|Photo: Glynis Cooper|
Herm forms part of the Channel Islands. It is located near the much larger Guernsey. This small (1.5 miles long, 2,800 feet wide) island boasts only a handful of permanent residents, but during the summer months, its beauty and idyllic quiet make it a popular stop for tourists who wish to escape the outside world for a while. This is all well and good, but for the purposes of this blog the main charm of Herm is one particular grave. What makes it notable is that no one has any idea what in hell it’s doing there.
The so-called “Fisherman’s Path” leads around the western side of the island. At the end of this path lies the “Island Cemetery.” It is given this formal name even though it contains only two bodies, lying in the same grave. The inscription on the headstone reads:
In Memory of
K.W. Conden aged 2 years
R. Mansfield aged 33 years
Died April 1832
Rest in Peace
It is a simple inscription, but utterly baffling, because it is a mystery who these people were, and why they were buried together at this lonely spot. Adding to the oddity is the fact that photographic magnification revealed that a second “2” was originally added to Conden’s age, meaning that this--man?--woman?--who knows?--actually died at the age of 22. The second digit looks almost like it was deliberately erased, but why in the world would anyone do that? (It is also disputed whether the year of their death was “1832” or “1852.”)
Neither name appears in any burial registers or newspapers of the time. It is inexplicable why they were informally buried on the shore, instead of being given Christian burial in the local churchyard or in nearby Guernsey. It has been speculated that the two people were cholera victims, which would necessitate a hasty burial. However, there is no record of any cholera outbreak on the island. If they contracted cholera--or any other infectious disease--onboard a ship, the vessel would have been quarantined, and anyone ill would have been sent to Herm’s tiny “off-island,” Jethou. Shipwreck victims who washed ashore would sometimes be buried on the shore, but only as a temporary expedient.
Somebody cared enough about these two people to bury them and erect a stone over their bones, but who? And how can it be that, to date, is it anyone’s guess who these people were, and why they were given such an irregular burial?
The Herm Island Grave is one of those inconsequential, obscure, but utterly perplexing little historical mysteries which are a particular delight to me.
[Note: novelist Compton Mackenzie, who lived on Herm for several years in the 1920s, loved walking around the part of the island containing the grave. However, one evening, he suddenly felt himself surrounded by “elemental forces.” He was so frightened by the experience, he avoided the spot from then on. Perhaps the enigmatic Conden and Mansfield merely wished to say, “Hi!”]