Weird Norfolk: The Boileau scandal at Ketteringham
- Credit: Sonya Duncan
An unholy row broke out after the lord of a Norfolk manor removed coffins from beneath the local church to create room for his own family - it's never wise to disturb the dead...
It was a scandal which rocked a small Norfolk village in the mid 1800s and which kicked up a stink in Ketteringham's St Peter's church that quite literally raised the dead.
John Peter Boileau bought the Ketteringham estate in 1837 and a year later was made a Baronet in Queen Victoria's Coronation Honours – an intelligent and well-read man, he was fascinated by science and history, loved languages and local affairs. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1843 and High Sheriff of Norfolk in 1844: he also represented the county as a Deputy Lieutenant and as a Justice of the Peace.
But his actions in December 1853 most definitely did not lead to peace in Ketteringham.
John's wife Catherine suffered from poor health and, during one of her prolonged illnesses, John began to realise that he needed to be prepared: he quietly set about looking for an appropriate resting place for her and his loved ones.
Beneath the chancel of the nearby St Peter's church lay a vault which contained a series of dilapidated coffins which Sir John assumed contained the remains of a local family which had died out many years previously. With what he believed was the consent of the Bishop and Vicar, he had the coffins removed in the dead of night and reburied in the churchyard.
The vault was then repurposed for the Boileau family, ready to receive Catherine.
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In the following days, the congregation at St Peter's noticed a strange smell - Professor Owen Chadwick's Victorian Miniature, based on the diaries of Sir John and the Reverend Wayte Andrew, notes '…the stench in the church was insufferable. The long-pent odour of death, released after so many years, hung about the pews like a miasma. The matter could not be hid. Before many hours had passed, the entire village knew what had been done.'
A Mr Pemberton, a relative of the bodies Sir John had exhumed and reburied, demanded they were returned to where they had been taken and the Dean of Norwich ordered John to pay for the coffins to be returned to the vault which was swiftly bricked-up to prevent any further attempts to wake the dead.
A report in the Norfolk Chronicle of December 17 said: 'Two policemen were seen returning from the direction of the churchyard, where they had been summoned to superintend the return of no less than six coffins to the place from whence they came.
'Although dead men tell no tales, it seems that living ones are not so particular; accordingly these torch-like proceedings became blazed about and as a natural consequence, reached the ears of those most immediately concerned, who, as may be imagined, took proceedings which ended in the restorations of the remains of the ancient family.Whether it was owing to the fear of the uneasy spirits of the departed of or the hostile proceedings of those that remain, at present the development of the affair remains buried in the depths of futurity.'
Professor Chadwick noted how children at Sunday School laughed out loud when Caroline Boileau, John's daughter, told them that 'God alone can raise the dead from their graves' and added that '…ballads were being composed in the public houses, neighbouring villages began to salute the inhabitants of Ketteringham with the jeer, 'are you one of the body-snatchers?' Popular gossip talked of it as the resurrection case. Sir John Boileau was frequently described in the taverns as 'Resurrection Jack'.'
Traumatised and upset, Sir John sought legal advice about where he should bury his family and in 1854, he was given permission to build a freestanding mausoleum under the sweet chestnut trees in the churchyard. Designed by famous architect Thomas Jeckyll, the small Greek Revival mausoleum was built by Hethersett builder Jeremiah Lofty from Caen stone and has space for 12 coffins. Ironically, Catherine rallied and lived until 1862 and Sir John outlived her by only seven years.
They lie in their mausoleum, their family buried outside the building rather than being entombed within it. The building, which fell into disrepair after 1947 when the family moved away, was repaired by local stonemason Toby Dobson. The repairs were paid for with grants from South Norfolk Council's Buildings Preservation Trust and the Norfolk Churches. The Mausoleum was then transferred into the car of the Mausolea and Monuments Trust in 2006.For more Weird Norfolk click here.