Two weathered headstones bolted together in the All Saints Church cemetery in Marlow, are poignant evidence of a tragic tale of a mysterious so-called ‘Spotted Boy’ sold to be put on show for the paying public to gawp.
An explorer, a diplomat, the King of Albania and a young boy
Intrigued to hear of the “Beautiful Spotted Boy of Marlow”, I arranged to meet Mike Hyde, volunteer and chair of the Marlow Museum. This is the place to go for all things Marlow, and Travellers’ Tales exhibition included the fascinating stories of four historical people with local connections; Kate Marsden, explorer, writer and nursing heroine, Sir Robert Hart, British diplomat and official in the Qing Chinese government, King Zog, exiled King of Albania and George Alexander Gratton, aka “the spotted boy”. It is the last on this list that I am writing about, the others are no less interesting, but for very different reasons.
The spiritual home of rowing, Marlow is a well-heeled market town straddling the River Thames, east of Henley-upon-Thames and west of Cookham in the central Chilterns.
Once a centre for lace making and timber, renowned these days for the many excellent restaurants and places to while away a few hours along the graceful Georgian high street, it is perhaps the combination of All Saints church spire and the William Tierney Clark-designed bridge that Marlow is most remembered. Modelled on similar designs to both the Hammersmith Bridge in London and the Széchenyi Chain Bridge spanning the Danube, this is its statement feature.
Marlow is a town that keeps its stories close
This is the tragic story of a young boy born on July 24th 1808 on a sugarcane plantation on the island of St Vincent and the Grenadines. It was customary for slaves to be given the family name of their owner or overseer: in this case, Mr Gratton was the overseer and the plantation owner was a Mr Alexander.
King George lll was on the throne, so it’s my guess that would account for the boy’s first name. According to an 1819 edition of the Literary Journal, as a baby, George was shown in the capital Kingstown “at the price a dollar each person” before he was sent to Bristol. At the tender age of 15 months.
Facts are hard to verify as it’s not known if he was accompanied by his parents, the circumstances of his sale and passage abroad the ship ‘Friends of Emma’ to England. Who in fact benefited from the 1,000 guineas that John Richardson, showman, paid for the boy? Richardson, formerly a farm labourer from Marlow, had left town to make his fortune running fairs and sideshows, typically earning as much as £1,200 in just three days.
The reason the toddler was of interest to the showman? George suffered from a condition known today as Vitiligo. This a long-term skin condition is characterised by patches of the skin losing their pigment and becoming white. It is more noticeable in people of colour; hence the ‘spotted boy’.
One such fair is described so vividly by Charles Dickens in his ‘Sketches by Boz’ published in 1836: ‘Imagine yourself in an extremely dense crowd, which swings you to and fro, and in and out, and every way but the right one; add to this the screams of women, the shouts of boys, the clanging of gongs, the firing of pistols, the ringing of bells, the bellowings of speaking-trumpets, the squeaking of penny dittos, the noise of a dozen bands, with three drums in each, all playing different tunes at the same time, the hallooing of showmen, and an occasional roar from the wild-beast shows; and you are in the very centre and heart of the fair.
Three murders and a ghost
This immense booth, with the large stage in front, is where you have a melodrama (with three murders and a ghost), a pantomime, a comic song, an overture, and some incidental music. The dwarfs, a giantess, a living skeleton, a wild Indian, a young lady with perfectly white hair and pink eyes, and two or three other natural curiosities, were usually exhibited for the small charge of a penny. This spectacle attracted very large, curious audiences.
Richardson bought the boy to add to this travelling horror show, where he was advertised as ‘a fanciful child of nature, formed in her most playful mood’. He was exhibited during the intervals of plays and other entertainments, sometimes for upwards of 12 hours a day. Venues included the famous Bartholomew’s Fair in Smithfield, London.
Contradiction and the absurd
Two weathered headstones bolted together in the cemetery of All Saints Church are poignant evidence of a tragic tale of young George, purchased for 1,000 guineas.
This tale is full of contradiction, cruelty and the absurd. Perhaps the childless Richardson formed a bond with the boy? He even had him baptised George Alexander Gratton and brought to Marlow where he lived as his son. Around five years of age, on February 3rd 1813, his brief life came to an end, with all manner of speculation to the cause of death. Richardson was alleged to have kept the body for fear it would be stolen. He was interred in a brick vault in the cemetery at All Saints with a funeral ‘full of pomp and circumstance’. Before Richardson died in 1837, he requested he be buried in the same vault, with the two back-to-back headstones bolted together.
All Saints Church, Marlow
Upon entering the impressive church, filled with winter sunshine, the experience was marred by the loud and mobile conversation from a visitor doing a sweep of the church. Ticking this church off the bucket list, and was oblivious to the oil painting that Richardson had donated to the church. Over time, it fell into a state of disrepair and was restored about 12 years ago. It now hangs near a small display at the back of the church. Above the toilet door. Unnoticed.
We know very little about him. It is a difficult tale to digest and tell here, not least of all with the grotesque and offensive 19th century attitudes and some insensitive use of contemporary language. I am of course viewing this sorry tale through the prism of 2018 enlightenment and my experience as a mother; I can’t help but not feel the tremendous sadness and subsequent loss at their parting – did she know what happened to her son? His agony at not being with his parents. So far from home, paraded around town with Richardson, put on display for upwards of 12 hours at a time, what life was this for any child to have to endure? Perhaps his early passing was a blessing and a relief for him to find some peace.
A Native of the Carribee Islands, in the West Indies.
Who departed this life February 3d, 1813,
Aged four years and three quarters.
This Tomb, erected by his only Friend and
Guardian, Mr. John Richardson, of London.
Should this plain simple tomb attract thine eyes,
Stranger, as thoughtfully thou passest by,
Know that there lies beneath this humble stone,
A child of colour, haply not thine own.
His parents born of Afric’s sun-burnt race,
Tho’ black and white were blended in his face,
To Britain brought, which made his parents free,
And shew’d the world great Natur’s prodigy.
Depriv’d of kindred that to him were dear,
He found a friendly Guardian’s fost’ring care,
But, scarce had bloom’d, the fragrant flower fades,
And the lov’d infant finds an early grave,
To bury him his lov’d companions came,
And drop’t choice flowers, and lis’d his early fame;
And some that lov’d him most, as if unblest,
Bedwe’d with tears the whice wreath on his breast.
But he is gone, and dwells in the abode,
Where some of every clime must joy in God!the verse from the now weathered epitaph
How wonderful then that the Marlow Museum has included George’s forgotten story in the Travellers’ Tales exhibition, I recommend you visit and find out more. They are also working with the Saint Vincent & The Grenadines 2nd Generation (SV2G) on a Heritage Lottery-funded project that seeks to uncover connections between Marlow and High Wycombe to deliver a new programme of Vincentian heritage events to commemorate the tragic life of this young ‘spotted boy”, believed to be one of the earliest (if not the first) recored Vincentian’s in Britain. I am looking forward to finding out more about these links and the communities that have made their home in the Chilterns.
Messing about in boats is a favourite pastime and the Chilterns is busy throughout the year with visitors, locals and sports men and women on and in the River Thames.
Chilterns Gifts are available from the online shop.