The Roadside Grave of Betsy Smith, Kenilworth

The dead are everywhere. You can’t avoid them. Under city buildings and railway lines, gardens and churches. As centuries pass, memorials are removed, with the land re-used for new purposes, the graves rarely rediscovered, let alone re-marked. However, what of those too poor to ever have their own headstone, or even their own grave? Pits used for mass burials were not uncommon in times of epidemics, and many capital cities have substantial plague pits at every turn. However, the costs of private burials were not just a burden for city dwellers, but more rural communities too.

Few markers can be found for such mass burials, but others are hidden in plain sight. Take the Kenilworth boundary marker. For centuries, the enormous stone marked the boundary between the towns of Kenilworth and Leek Wootton in Warwickshire, a boundary that moved considerably over the years.

For many years, paupers were regarded as the property and therefore the responsibility of their parish, even after death. Should you wish to move to another town as someone of low income, you were required to obtain a settlement order so that the new town would accept you as a resident. However, they were under no obligation to bury resettled residents once they died, and here the Kenilworth stone takes on a rather different purpose. Local historian Graham Gould commented that it is for this reason that the local landmark became known as ‘Betsy’s Grave’. According to local legend, in the 17th century, a pauper woman called Betsy Smith died in Leek Wootton and her body was rolled over the parish boundary into Kenilworth and she was buried where she lay at the boundary stone.

Images via Graham Gould and Henry Isons

This huge sandstone rock sat on the grass verge opposite Rouncil Lane for centuries, unmarked and unknown to younger generations. However, Gould, who had grown up learning of the legend of Betsy, feared that the legend would fast die out and so campaigned for several years, proposing that Betsy should have a gravestone of her own. After years of campaigning, Betsy’s grave marker was installed in 2011, donated by local stonemasons and funeral directors Henry Isons.

Damage to Betsy’s stone via WarwickshireWorld

After around eight years of existence alongside the stone, the new plaque and stone were seriously damaged, with large chunks of the rock shearing off, and the whole arrangement shifting from its base. Judging by the severity of the damage, it seems as though it was victim of an automotive collision, with hundreds of years of history shattered in seconds.

However, Henry Isons stepped in once more to repair the remaining stone and re-set the gravestone. The boundary was marked once more.

Finding the boundary stone was not so much a jovial expedition, but an eagle-eyed game of I-spy. The stone isn’t an imposing, well-marked beast, but midway on a grass verge on the road into Kenilworth. Perched in front of a row of large residential houses, and a little up the road from a garage, there was hardly a queue of tourists to contend with. Visiting the grave involved shouting ‘THERE IT IS’, making a swift turn into the opening of a housing estate and running across a main road, hoping that my grave-giddiness hadn’t superseded my respect for the green cross code.

Many of the pictures online give the impression that the stone is a huge boulder, but in reality, it wouldn’t look out of place in a garden rockery. The little headstone is a neat and rather beautiful little thing, placed a few inches in front of the stone. The stone has had the breakage to the back smoothed off since it sustained damage a few years ago, and the whole arrangement looks really well cared for, the sort of thing that one would hope inspires a passion for local history in those passing by. However, considering that most visitors will be passing by at 40 miles an hour, I wouldn’t expect huge numbers.

Although passing motorists saw a strange woman squatting and taking selfies on a grass verge, I’m genuinely so thrilled to have made the trip to Kenilworth to see this little memorial. I feel that its imperative for new generations to interact with elements of their own history and to integrate them into their own lives and interest to keep the rich history of towns alive. Betsy Smith’s headstone may be flanked by houses, garages and chip shops, but remains a touchstone of centuries of history commemorating the forgotten voices of the poor.


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Sources/Further Reading:

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