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A discarded Bible reveals a 19th century scandal

The 1811 Bible found in a dump many years ago revealed a 19th century scandalAn old friend of mine, who had been a local window cleaner many years go, recalled one of the regular visits in his round. It was to a house known as 'Ingram' in the Harmony Hill area of Lisburn and occupied by the Johnson-Smyth family. At that time it was falling into a state of disrepair.

He could recall a bull terrier sitting in the entrance hall that had evidently at one time been on a visit to a taxidermist. Military statues, oil paintings depicting military battles, soldiers and Irish scenery adorned the walls.

On Saturday 16th March, 1798 the Reverend Dr. Snowden Cupples, Rector of Lisburn Cathedral, had the unenviable task of administering the last communion to the condemned Henry Munro who had been arrested after his involvement with the United Irishmen at the Battle of Ballynahinch. The table on which the communion was administered was also part of the furniture at Ingram. The Cupples family, the Corkens and the Johnson-Smyths were all related by marriages through the generations and were connected to Ingram.

Whilst working in the vicinity of Ingram my old friend found a discarded Bible in what he described as a "tip-head". He managed to salvage this and showed it to me a number of years ago. Someone had rebound it with newspaper and it had clearly seen better days.

The Bible had been printed in Dublin by George Grierson in 1811 and contained books not commonly seen now - Apocrypha and Maccabees. I was drawn however to the torn pieces of newspaper in the spine and binding. On close examination it was possible to piece together parts of stories about Luxembourg, and a £10 reward for the discovery of a man called Saunders Ross, from the townland of 'Augnakillmoney', Ballinderry who had gone missing.

There was another story mentioning Lambeg burying ground and James Dixon who was a sexton there. Unfortunately the story was incomplete as the original paper had been torn into strips to provide the binding. There was a reference to The Guardian, amongst the pieces of paper and after some research I discovered the original newspaper had been called 'The Guardian and Constitutional Advocate' dated Tuesday 28th December, 1830. Fortunately a copy survived and I was able to view it in the Newspaper Library at Central Library in Belfast.

In it the story of Lambeg Church and the graveyard unfolded under the title "Resurrectionists - Dismissal of a sexton". It took the form of a letter sent to the editor and was signed "Auditor Pro Tempore, Lisburn 21st December, 1830."

It stated that following the disinterment of some bodies from Lambeg burying ground, James Dixon, the sexton, had been regarded as a suspect and a special Vestry was called on the 20th December in Lambeg Church. A number of witnesses were examined at length by local Justice of the Peace, Robert Williamson.

George Simpson, one of the witnesses, said that on Friday 3rd December he had been in the graveyard where the remains of his uncle were interred and had spoken to James Dixon. He stated Dixon informed him there had never been a corpse disturbed there or a body removed during the course of the past seven years or he would have known about it. Dixon claimed he had put a "private mark" on every new grave. This was possibly a way of detecting if a grave had been interfered with.

The witness told the Vestry that he himself had put a mark on his uncle's grave and the following day, whilst attending another funeral in the graveyard, noticed the mark had gone and the grave appeared to be hollower in the centre. He spoke to the sexton and claimed it was argued by Dixon for five minutes "that the grave was not molested." George Simpson said he was reluctantly handed a spade and after some digging discovered the lid of the coffin had been broken and the body removed. He alleged he later spoke to the sexton's wife who "gave him abusive language."

Another witness, John Burke senior, said he buried his wife on the same day. People lived with the fear that someone would remove the bodies and sell them on for dissection and they organised a watch over the graves to prevent this. John Burke stated the sexton had dissuaded him from watching over his wife's grave as she had died of a fever

He took this advice but his son, John Burke junior, later discovered the grave of his mother had been disturbed. After borrowing a spade, he dug down about two feet and discovered a fresh green sod. The Burkes discovered the body had also been removed. Henry Gribben, another witness, said that after learning of the removal of other bodies he decided to open his mother's grave only to find there was no body.

George McAffee told the Vestry that he had been sitting up in the burying ground some time earlier watching his brother's grave with Robert Entwhistle and they had been approached by the sexton who informed them there was no point in grave watching as there had never been any bodies disturbed in the past there.

John Wheeler told the Vestry that sometime before the sexton had been thatching for him and he offered him a glass of spirits which he refused, explaining that he had been drinking a large quantity the previous night. Wheeler enquired further and the sexton explained that on passing the graveyard the previous day he saw three men, all apparently strangers to him.

He introduced himself and they told him they were there to visit the grave of a friend who had passed away some 15 years ago. He alleged one of the men offered him a drink from a bottle and they drank on a grave there before moving into the church and drank another bottle. They all then made their way to the sexton's house where a third bottle was produced. John Wheeler claims he was told by the sexton they were stone cutters. His suspicions had been aroused and he told the Vestry they were people who he should not be associating with and added "If they are not medical gentlemen, they are near friends to them, and I had a pretty good guess of the kind of stonecutters the strange Belfast gentry were."

This was to be "the final nail in the coffin" for the sexton.

Robert Williamson JP considered the evidence that had been presented. He was critical of James Dixon and how he permitted drinking in the church. He told the Vestry there were sufficient circumstances and strong evidence to warrant the parishioners to believe that Dixon must have had "knowledge of the disinterment of the bodies." A vote was taken and of a total of 32 votes, 30 were cast for the dismissal of the sexton.

He was dismissed forthwith and John Preston was appointed the new parish sexton.

Further information about Ingram and the Lambeg area can be found in Gilbert Watson's excellent book titled "All around Lambeg." Gilbert has also recently published an interesting history of the Moore family from Harmony Hill in the recent issue of North Irish Roots - the journal of the North of Ireland Family History Society.

The Digger can be contacted at The Ulster Star Office, or by email