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Open Features: Tablet Of Stone

The marble slab in the church announced that on this very spot Frances Medwar Bradshaw, antiquarian and historian, received the news of the death of her beloved husband Joseph Arthur Bradshaw, killed by Mahdist rebels in Khartoum, and resolved to devote the rest of her life to good works among the poor to the Greater Glory of God.

Brian Lockett tells a delicious tale that is sure to tease.

*

On this spot on 6th February 1885 Frances Medwar Bradshaw, antiquarian and historian, received the news of the death of her beloved husband Joseph Arthur Bradshaw, killed by Mahdist rebels in Khartoum, and resolved to devote the rest of her life to good works among the poor to the Greater Glory of God.
This tablet is dedicated to her memory by grateful friends and colleagues.
July 1921


Doreen, a large, middle-aged woman, perspiring freely and ineffectually wafting a copy of a guide to the church across her face, read the words quietly to her husband Ken as they stood in the cool apse, grateful for the shelter from the blistering sun outside. She became aware of a tall, elderly man in a cassock standing at her side.

“Very little of what is written there is true, I’m afraid,” he said.

She turned and looked into the saturnine features of a man she guessed to be in his seventies. His mild blue eyes were watering and he was smiling gently.

“To start with,” he continued, “Frances Medwar Bradshaw was not standing on this spot. She was actually at home in the village when a man who had been in the Sudan with her husband called to say that he had died of malaria three weeks earlier. He was never at Khartoum and was certainly not killed by Mahdist rebels.”

Doreen looked puzzled.

“What was he doing in the Sudan anyway?”

“Ah, that’s a different story altogether. A much more interesting one in my view. He was a slave trader.”

Doreen felt a little uncomfortable discussing with a complete stranger the inaccuracies in an inscription on a marble slab set into the wall of a village church. She moved a little closer to her husband, who had sat down in a nearby pew and was breathing heavily and mopping his brow with a handkerchief.

“Slavery,” went on the other man, “was commonplace in that part of the world at the time, you know. Exists to this very day in some remote areas, I’m told.”

“But his wife … ?”

“She said she didn’t know anything about it, but there is evidence that she did know and, in fact, enjoyed a comfortable life here thanks to the profits her husband made from his business.”

“So she devoted herself to charitable works out of a sense of guilt, in expiation, so to speak?”

“Dear me, no. These charitable works were a direct result of discussions she had with one of my predecessors, the vicar at the time. He had always had doubts about the source of her wealth and never really believed her story about the husband being an important government official far too wrapped up in his diplomatic duties to be able to spend much time at home in the manor house they bought in the late 1860s. It still stands, up on the hill, but it’s now a Barclay’s Bank training centre.” He stopped and laid a hand on Doreen’s arm. “Am I boring you? I sometimes forget that others may not be as interested in local history as I am.”

“Not at all. But perhaps I can sit down by my husband. We’re both feeling the heat today.”

“Of course,” said the man, solicitously guiding her to a seat alongside her husband. “Well, to continue, the vicar did some digging and with the help of a missionary society discovered what Joseph Arthur Bradshaw was really up to. He decided to make the best possible use of this information and suggested to Mrs B that some of the considerable Bradshaw income should be devoted to schemes he had for founding an orphanage, financial help to the old and sick of the parish and so on.”

“You’re saying that the vicar blackmailed her and used this … tainted money for charitable purposes?” Doreen paused. “I must say I feel sorry for this poor woman. She can’t be blamed for her husband’s activities, surely?”

“I wouldn’t call Mrs Bradshaw blameless in any context, and you will see why as her story unfolds. She took it upon herself to make her own enquiries about the vicar and unearthed some unsavoury stories about him and certain choirboys, not to mention an organist or two.”

Doreen and Ken looked uncertainly at each other. The man in the cassock continued to smile.

“I can understand your scepticism. I felt the same at first, but she kept a diary, you see, which came to light after her death. It seems she confronted the vicar and they arrived at a modus vivendi. In fact, they found they had much in common. So much so that they went into business together - discreetly, of course, acting through intermediaries and covering their tracks very well indeed.”

He chuckled, nodding his head as if in reluctant admiration.

“What kind of business?” As she asked the question Doreen seemed to guess the answer.

“Well, they bought a large house in Cawston, about five miles from here, and spent a fair amount of money doing it up and furnishing it to the highest standards of the day. They paid particular attention to the bedrooms, of which there were twelve. Then they recruited and installed young ladies and put the word about among the London clubs. The house was easily accessible by road and rail, but a little way from the centre of the village, you see. It was ideal. It proved very popular. They do say,” he added darkly, “that the vicar of Cawston was in on the deal and, in my view, he almost certainly was. Both parishes prospered and Mrs Bradshaw probably did rather better than she would have done if her husband had lived longer.”

Ken’s eyes had been opening wider during the narration.

“But .. a professional woman .. antiquarian and historian it says.”

“I did say that very little on the tablet is true. Mrs Bradshaw was neither an antiquarian nor a historian, though she did have a few ancient and rather tatty African objects in the house and had written the odd paragraph in the local magazine about local history. No, that was the bishop’s idea.”

“The bishop?” said Doreen, surprised.

“Well, discreet though they were, the vicar and Mrs Bradshaw couldn’t hope to keep the lid on their little enterprise for ever. She died in 1920, you see, and at about the same time there was a fire at the house in Cawston. Arson was suspected, there was a preliminary enquiry and it looked as though the balloon was about to go up when the bishop stepped in. He pulled a few strings and the vicar was despatched to a particularly unattractive part of Liverpool. The bishop decided that this tablet would be the most appropriate way of commemorating Mrs Bradshaw’s magnanimity and generosity and, at the same time, of scotching rumours about her life which might have reflected badly on the church.” He chuckled. “The bit about receiving the news of her husband’s death on the very spot and then deciding to dedicate her life to the poor is a masterly touch, don’t you think? So everything was hushed up and we now have this public tribute to the woman who started the Bradshaw Orphanage and after whom the Bradshaw Charity is named. Many people have good reason to be thankful to one or the other, I can assure you.”

The man looked round as the church door opened behind him and a gaunt, elderly lady carrying a basket of flowers stepped in. He held out his hand, first to Doreen and then to Ken.

“And now, if you’ll forgive me, I have duties to attend to. It has been a pleasure talking to you. I have so much enjoyed our little chat.” Then, with swirl of his cassock, he hurried off into the shadows.

The newcomer put down her basket and approached Ken and Doreen with a beaming smile.
“Welcome to All Saints,” she said brightly. “I hope he wasn’t bothering you?”

“The vicar?” said Doreen. “”Oh no, he was just telling us some interesting … ”

“Oh, that’s not the vicar. Don’t be fooled by the cassock. George is fairly harmless. Just likes to dress up sometimes. The old cassock gives him a sense of importance he never had in his sad life, though I’ve told him not to bother people with his tall stories and never to leave anyone with the impression that he is connected with the clergy. If he gets you on your own, you can usually write off the next half-hour or so. I suppose you’d call him one of the local eccentrics. Lives on his own, fantasises a bit, but he’s basically a kind, harmless man.” She paused and seemed to realise where they were. “Ah, I see you’ve been reading about my grandmother.”

“Your grandmother?”

The woman gestured towards the tablet.

“Frances Medwar Bradshaw. A remarkable woman, a woman truly inspired by the Lord. A woman who worked tirelessly for the poor, the neglected, the deprived. I never met her, I’m afraid, but to this day she’s an inspiration to us all. Something of a local saint, you might say.” She sighed. “There don’t seem to be many of her selfless sort around today. The village is full of second homes, rich youngsters who think only of getting richer, holidays abroad, the more exotic the better, flashy cars, that sort of thing. We never see them in here, of course. Still, I mustn’t get on my hobby horse. Let me show you around. We may be only a small country church, but these stones could tell a fascinating story, if only they could speak.”

Ken and Doreen agreed with her as she led them towards the altar.

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