Tales of a cup, an obelisk and a grave matter

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The Morpeth Unanimous Society was founded in 1789 and had its rules registered under the Act at the Quarter Sessions, held at Morpeth in May 1794.

Since writing about it last year, I have found a reference to another such society, or perhaps it was the same one, in a booklet about the civic regalia published by Castle Morpeth in 1984.

It states: “A George III plain circular tapered cup engraved ‘The Friendly Society held at the House of T.C. Esther voted this to Mr Thomas Flint for his upright conduct as Treasurer, Morpeth June 1, 1818’.”

The town treasures were on display during the Heritage Open Days last year so I went along, hoping to be able to see it.

It was not to be. Norman Froud, the Town Hall Caretaker, said that when the county council took over from Castle Morpeth, the Internal Audit team checked the Town Hall inventory and found two items missing. Unfortunately, Mr Flint’s cup was one of them.

A man called Thomas Flint, belonging to the Cordwainers’ Company, was admitted as a Freeman of Morpeth on April 19, 1819. Flint is not a common name so this could well be the same man, or perhaps a relation.

There is no directory for Morpeth in the 19th century before 1827, but in that year we find that Ann Flint was landlady of the Greyhound Inn in Silver Street (i.e. upper Newgate Street).

She presumably had some connection with Thomas Flint, but whether as wife, sister or daughter, we do not know.

Mr Flint’s cup probably still exists somewhere, and may turn up again one day. Meanwhile, it is shown in the black and white photograph, standing between the two ring-handled cups.

Esther is, likewise, not a common surname, but in 1827 one Henry Esther was landlord of the White Swan in Newgate Street so it maybe that that was where Mr Flint’s friendly society met.

Another event that week, this time in the Corn Exchange, was the Collingwood Society Lecture. It was given by Vera Vaggs and was about Alexander Davison, the friend and prize agent of Admiral Lord Nelson.

Such was Davison’s admiration for Nelson that he laid out the plantations in his park to represent the British fleet at Aboukir Bay during the Battle of the Nile, named his son after him, and erected an obelisk to him at the side of the Great North Road.

Mrs Vaggs’ talk inspired me to go and see the Obelisk for myself. It stands beside what is now a quiet back lane.

The inscription says: “Not to commemorate the public virtues and heroic achievements of Nelson, which is the duty of England, but to the memory of private friendship, this erection is dedicated by Alexander Davison of Swarland Hall.”

Coming back on the bike from photographing the obelisk, I stopped off at Felton Cemetery. I was remembering a discussion in the Cemetery Committee some years ago about which way round people are buried.

The norm, of course, is facing east, with the feet towards the east and the head towards the west, but somebody remarked that a Roman Catholic priest’s grave in the cemetery actually faces west.

This is clearly something that would only be done with good reason. But what was the reason?

An article by Northumberland County Council, which is much-quoted on the internet, makes the point that the practice of burial facing the east pre-dates Christianity. The sun rises in the east so the deceased is actually facing the rising sun.

Unfortunately, nobody gives a link so it may that the webpage doesn’t exist any more.

The general view amongst archaeologists is that the Pagan Anglo-Saxons buried their dead both ways round, but with a slight preference for facing east. After they became Christians, however, and especially after they began burying their dead in church yards, east became normal.

The Catholic Encyclopaedia, which was published in America in 1905-14 and is available online, draws a distinction between the funeral service and the actual burial:

“The present (i.e. early 1900s) rubric directs that if the corpse be that of a layman the feet are to be turned towards the altar; if on the other hand the corpse be that of a priest, then the position is reversed, the head being towards the altar.

“On the other hand, the medieval liturgists apparently know no exception to their rule that both before the altar and in the grave the feet of all Christians should be pointed to the East.

“But...it is noteworthy that in the Greek Church very pronounced differences have been recognised from an early date.

"The idea of both seems to be that the bishop (or priest) in death should occupy the same position in the church as during life, i.e. facing his people whom he taught and blessed in Christ's name.”

This is obviously why, at Felton, the grave of Fr John O’Doherty, who died in 1954, faces west.

Immediately behind it, however, is the grave of a Roman Catholic layman, John Giffard Riddell of Felton Park, 1830-1901, and his wife.

It has a tall Celtic cross, and it too faces west.