by Ross Parish
Thompson’s Grave was once a place according to Victorian authors, that visitors would be conducted to in Mansfield, now it is comparatively less well known, although you may have passed and wonder about its history. Thompson’s Grave can be found high on a hill between the Newark and Southwell Roads, on Berry Hill Lane, in a small area of public park. The grave is one of the most unusual in the country, although it is difficult to see clearly being surrounded by a rough wall with a small gate and a small table tomb with a plaque. The whole edifice is a striking one being encompassed by mature trees. But who is Thomson and why is he buried here?
Although Charles Thompson was Mansfield born he spent much of his life outside of both county and country, becoming an international businessmen. Thompson was born in 1714 but in 1737, he left his widowed mother (as his father had died in 1728) to find his fortune working for Russian merchants Richard Chauncey & Co. He was given the role as a clothing agent for Persia providing materials for the troops of the Nadir Shah.
In those days he needed to travel through Russia and taking a vessel and encountering some severe storms arrived in the court of Empress Catherine at St. Petersburg. Detained by the monarch apparently because of his predecessor had taught the Persians ship building! Finally, she granted him an audience and she was convinced of his intentions and allowed him passage along the Volga. Whilst in Persia, Thompson got embroiled in local politics after the assassination of Kouli Khan and was forced to leave during the bloody turmoil caused by his usurper. Arriving back with a commission he can collected of £4,000, he was encouraged to enter a partnership which saw him sell clothing to the Lisbon market. Whilst in the city he experience the 1775 earthquake and lost much of his property finally recovering the sum of £7000 with the aid of his partner. Finally, he sailed back to England, and returned to the town of his birth. In Mansfield he lived an almost pious life. He would rise early in the morning for prayers and would visit the poor and help them and walk at the end of the day to the very spot which would be his grave.
Indeed charity was foremost to the front of his mind and indicated by his last will and testament. Understandably clothing was in his bequest, with a sum of £400 he asked for ten drab coloured coats with white buttons were to be given to ten poor elderly gentlemen and petticoats for ten elderly women from Mansfield. The bequest asked it to be done in October forever! Any surplus he asked to be given in four penny loaves. Perhaps his longest lasting bequest is the giving of six hundred pounds to Mr. Samuel Brunt to augment with his charity for the ‘better education of such poor children of Mansfield’ an investiment in the future of Mansfield’s children remembered in Brunt’s School.
Why did he choose this then bleak and remote location? Two reasons are given. One is that he was understandably put off burying in the local church when witnesses human remains being dug up from the churchyard and the idea that the churchyard was being filled with remains unceremonially. Secondly, he was concerned that after seeing the damage of the Lisbon earthquake that a high hill would be a safe location. It is said that the local clergy tried to persuade him from his obscure burial place however on the 14th December 1784 he died and his last will and testament recorded pretty precise and clear instructions for his burial:
“I desire that Edmund Bulbie be employed as undertaker; that he make me a good, strong, plain coffin, without any ornaments. That I be dressed in a flannel shirt, better than two yards long, a flannel cap, a slip of flannel around my neck, and in that state put into the coffin, and then to have two yards of plain flannel thrown over me—no shroud snipt or cut. About the coffin, after I am put in, I would have three iron hoops or plates—one towards the head, another about the middle, the third towards the feet, fastened to the coffin; in each of these places to have an iron ring inserted at the upper part of the coffin, for the ropes to run through to let me down into the grave. That six or eight poor men be employed as bearers, to put me into a hearse and take me out, and that they be allowed five shillings apiece. That George Allen and assistants be employed to make my grave; and, if they can make it six yards deep, to be handsomely paid for their trouble; but to make it as deep as they can. I would have my interment as private as possible; no bell to toll; the hearse to go down Bath Lane, to avoid the town; and in the morning, if it can conveniently be.”
Of his unusual grave he wrote:
“I desire that George Allen may be employed to build me a good strong wall, by way of enclosure, seven yards wide within side. I desire that, after my funeral, my executors, at my expense and charge, shall cause as much earth to be brought here as will raise a mount; and, at the proper season of the year, some trees may be planted thereon; and then finish the wall.”
The instructions were followed to the word ad was the curious funeral. This spectacle attracted hundreds on that cold Friday, 17th December. The service was conducted by the vicar with the church’s choir chanting as they walked before his hearse. He was interred within this unusual enclosure which was then surrounded for the threes he asked for, the remains of which exist today.
Now over 200 years later Thompson’s Grave still survives as does his good work no doubt in the money he left – one of the county’s little known benefactors.