Wednesday, 30 July 2014

On a spaniel's monument

A rather poignant exhibit from Brixham Heritage Museum: the 1826 gravestone of "Var, lapdog of the Right Hon. Lady Farnham", which was originally installed on a rock on the now-overbuilt fields of Parkham Hill, Brixham. Its details connect to a complicated genealogy, and a forgotten railway disaster.

Var's gravestone, Brixham Heritage Museum - photo by permission
I found a little background on this:
A Reminiscence of the Rev. H. F. Lyte.— A correspondent sends us the following : — Being at Brixham lately, we took a walk over some fields on the Parkham estate, on the high level above the Bolton hotel, where my attention was called to a tablet fixed in a cavity on the face of a bold jutting rock, about five feet from the ground, on which was inscribed the following : —

Here lies VAR. lapdog of the Right Hon. Lady Farnham.
Breathe gentle spring, breathe on this grassy mound.
And sing ye birds and bloom ye flowers around,
Ye suns and dews make green the resting place
Of honest VAR, the noblest of his race.
Gentle, yet fearless, active, fond, and true,
He reads, proud man, a lesson here to you.
And bids you (happy might you hear) to be
Guiltless in life and calm in death as he.
Go, and as faithful to YOUR master prove,
As firm in duty and as strong in love.
You will not find this moment here mis-spent
In musing o'er a SPANIEL'S monument.
May, 1826.

It is difficult to conceive why so secluded a spot should have been chosen for fixing so poetic a memorial to a faithful friend. S.S.

Referring to the lines on "Honest Var," which appeared in our paper on Thursday last, we have received from a correspondent the following interesting particulars :— Lady Farnham, to whom "Var" belonged, was the aunt of Mrs. Hogg, of Berry Head house, whose father, the Rev. H. F. Lyte, vicar of Lower Brixham at the time, and author of that well-known hymn "Abide with me," &c., wrote the poetic epitaph inscribed to "Var's" memory. Lady Farnham and her son, Lord Farnham and his wife, were burned to death in the memorable Abergele railway accident some years ago. She once lived at Burton house, Brixham, which accounts for the memorial being erected where it is — so says our correspondent. Western Times Extract, December l0th, 1888.
- The Western Antiquary; or Devon and Cornwall Note-Book, ed. WHK Wright (Vol. VIII, Jul 1888 - June 1889, page 121, Internet Archive westernantiquar01wriggoog).
It should be noted straight away that the correspondent quoted in The Western Antiquary got the family relationships confused (which is understandable, because they are complicated).

A little Google Books and news archive searching finds that the Lord and Lady Farnham who were killed in a railway accident were Henry Maxwell, 7th Baron Farnham, and his wife Anna (née Stapleton). However, the spaniel-owning Lady Farnham, friend and patron of the Reverend HF Lyte, was the previous Lady Farnham: Anne (née Butler), wife of the 7th Baron's father Henry Maxwell, 6th Baron Farnham. She wasn't in the rail accident, having died in 1831, as noted in the dedication to Lyte's 1833 Poems: Chiefly Religious (Internet Archive poemschieflyrel00lytegoog). Neither of the Lady Farnhams was the aunt of "Mrs Hogg" (the married name of Lyte's daughter Anna Maria); Lyte's wife Anna, while related to the Anglo-Irish Maxwells, wasn't directly connected to the Baronetcy and furthermore had no siblings.

The "memorable Abergele railway accident" refers to the disastrous crash in August 1868, when the Irish Mail Euston-Holyhead express train collided with some runaway petroleum wagons released on to the line by mismanaged shunting operations. Lord and Lady Farnham were among the many passengers killed either in the collision or the fire that immediately engulfed the four lead carriages.  (The circumstances suggest there must have been something like a fuel-air explosion - the petroleum, which was in wooden barrels, rapidly dispersed by the force of the collision, then igniting). It was at its time the worst British railway accident to date; 33 passengers died, with so little recognisable (all but three were unidentifiable after the hour-long fire) that they were buried - or, more accurately, shovelled into - in a mass grave at Abergele. See Wikipedia: Abergele rail disaster. There are various contemporary news accounts online, such as the Sydney Morning Herald's Appalling accident to the Irish mail train (28 October 1868, p2).

The Rev. Henry Francis Lyte, you may recall from a recent post, was one of the early investigators of Ash Hole Cavern in Brixham: see Bones beneath Brixham. While the Brixham museum display says there's no certainty that Lyte wrote the epitaph, it does appear as Inscription on a monument in Brixham on page 85 of the 1907 collection of Lyte's verse, The Poetical Works of the Rev. H. F. Lyte, M.A. (ed. Rev. John Appleyard, pub, Eliot Stock, London, Internet Archive poeticalworksre00unkngoog). An article by Percival HW Almy - In the footsteps of the author of "Abide with Me" - in The Sunday at Home, Volume 42, 1895 also says
These lines are Mr. Lyte's own composition, and, as far as I am aware, have never appeared in print before.
... adding
I had some difficulty in deciphering them. This genuine relic of a great man is in a sad state of decay.
I can't find on a map an identified original location of the monument to Var, but it would have been in the vicinity of what's now Burton Place. The Poetical Works of the Rev. H. F. Lyte, M.A. says of it:
During his early ministry at Brixham Mr. Lyte resided at Burton House, behind which, in the fields, may be seen a large rock, which forms a picturesque object on a sloping bank, in which there is fixed a tablet bearing a poetical inscription which he wrote in memory of a much-loved dog which belonged to Lady Farnham, with whom the Lyte family were intimately associated.
The section following is worth quoting for its sheer irony:
He had a deep love for animals and birds. At Burton House he kept an eagle, which was generally to be seen chained to a tree.
Addendum, 31st July
"Var" is rather an odd name for a dog. It occurred to me, however, that as the Farnham Maxwells were of Irish stock, it might be an Irish name. This is pure speculation, but I wonder if it might be a shortened form of "Conchobar" (Old Irish pronunciation: [ˈkonxovar]), the name of various Irish kings of history and legend. It would be a suitably noble name for a spaniel described as "the noblest of his race", and it furthermore means "lover of hounds". Are there any Irish readers who could comment on the feasibility of this?

- Ray

1 comment:

  1. Trust a spaniel to inspire such a memorial. Thanks for a great post.