This is the last gravestone in Dunwich. It reads,
In memory of Jacob Foster, who departed this life March 12th 1796 Aged 38 Years.
I am not sure who Jacob was, and I doubt most people who pass and stop at this gravestone do either. Dunwich is a popular tourist attraction, and the gravestone is on a route that runs along the cliff edge. A stopping point and text panel has been created next to the gravestone, and by the looks of it, many people do stop and spend a moment there. It is not Jacob that people are looking at though. It is what it represents: the people that lived in Dunwich.
You may know of Dunwich, on the Suffolk coast. It was once a thriving town in the medieval period, but there is no trace of it now. The disappearance of the town creates much intrigue and many of us think that the town simply fell into the sea and there’s a lot of mystery surrounding the town. Take a look at the In popular culture and literature section on the Dunwich Wikipedia page. Much of it has an occult theme. Quite often in news articles, there’s the strapline “England’s Atlantis”, alluding to it being sunk by some great, seismic East Anglian incident. I can imagine flames reaching into the sky, whole buildings being swallowed up, with women and children running in horror before they too succumb to the disappearing landscape.
At the other end of the reporting spectrum, one website I looked at starts with the line “There’s a lot of nonsense talked about Dunwich”, which made me laugh. I couldn’t have put it better myself, although I do enjoy reading “nonsense”. Over several hundred years the town gradually fell into the sea, during and after each storm, which continues today. The cliffs are very silty and susceptible to bad weather; not a solid foundation for a coastal town. One of the last buildings that succumbed was All Saints Church where Jacob’s grave was. It fell into the sea 100 years ago. There are postcards of it from the early 1900 through to the 1920s showing its gradual demise.
As well as geographical, there are the economic reasons for the town’s downturn. As always, there is a more mundane reason for the reality. By the 1200s, Dunwich was booming, with a successful port, trade, boat building, fishing and everything a thriving town needs. It served the east coast of England, with trade routes going up the northern coast, down southwards towards London and on into northern Europe. The population could have been as great as 3000, similar to London.
Jean and Stuart Bacon described this thriving town very well in their book The Search of Dunwich City under the Sea. They were the underwater archaeologists who excavated it in the 1970s. I’m just going to repeat what they wrote:
“It was said to be a famous city where the streets abounded with prosperous citizens and wealthy merchants. The harbour was filled with shipping which supplied the merchandise for the markets which were held daily in the marketplaces. The city coffers were filled with gold. There was also two fairs held annually, St James’s Fair in July and St. Leonards Fair in November.
The city owed its prosperity to its very active harbour and to the sea. The fishing industry was extremely important and took precedence over everything else. They had an Icelandic fishing fleet as well as an inshore fleet.
Shipbuilding was the second industry and the Dunwich shipbuilders were renowned for their work. There was a great wealth of trade both coastal and foreign in addition to an export trade of goods from East Anglia.
The Search for Dunwich City Under the Sea, P.16 – 17, Jean and Stuart Bacon.
In the 1280s a series of storms caused the harbour to silt up. This was disastrous, as the port could no longer take the larger ships, trade could not happen, and boat building was hit. The town tried to dredge the river, but with no luck. Trade continued and people stayed, lived and worked there, although with limitations. The erosion of the cliff continued, slowly eating away at the town, sometimes more rapidly with multiple buildings falling onto the beach at the same time.
Over the next few centuries there was a whole list of misfortunes on Dunwich, which includes siding with the Yorkists at the end of the War of the Roses, and the usual issues from the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Diamard MacCulloch, in his Churchcrawls of Solitude, suggests another economic reason for a downturn. As he put it, “the herring”. Herring was fished, preserved and traded up and down the Suffolk coast. Come the 16th century, the herring, for whatever reason, moved to other waters, and the industry was destroyed almost overnight.
Without livelihoods, there would have been no reason to live there. People moved on. Suffice to say, if people could make a living there, they would have just built new houses further inland and the town would have survived, but in a different form. This has happened to some degree, but it is a small village that we see today.
By the 18th century, the population was so few it had become a rotten borough. These were boroughs that had such a small number of residents, the vote for the MP was largely in the hands of a few people, a family, or even one person.
Jacob’s gravestone dates from the Rotten Borough years. It is the last remnant of the town, standing not far from the edge of the cliff. I presume Jacob’s remains are long-gone, having been washed away with the graveyard. Human bones from graveyards have often been found sticking out of the cliff and even on the beach.
There are other aspects of the town still to be seen, such as the remains of the Greyfriars Abbey, just inland. The Greyfriars and Blackfriars, were normally located immediately outside a town, and often in poorer areas. It represents a specific and unique aspect of Dunwich, and in fact, it was a pan-European order, so not the town itself.
There is a museum, which has a lot of material from Dunwich that has been either washed up on the beach or excavated during the 1970s by the underwater archaeologists (Jean and Stuart Bacon for example). The museum is very good and well worth a visit.
But Jacob’s gravestone is in-situ (almost) and it is all we have left of Dunwich that hasn’t been washed away. I say almost in-situ because Jacob’s gravestone has been moved from its original site. All Saints church fell into the sea 100 years ago. The graveyard too. At some point, someone made the decision to save Jacob’s gravestone and move it inland. Why Jacob’s, I’m not sure. Perhaps his was the most inland and the last one to survive. If his was one of the least important graves, tehn it makes sense that it was the furthest from the church, so ironically, the safest.
It may have been moved several times over the past 100 years or so. It is now conveniently located on the pathway that all visitors take to walk around the edge of the town and cliffs. We all make the presumption that the gravestone is in its original place. I did for a while. Why wouldn’t we? There is nothing there saying it has been moved. Only the keen and trained eye would spot that.
This doesn’t matter though. The gravestone is important, and it is important for it to be on the cliff, and not, say, in the museum. It is a marker, and conveys the sense of the human spirit and presence. Ruins and walls can be quite dry and utilitarian. If you are ever there facing Jacob’s grave, turn around and there are the ruins of Greyfriars. A large field, surrounded by tall flint walls with a small structure in the middle. Although a wonderful structure and well worth visiting, it doesn’t have a “buzz” of human live. It is the bare-bones of a strucutre and does not have a roof, doors, windows, floors, or paster walls. In essence, it has lost all its patina of life.
Let’s not forget either, gravestones represent us, humans, life and sprit. Once we’re gone and our bones are laid to rest (apologies to HP), it’s the gravestone that marks our lives. Stone is everlasting; it goes on forever, and Jacob’s is 250 years old. Stones have represented the dead for millennia and from across the world. Prehistoric stone circles in Japan are said to represent ancestors. There are European Iron Age carved heads. Stone statues represent gods, tell stories and in the past 200 years to “commemorate” people. Usually, our gravestones are simple, being engraved with who we were, when we lived, age at death, married to, children.
The living memory of our ancestors live on for a few generations and then, that’s it really. The gravestones outlive the memory. I have a family plot in a southeast London churchyard, with the graves and gravestones of my ancestors going back three generations. I haven’t been there in about 20 years and never visit. When I die, that will be it. No-one will have a living knowledge of my ancestors represented on those stones.
There is something about a gravestone in peril, dramatically poised on the edge of a receding cliff. It gives a sense of urgency, and we feel moved by the last human presence. Perhaps it connects us to the life that went on there, the people living and working, the trade, the boatbuilding, the herring, the fun, families, generations. All this hanging by the nails onto the cliff and Jacob’s gravestone, before the top finally crumbles. So much on the shoulders of Jacob.
I don’t know how much more Jacob’s gravestone can be moved inland. It will have to be re-located at some point. Will it go to the Greyfriars Abbey? Perhaps it will have to be scooped up and put in the museum. One thing is for sure, it won’t be there on this spot in a few decades time.
This gravestone that immortalises Jacob also immortalises the people of Dunwich. It is the only tangible connection we have left with the town. We want to see it and we need to see it. Perhaps it reminds us of our own mortality and works like traditional storytelling, warning us of the perils of life, dangers of nature, the inexplicable and the incomprehensible. However tenuous, we need that contact with the townsfolks and stories of Dunwich.
Churchcrawls of Solitude, Diamard MacCulloch, BBC Radio 3. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000twc7
“There’s a lot of nonsense talked about Dunwich”, in Suffolk Churches by Simon Knott. http://www.suffolkchurches.co.uk/dunwichas.html
The Search of Dunwich City under the Sea, Jean and Stuart Bacon. 1979
Jean and Stuart Bacon’s book The Search for Dunwich City Under the Sea, is a great underwater archaeology read, around the discovery of the Dunwich in the 1970s. I’m intrigued to find out how much was and wasn’t discovered, and how much the actual excavations helped with telling the story of Dunwich to the public. That is another story.
If you ever go, do visit the Museum, which tells the story of Dunwich really well (and sells the Bacons’ book) and investigates whether there was a Roman settlement there before the Saxon. It may be that the Roman settlement, was washed out to sea well before the Medieval established itself. Usually, the continuity of a settlement is vertical, in that later towns are built upon the earlier ones. In the case of Dunwich, it was physical succession was lateral rather than vertical.
I do also wonder whether there was a pre-Roman Dunwich. There could well have been a vibrant Iron Age settlement based on trade, such as at Hengistbury Head in Dorset. I am just thinking “aloud” and haven’t looked into it.
One other thing, if you do go, make sure you go to the fish and chip shop in the beach car park. I recommend it.