Mystery behind a memorial
Alycia Smith-Howard contributed this article, which appeared in Warwickshire Life, March 2012
Alycia Smith-Howard is a Shakespeare scholar and writer. She lives in Barford with her husband, Mark. They attend St Peter, Barford, where Alycia is a Server and a member of the PCC, and where they were married in 2009.
THERE is a memorial plaque on the vestibule wall of St. Peter’s Church, Barford that always catches my eye. It commemorates two young lives cut tragically short:
Francis Bruckfield Byerley Died August 5, 1818, on his passage from the West Indies Aged 19 Octavia Charlotte Byerley Died September 26, 1818 Aged 17.
Seeing their names week after week piqued my curiosity: who were these two, and what brought about their untimely ends? A mystery. And, what could be more English than a good mystery? Furthermore, what could be more pleasurable than finding one staring you in the face. Not a mystery of the “murder-in-the-drawing-room-with a-candlestick” variety, perhaps, but still a riddle worthy of a bit of sleuthing.
My initial inquiries into the identity of the pair led to a surprising revelation – a Barford connection to the famous Wedgwood firm and family. The two young Byerleys were children of Thomas Byerley (1747-1810), who was a nephew of Josiah Wedgwood, and made a partner of the firm in 1790.The firm then traded as: “Josiah Wedgwood, Sons and Byerley”. Finding no further details about the tragic siblings, I allowed myself to imagine, rather romantically, that Francis was spirited away, having answered the clarion call of the sea, dying heroically in a valiant battle against pirates in the Caribbean; and poor, poor, Charlotte, languishing hereon dry land, her demise precipitated by the loss of her dearly beloved brother, with a grief as deep as the sea.
The trail, as they say in detective novels, had run cold. Then, an email from the Wedgwood Museum archivist informed me that the Byerley association had further connections to reveal – and quite significant ones, indeed. Francis and Charlotte’s sisters: Katherine, Frances and Jane established The Byerley School in Barford in 1817. It was located at what is now Barford House, a private residence. The Byerley teachers and their pupils regularly attended St Peter’s Church, where the school held designated pews.
The Byerley sisters’ school was renowned for its curriculum and the literary talents of its teachers – each a published authoress. Their most successful by-product was Elizabeth Stevenson, who later became the great Victorian author and critic, Mrs.Gaskell. Although Knutsford in Cheshire prides itself on being the inspiration for Gaskell’s much-loved Cranford, Barford, in fact, holds a prior claim. Living in Barford during her most formative years, Gaskell studied the classics whilst enjoying rural life in this idyllic Warwickshire setting. This village no doubt set the seeds that would later blossom in Gaskell’s literary career. Gaskell was undoubtedly fond of Barford, it appears in My Lady Ludlow (1858), and is remembered affectionately in her novella, Lois the Witch (1859). That story’s tragic heroine, the orphaned Lois Barclay, is a happy Barfordian before her reluctant emigration to Salem, Massachusetts:
"In the dim sea mist which she gazed upon with aching eyes - there rose the little village church of Barford…the little, old, grey church…What would they think of it at home– real, dear home at Barford, in England? There they had loved her; there she had gone about, singing and rejoicing all the day long in the pleasant meadows by the Avonside."
Like Mrs Gaskell, and Lois Barclay, I, too, share an achingly sentimental love of Barford and its ‘little, old, grey church’. And, perhaps like me, the young Elizabeth Stevenson may have routinely spied a memorial plaque on the church’s vestibule wall that set her mind and curiosity adrift. To be sure, the greatest reward of every good mystery is the joy of unexpected discovery.