When Sarah Brightwell’s curiosity got the better of her, it would lead her to an untimely end.
Sarah Brightwell was just 15 years old, when on 9th January 1844 in the village of Mepal, Cambridgeshire, and whilst in the employment of Mr William Brown (probably her maternal uncle or grandfather), she stumbled across a pile of firewood ready for burning.
This wasn’t just any old firewood though, it was the remains of an old wooden bureau that hadn’t been used for years. It was broken up and ready for burning to keep those cold fenland draughts at bay.
Amongst the debris though, was a small packet that caught Sarah’s eye. She picked it up – it’s contents much like a sugar. Sarah’s curiosity overcame her, and she tried it. It was arsenic.
Arsenic in the home
Arsenic was common in the home, and sometimes turns up in old wallpaper or wood preservatives. It may also have had a use as a poison for pests – so buying it was fairly commonplace. It is lethal if ingested.
If taken in large amounts, it can kill within hours. Numerous criminal cases have been recorded, but when in the home it could sit in its clearly marked container – there was even a market for ornately labelled containers – much like coffee and sugar jars today.
In this case though, we have to assume that Sarah did not check the packet for writing, or that she could not read. Upon it was written “Arsenic – Poison”. She took about a teaspoonful, experiencing “violent retching and pain” shortly afterwards, and “died in a few hours”.
Her death certificate, which was fairly common in that it was written for a child during the 1840s, has a full ’cause of death’ column, reading:
“Died from the affects of arsenic inadvertently taken by the deceased without any motive or knowledge of the effect”
Hugh Robert Evans Jnr, Coroner.
Sarah’s death hit the news, with the inquest appearing along two other terrible tragedies from the same Coroner’s session.
The jury, after a long investigation, were:
“fully satisfied that the poor girl, who was of very simple character, took the poison without any motive, and without any knowledge of its nature and effects, and returned a verdict to that purport”.
Inquisitions in the Isle, The Cambridgeshire Independent Press, 1844.
The newspaper inquest story ends with the line “The bureau had not been used for 30 years at least”. I hope it was swiftly burnt.
As for the other two cases in the inquest, both were for people who had burnt to death, one a 76 year old Elizabeth Kimpton of Ely, and the other happens to be another one of my relatives, Mary Hawkins, aged 10 years. Her story will save for another time.
Today, it’s well known for its Christmas trees, Centre Parcs, and finally getting its sweeping A11 bypass on the way to Norwich, but back then, it was my world. We lived in a red brick former gatehouse on the East side of the village, and my playground was acres of swaying cornfields and pine forests. We’d take long bike rides to see our neighbours, and what seems unbelievable today, we’d run across the A11 to go to primary school each day.
A few years ago, I discovered that my paternal Brightwell family had also been resident at Elveden almost 200 years earlier, when my 4x Great Grandfather John Brightwell was born and baptised there with his siblings during the 1780s. A fantastic coincidence!
Another coincidence happened earlier today when I received an email telling me about a new BBC Four documentary, and it’s piqued my interest because it’s all about one of Elveden’s most famous residents.
Born in Lahore in the Sikh Empire (now Punjab, Pakistan) in 1838, Prince Duleep Singh became Maharajah at the tender age of just 5 years old after the death of his father. He would turn out to be the last Maharajah of the Punjab, who was taken into the care of an official of the British Empire. He even had Queen Victoria as his godmother.
He surrendered his Sikh religion and signed away his ancient kingdom to the British – a decision he would come to regret. Instead, he would become a wealthy English country gentleman and part of the social elite, with his own country estate at Elveden.
His estate drew large shooting parties, where the social elite including the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), Duke of Leicester, Duke of Athol, and numerous others during the 1870s. He really was in with the heights of British society.
However, eventually his relationship with Britain turned sour, and he would eventually leave for Paris.
I haven’t seen the documentary yet myself, but I look forward to it. The promo blurb I’ve been sent reads:
This is a documentary about the last Maharajah of the Punjab, Duleep Singh, who was wrenched from his mother’s arms as a child in the 1840s and put into the care of an official of the British Empire. Growing up in a colonial enclave in India, the boy king abandoned his Sikh religion and signed away his ancient kingdom to the British – decisions he would come to bitterly regret. He moved as a teenager to Britain, where Queen Victoria became his godmother. Duleep Singh lived most of his adult life here as a supremely wealthy English country gentleman, part of the British social elite. But, in time, his relationship with Britain turned sour. This documentary retraces the journeys of Duleep Singh and his family: from the royal palaces of the Punjab, to royal palaces in Britain, to his own English country estate, Elveden in Suffolk, to bohemian Paris. The programme uses recently re-discovered letters by Singh, letters and diaries written by those whose knew him, extraordinary photographs and surviving artefacts. We interview historians to get at the motives and inner life of Duleep Singh as he set out to recover his Sikh heritage and turn his back on his colonial past. This is a story from the age of Empire about someone whose life was defined by those historic forces.
The Maharajah’s legacy in Elveden
Whilst my lifetime did not overlap with the Maharajah (he died in 1893, in Paris, and I arrived 80 years later), the impact of his time in Elveden surely did. When he arrived, the Georgian house was vastly upgraded to become a huge hall dressed in Italian styled exterior and complete with some intricately marbled Indian-styled rooms. Staff were installed and with them came their families all needing to be housed in houses like my childhood one.
I was really fortunate to tour the inside of Elveden Hall just days prior to the Christie’s Auction of the house contents in 1984, along with my fellow primary schoolmates. I remember it being huge, and beautiful, even though he had not lived there for decades.
I also remember being dared to ring the doorbell by my sister once on a walk past the front door (it was a daily route to school, right by the front door). I pressed it, heard it ring inside, and then some clunking sounds. I ran for cover behind my mother, and a bewildered caretaker and his daughter emerged.
The Maharajah also helped to upgrade the parish church in 1869 to cater for all the extra residents and staff in the village (it was further extended in 1904). The church sits just across from the hall, and it’s here where he is buried with some of his family.
I returned there in 2012 for my second cousin’s christening.
Whilst I can’t see any of my Brightwell ancestors still resident in Elveden around the time that the Mahrajah was resident, it’s clear that this Sikh Prince went on to have a huge impact on the place they once knew; the place I knew and loved; the British Empire; and the Sikh community.
One of the family trees that I am currently climbing has a bit of an evolutionary name. The most recent incarnations in the late-19th century are ‘Brightle’, ‘Brightley’ and ‘Brightly’ as found in Littleport and Little Downham fenland, Cambridgeshire.
The latter two are clearly pronounced ‘bright-lee’ as in, ‘well lit’, but the first version seems a little odd. Perhaps it still is ‘Bright-lee’ but with just one ‘e’. However, after stumbling across a note that my ancestor John Brightly was born in ‘Elden, Suffolk’, I decided to see what I could find. Not only did he have this changing surname that I wanted to follow, he was also from outside the county – which in my genealogy is quite rare.
I already had a hunch of where ‘Elden’ was but checked it out on Genuki, which confirmed my suspicions.
Much to my delight, my ancestors appeared to be from the same Suffolk village that I had grown up in, gone to school in, and enjoyed living immensely – Elveden, on the Norfolk/Suffolk border. I havent’ lived there for more than 20 years now but this chance coincidence feels like a full circle! Do you ever get that sense of pride or excitement when you visit a place that your ancestor would have known well?
Fortunately, the village is in Suffolk and also classed as West Suffolk, which means that the parish records are deposited at the record office in Bury St Edmunds, so I knew I could easily pay them a visit to check up on the claim of John Brightly’s birthplace.
I found ‘Brightwell’ to be the chosen spelling, and several family members were listed in the births, marriages, and burials – including a Robert Brightwell noted as being a farmer in 1785. ‘Brightwell’ fits with the ‘Brightle’ spelling – if you think of it being pronounced as ‘Bright-all’ – not far from ‘Brightwell’ which with an accent could easily sound like ‘Bright-wall’.
The parish records are copied onto microfiche and it was easy to claim a reader for use. Unfortunately, the mid-late 1700’s registers were subject to some fading (or bad microfiching!) and some dreadfully wafty and artistic handwriting from George Burton the Rector. The earlier entries from the 1600s were immaculate though – clearly written, well organised, and the spelling was perfect.
After collecting up a few Brightwell entries that I could glean from the microfiche I departed, pleased to think that my Brightwell ancestors had lived in a place that I enjoyed living so much, and that I had re-trod their steps quite literally and obliviously by chance, some 200 years after them.
I was also interested to see in the 1700s, that the village was home to three family names that were there when I was a child and I think are still present there today: Harper, Turner and Gathercole – That’s more than 300 years of their family history!