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The Penn Street Double Tragedy

THE PENN STREET DOUBLE TRAGEDY

ADJOURNED INQUEST ON THE TWO VICTIMS

Yesterday, (Thursday), at the Guildhall, High Wycombe, Mr. A. E. W. Charsley, Coroner for South Bucks, resumed the inquest – (adjourned from Tuesday, September 24th) – on the double fatality which occurred at Penn Street on the night of Saturday – Sunday, September 21st – 22nd.  The victims of this sad affair were:

DIED

Southwood, Walter Archibald Bruce, 21, son of Mr. and Mrs. W. A. B. Southwood, of “Rose Cottage,” Penn.
Cook, George, 31, Finchers Lodge, Amersham, son of Mrs. Emma Cook, a widow.

INJURED

Lawrence, Dorothy, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. E. Lawrence, “Penn Wood View Cottages,” Penn Street.
Page, William Frank, Tylers Green, Penn.

The story is a familiar one by now.  All the parties concerned – deceased, the injured, and the witnesses at the inquest – attended the first dance of the season at Penn Street Village Hall. After the dance, at about midnight, Miss Dolly Lawrence and Mr. Cook strolled a short way up the road towards the Church, and the couple had just turned and were making for her home, which faces Penn Wood, when a motor cycle driven by Mr. Southwood, with Mr. Page as pillion-rider, collided with them.  As a result of the collision Mr. Southwood and Mr. Cook received such terrible injuries that they died shortly afterwards at Wycombe Hospital, where they were taken: Mr. Page was detained in Hospital with injuries, but was released during the week; Miss Dolly Lawrence, who was taken home, received such head injuries that she was seriously ill for several weeks, and the adjourned inquest was held in abeyance until her recovery.

The Bucks Examiner, Friday, October 25th, 1929.

George Cook was buried in Penn Street Churchyard, 25th September, 1929.

Original Page from The Bucks Examiner, Friday, 25th October, 1929
With full text of the proceedings at the inquest. (PDF file, 900k,  Opens in new window)


No 1: 12th Century Evidence

How old is our Church?

This is a question that we ask of any church, and the older the church, the more meaningless the question becomes. Churches grow and change throughout the centuries reflecting both the size and wealth of the population, and changing fashions of architecture and worship. Thus parts of Penn church belong to each of the preceding centuries and we have to ask instead, what is the oldest visible part of the church, and probably with a different answer, when was a church first built on this site?  What we can be quite sure of is that the earliest forerunner of today’s church would have been unrecognisably different. Much smaller for a start.

Dr. Clive Rouse, who lives in Gerrards Cross is one of the country’s leading experts on old churches. It was him that painstakingly re-assembled the Doom painting when it was mistakenly crow­barred out of its place above the chancel arch in 1938. I went to see him some years after and he was quite clear that the yellow mortar in the north wall of the nave (the wall you see as you approach the church) suggested 12th century work. He was able to say this as a result of working on many of the churches in this area.

This dating is supported by the 12th century font of which the stem and base are of Purbeck marble, and to some extent by the stone coffin just outside the vestry, which is thought to be early 13th century.  (I always enjoy the comment of the vicar of 1883 who noted of the stone coffin, that, ‘there are no present contents!’)

Written records of this period are scanty, and there are almost no parish churches which can lay claim to a recorded foundation date. However we do have some unusually significant dates for Penn. The Cartulery of Missenden Abbey records ‘Hugh, Clerk of Penn’ as a witness to an agreement in 1183.  Clerk was the term used then, as it still is today in legal documents, in the sense of cleric, and so Hugh is the first recorded priest in Penn. ‘Walter de la Penn’ appears on a record in 1194 and is referred to as clerk of Penn in 1200. The celebration of the 700th anniversary of the church, which was marked in by the putting up of the Iych gate in 1913, thus seems to have been decided more on the grounds of convenience than of history.

Perhaps the most intriguing clue is provided by a letter written in 1802 by the Rev. John Middleton, who was curate and then vicar between 1766 and 1800. In his letter to Lyson, the author of Magna Brittanica, of which I have a copy, he says he saw the date 1177 on a foundation stone whilst the Curzon vault was being dug under the chancel in 1797.

I shall examine this claim more closely in the next article.

© Miles Green, January 1996


No 2: 1177 Inscription in 1797 vault

John Middleton, the vicar in 1802, claimed that he had seen the date 1177 on a foundation stone whilst the Curzon vault was being dug under the chancel in 1797.

Outside the east wall of the chancel (the wall unfortunately ‘improved’ by black knapped flints in the 1860s), there are steps leading down to the vault. The entrance is now bricked up, but about ten years ago it was opened and the then vicar, Oscar Muspratt, Earl Howe and myself, went in to explore. There was no obvious inscription, but poor lighting and the presence of a large number of ancestral bones and decaying coffins was inhibiting and we did not feel able to have a close search.

In the absence of any physical evidence can we reasonably believe John Middleton’s claim? Expert opinion is divided. To find an inscription of such an early date would, according to my Oxford supervisor Dr. John Blair, a leading historian of the early church, be both unprecedented and improbable. On the other hand, Dr. Doris Jones-Baker, who specialises in the graffiti found in churches, agrees that it would be unique but regards it as perfectly possible since there is no doubt that in later centuries the dates of building and consecration were typically cut into the stonework. Both the age of the font and Dr. Rouse’s estimate for the age of the north wall of the nave support 1177, which also marries in with the wider picture which saw the great majority of later medieval parish churches built by the mid 12th century and the parochial system crystallised by 1200.

It is a pity that John Middleton did not describe in detail how the date was written – whether in Roman numerals or in our modem Arabic form which was not commonly used before about the 14th century. The date Middleton saw would presumably have been written as MCLXXVII, perhaps preceded by ‘anno incamationis’, but he was an educated man, the tutor to several ‘young gentlemen’ and one can reasonably assume that he was entirely familiar with Latin, which remained the language of record until the 1730s, and did not regard it as of any particular significance.

My own view is that Middleton’ s claim was an accurate one. He had been curate and vicar for 42 years when he died, ‘universally regretted’ in 1808, and his many entries in the parish register are meticulous, neat and full of interesting information. There seems no good reason why should wish to mislead the author of Magna Britanica. On this view, we missed our 800th anniversary in 1977.

© Miles Green, April 1996.


No 3: Where was the earlier church?

We have seen so far that Penn had its own Clerk or Priest in 1183, and that the oldest parts of the present church appear to be late twelfth century, probably built in 1177. The question then arises of whether there was a still older church or churches on the same site or elsewhere, and the answer to this depends very largely on when there were sufficient people living in Penn to justify a church

There is no reference to Penn in Domesday Book but this does not mean that there was no one living here in 1086. Domesday Book was not a comprehensive list of all towns and villages, but was concerned only with those places at which geld or tax was collected. Penn was paying geld through the manor house at Taplow, and so was included in its Domesday totals. In fact, a very good case has been made that Penn was already a 5 hide manor with some 600 acres under plough, as a part of King Alfred’s royal estate centred on Burnham, some 200 years before the Conquest. By the time of the Conquest, in 1066, Penn seems to have been nearly fully developed, with 1500 acres of arable.

It is therefore reasonable to assume that there were earlier churches. Archaeological evidence, either of an earlier church or graveyard has not been found, probably because no one has been looking for them, and we should make a point of carefully inspecting any holes that are dug in or near the church.

Before the Conquest most local churches are likely to have wooden. The century or so between c.1050 – 1150 is recognised to have been a period of great rebuilding when simple wooden churches were replaced by stone churches or its local equivalent, flint in our case, and with more style.  A pre-Conquest observer recorded that ‘the whole world was putting on a white mantle of churches’, and William of Malmesbury reported in 1125 ‘churches and monasteries rising in every village town and city in a new style of architecture’.

Domesday Book is not helpful on the presence of churches in Buckinghamshire. Some counties are more fortunate but only three churches are mentioned in the whole of Buckinghamshire out of what are assumed to have been two hundred or more.

An earlier church may well lie beneath the present one, but it is a reasonable assumption that the very first church to be built in Penn was a simple wooden building on a knoll half a mile from today’s church.

© Miles Green, May 1996