The Daniels of Beaminster
Rupert Willoughby looks at 22 generations of a family linked with Beaminster and a rather special burial place at Knowle
Published in October ’11
There is a certain irony to the fact that the burial-ground at Knowle, in the parish of Beaminster, was founded by James Daniel, to commemorate his miraculous escape from death. The Daniels, originally yeoman farmers, are a very ancient Beaminster family, whose association with Knowle Farm can be traced back to the 14th century.
For generations, the Daniels were buried either outside, or within, the parish church in Beaminster. In Tudor times, they were commemorated there by a marble tombstone (now lost). However, like many in Beaminster, they were to embrace Puritanism. By the middle of the 17th century, they were often far from happy with the way things were conducted in St Mary’s.
James Daniel, who ran the farm at Knowle, was born in 1615 and became an Attorney. In his religion, James was stubbornly nonconformist. In 1684, he and his sons were reported by the churchwardens ‘for not frequenting their parish church at divine service’. James must have felt keenly affronted, for, on 11 June 1685, with other Beaminster dissenters, but not his young sons, he enlisted under the ‘Blue Flag’ of the Duke of Monmouth on his landing at Lyme. Aged about seventy, he was present at the subsequent Battle of Sedgemoor (6 July 1685), in which the forces of the pretender were soundly defeated by the army of King James.
The story goes that, having returned to Beaminster with a price on his head, Daniel shut himself away in a chamber of his house. The original building, on Hogshill Street, was substantially altered after a fire in 1781, but its successor is known to this day as ‘Daniel’s House’. It was, frankly, a rather obvious hiding-place. He is therefore said to have prayed earnestly for guidance, and to have been answered with the advice that he ‘Flee to the West’. Thus inspired, he made his way to Knowle, where he hid himself under a pile of straw in his barn.
The King’s troops soon arrived at Daniel’s House, where they conducted a thorough, but fruitless search. Acting upon information as to his probable whereabouts, they then pursued him to Knowle, burst into the barn and searched it all over – even stabbing the straw with their bayonets in the expectation of flushing out the fugitive. Unaccountably, the soldiers failed either to discover or harm their quarry.
James was convinced that he had been spared from a number of unpleasant alternatives by divine intervention. Other Beaminster rebels were caught and tried at the ‘Bloody Assizes’ that autumn. They were respectively bound over and transported to Barbados; the remains of less fortunate victims were hung from the tower of the parish church. Bent on commemorating his miraculous escape, the pious James set aside the site of the barn as his and his family’s place of burial. There it was that he was buried on 11 May 1711, following his death at the age of about 96.
The connection between Knowle Farm and the Daniels remained until 1956 when, along with the family house in Hogshill Street, it was sold by Marian Daniel, the last of the direct line. The freehold of the burial-ground had, however, been conveyed by the family to the Church in 1858, as a preliminary to its consecration, which was pronounced by the Bishop of Salisbury in 1860.
Since 1956, female-line descendants of the family have continued to care lovingly for the site, reserving their rights of burial there and of access across the adjoining farm. By a conveyance dated 22 January 2002, pursuant to a Pastoral Measure signed by the Queen herself, the freehold of Daniel’s Knowle was restored to their representative, the present writer, in order to safeguard
its future. The 21st generation of the family to be associated with Knowle, he has repaired and currently maintains the site.
James Daniel has left many thousands of descendants, but the right of burial at Knowle seems always to have been reserved for the senior line of his heirs and their close relatives by marriage. James’s grandson and namesake followed him into the legal profession and became one of the coroners for Dorset, but the coroner’s brother John, ‘celebrated surgeon of this town’ (who is oddly buried not at Knowle but in the churchyard), began a medical tradition in the family in 1743, one which continues to
The last resting places of 23 people are marked by ten stone tombs or monuments (others, of children and servants, are unmarked). These ten markers include those for Thomas Hine of Beaminster, Mercer, and Elizabeth his wife, daughter of James Daniel the Coroner. One of their sons, Thomas, emigrated to France in 1793, and founded the famous Cognac house that still bears his name. Captain Joseph Bishop, from Chedington, married Dr John Daniel’s daughter Betsy in 1792, and lived at Northfield Farm. Sarah (died 1867) and Joseph Symes (died 1878), from nearby Horsehill in Stoke Abbott, were the sister and brother of Susan and Fanny Symes, the wives of Dr James and Dr Thomas Daniel. A possession of their family since 1686, Horsehill was left to the younger Dr Thomas Daniel, and sold by him in 1914.
Sarah Anne (1844-73), first wife of Dr William James Daniel, was the daughter of John May of Plymouth, and is said to have been buried at Knowle despite her wishes.
The horses drawing the hearse are said to have shied as they approached the cemetery, as if confronted by her angry ghost!
Until the first half of the 19th century, the Daniels remained strict Nonconformists. They were Congregationalists, and helped to build and maintain the meeting house in the town that has now been converted into a museum.
Having restored their allegiance to the Church of England, many members of the family elected to be buried in the churchyard of Holy Trinity, the town’s second church (completed in 1851), which is now disused.
Tucked under the boundary wall on the south side of the parish churchyard, a fine altar tomb still commemorates an 18th-century branch of the Daniel family. John Daniel, who ‘sweetly fell asleep’ on Monday 4 June 1781 and was buried here three days later, is described on the tomb as ‘a celebrated Surgeon of this town’, though he was also an apothecary and a grocer.
Born in about 1717, the younger brother of James the Coroner and grandson of ‘Sedgemoor’ James. he was only four when his father died, but prospered nonetheless, serving his apprenticeship with Thomas Northcote, Surgeon. He acquired a pair of houses in the Foreplace and, according to a biographical notice of his son, built up ‘an extensive practice in Beaminster’.
John was instrumental in building the town’s new ‘Meeting House’ for Nonconformists. It stood ‘behind a row of cottages and was approached by a narrow passage-way… both for the better protection of the fabric and for those assembled for religious services therein’. It seems the doors were constantly being forced, and stones thrown at the windows, and only in 1826 was it safe to extend it to
John was highly esteemed in Beaminster, the attorney John Banger Russell describing him as ‘a very worthy, honest Man, of great Eminence in his Profession’. According to the inscription on the tomb, John was ‘adorned with polite literature’ and ‘remembered for probity, benevolence and piety’.
His wife Hannah joined him in the tomb in 1785, three of their six children having predeceased them. Their eldest son, Samuel, had graduated as a Doctor of Medicine at Edinburgh in 1776. Though Samuel settled at Crewkerne in 1790, he was brought home for burial in 1799.
It may seem surprising that these Daniels were buried in the parish churchyard and not at Knowle, but younger children seem, by informal convention, to have been excluded. The table-tomb of the two doctors would otherwise have been a fine adornment to Daniel’s Knowle.
Although the direct line of Daniels died out in 1972, there are numerous living descendants of Dr Thomas Palmer Daniel, who is buried under the finest of the tombs at Knowle. The senior line of Daniel heirs is now the Willoughby family, which descends from his elder granddaughter, Edith Croft Daniel.
Willoughby Mason Willoughby, M.D. (1875 – 1936), who married Edith in 1901, was educated at Plymouth College, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge and St Bartholomew’s Hospital, and became Medical Officer of Health to both the Port and City of London. Willoughby was an early advocate of cremation, arguing in an article in The Times that cemeteries were overcrowded and a health risk. Not surprisingly, there have been no Willoughby burials at Knowle.
• Visitors to the burial ground at Knowle are very welcome, but are advised that access is by permission only. They are asked to respect the privacy of the landowner, as well as the sacredness of the site, and to avoid any contact with the fragile tombstones. See www.rupertwilloughby.co.uk/daniels-knowle for further information on the site.