Susannah Gale: Funeral by Torch Light

Susannah Gale: Funeral by Torch Light

Susannah Gale’s life was remarkable as were the days leading up to her unusual funeral.

Susannah’s early life
Susannah Gale, nee Bradley was born in 1796 in the village of Alwalton in Huntingdonshire. She was the daughter of a wealthy tenant farmer, William Bradley and his wife Mary. Susannah was home schooled under the care of a governess. Her education included reading, writing and needlework. She was also an accomplished horsewoman. On the 14th December 1818, Susannah married William Gale at St. Andrew’s Church, Alwalton. William was a wealthy tenant farmer at Stilton in Cambridgeshire. In 1819, their only child Mary was born. Susannah lived as lavishly as her wealth would allow her.

Widowed and destitute
In 1827 William died. His funeral took place at Leighton Bromswold in Huntingdonshire. Soon after Susannah became ill and was unable to run the farm. She gave up her tenant right in the farm, and her stock and crops, to a person named Horsford, who agreed in writing to pay her 50 pounds a year for life. (In 2007 this was worth approximately £3,390.07.) He paid this annuity regularly for a few years and then stopped paying. Susannah went to a solicitor who took legal action against Horsford to recover the debt. Horsford agreed to pay a lower amount of 32 pounds annually for the remainder of Susannah’s life, as well as the arrears due from him. For a time, he paid the 32 pounds. In 1842 he again stopped the payment. This time Susannah had no money to take legal action against Horsford to recover the debt. So she went to seek the help of Mr. Edward Gibbons Esq., the Chairman of the Peterborough Board of Guardians. He advised her to raise the money by donations. In August 1842, Susannah went to Stamford, begging from house to house with a petition.

The Petition Susannah carried
“Your petitioner, Susannah Gale, once living in a prosperous farm, was in consequence of ill health obliged to leave it: she disposed of her stock and farming implements to an individual named Horsford, who agreed by his own hand-writing to allow her fifty pounds per annum for her life: that agreement he now basely and unjustly refuses to fulfil, in consequence of which she is now totally deprived of the necessaries of life; and for want of the means to pay a professional man to bring the oppressor to justice, she is under the necessity of soliciting the kindness and humanity of all friends. The trial, if carried through, will cost one hundred pounds. It is to be hoped, therefore, that this poor persecuted widow will not plead in vain. The least trifle will be thankfully received with gratitude, and your Petitioner will ever pray,” &c.

Seventy-nine people donated money, including the Marchioness of Exeter who donated 10 shillings and the Marquis of Exeter £2.

Susannah is arrested for begging
In September 1842 Susannah was arrested for begging. She told the court that Mr. Edward Gibbons, Esq., suggested to her to ask for donations with the paper that she presented. It appeared she had been in Stamford two or three times before on the same excuse and had obtained the signatures of some kindly persons to her petition but there were also strong grounds for believing that her tale was one of deception. The petition was without a date and did not state the place where she lived. Therefore, she could make use of the petition at any time. Susannah was sent to Stamford prison for one week under the Vagrant Act for begging.

Susannah’s death
Susannah did not recover the debt from Horsford. She and Mary lived the rest of their lives in poverty. By 1851 Susannah and Mary had moved to Melbourne Street, Kings Lynn. Some years later they moved to 18 Cemetery Road, Bedford. Susannah made her living selling second hand clothes and Mary was a School Mistress.

On the 19th of April 1866, Susannah died, aged 69 years. In the days after her death neighbours were concerned for Mary’s mental health. Before her mother was buried Mary had been in and out of the house showing no concern and selling second hand clothes.

Mary ordered a coffin to be made, and her mother was put in it, but she made no arrangements for the funeral. At first, she said her mother was to be buried at Huntingdon, and then she said the body should be interred at Peterborough. By Wednesday 25th of April, the body had lain in the house for six days, and no one had seen Mary near the house. The neighbours sent for Chief Constable Stennett, who went into the house and found the coffin with the body inside. Mary was not in the house. It was decided that the body must be buried that day. This was late in the afternoon. Arrangements were soon made. At ten o’clock that night, by torch light, the Rev. S. F. Bridge, Vicar of St. Paul’s Church, Bedford, conducted the funeral service at the graveside in Foster Hill Road Cemetery.

On the day after the funeral Mary returned to Bedford. She said that she wanted her mother exhumed. A letter she sent to Chief Constable Stennett stated that the reason she did not stay with her mother was because she feared  that she would be arrested at her death.

Mary’s final years
Mary subsequently moved into lodgings at Westwood Street, Peterborough where she worked as a wool dealer. The 1881 Census records Mary living alone at Albert Place, Peterborough and working as a dealer in clothes and a tailor. By 1891 Mary was destitute and living on charity. She was living in a two-roomed house in one of the “yards” of the city of Peterborough. On the evening of the 27th December 1891 neighbours found Mary lying unconscious on the pavement outside her house. The neighbours carried her into her downstairs room through the window, this being her usual way of access in and out of her house as she had lost the key to her house door. The next morning the neighbours went into Mary’s house and found her dead on the floor. Her body was nothing but skin and bone, it was said that she had nothing to eat the whole of Christmas week. She had been too proud to apply to the Board of Guardians for relief. Mary died on the 28th December 1891, aged 72 years.

The Coroners verdict was “Death from starvation and exposure.”


Susannah’s grave is unmarked.  Grave ref: H8.184.

Stamford Mercury Sept 1842
Northampton Daily Reporter Tuesday December 29th, 1891
The Bedfordshire Mercury Saturday April 28th, 1866
Census 1851-1891