I love a good junk shop. That’s no secret. My house is filled with the possessions of the long-dead in some horrific approximation of a rather 1970s haunted house. Is it hair? I’ll take it. Is it mourning? Pop it in the bag. Is it a hastily drawn likeness of a gravestone with one of the single most bizarre epitaphs you’ve ever seen? I think we know where this is going.
So for a couple of my finest British pounds, a rather crap drawing of a Cheltenham-based gravestone was mine. Why couldn’t I just have taken a picture of it and returned home to my already-crammed wall space? Shush. You’re not my mother.
So the headstone was mine. Drawn by Kate F-something, the grave was produced on a basic cream piece of paper with pencil, watercolour and pen. Kate also thought it pertinent to leave her pencil guide lines on the finished piece without rubbing them out; a rushed girl after my own heart indeed.
So what was the epitaph that stopped me in my tracks?
Cheltenham Church Yard
Here lies John Higgs
A famous man for killing pigs.
For killing pigs was his delight
Both morning, afternoon & night.
Both heat and cold he did endure,
Which no physician could ere cure
His knife is laid,
His work is done;
I hope to heaven his soul is gone.
To the memory of John Higgs-pig killer
– Who died Nov 26th 1825, aged 55 yrs.
Mate, you had me at ‘pig killer’. Could this be a real grave? And does it exist today?
Before we get into the realities of John’s weird resting place, can we all just take a minute to say… sheeesh! That’s one to frighten the kiddywinks with. Either this headstone was written by ye olde militant vegan or we hadn’t come up with the word ‘butcher’ by the 19th century.
So, is this grave real? And why is it so damn graphic? John certainly doesn’t sound like a butcher to me, more like a barely-constrained serial killer. So let’s investigate.
John’s grave is real, and still exists in ‘Cheltenham Churchyard’ today.
To be more specific, John was laid to rest at St Mary’s Church, which is the oldest building in Cheltenham, dating from the mid 11th century. Much of the churchyard was cleared in the 1950s (a frequent and heart-breaking history for many burial grounds), so only around 50 headstones survive to this day. According to the Friends of St Mary’s, two other curious epitaphs were sadly lost during this period of clearance:
John Paine, Blacksmith, died 1796
My sledge and hammer lies inclined,
My bellows pipe have lost its wind,
My fire’s extinct, my forge decayed,
And in the dust my vice is layed,
My coal is spent, my iron’s gone,
My nails are drove, my work is done.
Reader! Pray covet not this world.
Out of it you may soon be hurled.
For as a wheel it turns about,
And it was a wheel that turned me out.
John’s stone has been laid flat in the churchyard for many years and was weathered to such an extent that his epitaph was all but illegible. Thankfully, the headstone was restored in 2011 and John’s strange memorial is clear to view once more. This was just in time for an inexplicable spike in visitor numbers to the churchyard in 2012.
According to Sue Adie, the marketing officer for Cheltenham Tourism, the church experienced an enormous rise in visits from Japanese tourists who flocked to the little-known grave. To this day, church and tourism officials are clueless as to why the grave had such a huge Asian appeal, commenting that:
‘Maybe it’s been written about in some Japanese guide books that we don’t know about. Most people come to Cheltenham for the festivals of racing, literature, music and so on or for the architecture and the shopping but there are enquiries like this about the tomb that surprise us. We often discover the reason is that a new tourist guide has been published in a particular country which prompts people to visit different attractions.’
Sadly, it seems that little is known about the life of John Higgs. He was a butcher, rather than a freelance pig murderer, which is something of a relief, and had a market stall in the town centre.
When comparing the drawing of the headstone with contemporary photographs, two inaccuracies scream out. Firstly, this is not the whole inscription. The epitaph closes with ‘And four Sons of the above who died in their infancy.’- a sad fact overshadowed by the humorous nature of John’s personal epitaph.
Secondly, creative licence has been taken by our artist. Judging by the size of John’s stone, it appears not to be a headstone in reality at all, but a ledger stone or ledger-style grave marker. This means that John’s grave was a large rectangular flat slab, which has always been flush to the ground. It has never stood upright as depicted in my drawing.
So, with that. Thank you for joining me on this odd little trip of pig killers and artistic lies. I haven’t yet been able to visit John’s grave myself, but you can bet that you’ll be the first to know when I manage the trip.
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