The Burials of John Baskerville

As it’s that time of year, for a creepy tale, we here at the library need venture no further than our own front door, or that, should I say, of John Baskerville; the famous japanner and designer of Baskerville type font.

Baskerville, born in 1706/7, in Wolverley, near Kidderminster, sadly died in 1775 in Birmingham.  As a religious sceptic, he did not wish to be buried in consecrated grounds, and instead asked to be buried in his own garden at home on Easy Hill (the area is shown here on Samuel Bradford’s survey of Birmingham, 1750.)

Samuel Bradford’s survey of Birmingham, 1750

Samuel Bradford’s survey of Birmingham, 1750

Easy Hill occupied the same land we approximately do today. (Visitors to the library will know that Baskerville House and the sculpture, Industry and Genius: Monument to John Baskerville, next door commemorate this.)

His request over his resting place, once followed, should therefore have been the quiet end to his physical self. And so it was for around 50 years. However, by the 1820s, Birmingham, still growing, ate into the grounds of Easy Hill – the land being required to expand the canal and other buildings needed to support local industry. Baskerville’s resting place was a place to rest no more. In around 1828 his coffin was uncovered and opened. From here, he passed through the cellar of a Mr. Gibson (where a ghoulish drawing of his face was made!) onto a Mr. Marston at his warehouse in Monmouth Street.  A subsequent recap of one uncovering of Baskerville is chronicled in The Daily Argus:

‘and there lay Baskerville, looking very much the same as he had done in the early day in January, 1775, when he was soldered up, having been previously embalmed with great care. He was beautifully dressed in an embroidered coat, a long fancy satin or silk waistcoat, white silk stockings, and shoes with very large buckles.” The exposure to the air immediately caused the body and clothes to crumble into pieces, and very speedily there was nothing left but his bones.’

The Daily Argus, Wednesday, April 1893.

Oh My! Shivers!

Due to Baskerville’s beliefs, re-interment in a churchyard was complicated and morbidly, it seems that Baskerville’s bones were left on display for a number of years! While there’s no definitive record of when this odd arrangement came to an end, Baskerville was eventually moved from public life, but where he was sent to from there then became another mystery, one lasting for another 70 years or so.

People speculated over to where he had been sent, but as I mentioned, there was nothing which actually recorded what had happened.

In 1893, after a clerical check of the records of the vaults, Baskerville was finally rediscovered in Christ Church, New Street, where he was found in an unmarked vault. It seems he was interred there unofficially after some clandestine run!

Christ Church, New Street [MS 1666]

Christ Church, New Street
[MS 1666]

While the burial registers for Christ Church, New Street, do not record Baskerville’s entry, his rediscovery however, is clearly recorded:

Entry showing the 'rediscovery' of John Baskerville. [EP 26/2/4/1]

Entry showing the ‘rediscovery’ of John Baskerville.
[EP 26/2/4/1]

As it says, they opened the vault, confirmed it was his body, and then closed it again.

Once more, this should seem to be the end to the travels of Baskerville’s now skeleton, and yet, as the next page in the register of Christ Church records, the churchyard was closed just a few years later. The bodies, including Baskerville’s, were all moved. And so Baskerville travelled again, this time, to Warstone Lane Cemetery, where he was finally settled on 24th February 1898, to the place, at last, where he remains to this day.

That’s quite a journey for a man first laid to rest over a century before!

I’ll leave you with the epitaph, Baskerville penned for himself:

Stranger –
Beneath this Cone in unconsecrated ground
A friend to the liberties of mankind directed his body to be inhum’d.
May the example contribute to emancipate thy mind
From the idle fears of superstition
And the wicked arts of Priesthood.

[Reference – http://www.revolutionaryplayers.org.uk/franklin-and-baskerville-epitaphs/]

Rachel Clare
Senior Assistant
Archives & Collections

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2 responses to “The Burials of John Baskerville

  1. Pingback: Burials of John Baskerville | Roger Bussey

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