History revived at long-forgotten graveyard: Tales of pirates, World War 2 bombing raids and shipwrecked opera singers uncovered by retired couple who cleared overgrown church plot to keep busy in lockdown
- Lindsay and Brian Sandford took on the project in 2021 on the Isles of Scilly
A couple from the Isles of Scilly who renovated a ‘derelict’ churchyard as a way to keep busy during lockdown have exposed graves which tell stories of piracy, shipwreck and scandal.
Lindsay and Brian Sandford took on the project on St Mary’s during the pandemic, along with a team of volunteers, after struggling to find a grave linked to Lindsay’s family history.
Retired museum researcher Mrs Sandford, 60, and retired building contractor Mr Sandford, 73, began clearing St Mary’s Old Town churchyard in 2021 after gaining permission from the diocese.
The churchyard is most famous for housing the grave of former Prime Minister Harold Wilson, although this plot was already well-kept.
Mrs Sandford has since written three books exposing the salacious lives of those buried in the churchyard’s 858 graves – which house up to three people each.
Among the stories uncovered by the couple are a captain who was captured by sea pirates at Dunkirk.
Captain Peter Lambton was buried in the churchyard in January 1781. After being captured, he was ransomed for 500 guineas by the French pirates, before eventually being killed.
The couple also discovered a relative of the Fry chocolate family, Georgianna Fry, who died at just three months old while travelling on the Calypso ship from Jamaica to England on October 1 1847.
Her father Charles Edward Fry was an overseer at Jamaica’s second largest sugar plantation, which had a long history of using slaves for labour.
Also buried there is Ann Cargill, a famous opera singer of the eighteenth century who died in a shipwreck off Scilly with her infant child in 1784.
More recent burials include Dorothy Agnes Paice, 22, and Sylvia Jenkin, 29, who were both killed when German aircraft dropped a bomb on their house in August 1941.
And one of Harold Wilson’s ministers, Ray Gunter, is buried not far from him in the same churchyward.
Originally from Wales, Mr Gunter served as Minister for Labour and subsequently Minister for Power before resigning in 1968. He died in 1977.
Mrs Sandford told the BBC the project has been ‘very satisfying’.
She added: ‘Brian, my husband, has quite advanced Alzheimer’s and we needed a project to get him out each morning. Two years later here we are – it is looking cared for and more easy to maintain.’
Mr Sandford was key to gaining permission from the local diocese, having worked on building projects at every other church on the islands.
The couple spent up to 60 hours per week renovating and maintaining the site, and now hope their younger volunteers will continue the project for future generations.
They say they have received help from many local families
The Anglican church of St Mary was built at Old Town during the 12th century.
In the 1880s the graveyard became terraced so that more graves could be put in. This meant many of the previous resting places were buried over.