The Grave of Poor Bessy Banks

I spotted a place labelled Bessy Banks’ Grave on the 1815 Ordnance Survey drawing of Lichfield by Robert Dawson 1815.

Immediately, I thought of the story of Kitty Jay on Dartmoor. A little investigation has revealed a few details. In ‘History of the City and Cathedral of Lichfield’ by John Jackson (1805), I found the following;

“…of Betsy Banks grave* once the famous rendezvous of lovers….now no more is remembered than that poor Betsy is said to have fallen victim to hapless love.

*there is a spot in a field in Lichfield still distinguished by that name”

Anna Seward wrote to her friend Honora Sneyd about the place in a letter dated May 1772, that she described as ‘Written in a summer evening from the grave of a suicide’. I’ve only included the first part as its quite long.

“It suits the temper of my soul to pour
Fond, fruitless plaints beneath the lonely bower,
Here, in this silent glade, that childhood fears,
Where the love-desperate maid, of vanish’d years,
Slung her dire cord between the sister trees,
That slowly bend their branches to the breeze,
And shade the bank that screens her mouldering form,
From the swart Dog-Star, and the wintry storm….”

Another reference can be found in one of David Garrick’s letters.  He wrote that “the name Dimble is given to a sunken road leading north from Lichfield past a spot, supposedly haunted called Betty Honks Grave. Two sister trees form an elegant arch over a stream”.

By 1791, it was found that the sister trees had been recently cut down.

So who was Bessy Banks, did she really exist? If so, is her grave still there, now unmarked and unremembered?

Edit 5/9/2011

I recently had the St Chad’s tithe map (1849) out in Lichfield Record Office, looking for something else. A whole plot of land is listed as ‘Bessy Banks’. Born a Lichfeldian has kindly worked out where the stream in this area would have been. Taking into account this and the tithe map it seems that ‘Bessy Banks’ was somewhere in the region between Dimbles Lane and Greencroft.
John Jackson’s description suggects that in 1805 the story is already an old one. It does seem a fairly well-known tale, to have actual places on maps marked after it, as well as being mentioned by Garrick (albeit with the name Betty Honks!) & Seward.  Was it just a made-up story, or did it arise from actual events? I wonder when (and why?) the people of Lichfield stopped telling the story? Or could there even still be people who could tell us the tragedy of Lichfield’s ‘love-desperate maid?’

Edit: 15/4/2012

A notice in the Lichfield Mercury 20th February 1914 lists a lot for sale as garden land, known as Bessy Banks, adjoining a plot of arable land let by T Chapman and located next to Gaiafields House and Gaia Fields Cottage.

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8 thoughts on “The Grave of Poor Bessy Banks

  1. Having been interested in the subject of deviant burial practices for quite a while now, the story of Bessy Banks’ Grave is of considerable interest. I have tried to make a list, within recent years, of as many of the ‘local’ (West Midlands, South Staffs and so on) examples of this type of thing, but had never heard of this particular matter previously….. so ‘thank you’ very much for covering the subject!!

    Unfortunately – as in the case of poor Bessy, it seems – the stories behind many of these sites appear to be simply ‘lost with time’….. a great number seemingly passing into vague legend (at best) within a relatively short duration…..

    I guess it’s not so hard to understand exactly why these stories and places are often forgotten, as – if they are indeed dealing with cases of suicides, murderer and the like – these unhallowed resting sites are, in part, often a blatant endeavour to ‘put such matters out of the public eye’…. hence their frequently obscure placement……

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    • Hi Nick Great to hear from you. Your list sound very interesting. I’ve always wondered about those tales of people being buried at cross roads, in unconsecrated ground, etc!
      What I think is especially interesting about Bessy Banks is that the story was clearly well know for quite a while, with historians, an actor and a poet writing about the legend in the 18th and 19th centuries. It was also sufficiently well known to give its name to a whole plot of land which appeared on maps and right up until at least 1914 was known as ‘Bessy Banks’.
      In terms of suicide, something else interesting is that in the parish registers of St Michael’s Lichfield is an entry on 15th June 1603 for the burial of ‘Margarett, who kyld herselfe with a knyfe’. Also it seems those executed at the city gallows were buried in this churchyard. You will know more about this than me, but this suggests that at least some people who took their own lives were buried in consecrated ground. So why not Bessy? If she ever existed at all….

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  2. Hi Kate – thank you very much for your reply.

    I first became interested in the subject of suicide burial a few years ago, after becoming aware of a particular story associated with a site that I had known very well for most of my life. Cutting a long story short, I found myself quite shocked to discover this kind of tale tied in with such a bustling thoroughfare. What made the matter worse – well, even more intriguing and poignant, I should say – was the fact that subsequent research seemed to indicate that very few people indeed had even heard of the matter concerned! Unlike some such stories, a reasonable amount of detail did seem to have been recorded about the case in question, so there is no doubt at all that the sorry events actually occurred in relation to this spot and so forth.

    Coincidentally, around the same time, I began researching an alleged haunting which had a particular site tied in with the ghostlore concerned called ‘Jordans Grave’….. supposedly the burial site (at a crossroads) of a murderer who was said to have been gibbeted on a hill opposite. The latter mentioned was know locally as…. wait for it…. Gibbet Hill!!! Laugh!

    While only having been vaguely aware of such affairs previously, I then basically decided to see if I could find any other such sites (primarily in the West Midlands region, but also taking into consideration the immediate surrounding areas)….. and the interest went on from there.

    Indeed, some suicides do seem to have been treated ‘fairly well’ by the local authorities…. but this seems to have wholly depended on the discretion of the authority concerned at any given time within the history of whatever region concerned, etc. With suicides, the unhallowed, ‘peculiar’ burials were primarily designed to punish the victims…. stakes driven through the corpse (sometimes numerous stakes); rocks piled on the bodies, or in the mouth of the corpse; burials face down, standing up and so on and so forth were all basically ways to ensure that the poor soul concerned received as undignified a burial as possible.

    With regards to the topography and history in the case of Bessy Banks – at least a certain amount of information is actually known on the matter…. In contrast, for example, the Wolverhampton region has three separate sites within it’s boundaries: The Dead Lads Grave, The Dead Womans Grave and another Dead Woman Grave, which is given as a field name. While these titles suggest forms of deviant burial practice – two are situated on crossroads – nothing at all is known about the situations concerned(?) In such cases, it seems to be a simple matter of ‘detail being lost with time’…… Given that our Saxon ancestors seem to have been some of the first to begin specifically segregating the dead in the ways suggested here – the use of crossroads as burial sites, etc – I guess it’s no surprise to find that a lot of specific detail could be lost over the space of time…. depending on the time concerned, of course?

    My best wishes to you…..

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    • That’s really interesting Nick, thank you very much.
      Whilst we’re on the subject, do you know anything about Knox Grave near Hopwas? I suspect you will have heard of Hopwas Woods….
      Mark from Tamworth Time Hikes covered it a little on his blog here http://tamworthtimehikes.wordpress.com/2010/08/26/if-you-go-out-to-the-woods-part-ii/ There are also a couple of photographs of the lane here http://www.flickr.com/photos/58346221@N04/8213605991/in/photostream/

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      • Hi Kate,

        Thanks for your note.

        Indeed, I have heard of Hopwas Wood and Knox’s Grave, thought the only references / info I have on the latter comes from the link that you kindly included in your message and conversations with a local resident (who related exactly the same data….. save for the fact that he added that Knox was gibbeted on the junction of Flats Lane and the A5). I must admit that I do have great sympathy for poor Knox….. as, from the sound of his hapless exploits, he and I are probably ‘cut from the same cloth’, if I’m honest!! Laugh!!!

        We – myself and a couple of friends – did visit the lane one night…. but, despite the place being a little on the eerie side, there was no sign of Knox!! Laugh!

        As for Hopwas Wood itself, I’m sure you must have read something about the discovery of ‘witchcraft related paraphernalia’ there in recent years? Well, a friend and myself were the finders of a copper plate there, a couple of years back, which was the discovery that set the fairly recent Hopwas related witchcraft furore going in the media. A link to the matter – which explains the full story – can be found on our website here: http://www.westmidlandsghostclub.com/page9.htm

        All my very best to you…..

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  3. After reading through this blog, I looked up Bessy Banks on Google books and found a reference in a book called Rustic Rhymes by Frederick Price dated 1859. In his poem The Circuit Lane, he mentions Bessy Banks. Apparently she drowned in the brook and he goes on to describe where her grave was. I think I remember seeing Circuit brook on maps,(from memory I think it is around Stychbrook – there is certainly a brook there) but not sure where ‘Circuit lane’ is or was. Thought you might find this interesting.

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    • Thank you Margaret. What a great find. As well as adding more to the Bessy Banks legend it also paints a picture of a lost landscape. There is a circuit brook – I went looking for it last year but it was very dry in parts. It runs over GrangeLane & through the Christian Fields nature reserve. Circuit Lane marked part of the edge of the city boundary.

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  4. Pingback: A Lost Place | Lichfield Lore

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