Rushton Church Grave robbers?

There are many stories associated with the church at Rushton Spencer, the following story however came to light over 60 years ago during renovations which took place at the church and is as follows:

The name of de Trafford, the family who were once so friendly with Henry VIII, who resided at Swythamley and were once the patrons of the living of Rushton, has been heard in Rushton again this week, for workmen engaged in restoration work at the old parish church have stumbled upon the family vault and revealed to the world once more a sight that has not been seen for more than 100 years.

Some such “adventure’s” were anticipated when repairs to this 13th century church became essential just over a year ago and while all concerned with the work had a slight fear of what might be found, they would have been equally disappointed if nothing of interest were discovered.

Now it can be said with confidence that no one will be disappointed. In the roof a short time ago was a quantity of lead shot was unearthed from a beam which the vicar of Rushton, the Rev R.C. Corliss, hazarded may have been fired by a wretched fugitive hiding in the roof from his pursuers.

Even more recently the bones of three men, as near as can be estimated, were recovered from under the path which runs along the far wall of the church. The vicar had of course warned the workmen that any such finds were to be reported to him without delay and they were buried with due religious ceremony in another grave. “After all,” said Mr Corliss to a Leek Post and Times reporter “they were somebody once.”

Now the most sensational and interesting discovery has been made. The vault came to notice when it was decided to close up a disused door at the rear of the altar. This could not be done without first securing the foundations of the door and this meant scraping away some of the earth round about.

No sooner had the job begun than the entrance to the vault was noticed, directly below the door and running below the de Trafford pew which is still surveyed by the family coat of arms.

The stone was easily rolled away and a flight of eight steps led down into the earth to a damp and rotten wooden door which, when touched, crumbled away from its hinges. Light from the world outside scurried down into the ice cold tomb for the first time since the days when Napoleon was put down in Europe, and possibly longer.

Here were all that remained of a bygone family after whom such places as Trafford Park and Old Trafford were named, who were once the landed gentry of this beautiful part of the Midlands, and who once worshipped with the villagers in this tiny parish church.

The workmen counted eagerly, one, two, three, four, five, six coffins lay before them but all was not well, and when the vicar arrived to make his investigation it did not take him long to realise that what the thriller books describe as “Grave robbers” had been there before him. Not recently, of course. Not for 100 years or more. But they had been. They had left their unmistakable signs.

The coffins lay haphazardly upon the floor of the vault and all that remained of one of them was a portion of the oak casing. It had been battered into and allowed to rot away. A skull lay by its side.

It can only be supposed that the robbers wanted the silver plating which decorated the coffins, the lead which housed the body and any jewels which may have been interred with it. If they did, they got what they wanted.

These were no ordinary coffins, firstly the body was placed in what possibly could have been a silver casing and this in turn was put within a lead covering. Then came the oak coffin we know of today and finally a covering of leather, embossed and delicately picked out in silver.

A display of silver plate on the top, some exquisite carvings in the leather and wood, six beautifully shaped handles and the coffin was complete.

A brass plate bore the names and the dates of the deceased. The vault had been well chosen by the family and the lead casings on the coffins will almost surely have kept the bodies airtight throughout the centuries they have been there and therefore they may be preserved. Even if they are, however, they would crumble to pieces once exposed to the light.

But the woodwork platings and leather have been attacked and ravaged by damp caused mainly it is thought, by the intruders who failed to seal the vault properly after their departure.

It is possible to read the dates on two of the coffins. One is from 1815 and the other is from 1715. Others are probably older.

What now? Morbid curiosity admits the vicar, greatly tempts him to open the coffins and put an end to his wonderings about the mysteries within. Jewish documents, garments who kows what the centuries old tomb may contain.

Instead however he will leave them undisturbed, have a new door fixed to the chamber and the ground stone will be sealed up again, finally and completely for all time. Meanwhile work on the church goes on, 40 gallons of woodworm and deathwatch beetle treatment have been used on the seats and beams to try to eradicate these destructive pests. Who knows what further work will reveal, perhaps it will be the tunnel which legend has it runs from beneath the vestry to a farm on a hill some distance away.

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