How apocalypse came to Sedgeford: Author’s view of 19th century tragedy

Village view - Saint Mary The Virgin Church.
Village view - Saint Mary The Virgin Church.
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Humans continue to endure the worst that the climate can throw at them. But there is nothing new under the sun, as author and actor GARETH CALWAY here relates. He has been researching at the British Library what happened in the village back in 1819 for a ghost story. Friday, July 5, coincides with the date of a tragedy which happened during a freak storm nearly 200 years ago and here is his imaginative version of what happened:

A 13-year-old schoolgirl, Susan Nobes, was tragically killed during Bible class in Sedgeford church last Monday (July 5, 1819.)

Screams were heard from inside the vestry as lightning blasted a hole in the thick walls of the schoolroom.

“You may fancy how awful it was when I tell you that a thunderbolt struck the steeple and forced down a beam from the roof just over the door of the vestry,” reported Eliza Cunningham, a member of the Religious Tract Society.

“Large stones were also broken off the steeple. The sound was like the sound of a great gun close by, and there was the strong smell of brimstone.”

A lady-benefactress who runs the Bible school and also a Sunday School in the village for poor children was inspecting the school when the apocalypse came.

It was a bolt from the blue. She arrived at the church on a beautiful July evening and all was peace and sunshine. The birds were singing sweetly. People were busy working in the cornfields.

The schoolmaster was late so the lady sat down in the shade of the porch and watched the children amusing themselves in running up and down the churchyard. Susan in particular looked remarkably active and happy.

The schoolmaster arrived and, during the Bible reading, lightning began to flash in the window. It was awful but the lady thought they were well employed and did not wish that they should go away before they had done.

The children – those who were able – proceeded to sing, “Oh let me, heavenly lord, extend/My view to life’s approaching end.”

Then they all knelt down to pray. The lightning rapidly increased and seemed to fill the window with a blaze of light. But the master went on praying in a very earnest manner. He did not pray less because of the storm but longer; though it was so very dreadful that all present really thought they should very soon be killed. “Better die on their knees, seeking mercy from Jesus.”

The lady, the master and two girls were struck down by the lightning. The children were so frightened that they began to scream and run about as if they were beside themselves.

A little girl named Catherine was heard to cry in her trouble, “Indeed, indeed, I will strive not to sin any more.”

The lady begged them not to run away from her as a water spout had burst near the church and the rain had poured in so much that the lower part of the church, which stands on the side of a hill, was like a river.

They might almost have been drowned in the water but they all ran away, except for master and lady and the children who stayed with them in a corner of the church.

The rain that fell from the waterspout which had burst on some graves that were inside the church added a macabre horror, a ghastly fulfilment of St Jerome’s prophesy: ‘Arise ye dead, and come away to Judgement!’

Older village residents said they had not seen weather like it in their lifetimes. After it gave over thundering and lightning, the lady, master and children went back into the vestry and found Susan Nobes dead on the ground, with black zigzags across her temples.

This is how Robert Nobes, Susan’s father, found her later.