A funeral at Tyneham
Ivan Ruff’s research into Tyneham’s history has uncovered the sad story of little Phoebe Grebbell. Here he tells her tale.
Published in July ’10
In the autumn of 1872 the weather along the Tyneham valley was terrible. On many days it rained so hard that large numbers of children stayed away from school, the attendance figure sometimes dropping to single figures. From Worbarrow in particular the route was difficult. In those days there was no road between the village and the bay, and children making their way to school had to negotiate fields of deep grass, climbing the planks of the bar-gates wherever encountered, and prolonged heavy rain was often sufficient excuse for staying away. But the Worbarrow children were important to the survival of the Tyneham school. Numbers, and the pence which parents had to send in with the children, mattered. And Worbarrow provided numbers.
The two communities could not have been less similar. Tyneham village itself, the cluster of cottages around the church, existed to service the needs of the Great House and its adjacent farms. Some of its families stayed for generations, while many others soon moved on in response to overcrowded cottages or the dictates of agricultural employment. Worbarrow, on the other hand, although officially part of the parish of Tyneham, had been for at least two centuries the preserve of the Miller family, expert fishermen and smugglers. The Millers were a clan, descended according to legend from two Spanish sailors of the Armada who, having been shipwrecked on the coast of Scotland, had made their way south to Worbarrow Bay. All in all they were a far cry from the servants and farm labourers of Tyneham village.
But for the last hundred years the Millers had had company, in the form of a coastguard station set up there in part to police the activities of seagoing men such as themselves. The station comprised a long terrace of housing – far from picturesque, it has to be said – constructed on the rising ground opposite Worbarrow Tout. When you stand on the flat area where the information panel has now been placed, you are on the site of the coastguard station – the retaining wall you see if you look round to your left formed its rear boundary. The station itself was closed and pulled down a century ago, and all around the site the Millers’ once defiantly independent cottages, victims of a later destruction, lie in ruins.
The coastguards were a new breed in the district. All former sailors, they were professionals – they wore uniforms, had a career structure with a pension at the end of it, and were regularly moved from place to place both for promotion and to prevent too cosy a contact developing with the locals. Lilian Bond, in her Tyneham memoir, describes the relationship between the coastguard and the Millers as ‘a state of armed neutrality’. But although no coastguard stayed in the bay for more than a few years, their growing families sent many pupils to the Tyneham schoolroom. The teacher’s log-book regularly records that the coastguard children are among the ‘sharpest’ of the scholars.
The Grebbell family alone, having moved from the station at Kimmeridge a few years earlier, had brought six children to the school. George and Jane Grebbell had originally come from Devon with two young children, and six more had been born at Kimmeridge. Now, at Worbarrow, ten adults and children crowded into one of the modest coastguard houses overlooking the bay.
In the midst of this rain-soaked autumn of 1872 the Tyneham school log for 22 November records that ‘one of the 3rd Standard girls died from brain fever after a fortnight’s severe suffering – much regretted by all.’ ‘The ‘severe suffering’ is something we can only guess at, in that age without painkillers or antibiotics. Equally difficult to picture are the domestic conditions in which the girl became ill and finally succumbed to death. There was no medical care in this corner of Purbeck and, even if a doctor had ridden over the hills from Wareham, there would have been little he could do except prepare the parents for the worst.
The girl in question, not named in the log-book, was Phoebe Caroline Grebbell, seventh of the eight children of the coastguard family. Nine years old, she had spent half her short life overlooking Worbarrow Bay and making the mile-long trek to Tyneham school. Now she made that journey for the last time.
Over the years many people had been carried from Worbarrow to the churchyard. Whether the boatsmen of the bay provided their own coffins, or ordered them from elsewhere in the valley, we can’t know, or who made the coffin for Phoebe Grebbell. But we can assume fairly certainly that she would have been carried away manually – after an autumn of such heavy rains the ground would have been difficult for the wheels of a cart to negotiate.
We can picture them setting out, as the coastguards stood by bareheaded, and around the shore the fishermen left the making of their lobster-pots to bow their heads in silent respect. Perhaps one or two accompanied the procession, going ahead to remove the planks from the bar-gates, so the family could make its long, slow journey uninterrupted through the mud and the knee-high grass. Eventually they reached the farmhouse, where the labourers paused from their work to mark the passing of a child they would have seen running by on sunnier days. Here the sombre cortège turned left, for the long trudge up to the village, through the pasture on which we now park our cars.
By now perhaps the parish bier would be waiting to take the coffin on its final stage, as the church bell tolled for its approach. At the street we can see the vicar leading the procession past the row of cottages, whose occupants lower their faces as the Grebbell children follow their sister to the churchyard. The schoolroom is full today, but in that enclosed spot the November daylight is meagre, adding to the gloominess of the unusually hushed schoolroom. ‘All much distressed at the sight of the funeral,’ the teacher writes later. In the darkening room she distracts both the class and herself by lighting the candles.
After their time in the church the funeral party re-emerges. The teacher motions the class to rise, and with unaccustomed solemnity they file across to the churchyard. Earlier they saw the grave being dug, but only now does its reality strike home to them. To a background of weeping, as the vicar intones from the burial service, the schoolchildren make their way to the graveside – ‘sufficiently composed to go to the grave,’ the schoolteacher records, ‘each with a bunch of flowers’. ‘But’, she adds, ‘on leaving their distress was renewed.’ They return to the schoolroom, where she attempts to calm them. ‘Made a few remarks on the uncertainty of life.’
The teacher who evokes this scene is Ellen Coates. Now in her second year at Tyneham, she is the youngest of the nine children of Thomas Coates, gardener, of Sandford. She has come to the school ‘with nine years’ experience at Kingston and Wareham’ – in other words, having begun as a Monitress at the age of thirteen, one of a formidable generation of young women for whom the 1870 Education Act has brought the possibility of a career beyond the common fate of dressmaking or domestic service. When she makes this entry in the school log-book she is 23 years old.
Meanwhile in the churchyard the drama finally reaches its conclusion. But to our modern inquisitive eyes one detail, almost impertinently, stands out. ‘Each with a bunch of flowers’ – we have to wonder what flowers, at the end of November, these could be. Were they in fact wild fruits – hips and haws, roast-beef-plant, lords and ladies? What does Ellen Coates mean when she writes this? And yet our minds want to hang on to the image, of the Tyneham children carrying flowers to the grave of their schoolmate. Even in November, flowers it has to be.
The Grebbells have no more children. By 1881 they are back in Devon, three of the children still living with their parents, Worbarrow a fading memory. The grave remains unmarked, or at least if a stone is erected it does not survive, while Phoebe Grebbell herself joins the large number of uncommemorated dead who lie in Tyneham churchyard, one of the hundreds of former inhabitants whose presence we feel whenever we visit this most haunted, and haunting, of places.
1-5 Rodney Legg Collection