I was tired and dusty from the long train ride from London to Dartmouth. The station platform was almost empty, except for a few porters vying for business among the meagre crowd. Spotting a large white card with the word ALLERY in large letters held by a tall, thin man wearing a pinstripe suit and bowler hat; I pushed my way through the milling porters to reach my guide. Black clouds were brooding over the township and I was glad to be heading to Townstal, the countryside of my birth.
As we drove to the parish church of St. Clement, Townstal, my pin-striped guide gave the history of the old 12th Century building which had served the small village for centuries. Irritated with his diatribe, I sat silently nodding. I knew St Clement’s history already, I was back in my home town.
“After the Reformation years it is difficult to find reference to St. Clement’s beyond the list of successive Vicars and the record of Baptisms and Burials. We do know, however, that the church must have formed a valuable strong point commanding the only route down to Hardnesse, our present main road not then existing.” He continued to babble on. I wished I had not hired him at all.
“I am only interested in the parish registers and any references to marriages between my ancestors in the 18th century”, I said, rather too loud. After that, all was silent in the cab.
On arrival at St Clement’s, I hastily paid the cabbie and the guide and jumped from the cab. Rushing through the iron gates, I reached the entrance and pushed open the carved wooden doors. The feel of the wood made my fingertips tingle. I gazed down the nave to the beautiful stained glass window and walked forward to the altar, peering from left to right.
As I reached the altar, memories from my childhood came flooding back. I remembered my own cold words the last time I had stood here with Sam, and the funerals of our lost siblings and the six headstones, all in a row!
‘Another cold, grey weeping day!’ ‘Mother is too weak to attend this time!’
‘Poor little bugger, never stood a chance. Just one day in this world and he’s off to another!’
My Dad and I, we heft that sad little coffin easily onto our shoulders, and together we walk the nave of St Clements, again. Down the black mile to the cemetery. It doesn’t take long to gently lay James Frances Allery in his grave! All is quiet!
Six headstones now, stand neatly in a row in the cemetery plot. Elizabeth 1847-1849; Alice 1849-1851; Louisa 1851; Henry 1852; Frances 1853 and James 1854.
Rain has gathered in puddles and the wind has whipped the tears from our faces. Young Samuel and me, we just stand and watch as our weeping Dad kneels in the mud with his head bowed. I show Sam how to throw small clods of freshly dug earth onto the coffin; and we listen as it scuds and thuds across the shining lid.
‘I’m never going to bring a child into this dreadful world!’ I whisper to Sam. He just huddles closer to me and shrugs his coat close around himself. His face is grey and he is colder than sorrow.
‘You’ll be going back to St Mary’s tomorrow!’ I say to him as I take him squarely by his thin shoulders and look hard into his reddened eyes.
‘Me, I’m going into town and find me a job!’ …
“The Altar is unique. It dates from James I and may have replaced an older one dedicated in 1318 AD by Bishop Stapledon of Exeter, on his only visit to Dartmouth”, said the Vicar
“Are you the gentleman who wishes to view the Parish Register?”
I was startled out of my reverie. “I am indeed”, I said eagerly, turning around in surprise to see the vicar standing right behind me.
“Are you interested in the baptismal records too?” asked the vicar, pointing to the ancient stone font. By then I was beaming with great excitement.
“Come, let me show you where the ancient registers are kept, in the crypt.” Said the vicar.
Finally, back in St Clements, there’s more to the Church than I remembered. The vicar was striding ahead of me, looking over his shoulder and beckoning me to follow him down a stone staircase.
All I could do was whisper “Yes”!
My eyes grew accustomed to the gloom of the crypt as I walked all the way to the bottom. We were in a large marble pillared room in which I could see several ancient tombs and effigies of people past. I had never ventured this deep into the Church. It was like stepping back in time.
To my left, a sliver of yellow light billowed out as the vicar turned an ancient handle and opened the door to the Chapelry. I smelled the faint odour of mildew and dust; as I peered at the many shelves of old registers. The faded titles spanned the centuries; marking the passage of souls in St Clements.
In the middle of the room was a small raised dais on which was a reading lectern with a small lamp. One 1700-1710 register was already on the lectern, dusted and opened at a page with a small white bookmark.
My blood was thumping in my temples and I felt clammy and faint.
“I believe you will find what you are looking for on this page,” said the vicar leading me to the dais.
The ancient pages were filled with rows of faded ink inscriptions; the marriage dates and names of many parishioners. I scanned the chronological list following it all with the tip of my finger, until the name ALLERY almost leapt off the page. The second last entry!
24/1/1710: Samuel ALLERY & Elizabeth BENADICT
The missing piece of evidence!