From our Journal


























April 2010

The Unburied Child

My thanks for the following article go to Linda Reid. Linda lives in Canada and when she was researching her South Cambs forbears the Society helped her with "stuff", like photos of houses that she couldn't do from the other side of the Atlantic. Linda is no longer a member but in recognition of the assistance we gave her she thought that this local interest story would be just right for our Journal. Linda found this item in "Google Books", it is from "Friends' Intelligencer", Vol XXXVII Philadelphia, fourth month 24 1880, No 10 Republished by the Harvard Divinity School (page 158 on the PDF version, from Google books)

From Linda Reid

The subject of the once notorious case of "The unburied child" was Jane Rumbold, daughter of John Rumbold, of Bassingbourn, Cambridgeshire, a member of the Congregational Church. She was born on 12th December 1839, was baptised by Charles Moase, the Congregational Minister, in February 8th 1840 and died on 14th February following.

An application was made to the Vicar, W.H. Chapman, for the interment of the child in the churchyard, but he refused to bury it saying he would not bury any child that was baptised at the "meeting". The father then gave notice for the burial of the child on the 17th February; and on that day the body was taken to the churchyard. The vicar, however, would not allow the bell to be tolled, and refused to perform the burial service. The child was therefore taken home again by the father.

Soon after, another child (not of the same family) also baptised by Mr. Moase, died. The vicar refused to bury in that case also and the body was put in the grave without any burial rites. This led Mr Moase to publish a letter to the inhabitants of Bassingbourn, stating the facts, and asserting that the object of the vicar was to compel parents to have their children baptised at church.

Mr Moase also acquainted the vicar's Diocesan, the Bishop of Ely, with the facts and requested him to enforce compliance with the law. The bishop, in his reply, expressed a hope that "the vicar would consider and obey the law", but he declined to enforce obedience.

On receipt of the bishop's letter, the vicar was informed thereof and notice was given for the interment of Jane Rumbold the next day -- the grave still remaining open. The body of the child was then taken the second time to the churchyard; the vicar again refused, and the child was taken home again as before. Mr Moase then published the judgment of the Ecclesiastical court by Sir J. Nicholl, in the well known case of Memps verses Wickes, which fully established the validity of baptism by Dissenters.

A copy of this judgment was forwarded to the vicar, but without effect. The case was then placed in the hands of Mr. John Wilks, secretary to the Protestant Society for the Protection of Religious Liberty. Mr Wilks thereupon wrote to the vicar explaining the law and demanding compliance. That proceeding also proved fruitless, it was resolved to institute legal proceedings against the vicar; but for that purpose a fresh notice for interment was given, "that, at the time appointed, the body of Jane Rumbold would be taken to the churchyard for interment". The child was taken there for the third time, and for the third time the vicar refused to perform the service, and the child was carried home as before. An action was there upon commenced against the vicar, in the Diocesan Court of Ely; but the bishop sent the case up by Letters of Request to the Arches Court. It came before Sir Henry Jenner Fust, the judge of that Court, on the 20th May, 1843. Mr Chapman declined to appear, on the grounds that more than two years had elapsed since his refusal to bury, and that, therefore, according to law, he could not be prosecuted. Judgment was given against him at this point. In 1844 the case was fully argued; the vicar pleading that the child had not been baptised - the baptism being by a layman- and also that the baptism was heretical, because it was performed by a heretic, who was, according to the Canon, ipso facto excommunicate! Judgment was given against him on these and many similar points on November 21st 1844.

The objection was then made that no sufficient notice to bury had been given, and Sir Herbert Jenner Fust decided that it had not been proved that sufficient notice had been given. Judgment thereupon was given in the vicar's favour, with costs.

On January 28th 1845 the friends of the child made an application to the Court of the Queen's Bench for a mandamus to compel the vicar to bury the child.

The Court, while willing to grant the mandamus, thought that out of respect to the decision of the Dean of Arches, the body ought again to be presented. Notice, therefore, was given to the vicar to bury the child on the 30th of January.

The order to bury came somewhat unexpectedly, and, as soon as the news reached Bassingbourn that the "unburied child" was to be buried at noon, the village was in ferment. At twelve o'clock authorised persons attended from Royston to witness the due performance of the service. The bell tolled for Rumbold's child who had died five years before. It was a bitter wintery day and the snow fell fast; but, notwithstanding the inclemency of the weather, the people turned out in crowds to witness the spectacle. The child was buried with the rites of the Church of England, but not by the vicar. That functionary continued his obstinate resistance to the last and the service was, therefore, performed by the Rev. W. Coulcher, Vicar of Whaddon.

Thus, after a protracted and costly litigation, the ashes of Jane Rumbold were for the fifth time borne to the grave and deposited in the parish churchyard by the side of her mother, who had died soon after the child, and ten of her brothers.

No candid reader, whether churchman or not, will deny that this is a discreditable chapter in the history of England, and in the history of the English Church also. But it may be replied, in this case, the clergyman acted contrary to law and that, however censurable his conduct, the law was not in fault. The law not in fault! The fact that this should have been possible is of itself sufficient to condemn the English burial law. It is however more important to inquire how matters stand now. Well, at this moment, forty years have elapsed, an unbaptised person, whether an infant who has died before the rite could be performed, or an adult Quaker, who conscientiously objects to baptism is, in the matter of burial, treated the same way as an excommunicated person, or a suicide. Any who conducts a service over his remains can be prosecuted as for a criminal offence. That is unquestionably the state of the law, even in this year of 1880.


Royston and District Family History Society