What the Surrey HER could do for you: digging deeper for answers in Horsell
What does the Surrey Historic Environment Record team do all day? Answer: all sorts! Undoubtedly the biggest chunk of our day-to-day activities relates to work undertaken as part of the planning process. This encompasses the supply of HER data to commercial consultants to inform reports, assisting our Planning Archaeologist colleagues with queries, and adding the results of initial assessments, archaeological fieldwork and surveys of buildings to our database. But to see the HER solely as a planning tool is a serious mischaracterisation. We’re here to help anyone who wants to find out more about the county’s historic environment. We receive and respond to enquiries from schoolchildren, university students, academics, colleagues in the public sector, and the general public. You only have to ask!
Most of the enquiries we receive from the general public relate to a very specific thing, be it a house or street, or something historic-looking seen when out walking in the countryside (among the services we offer is a Householder Search Pack that can be one way of finding out more about a property – see here for more information). Every now and again, however, we get asked to solve a mystery. One such occasion was earlier this year, and it exemplifies the breadth of things the HER team can do to assist you to discover more about something you have found or in which you are interested.
An unexpected discovery
In early April, our former HER Assistant Andrew received a phone call from a lady in Horsell to report what she described as a “memorial slab” being found completely unexpectedly by her gardener while digging in her back garden. This was soon followed by an email with two photos of the find, which showed that one side of the slab was inscribed “F . S . 1786”. The letters seemed as if they might be the initials of the name of a person or perhaps a place; the number looks a lot like a year. The garden was part of a housing development built in the 1960s, the best part of two centuries after what would appear to be the year inscribed in the stone, so it was improbable that the stone had anything directly to do with its construction. We had two questions that needed to be answered: what function did this stone perform originally, and why did it come to be buried in this particular back garden?
Regarding the first question, initial opinions in the team were split between it being either some kind of gravestone or a boundary stone. A bit of preliminary research using historic Ordnance Survey maps revealed that in the late 19th century a field boundary used to run through the area covered by the house and garden, and that a farm had stood not so far away. An origin as a boundary stone therefore seemed feasible, but further investigations needed to be undertaken before any conclusions could be drawn.
A second stone and a watching brief
Andrew was invited to visit Horsell in order to see the stone and advise what should be done with it. Little did he know that, by the time he arrived, the homeowner and her neighbour had uncovered a second slab! This one was a little larger and, it appeared, a little earlier, as it was inscribed with “I + D” and below that “1780”. Otherwise the two were closely comparable. As a trained archaeologist, Andrew was able to conduct an archaeological watching brief, helping to uncover the two stones properly before bringing them up to ground level and measuring them. He recorded all of the details in a Surrey HER Report Form (which can be downloaded from this web page), and this has been added to our database as both a Source (i.e. the document that provides the information about what was found) and an Event (information about how the watching brief was done and the results of that work). We have also created a Monument record about the stones themselves – in due course this will appear on Exploring Surrey’s Past.
Online and archival research: Twitter, genealogy websites, and the Surrey History Centre
We were now dealing with two stones that had clearly served the same purpose, and in all probability had been carved in the late 18th century. But had they served as boundary stones or gravestones? And if they were the latter, had they commemorated people or, because of their small sizes compared to most gravestones, pets? To find an answer, we turned to Twitter to solicit the opinions of post-medieval archaeologists and historians with relevant expertise. The response was unanimous; these were footstones for human graves, in effect smaller, abbreviated versions of “proper” headstones. As the terms might suggest, they stood at either end of the grave plot, with the coffin buried in between them. I was fortunate to chance upon in situ 18th-century examples in Peper Harow churchyard while on a walk at the start of June that confirmed this identification, and offered an insight to what the graves from which the two Horsell footstones came may have looked like originally.
With the knowledge of what the two stones were, the next step was to research the initials and dates carved into them. This was done using the burial records made available through genealogy websites (many of the originals of the relevant records are lodged at the Surrey History Centre). I proceeded on the assumption that the footstones had not travelled far from the burial ground in which they were first erected, and so searched the records available for Horsell parish. What I found was more than we could have reasonably expected – solitary candidates for the individuals behind both initials who are recorded as dying (and so presumably being buried) in Horsell in the years in question:
F S 1786. This is most probably Frances Steer. The Steer family were long-standing residents of Horsell (see pages 22-24 of this excellent local history study).
I D 1780. This was a bit trickier, as it took a while to deduce that capital J could be written as I in the late 18th century. These initials are therefore most likely those of John Daborn, who died and was buried in Horsell in that year. The Daborn family name is still associated with this part of Surrey, notably Leonard Daborn Ltd garage in Chobham.
Beyond these basic details, however, the internet was unable to tell me a great deal more. John was one of four children (the others being girls: Mary, Elizabeth and Ann) born to John and Mary Daborne. The younger John later married a woman named Sarah; it’s unclear if they had any children of their own. It was probably his father who was the John Daborne baptised in Horsell church in 1727, according to the parish registers. As for Sarah, there was nothing else I was able to find out about her.
Armed with these few facts, the homeowner paid a visit to the Surrey History Centre where, with the help of one of the staff, she was rewarded with a wealth of new discoveries about Frances and John. Frances Steer had been born Frances Sheers, and married Richard Steer on 28th October 1783, subsequently giving birth to a son named Frank who was baptised on 31st October 1784. Frances died two years later, in October 1786. As for John Daborn, it transpired that he worked as a blacksmith and, following his death, his will was proved at Chertsey on 6th June 1781.
Site visits and the final pieces of the puzzle
In late May, I made a site visit to Horsell in order to present the findings of our research and discuss some next steps, including where and how to re-erect the footstones. Both are made of limestone, which is susceptible to erosion, and for this reason I passed on the recommendation of the County Archaeologist, Tony Howe, that they be erected in a spot in the garden where they could receive some shelter from plants or the house. This way, the stones stood a better chance of remaining in good condition for a long time to come. There was little else the HER could do after this, beyond encouraging the homeowner to continue her own research.
She duly made contact with the daughter of the only previous owners of her house, first by telephone and later in person, and as a result obtained explanations for why the stones came to be buried in the garden and from where they might have originated. Her first recollection was that her father had acquired them from a small Baptist chapel that once stood on the corner of Horsell Rise and Cheapside. This was Horsell Common Chapel, which began life as a cottage where a Baptist congregation first worshipped in 1809 or 1810. A purpose-built chapel structure was added to this building in 1815. This chapel had its own graveyard (see the old photograph on the first page of this fantastic guide to the non-conformist chapels of Woking by Iain Wakeford) but the dates on the foot stones prove that they are earlier in date. Indeed, the former owners’ daughter went on to recall that one of her parents also told her that the stones had come from somewhere else.
The daughter’s visit to her old family home yielded the final piece in the puzzle; the reason for why the footstones came to be buried in the back garden. Apparently, her father came home with them (and just possibly with more than the two we know about), causing a big row between him and her mother! It was her mother whose argument won out in the end, so he did as she asked and put them out of sight at the back of the garden. Over time they became covered by soil and so disappeared from view for several decades. Although we cannot be certain, the strongest likelihood is that he brought them from the graveyard around the Anglican parish church of St Mary the Virgin, Horsell, which was in existence since long before the late 18th century. It could be that he was a Parochial Church Council member, so perhaps got first dibs on footstones being given away following a “tidying-up” of part of the churchyard in the 1960s?
By contacting the HER, the homeowner in question was able to have the two “slabs” found in her garden excavated by a trained archaeologist; obtained confirmation of their original function and credible identifications of the late 18th-century Horsell parishioners from whose graves they derived; and received advice on how to care for them in a way that would ensure their preservation in the long-term. On top of which, all of the information about the footstones discovered along the way has been added to the HER. It’s not every day that Surrey residents come across things as large as 18th-century footstones, although from time to time we do receive reports of air-raid shelters and wells being discovered in gardens. But if you or someone else you know does ever chance upon anything interesting and historic in the county, please consider getting in contact with us via email at [email protected] to let us know. (For smaller artefacts, finders should contact our colleague Dr Simon Maslin, the county’s Finds Liaison Officer working as part of the Portable Antiquities Scheme, to get them identified and recorded.) Perhaps it will lead us on our next voyage of discovery and form the subject of a future HER blog post.
Rob Briggs (Acting HER Officer)
With special thanks to Chris Reynolds for the additional photographs from Dorking and Horsell church and churchyard, and to Sarah Hoile and the other Twitter users who identified the stones as footstones.