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Wimborne has their bones

John Perry celebrates the 150th anniversary of Wimborne Cemetery by looking at some of the intriguing characters who lie there

The middle of the 19th century saw the decision to cease burials in the grounds of Wimborne Minter – there simply wasn’t any more room! In 1855, four acres and thirty-six poles of land were purchased from Henry Castleman, at a cost of £658-15s, to establish the new cemetery and work began on the lodge and chapels that still grace this rather pleasant rural burial ground to the west of the town. 1 April 1856 marked the first burial – a two-year-old child, Walter Noah Cull, who had died at the union workhouse in Wimborne, was buried in an unmarked grave. Shortly after, John Eaton, the builder of the chapels, was inspecting his work on horseback when he was thrown from his mount and died. He became the fourth interment, this time marked by a Portland headstone in section 7 of the cemetery quite close to the chapel, for it was believed then that the closer you were buried to one of the chapels, the closer you were to God.

The ill-fated Captain John Hanham was the great-grandfather of Sir Michael Hanham, 12th baronet and the present occupant of Deans Court, Wimborne. He is buried in section 8 of the cemetery. Captain Hanham was killed by a single bullet at Fulwood Barracks at Preston in Lancashire in September 1861. According to a contemporary report, Capt. Hanham and the commanding officer of the Fulwood depot, Col. Hugh Crofton, were walking across the barracks square when a shot was fired, causing both to stagger and fall. A bullet from the rifle of the assassin had passed right through Col. Crofton’s lungs then through the chest of his companion and one of his lungs and lodged in his back; when it was extracted it was found to be quite flat. Col. Crofton died instantly and Capt. Hanham a few days later.

Private Patrick McCaffrey, aged 19, was arrested and it quickly came to light that his target had been Capt. Hanham, his motive being to avenge the ‘considerable punishment’ the officer had imposed on him. He was said to show no remorse, saying that he had only intended to kill Capt. Hanham but that the death of Col. Crofton did not matter. The Wimborne Company of Volunteers provided an escort as the funeral procession of Capt. Hanham, followed by a huge crowd, wound its way by torchlight to the cemetery, where the officer was buried with military honours. Private McCaffrey was convicted of murder and publicly hanged outside Kirkdale Jail, Liverpool, in January 1862.

Cricket pads, gloves and the earliest of bowling machines were the inventions of Nicholas Wanostrocht, who died on 3 September 1876 and was buried in section 8 of Wimborne Cemetery. Wanostrocht was one of the celebrity cricketers of the generation before WG Grace. He was an excellent left-handed bat and he invented cricketing equipment such as batting gloves and ‘longitudinal socks’ of linen filled with strips of rubber, worn under the trousers, later to become pads! He sold his patent in 1848 to Duke & Sons, the ball and equipment maker. Wanostrocht also invented an automatic bowling machine, the Catapulta, and was the author of an illustrated book on cricket called Felix on the Bat, published in 1845. Wanostrocht adopted the name of Felix not only for publishing purposes but also because amateur cricket in the early 19th century was not thought of as a gentlemanly pursuit, associated as it was with betting and gambling. His first recorded appearance under the name Nicholas Felix was at Lord’s Cricket Ground in 1828 but his career really started in earnest when he joined Kent County Cricket Club in 1834.

Finally retiring from cricket in 1852, Wanostrocht moved to Brighton and managed a precarious existence as a portrait painter before moving to Wimborne in 1872. He had had a long association with Wimborne, visiting on many occasions from 1840 onwards. On one occasion he nearly drowned in the nearby River Stour! In retirement and deteriorating health he still took an interest in cricket and in a field next to his house, 1 Julian Villas (now 23 Julians Road), he coached the local boys.

Montague John Druitt died in late 1888, aged 31 years, and is buried in section 8 to the west of the chapel. Montague Druitt was the second son of William Druitt, Wimborne’s leading surgeon. The Druitts lived in Westfield House, which still stands. Montague Druitt was educated at Winchester and Oxford and became a barrister on the Western Circuit and at Winchester Sessions. The Jack the Ripper murders are the most famous in the history of crime; they were never solved, but countless books have been written about them and solutions offered. Apparently Sir Melville MacNaughton of Scotland Yard was convinced that Druitt was the Ripper and in a confidential memo says, ‘He was sexually insane and from private information I have little doubt but that his own family believed him to have been the murderer.’ Druitt’s mother died incurably insane and Druitt drowned himself in the Thames. The police considered the Ripper case closed after Druitt’s suicide. Certainly the dreadful killings perpetrated by Jack the Ripper were never repeated beyond Druitt’s death.

If ever there was a case for a British ‘Saving Private Ryan’ scenario, it played itself out in Wimborne during the Second World War. Rev. Canon Archibald Leslie Keith MA and his wife, Margaret Layard Keith, were the parents of eight sons and one daughter. Rev. Keith became vicar of Wimborne Minster in 1920 and lived at the Vicarage, King Street, Wimborne. He served the Minster until his retirement in 1946. He died in 1956 and is interred in Wimborne Cemetery.

One son, Michael Keith, died in a mountaineering accident in the Swiss Alps during the summer of 1939, aged 21. No fewer than four of his brothers died during the War: Archibald Evelyn Keith in 1941 during the German invasion of Crete; David Wimborne Keith in Algeria in June 1943; Hugh Sydney Keith, who was in the Navy, in August 1943 on the way to Malta; and Geoffrey Keith taking part in the invasion of Italy in November 1943. The strong Christian faith of Rev. Keith and his wife upheld them and they continued their ministry in the parish, although these terrible losses told on the health of both of them.

Billy Burden, Wimborne’s ‘Mr Laughter’, died in June 1994 aged 79 years and is buried in section 21 of the cemetery. The son of a council linesman, Ernest Burden, and Elizabeth Burden, he lived in Wimborne all his life and entertained millions, including the Queen Mother at a Royal Command Performance in the 1960s. He is remembered particularly for his oft-repeated one-liner: ”Tis a long walk from Dorset.’

His theatrical life began at the Salisbury Playhouse when he responded to an advertisement in The Stage. After a series of comedy roles he appeared in Jack and the Beanstalk, where he played Simple Simon as a country bumpkin. It was a turning point. The celebrated impresario, Clarkson Rose, invited him to create a stand-up comic from the character. For the next forty years that innocent rustic figure with the endless stock of often endearingly self-deprecating stories enabled Billy Burden to become almost a fixture on BBC’s ‘Workers Playtime’, to carve a notable career in pantomime and summer seasons and to work with all the leading performers during the post-war years.

The cemetery, which now comprises close to thirteen acres, has been acquired for just £7300 over the years and now contains over 12,500 interments, including ashes in two Gardens of Remembrance. Ken Richmond and now his son, Brian, have been Superintendents of the cemetery since 1956, one-third of its existence. This is just one of the remarkable facts emerging from the full commemoration exhibition that is part of the Priest’s House Museum summer displays a and will be on show until 31 October.

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