and a pardonable pride; and he died at his elevated post!

He had climbed the belfry, one Sunday morning, as usual, to ring for church and had sat down, as is customary, after reaching the ringing-loft, to recover from the fatigue of ascending the long winding stairs. One of the band observed, that all hands were there, the clock had struck ten, and they had better set in. There are eight bells in Hexham church; seven of the ringers were at their stands, and all wondered that the old man was inactive. "Come, Frank", said some of them — Frank was silent — all eyes were turned to him; he had leaned his head against the wall, and they thought he slept. He slept indeed — but waked no more! On old Frank's death, his son, of the same name, became a bell-ringer; and it is somewhat remarkable, that he, too, died in the church, in ascending the same bell-loft of which we have had occasion to speak already; and in a manner still more deplorable. Thirty years have elapsed since; but it is, perhaps, still too soon to enter into a minute detail of the circumstances of his death.

Epitath on an Old Sexton - intended for John Brown

Truly thy hand, relentless Death, spares none,
When e'en thy servants share the common doom;
The hoary sexton from his post is gone;
He drops his spade, and finds himself a tomb.
Peace to the dead! and sacred be his grave —
Gently, O earth, receive him to thy breast:
Let each sweet flow'ret o'er his ashes wave,
Who laid a thousand of his kind to rest.

Hexham, September, 25, 1830.

Re-printed from the Imperial Magazine.

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