George Alexander Gratton

This tale is full of contradiction, cruelty and the absurd; of a young ‘fanciful child of nature’ bought by a showman to exhibit to the public until his death and lavish funeral in a shared vault in a church in Marlow.

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 at. 

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 their current Travellers’ Tales exhibition includes 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, where 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, and 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. 

George Alexander coloured aquatint after Daniel Orme 1809. Subtitled: “An Extraordinary Spotted Boy” this engraving was often sold as a souvenir. Credit: Marlow Museum

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.  

Three murders and a ghost

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.

This immense booth, with the large stage in front, so brightly illuminated with variegated lamps, and pots of burning fat, is ‘Richardson’s,’ where you have a melodrama (with three murders and a ghost), a pantomime, a comic song, an overture, and some incidental music, all done in five-and-twenty minutes. The dwarfs are also objects of great curiosity, and as a dwarf, a giantess, a living skeleton, a wild Indian, ‘a young lady of singular beauty, with perfectly white hair and pink eyes,’ and two or three other natural curiosities, are usually exhibited together for the small charge of a penny, they attract very numerous audiences. ”

Bartholomew Fair, Smithfield London.  Credit: Marlow Museum 

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 in Marlow are poignant evidence of a tragic tale of a young boy purchased for 1,000 guineas to be put on show.

This tale is full of contradiction, cruelty and the absurd as it is said that 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, until he could be interred in a brick vault in the cemetery at All Saints with a funeral it is said, 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.

Mike Hyde shared this verse from the now weathered epitaph: 

“Should this plain simple tomb attract thine eye

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 sunburnt race,

Tho’ white and black where blended in his face, 

To Britain brought, which made his parents free, 

And showed the world great nature’s prodigy.”

Upon entering the impressive church, filled with winter sunshine, the experience was marred by a loud mobile conversation on an iPhone from a visitor doing a sweep of the church. Had to tick this sight 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 10 years ago. It now hangs near a small display at the back of the church. Above the toilet door. Unnoticed.

George Gratton, painted by the artist Coventry that still hangs in All Saints Church. 

I think it only right we show George the dignity he deserves and identify him by his given name, not his ‘circus name.’ We don’t after all know his birth name, nor who his parents where. 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. 

Sadly, there is no indication of where these graves are. I wondered if we, the community, can begin to afford George the dignity in his memory, that he did not have during his brief, tragic life and place flowers on his grave, as is still done for another of the Chilterns prodigal son’s – on Peter the Wild Boy’s grave in Northchurch, near Berkhamsted.

Somewhere amongst these headstones is the grave

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 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.

Further information

Travellers’ Tales with Marlow connections is on at the Marlow Museum. Find out more about All Saints Church and perhaps if you visit, ask where the grave is, as I couldn’t find it.

Read the wonderful story of Peter the Wild Boy part one and part two

Explore the naturally outstanding Chilterns and the market town of Marlow or take a walking tour of the historic town centre.

Discover more Chilterns Churches, ideas for winter wanderings and for the spring, the unique and bonkers Swan Upping ceremony that is best enjoyed from the riverside at Marlow.

An Appreciation of Aylesbury

At first drive-through, this busy Buckinghamshire town is not a pretty sight. Aylesbury is town that has kept it’s historic heart well and truly hidden, marooned on a little island cut off by busy roads full of traffic rushing through on their way elsewhere.

Perhaps you are familiar with Aylesbury because of its association with ducks? Not as obvious is its historic association with the nearby Chilterns as this town played an important role  in the English Civil War, very much in support of the Parliamentarians against Charles I and presents one of the most visible links with the Chilterns due to its proximity to Great Hampden, home of John Hampden: his silhouette on the emblem used by the district council and his statue prominent in the market square. 

A town that has grown too quickly, concrete, traffic and ugly shopping centres are the hazards to be navigated before finding the charming Georgian old town.

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The Kings Head Farmers Bar

A way in, is through an easy-to-miss arch that leads from Market Street into the restored 15th medieval coach inn yard of the Kings Head inn, busy serving food and beverages since around 1455 no less. Now owned by the National Trust, the popular Farmers’ Bar within the King’s Head site has been run by the Chiltern Brewery since 2005. Follow the cobbled passageway into the courtyard that dates back to the early 14th century when it was the original busy market square.

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The enclosure of the quiet courtyard with additional stables to the one at the rear once provided stabling for nearly thirty horses, hard to imagine now.

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St Mary the Virgin

The old town centre is a crowded cluster of cottages in just a few narrow, largely car-free streets that surround the churchyard of St Mary the Virgin whose ornate clock tower dominates this skyline.

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Many of these dwellings are in fact almshouses, administered by the Thomas Hickman Charity. Founded in 1698, the charity works to support the people of Aylesbury and aims to benefit those in a similar state of need.

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St Mary’s Square

To say these lanes are a delightful surprise is an understatement! A pretty church square with beautiful trees and lopsided headstones are from another age. These multiple small terraced houses or apartments providing accommodation for small numbers of residents can be found all over England, the Netherlands and Norway. Established from the 10th century, the first recorded almshouse in England was founded in York by King Athelstan with many of the medieval almshouses established with the aim of benefiting the soul of the founder or their family. As a result, most were regarded as chantries (saying prayers for the soul of the benefactor to speed their way to heaven), and were dissolved during the Reformation, under an act of 1547.

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The rebuilt 1871 almshouses on Church Street with distinctive Neo-Tudor chimneys

There have been almshouses in Aylesbury since before the 12th century and the provision for assisting the poor typically came from the church, local hospitals and various private benefactors. By the late 17th century, demand grew, due to increased migration from the countryside that continued to put pressure on the Aylesbury parish. It was during this time, that the Thomas Hickman charity was founded, along with other new almshouses including; the Weeden almshouse in Chesham, the Drake almshouses in Amersham and Lady Dodds cottages in Ellesborough and the even older Ewelme Almshouse Charity in Ewelme amongst others (blog post follows).

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A variety of styles along Church Street

These simple dwellings provided space for one person to live in a single room – normally as part of group that stipulated how many where intended for men and how many for women, all of whom received an allowance, or pension that could be money and goods, such as kindling. The Thomas Hickman houses did not follow this pattern and you can enjoy the many sizes and styles alongside one another, that reflect that there is unusually no prescribed limit on the number of occupants, normally one per dwelling.

It is remarkable that such an old welfare system still survives today, is testament to it’s valued place in building communities and giving recipients independence and dignity with a stimulating and beautiful environment that hasn’t suffered the same fate as the rest of the town.

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No8. Church Street ‘the Chantry’.

Further Information:

Various information signs indicate a trail, but I didn’t follow it. Worth the effort I’d say, once past all the concrete to explore this oasis and I will be popping back to wander these calm streets and visit the Bucks County museum.

“The white Aylesbury duck is a universal favourite. Its snowy plumage and comfortable comportment make it a credit to the poultry-yard, while its broad, deep breast and ample back, convey the assurance that your satisfaction will not cease at its death. ”—Isabella Beeton, Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, 1861

You can still buy Aylesbury ducks from the last breeder, Richard Waller, whose family has been breeding them since 1745.

The Thomas Hickman Charity, A Tercentenary History (author Hugh Hanley) is an interesting accompaniment to this feature.

Bucks County Museum is worth a visit and is open throughout the year.

To enjoy Chiltern Brewery finest beer and ale, visit the Kings Head pub.

For more Chilterns ideas and inspiration VisitChilterns.co.uk

The Dinton Hermit

In a sleepy English village, you’ll discover the heady mix of local legend, the shadow of a ghost, a hermit and a royal executioner.

The Dinton Hermit is heady mix of 18th century myths and legends makes for a most remarkable Buckinghamshire story.

Just off the A418, once the turnpike between Thame and Aylesbury, is the small village of Dinton in the Vale of Aylesbury. As with so many ‘if you blink you’ll miss them’ English villages and hamlets, I was delighted that I had stopped to explore the pretty village and its castle, and was intrigued by what I saw, not realising at the time, the historical significance and surprising stories of a royal executioner, a ghost and a hermit with his leather shoes.

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Dinton Hall

A Grade 2 Listed Folly

I almost missed Dinton Castle, a Grade 2 listed folly, located just before the turn off into the village, Although the structure itself is not accessible, the footpath is close enough to take a look. Typical of follies, it was positioned to be seen for miles around and was built by Sir John Vanhatten, former owner of Dinton Hall in 1769, who used the castle to store his collection of fossils. The octagonal two-storied structure, with circular towers east and west, has some lovely features including unusually large ammonites set into the the exterior walls, most likely found in local quarries. On the site of a Saxon burial, it comes with its own ghost too, according to the estate agents sales patter, when the place was put up for auction in 2012.

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Dinton Castle, best seen in the winter

The Regicide

Local legend says the folly is haunted by the ghost of Simon Mayne, 17th century regicide of King Charles. In January 1649, Simon Mayne magistrate and Member of Parliament for Aylesbury, was also a judge of the High Court of Justice at the King’s trial, and 40th of 59 signatories on the Royal death warrant, which ultimately sealed his fate. After the Restoration in 1660, he was tried as a regicide and imprisoned in the Tower of London where he died in 1661. His body was returned to Dinton and is buried in the church.

Buckinghamshire and the Chilterns are closely associated with the English Civil War, with John Hampden, of Great Hampden, the most notable of English politicians involved in challenging the authority of King Charles in the build-up to the Civil War.

The Execution of Charles I of England
The Execution of King Charles I of England, 30th January 1649

Things then take a weird turn with a handmade shoe on display in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford that once belonged to John Bigg, the ‘Dinton Hermit’ (1629 – 1696). A man of reasonable means and former clerk to the afore-mentioned Simon Mayne, legend has it that Bigg may have been one of the hooded executioners of the king – one of the men who wielded the axe!

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John Biggs leather shoe is on display in the ‘Ark to Ashmolean’ gallery

About the time of Simon Mayne’s death, John Bigg became a hermit, living in an underground cave at Dinton Hall for 35 years until his death in 1649. As with any self-respecting local legend, there are many versions of the truth, with some believing that Bigg feared retribution for his involvement in the royal execution, whilst others suggest it was due to the tremendous remorse he felt. Either way, he was a survivor, and resourceful soul who only asked for one thing from his community – leather, which he would immediately nail to his clothes.

A heady mix of 18th century myths and legends makes for a most remarkable Buckinghamshire story.

The 18th century illustration shows his strange horned cloak and the three bottles that hung from his girdle for strong and small beer as well as for milk. His shoes are particularly large and made from over 1,000 pieces of leather, one piece hammered on top of the other as they become worn. One shoe is on display in the ‘Ark to Ashmolean’ gallery on the Lower Ground floor of the Ashmolean Museum, whilst the companion to this shoe is still housed at Dinton Hall.

John Bigg
Portraits, memoirs, and characters, of remarkable persons: John Bigg

His remarkable story and illustration was included in the wonderful ‘Portraits, memoirs, and characters, of remarkable persons, from the revolution in 1688 to the end of the reign of George II : collected from the most authentic accounts extant. Author: James Caulfield 1764-1826.

Further Information:

Dinton Hall is a private residence, and nothing remains of John’s cave, and in January 2017, planning permission was granted by Aylesbury Vale District Council for the castle to be renovated into a two-bedroomed dwelling (building work is now well underway), but that shouldn’t stop you having a wander around the village.

There are lots more quirky Chilterns stories, including the story of the Tring Tiles, Peter the Wild Boy and Growing Stones.

Find your own Chilterns castle and for further Chilterns inspiration, head over to VistChilterns.co.uk

Grand Designs

Wednesday September 19th at 21.00 GMT, the folly will feature in the Channel Four Grand Designs programme with Kevin McCloud.