The story began on the afternoon of Sunday 28th August 1921 when a farmer, Mr. Titus Harrison, was tending his sheep on Killhope near to the junction of the boundaries between Northumberland, Durham and Cumberland. As Mr. Harrison was going on his rounds he saw the end of a large wooden box sticking out of the side of an eroded peat hagg and, although he was very familiar with the ground, he had never noticed anything there before so he assumed that it must have been exposed by recent heavy rains. He kicked open the box and was shocked to find a human head inside. On his return home he informed the police at St. John’s Chapel who came to dig out what proved to be a well-made coffin and they took it away to Cowshill to await an inquiry.
On opening the coffin the police found the body, which was wrapped in a grey woollen army blanket, to be that of a man about five feet ten inches in height, with sandy coloured hair about six inches long, who had been dead for a long time but with some of his flesh remaining intact. The man was dressed in clothes of a bygone age - an old-fashioned army frock coat, a long waistcoat, woollen stockings, top stockings and size ten, hand-sewn boots, but neither trousers nor a kilt. Everything about the corpse and the coffin was in very good state of preservation, which was thought to be due to their saturation in peat water without exposure to the air. The newspaper report about the discovery described the body and its clothes in some detail, including the sinister presence of a bullet near the shoulder of the body.
The coffin itself aroused interest. It was made of 3/8 inch thick, hand-sawn pitch pine fastened together with leather thongs and the lid was shaped like the roof of a house, the like of which the police had never seen.
At the inquest on the 30th August Coroner Proud stated that the remains were “very ancient,” he recorded a verdict of “found dead” and issued a certificate to permit the body to be buried in an unmarked grave in the cemetery at Burtreeford. The belongings of the deceased were put to one side in case the land owners, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, came forward to claim them; these included six coat buttons of lead which were removed and a photograph of them was published in a local newspaper.
There was of course speculation about the identity of the dead man. It seemed that he met with a violent death, for, as well as the bullet near the shoulder, the corpse had no teeth and part of the lower jaw was missing. The first idea was that he had been a despatch rider during the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, but then, as the news went further afield it brought a letter from a Captain Charles C. Lovell of Ringsthorpe Hall, Northampton. Captain Lovell was trying to trace a missing ancestor, Captain Richard Courteney Lovell, who had been a captain in His Majesty’s (King George III’s) 39th Foot and was known to have been despatched on a special government mission to the north of England at the time of the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots in June 1780. During a week of riots the army and militia from all over the country were summoned to London where about three hundred people were killed. Captain Lovell’s mission must then have been urgent and in earnest. He was known to have reached Durham on his journey, then he set off up Weardale and across the fells towards Carlisle, but he never reached his destination.
Coming back to 1921, a local photographer was commissioned to take photos of the coffin, the body and its clothing. Copies of these were sent to Charles Lovell at Ringsthorpe Hall but the envelope was returned with a note saying “no such place known” and nothing more was heard from him. This led to the notion that perhaps the enquiry had been a hoax. However, there is a place near Northampton called Kingsthorpe – an easy mistake to make, and so Charles Lovell never found out whether the body was that of his ancestor.
So there we are – two thought-provoking stories in one.