The Batley Cemetery Incidents: Part One

A sensational headline was recorded in the Batley Reporter and Guardian on 16 June 1905. But how did this incident happen and what was the true story behind it?

John Edward Marsden was an average bloke. Born around 1872 in Dewsbury, he married Rachel Emma Kelsell in 1895 and went on to have three children (Edith, Harry, Hilda) with her. Their eldest was a daughter named Edith, who was born on 27 February 1897. Sadly she passed away aged sixteen months and was buried in plot R 360 on 25 June 1905 at the Cemetery. Her father worked in the mill and could not mark the grave with a headstone, but a bottle was placed on the grave, containing a card with Edith’s name written on it. Furthermore, the grave was enclosed with some red tiles, and Mr. Marsden paid half a crown a year to help keep her plot in order.

The Marsden Plot (R 360) taken by George Hall on 5 Jan 2022

It is unclear precisely from who, but John Marsden heard that his daughter’s grave had been disturbed around May 1905. Obviously, after hearing the chatter, he went to check up on her grave. Much to his horror, he was able to confirm the grave had been disturbed almost immediately as the “little mound” upon the grave had grown by about a foot and also the soil on top of it appeared to be freshly broken. Additionally, the bottle containing the card was removed, and the tiles around the edge were scattered.

However, this was not the most worrying thing as the cut flowers that now upon the grave suggested there had been a fresh internment in it recently. Obviously, as the grave owner, Marsden knew that permission was not granted for the grave to be disturbed nor for a fresh interment, so he went to see Mr. William Henry Atkinson, the Batley Cemetery Registrar.

Atkinson was adamant that the grave hadn’t been disturbed at first and went into his office and checked his book. Marsden insisted that the grave had been disturbed, and Atkinson reviewed another book and consulted the grave plan. Both men then decided to check the grave together, where Atkinson hoped to convince Marsden that the grave hadn’t been touched.

Once at the grave, it was pretty obvious for the reasons said before that it had been disturbed, and Atkinson admitted that a mistake had been made but assured Marsden that the mistake would be “put right”.

The Twin Chapels located at Batley Cemetery in July 2021

Marsden called upon Atkinson a fortnight later, and he was told that the situation had been resolved. However, Marsden reasonably wished to receive some proof, and after some convincing, both men visited the grave, and Atkinson took a rod and bored it into the soil. He then said that it had gone to the bottom and, therefore, Mr. Marsden’s daughter was the only person interred in the grave. Mrs. Marsden visited the grave after it had been “put right” and noted that the cut flowers previously on her daughters grave had been moved to another grave nearby.

Mr. Atkinson was called upon for a statement by the Batley Reporter and Guardian. He explained that when a grave is opened for another interment, a rod is placed upon it in an upright position. Mr. Atkinson didn’t necessarily see the said graves until the interment took place but still was unsure exactly why or how Mr. Marsden’s plot was disturbed. Perhaps the rod had been placed incorrectly or moved by some unknown party from the intended plot to Marsden’s, which were situated close to each other. He also explained the fact that his daughter had been seriously ill around the time of the burial and was therefore not in his usual state of mind.

Nevertheless, Mr. Atkinson took responsibility for the mistake and ensured that the deceased was reinterred into the correct grave. However, Mr. Atkinson didn’t write to the Home Office to ask for permission to reopen the grave as was the law. Therefore in July 1905, the Cemetery Committee heard a letter addressed to the Mayor of Batley from the Secretary of State asking for his observations of the matter. A subcommittee was formed to discuss the matter after the Cemetery Committee met on 15 June 1905 and met on 16 June 1905.

Now you may be asking, who was the person interred into the incorrect grave? Atkinson gave us a clue as he stated it was a woman but logically refused to provide a name. After looking at the Batley Cemetery burial register located at Batley Library, I believe that Mrs. Susan Regan, a 70-year-old widow, was incorrectly buried in the Marsden plot.

Blue = Marsden plot, Orange = Regan plot

She resided on Talbot Row, which was located on Bradford Road. She was meant to be buried in R 363, which is situated close to R 360, the Marsden plot. Furthermore, the burial date of 13 May 1905 allows Mr. Marsden to discover the issue, report it to Mr. Atkinson, and come back in two weeks time. After that, the excess time can account for gossip spreading, which the article (which obviously takes some time to produce) wished to quell. I cannot be 100% certain but there is a strong chance it is her.

Not much was reported in the Batley Borough Council minute books located at the wonderful Batley Library regarding the matter. The subcommittee which was formed isn’t mentioned. The only aspect mentioned is the Mayor’s reply to the aforementioned Secretary of State’s letter, which was approved. Either way, the Committee must have decided against taking any action against Mr. Atkinson as he remained in his post of the Cemetery Registrar.

No matter the reasoning behind the error, it clearly reinforces that everyone is imperfect and human error and chance can affect various fields. Mr. Atkinson shouldn’t be held entirely at fault and clearly took his duties seriously as registrar. However, you would expect lessons to be learnt and changes to be made.

Unfortunately, another familiar headline would be reported in a Batley newspaper a mere two years later.

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