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Thieves steal skull from 200-year-old tomb and play football with it - now it’s returned to Thetford church

PUBLISHED: 07:59 19 September 2015 | UPDATED: 11:43 19 September 2015

The skull of James Mingay has been returned to the crypt in which his coffin was in, after it was taken out 2 years ago at St Mary the Less Church in Thetford - PCSO Gavin Tampin puts the skull back in the lead coffin. Picture: Matthew Usher.

The skull of James Mingay has been returned to the crypt in which his coffin was in, after it was taken out 2 years ago at St Mary the Less Church in Thetford - PCSO Gavin Tampin puts the skull back in the lead coffin. Picture: Matthew Usher.

© ARCHANT NORFOLK 2015

The skull of James Mingay, who died in 1801, was stolen from his coffin two years ago. Yesterday, it was finally returned to the family tomb.

When James Mingay was buried at Thetford’s St Mary the Less church in 1801, he was the first to be interred in the family crypt.

Over the years, the surgeon was joined by seven more of his family - including his son James Jr, an MP and respected laywer - laid to peaceful rest for evermore.

And save for trespassing creepy crawlies, his body laid sealed in its coffin, undisturbed, for more than 200 years.

That was until 2013.

A tale from the crypt

It could have been a macabre scene from a hammer horror film - a tale from the crypt.

Descending into the dark, dank vault of the Mingay family, the rubble of a destroyed covering beneath our feet, eight coffins revealed themselves in front of us.

Crouching, our head torches scanned the 15 x 6ft chamber, showing that two of the coffins had been ripped open, their lead casings torn, the bones inside exposed.

We had already seen the tattered pews and smashed stained glass of the derelict St Mary the Less church, and been ordered to wear face masks to protect from pigeon droppings.

Down in the half-lit tomb the damaged coffins were another sorry sight.

Treading carefully, PCSO Gavin Tampin then replaced the skull, and the lead plaque to mark the coffin.

Sweating from the claustrophobic space, we emerged for a brief, well-observed ceremony outside the church.

Short and sweet, it was a fitting and respectful way to mark the reinterment of the head of one of Thetford’s greatest families - far removed from what would have taken place at the funeral of James Mingay, held 214 years ago.

The historic Grade II* listed church had been sealed and derelict since 2004, but intruders broke into the building, and smashed their way into the vault.

Once inside, they prised open Mr Mingay’s coffin taking a prominent item - his skull.

According to police, the thieves were then seen throwing the skull around, and even playing football with it.

It was later found by a member of the public dumped on the picturesque Spring Walk and handed into police.

James Mingay

James Mingay was a respected surgeon who ran a prosperous medical practice in Thetford.

He died on January 25, 1801, at the age of 83.

His family originally came from Shotesham, near Norwich, before relocating to Thetford, where he became a benefactor for several churches in the area.

His son, James, was a respected King’s bench barrister and considered one of the finest in the country.

James Jr served as mayor of Thetford, coroner, magistrate and as the town’s MP.

He died in 1812, aged 62, and was also buried in the family vault.

Noone was ever arrested in relation to the incident.

Officers were unable to return the skull to its rightful place - with no way to contact the owner at the time - leaving it lying in a sealed box at Thetford Police station.

But earlier this year, the building was bought by restoration specialist, Dr Jenny Freeman, and an arrangement was made to return Mr Mingay’s skull.

Yesterday, Rev Tony Heywood, from the Thetford Team Ministry, read prayers as the skull was finally replaced. A lead plaque to mark the grave was also returned.

PCSO Gavin Tampin, Breckland Police diversity liaison officer, brought back the skull, and said the macabre ceremony was not an everyday piece of police work, but was important nonetheless.

“We have had real trouble getting hold of the owner of the church and we’re pleased we’ve finally been able to reinter the skull.

“We wanted the reverend here to give the appropriate respect,” he said.

Have you been involved in an unusual service? Let us know by emailing andrew.fitchett@archant.co.uk

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