Updated February 2006
The Baskerville Story
This story has been written about many times before for those of you who have never heard of it, John Baskerville the famous Birmingham Printer who died in 1775 was buried quite a few times.
John Baskerville was born 1706 at Sion Hill, Wolverley, Worcester, England. By 1723, he had become a writing master and skilled engraver of gravestones. In 1738 he started a very successful varnishing ("japanning") business in Birmingham and within a decade he became a very wealthy man. Around 1750, he began experimenting with paper making, ink manufacturing, type founding, and printing, and about 1754 Baskerville produced his first typeface. (The punches were cut by John Handy who worked for him for 28 years, until Baskerville's death.) Three years later, in 1757, Baskerville published his first work, the Virgil, which was followed by some fifty other classics.
He was a very wealthy man there are buildings and roads named after him in Birmingham.
John Baskerville was an athiest and because of this in the Georgian times that he lived in was reviled by the clergy. In his will of 1773 he stated that he was to be buried in a conical tomb that he had constructed and to be buried on unconsecrated ground in his garden at Easy Hill Birmingham.
His epitaph that he wrote himself was inscribed on the tomb and really shows the contempt that he had for the clergy.
"Stranger, beneath this cone in unconsecrated ground,
a friend to the liberties of Mankind directed his body to be inuru,d
May the example contribute to emancipate the Mind
from the idol fears of
Superstition and the Wicked
arts of Priesthood.
So in 1775 John Baskervilles body was laid to rest in the manner that he stated in his will.
45 years later the Birmingham canal system was being constructed Gas street basin and the junction for the Birmingham Worcester canal around the Sheepcote Street area bisected the grounds of the Baskerville estate.
This following newspaper clipping (probably the Birmingham Post or its ancestor) is dated May 1827.
" Disinterment - On Friday the remains of the celebrated John Baskerville, were disinterred in Birmingham. This gentleman, well known for the improvement he made in letter founding; was buried by an express direction contained in his will, in his own ground, in a Mausoleum erected for the purpose previous to his death. After his death the ground passed into the hands of Samual Ryland, Esq., who demised it to Mr. Gibson, who has since cut a canal through it. Soon after Mr.Ryland became possessor of this property, the Mausoleum erected for the purpose, which was a small conical building, was taken down and it was rumored at the tine, that the body had been removed. This proves to be ill founded, for it appears that a short tine before Christmas last, some workmen who were employed in getting gravel, discovered the leaden coffin. It was however immediately covered up, and remained untouched until Friday last, when the coffin was disinterred. The body was in a singular state of preservation, considering that it had been underground for about 46 years. It was wrapped in a linen shroud, which was very perfect and white, and on the breast lay a branch of laurel, faded but entire, and firm in texture. There were also leaves and sprigs of bay and laurel in other parts of the coffin and on the body. The skin on the face was dry but perfect. The eyes were gone, but eye brows, the eye lashes, lips and teeth remained. The skin on the abdomen and body generally was in the same state with the face. An exceedingly offensive and oppressive effluvia strongly resembling decayed cheese, arose from the body, and rendered it necessary to close the coffin in a short tine, and it was reentered. The putrefactive process must have been arrested by the leaden coffin having been sealed hermetically, and thus access of the air prevented. Mr. Baskerville was born at Wolverly, in this county, in 1706 and inherited a small paternal estate. He was Possessed of a natural elegance of taste, which distinguished every thing which came from his hands. His house, planned by himself, was more decorated with architectural ornament than any in Birmingham. The panels of his carriage were elegant pictures, and a pair of beautiful cream horses drew him. He loved fine clothes, and indeed seems in all respects to have been fond of show, united with something of singularity."
A subcontractor called Gibson had the task to do the digging in this area, some gangers working for him found the coffin, and probably with the thoughts of finding something valuable opened the coffin.
When Gibson heard of this he was shocked and worried that someone may hear of the event.
So he had the coffin and its contents taken to a warehouse of his and it was put into a corner and covered with sand.
Gibson had a friend who he thought highly of, and told him of the deed.
The Friend Alfred Bunn became very interested and told Gibson that he had friends in Cradley who be very interested in the coffin and its contents.
According to the Cradley chronicler Caleb Woodhouse the coffin and contents were collected from the warehouse and taken to the house of a Mr Billingham at Cradley where Mr Billingham and his wife,
who was a cousin of Alfred Bunn claimed that she was the Great Grandaughter of John Baskerville.
Her Grandmother had been employed at the Baskerville estate around the 1860s and had an illegitimate child the father being John Baskerville.
And that her grandmother had received momentary help from the Baskerville family. John Baskerville had no children within his marriage he only had step children from his wife Sarahs first marriage to Richard Eaves she had lived with Baskerville since 1750, after being deserted by her husband, who had fled the country after carrying out a forgery in a will. On Eaves's death in 1764 Baskerville married her .
After Baskervilles death his will was not very favorable to his step children especially to his nephew Isaac Marston who received £10. Half a century later the Marstons got their own back or so they thought, when they discovered about the theft of the body of John Baskerville by Gibson they demanded return of the body, Gibson then had a problem how could he tell them that the coffin had gone missing. However having many trusted friends he managed to obtain a suitable replacement and dispatched it to the Marstons.
This would have been the body that was found and described in News Paper cutting May 1827
The Marstons then seeking their revenge on John Baskerville displayed the body at their premises in Birmingham as a peep show charging customers to view the mortal remains of the great man.
They soon tired of this and as far as I can be sure he was then buried in the catacombs in Birmingham.
All this then remained Status Qua for another 70 years, when it was decided to find the coffin in the Catocombs under Birmingham and finally put all the rumor's to "bed"
CHRISTCHURCH BIRMINGHAM CATACOMBS.
Of the 633 vaults 136 had been filled but only 135 internment's recorded. One of these was without inscription. On checking the recordings it was found that the person who purchased the freehold of Catacomb 521 was named Barker. And that he or no other member of his family were buried in it.
The Rev. Canon Wilcox overseeing the exhumation was careful to make sure that enough representation from all parties where present, There were present the Mayor Alderman Lawley Parker,The coroner Mr Oliver Pemberton, the medical officer for health Dr Hill. Churchwardens Mr Taylor and Mr W Gay. Mr Timmins outlined the reasons to the people attending stating "A very much buried man, he was buried first at a corner of Easy Row, then at Mr Gibsons Warehouse, and afterwards at Mr Marston shop near Snow Hill." "He is also reported to have been buried at Cradley Netherton in St Philips church".
The vault was opened the lettering found on the coffin was in lead letters soldered onto the lead covering "John Baskerville". Beneath this in chalk "Removed 1829". The body was checked and a piece of putty was found in the jawbone, probably put there to hold the jaw closed whilst the body was on display at Mr Marstons shop at Snow Hill. It was then concluded that this indeed was the body of John Baskerville. And he was again walled up in the vault.
This did not prove or disprove anything all it proved that the body was probably the same one that was in Mr Marstons shop at Snow Hill. If you read Caleb Woodhouses account this body would have been the one that Mr Gibson acquired after losing the real one. According to Caleb the Billingham family "with due reverence the remains of the famous typefounder were placed in the cellar of the cottage and the door invested in three new padlocks." " The Billinghams were members of the Presbyterian church at Cradley and five years later when a death occurred in the family two coffins instead of one were placed in the grave at Park Lane Cradley."
I have some ideas on who this Billingham family may have been I am currently checking the possibles,
Billingham burials at Park Lane 1821-29. If we could find any matches where the female name could be linked as a cousin to the Bunn family then this 200 year mystery would be solved.