200 Years Ago : Church Broken into at Helmingham

Although it’s in a different part of Suffolk to that which I was looking for, I was suitably intrigued by the post from 200 years ago this week in the Ipswich Journal. There was a break-in at Helmingham Church, something which was by no means that rare at the time, in an attempt to break into a vault. It appears not for body snatching reasons, which were still a problem until the 1832 Anatomy Act, but instead to steal lead coffins. The paper reported in November 1823:

“£100 Reward. Whereas on Saturday night the 27th September last, or early on Sunday morning on the 28th, some persons got over the iron gate at the top of the entrance leading into the Countess of Dysart’s family vault, in the Chancel of Helmingham Church, and cut away and otherwise injured the Door of the Vault in attempting to force it open, for the purpose (it is supposed) of taking from thence the Leaden coffins, but their infamous design was frustrated by some alarm, as the party appears to have decamped precipitately, leaving behind them a chisel and several large sticks. A reward of £100 is hereby offered to any person or persons who will discover the offenders, so that they may be brought to justice. Such reward to be paid on conviction.”

This is a substantial amount of money being offered in a reward, worth around £6,000 today. The Countess of Dysart was from the wealthy Tollemache family and unusually they had created a large vault under the chancel in the late eighteenth century, requiring something of a rebuild. This was a period during the history of the country when churches were under some considerable attack, body snatchers raiding churchyards and theft from the church itself was not uncommon.

As another aside, this church is the one that was featured in Only Fools and Horses and the Frog’s Legacy episode, one of the best in the series in my humble view….