Hucknall-Torkard Church - Byron's Grave
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
It was near the close of a fragrant, golden summer day when, having driven from Nottingham, I alighted in the market-place of the little town of Hucknall-Torkard, on a pilgrimage to the grave of Byron. The town is modern and commonplace in appearance,—a straggling collection of low brick dwellings, mostly occupied by colliers. On that day it appeared at its worst; for the widest part of its main street was filled with stalls, benches, wagons, and canvas-covered structures for the display of vegetables and other commodities, which were thus offered for, sale, and it was thronged with rough, noisy, dirty persons, in-tent on barter and traffic, and not indisposed to boisterous pranks and mirth, as they pushed and jostled each other among the crowded booths. This main street terminates at the wall of the graveyard in which stands the little gray church wherein Byron was buried. There is an iron gate in the center of the wall, and in order to reach this it was necessary to thread the mazes of the market-place, and to push aside the canvas flaps of a pedler's stall which had been placed close against it. Next to the churchyard wall is a little cottage, with a bit of garden, devoted, at that time, to potatoes; and there, while waiting for the sexton, I talked with an aged man, who said that he re-membered, as an eye-witness, the funeral of Byron. He stated his age and said that his name was William Callandyne. Pointing to the church, he indicated the place of the Byron vault. "I was the last man," he said, "that went down into it before he was buried there. I was a young fellow then, and curious to see what was going on. The place was full of skulls and bones. I wish you could see my son; he's a clever lad, only he ought to have more of the suaviter in mode." Thus, with the garrulity of wandering age, he prattled on, but his mind was clear and his memory tenacious and positive. There is a good prospect from the region of Hucknall-Torkard Church, and pointing into the distance, when his mind had been brought back to the subject of Byron, my aged interlocutor described, with minute specification of road and lane,-seeming to assume that the names and the turnings were familiar to me, the course of the funeral train from Nottingham to the church. "There were eleven carriages," he said. "They didn't go to. the Abbey" (meaning Newstead), "but came directly here. There were many people to look at them. I remember all about it, and I'm an old man—eighty-two. You're an Italian, I should say," he added. By this time the sexton had come and unlocked the gate, and parting from Mr. Callandyne we presently made our way into the Church of St. James, locking the churchyard gate to exclude rough and possibly mischievous followers. A strange and sad contrast, I thought, between this coarse, turbulent place, by a malign destiny ordained for the grave of Byron, and that peaceful, lovely, majestic church and precinct at Stratford-upon-Avon which enshrine the dust of Shakespeare.
The sexton of the Church of St. James and the parish clerk of Hucknall-Torkard was Mr. John Brown, and a man of sympathetic intelligence, kind heart, and interesting character I found him to be,—large, dark, stalwart, but gentle alike in manner and feeling, and considerate of his visitor. The pilgrim to the literary shrines of England does not always find the neighboring inhabitants either sympathetic with his reverence or conscious of especial sanctity or interest appertaining to the relics which they possess; but honest, manly John Brown of Hucknall-Torkard understood both the hallowing charm of the place and the sentiment, not to say the profound emotion, of the traveler who now beheld for the first time the tomb of Byron. The church has been considerably altered since Byron was buried in it, 1824, yet it retains its fundamental structure and its ancient peculiarities. The tower, a fine specimen of Norman architecture, dark, rugged, and grim, gives indication of great age. It is of a kind often met with in ancient English towns; you can see its brothers at York, Shrewsbury, Canterbury, Worcester, Warwick, and in many places sprinkled over the northern heights of London; but amid its tame surroundings in this little colliery settlement it looms with a peculiar frowning majesty, a certain bleak loneliness, both unique and impressive. The edifice is of the customary crucial form,—a low stone structure, having a peaked roof, which is supported by four great pillars on each side of the center aisle. The ceiling, which is made of heavy timbers, forms almost a true arch above the nave. There are four large windows on each side of the nave, and two on each side of the chancel, which is beneath a roof somewhat lower than that of the main building. Under the pavement of the chancel, and back of the altar rail,—at which it was my privilege to kneel while gazing upon this sacred spot,—is the grave of Byron.. . Nothing is written on the stone that covers his sepulcher except the simple name of BYRON with the dates of his birth and death, in brass letters, surrounded by a wreath of leaves in brass, the gift of the King of Greece; and never did a name seem more stately or a place more hallowed. The dust of the poet reposes between that of his mother on his right hand, and that of his Adams "sole daughter of my house and heart,"—on his left. The mother died on August 1, 1811; the daughter, who had by marriage become the Countess of Lovelace, in 1852. "I buried her with my own hands," said the sexton, John Brown, when, after a little time, he rejoined me at the altar-rail. "I told them exactly where he was laid when they wanted to put that brass on the stone; I remembered it well, for I lowered the coffin of the Countess of Lovelace into this vault, and laid her by her father's side." And when presently we went into the vestry, he produced the Register of Burials and displayed the record of that interment in the following words : "1852. Died at 69 Cumberland Pl. London, Buried December 3. Aged thirty-six.—Curtis Jackson." The Byrons were a short-lived race. The poet himself had just turned thirty-six; his mother was only forty-six when she passed away. This name of Curtis Jackson in the register was that of the rector or curate then incumbent but now departed.. . .
A book has been kept for many years, at the church of Hucknall-Torkard, in which visitors de-siring to do so, can write their names. The first book provided for this purpose was an album given to the church by the poet, Sir John Bowring, and in that there was a record of visitations during the years from 1825 to 1834.
The catalog of pilgrims to the grave of Byron during the last eighty years is not a long one. The votaries of that poet are far less numerous than those of Shakespeare. Custom has made the visit to Stratford "a property of easiness," and Shakespeare is a safe no less than a rightful object of worship. The visit to Hucknall-Torkard is neither as easy nor as agreeable.
On the capital of a column near Byron's tomb I saw two moldering wreaths of laurel, which had hung there for several years; one brought by the Bishop of Norwich, the other by the American poet Joaquin Miller. It was good to see them, and especially to see them beside the tablet of white marble which was placed on that church wall to commemorate the poet, and to be her witness in death, by his loving and beloved sister Augusta Mary Leigh, —a name that is the synonym of noble fidelity, a name that cruel detraction and hideous calumny have done their worst to tarnish. That tablet names him "The Author of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage," and if the conviction of thoughtful men and women throughout the world can be accepted as an authority, no name in the long annals of English literature is more certain of immortality than the name of Byron. His reputation can afford the absence of all memorial to him in Westminster Abbey,-can endure it, perhaps, better than the English nation can,—and it can endure the neglect and censure of the precinct of Notting-ham. That city rejoices in many interesting associations, but all that really hallows it for the stranger is its association with the name of Byron. The stranger will look in vain, however, for any adequate sign of his former connection with that place. It is difficult even to find prints or photo-graphs of the Byron shrine, in the shops of Nottingham.*
*Since this paper was written the buildings that flanked the front wall of Hucknall-Torkard .church. yard have been removed, the street in front of it has been widened, and the church has been "restored" and considerably altered.—Author's note to the Editor.