Saturday, 13 March 2010


There is plenty for the visitor to see in Dorchester Abbey, but one thing that isn't always pointed out is the memorial to Mrs Sarah Fletcher. It says:


If thou hast a heart fam'd for tenderness and pity, contemplate this spot. In which are deposited the remains of a young lady, whose artless beauty, innocence of mind, and gentle manners once obtained her the love and esteem of all who knew her. But when nerves were too delicately spun to bear the rude shakes and jostlings which we meet within this transitory world, nature gave way. She sunk and died a martyr to excessive sensibility.

Mrs Sarah Fletcher

Wife of captain Fletcher. Departed this life at the village of Clifton on the 7 of June 1799. In the 29 year of her age. May her soul meet that peace in heaven which this earth denied her.

Read that, and you can't help but wonder what the real story is. We learn more from "Love's Madness: Medicine, the Novel, and Female Insanity, 1800-1865" by Helen Small. She quotes Jackson's Oxford Journal of Saturday 15 June 1799 as follows:

On Saturday last, an Inquest was taken at Clifton, in this county, before R. Buckland, Gent. one of his Majesty's Coroners, on the body of Mrs. Sarah Fletcher. This lady put an end to her existence by hanging herself with her pocket handkerchief, which she fastened to a piece of small cord, and affixed it to the curtain rod of the bedstead in the room in which she usually slept. After a full investigation of the previous conduct of the deceased, and the derangement of her mind appearing very evident from the testimony of the gentleman at whose house this unfortunate affair happened, as well as from many other circumstances, the jury, without hesitation, found a Verdict - Lunacy. The husband of this unfortunate lady is an officer in the Navy, and is now on his passage to the East Indies.

Then she quotes a local pamphlet:

Sarah Fletcher (one of the Fletchers of Saltoun) lived at Clifton Hampden - not far from here. Captain Fletcher was in the Navy, and, following the popular tradition of the sea, he was not only inconstant, but unfaithful. He actually proposed marriage to a wealthy heiress living some distance away, and he was on the point of committing bigamy when Mrs Fletcher was warned at the last moment - she had only just time to reach the church to stop the ceremony. 'It is not difficult to imagine the scene which followed . . . Captain Fletcher literally ran away, made for London, and sailed for the East Indies. The unwedded bride returned home with her parents, and Sarah Fletcher drove back to Clifton Hampden and hanged herself in her bedroom fastening her pocket handkerchief to a piece of cord which she fixed to the curtain rod of her bedstead.

The important point about the inquest verdict of lunacy is that in those days a suicide couldn't be buried in church.

There a more mystical history of the poor woman here.

I wouldn't want to encourage excessive sensibility, but it's an intriguing story.

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