Following Colin's blog post, I also went on the St Augustine’s Church walk and am very grateful to Stuart for truly guiding us. For an hour or so, I was engrossed in the hidden stories that have moulded cherished corners into the texture of the building.
Stuart drew our attention to the memorials located throughout the church, each one eulogising a local resident. There are dozens, spanning several centuries, and we discussed how displaying such plaques may have been intended, to some extent, to peacock; a way of ‘keeping up with the Jones’. Each plaque is a shop window for a remarkable story and all it takes is a little research or the guidance of someone like Stuart who has done a lot of research!
By following the questions in Stuart’s pop quiz, we reflected upon the nature of the inscriptions. For example, only two depict the acts of women beyond ‘mother and wife’; another was born in America yet came to Norfolk in 1778; a textiles manufacturer, Thomas Clabburn, was remembered by “upwards of the six hundred weavers of Norwich”.
Visualising the individuals behind the words, I imagined the clothes of the day, the housing these people occupied and the motive behind the celebrated achievements.
Of all the dedications, one in particular stood out for me. In the whole of the UK there are only a dozen instances where a WWI soldier, shot for desertion, has their named listed among those who died from active service.
The name of Private John Henry Abigail appears although he was executed at the age of 20 by firing squad in 1917. We can only speculate as to exactly why Mr Abigail deserved his place among the traditionally mourned but hearing his back story it becomes easier to imagine.
Born into abject poverty and sleeping on soiled sackcloth behind a distillery, John was often responsible for younger siblings during the father’s incarcerations for neglect and drunkenness. After joining the forces, possibly as a means of getting regular food, John was injured and sent to recuperate in Great Yarmouth. During his absence both parents had spent time in Norwich prison. Learning of his father’s pending release, John visited his siblings. He was arrested and sent back to the front but after deserting a further three times, he was eventually consigned to the firing squad.
Regardless of your stance on desertion, this is surely a poignant story. John had just three years of so-called independence and it was spent either on the run or in the trenches. If I hadn’t spent time in St Augustine’s church with Stuart, this story would have remained unknown to me. So, what? Well, so nothing, maybe, but I feel a little enriched for the experience and it certainly made me question my judgement on desertion.
This is why I believe heritage should matter to everyone. We don’t exist in a sealed year, immune to the past and oblivious to history - what we are is shaped by what we were and taking time now and again to reflect on the people who occupied our place before us can allow us to live our own lives a little more mindfully.