A view backstage at Beverley Minster

Taking the tablets

It’s not all about Christmas you know – this week some people in Beverley Minster took time out to honour one of our great vicars.
What a dim, damp and dismal week it’s been, weatherwise. It’s the sort of depressing week that makes a chap’s thoughts turn naturally to morbid subjects such as death.
Death leads one to think about graveyards and gravestones and then a virger may well start looking anew at the memorial tablets inside the Minster.
Which, strangely enough, I would have been doing anyway this week, thanks to a rather rare occurrence. We’ve just moved a memorial tablet in the Minster, and it means I’ve got to amend Tanfield (sigh).
New readers may be puzzled by this statement – I suspect most of my established ones will be as well.
(Actually, that’s why I wrote it – I thought I’d try a cheap trick to get your interest, However, if it failed then you won’t be reading these words anyway, so it was all a bit of a waste of effort. So I’d better get on with what I was writing about, hadn’t I?)
Anyway, what I call ‘my Tanfield’ is actually a digital version of a book that was first published in the 1970s by a local teacher and historian, Thomas Tanfield.
It was his labour of love, combining some 30 years of scholarship about Beverley Minster to produce something that we virgers refer to all the time. Yet, after all this hard work, only a very few copies were actually produced and so, partly to preserve his work and partly to make it more widely available, I set to and copied all the text into a digital form back in 2007.
And now it is freely available in CD format from the Minster shop or direct from the virgers, priced £9.99. We’ve sold more than 50 so far, which is ten times as many copies as were ever produced of the original book
But, the price of being the definitive guide to the Minster’s possessions is that it has to be updated whenever anything changes – and is my responsibility these days.
We’ve moved a single memorial plaque, which means my list is now out of sequence.
This really couldn’t have been expected in the modern day – memorial tablets in churches are now regarded as something to be discouraged and certainly not to be shifted around as if they were a new set of curtains.
If you come into the Minster and start looking at the walls you can’t fail to notice we have several hundred of the things, but closer inspection shows they mostly date from the 18th and 19th centuries, and quite clearly have never been moved.
They are a fairly indiscriminate collection, remembering lords, local publicans, members of the East Yorkshire Regiment who never made it home and just some peoples’ fathers, mothers, siblings or offspring. Sometimes, to save money, the memorials record their initials and date of death only but they are there. I suppose, in certain respects, this mix of richness and poverty demonstrates the democracy of death – which is something that is further encouraged in the modern memorial-free times. .
After the huge bulge of nearly 10,000 names recorded in our cenotaph chapel to mark the fallen of World War One the process of commissioning memorials to individuals virtually dries up. The Minster has only a few post-1920 examples: a couple of ex-military leaders and, one of my favourites, a flagstone in the floor by the main doorway.
This one only dates back to 1979 but it marks the very spot where, for around 40 years, Charles Witty, churchwarden, stood when he welcomed worshippers and visitors alike to his beloved building. It seems like a happy and relevant celebration of one man.
The authorities don’t really encourage such things any more, so why were we moving one of our existing tablets from a hidden spot to a more prominent position?
Well, this particular tablet paid tribute to one Reverend James Graves and reads as follows:
BELOW Lie the Remains of the Revd JAMES GRAVES, Who
departed this Life the 16th day of July, 1807 in the 80th year of his Age.
Of this CHURCH he was MINSTER (with the Spirit of a Christian MINISTER) from
the year 1779 to the time of his death.
During many years of his life, He expended the greatest part of his Income in the support
of schools for the education of the children of the Poor, and in charitable Donations to the
distressed. And He left by his WILL (proved at YORK) the whole of his Property, after the
payment of a few legacies, to Trustees to be by them employed for the same benevolent
purpose of maintaining Schools for the Instruction of poor children.
Graves’s Free School was based in a square next to TollGavel. He bequeathed a huge sum amounting to about £3000 to create it and in 1814 the trustees bought the old play house, and converted it into schools for boys and girls. Here one hundred boys from the town and neighbourhood received free schooling and in the afternoon the girls were also taught needle work
Today the Reverend James Graves Charity continues to disburse about £1600 annually to local educational recipients under the terms of his will  – a will that, for its time, was a most unusual document.
It was written on 4 June, 1804 and bequeathed almost all of his estate, except for a few minor legacies, to form a Trust to be used to educate “as many poor boys and girls who shall reside in and belong to the Parish of St Martin …..The Boys to spell read and write and account in all the common rules of arithmetick And the Girls to do the like and also to sew useful Needlework such as making plain Shirts and good housewife work in general.” 
The Trustees were also required “to keep a small sum of money in hand for the purpose of distributing a few Bibles or good Books annually amongst the poor Boys and Girls who shall be thought deserving as an encouragement.” 
Beverley Minster congregation member Dorothy Hailstone has long been interested in James Graves and his bequest because it was very unusual for its time, and I’ve nicked a lot of her work to compile this weeks blog, so thanks for that, Dot.
Although educational charities were not uncommon in those days, the unusual factor here was that girls were to receive an education equal to that of boys. The parish of St Martin covered the urban and industrial area immediately around the Minster, where it would be unlikely for poor children to have any education, other than the skills necessary for working in local industries or, in the case of girls, for domestic work.  Yet James was concerned sufficiently about the education of these children to provide “Bibles or good Books” for their encouragement.
But why was he so concerned about the education of poor children?  Unusually for clergy at that time, he had no university degree, yet obviously had a sufficiently good Classical education to be described as “literate” and to equip him for ordination.
James had come to Beverley in 1769, where, on 17 August, he was appointed Assistant Curate at Beverley Minster to the Vicar, the Revd. Thomas Lewthwaite. During his tenure, it was James’ duty to complete entries in the Parish Register, which he did in beautiful copperplate handwriting.  One feature is noticeable about his baptismal entries: never once, during his ten years as curate, did he comment on a child’s illegitimacy.
The usual practice was to record the child’s name, followed by the father’s name, trade and, sometimes, residence; but if the child was born out of wedlock, the mother’s name was given and the child was described as “bastard.” This description was never used by James and does not appear again in the Baptism Register until he is no longer responsible for completing the entries. 
James remained as the Vicar of the Minster for the remainder of his life but we know very little about him or his family, or why he had such a passionate interest in the education of boys and girls from poor families.
There is one teasing hint about how highly he was regarded by members of the Minster: he is the only vicar of this church in the days before photography to have a portrait painted.
This portrait currently hangs in the clergy vestry and shows an elderly man with a kindly, half smiling face who appears to have little concern about his dress or appearance, but suggests a genuine concern for those around him. 
For whatever reason, he had the imagination, foresight and determination to ensure that his legacies should continue to benefit and encourage young people, into the present day.
It feels long overdue that this man’s memorial, lost to public view at the beginning of the 20th century when the organ pipes were relocated to their present position, should once more have a pride of place. His tablet now hangs right beside that of the Revd Coltman, the fattest vicar in England, who also made huge bequests to keep educating the children of the poor in Beverley.
However, it does mean that the one remaining copy of Tanfield that was in Beverley Minster shop this week is incorrect in this small but important detail, so I have withdrawn it from stock and replaced it with an amended copy. So, if you buy a CD of Tanfield now you can be personally assured that it is correct in ever detail – until we move something else.
 First published December 2009

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