We have the following odd affair transmitted to us from Windsor, viz. That a few days ago there died at Portsmouth a person who had lived at Windsor for many years, and by his will order’d that a relation of his (to whom he had bequeathed his all) should go to Portsmouth, bring his body from thence in a hearse, and bury it at six o’clock in the morning, in a grave ten feet deep, in his orchard, where he had himself buried a favourite dog some time ago…
The man was John Mathews, a hat maker from Windsor in Berkshire, who died sometime in late August 1741. (It’s hard to be sure, without a ‘regular’ burial in a churchyard, but his will was opened on 27 August and proved on 3 September 1741, and the newspaper report was dated two days later.) The Will actually stipulated that John should be buried in his ten foot deep grave in his garden under the mulberry tree. No more than a dozen of his friends ‘that have been used to sport with me’ were to be present. A French horn was to be played (the newspaper said it should sound the Death of the Hare while John’s body was being lowered into the ground).
Each mourner was to get a bottle of wine and the parson, who John’s executor should choose, should have a pair of gloves.
John specifically stipulated that if he died away from his home, his executor should bring his body back to be buried beneath the mulberry tree and, if he’d already been buried, to exhume his remains and rebury them as directed. If not, the executor would ‘answer it at the last day and forfeit ten pounds to my next heir at law in three months after my decease…’.
This executor was John’s nephew, William Mathews, who lived with his uncle at Windsor. In return for carrying out his uncle’s wishes, William got the bulk of John Mathew’s wealth and possessions.
We’re not sure what John’s wife, Martha, made of all this, but she was also named in his will, getting 5l. within twenty days of his death and then 20l. a year thereafter, to be paid quarterly unless she remarried in which case her annuity would cease.
There was one further condition placed on William Mathews.
The said relation (who is not of the Establish’d Church) should within three calendar months [of John’s death], receive the Sacrament according to the Ceremony of the Church of England; and upon neglecting to comply with these things, to be cut off from all that this whimsical person died possess’d of, which we hear is about 1000l.
Can we just say here, that if this was his true fortune, we feel for his wife Martha, described by John in his Will as his ‘loving wife’. She got just a fraction and, unless her nephew allowed otherwise, doesn’t seem to have had any right to remain in her home (assuming it was owned by John and not Martha). However, the newspaper wasn’t quite correct on one thing; if William didn’t take the Sacrament, he didn’t forfeit everything, just 100l. which was to go to whoever stood next in line as John’s ‘lawful heir’.
Oh, and as a quick postscript to his Will, John left just a shilling to a niece.
The newspapers reported that the first part of this odd will had been complied with, and John had been laid to rest in his garden at 6 o’clock in the morning. A week later, twelve people were to assemble at the makeshift grave, the invites already having been sent (John’s Will, however, seems to suggest they should have been present at the burial itself), ‘and ‘tis not doubted but the last part will be perform’d in due time’.
John Mathews’ will had been written on 9 January 1738/9, but when he died just over two years later he was described as being ‘late of New Windsor in the county of Berkshire but at Portsmouth in the county of Southampton’. As a further clue to the date of John Mathew’s death, his nephew William swore that he had opened the cover in which the Will had been sealed on Thursday 27 August 1741.
We’re reminded of the phrase, mad as a hatter. Hatters, through their trade, were susceptible to mercury poisoning. Whether or not John Mathews suffered in this way, there’s no doubt he was an eccentric character both in life and in death.
National Archives, PROB 11/712/16 Will of John Mathews, Hat Maker of New Windsor, Berkshire, 3 September 1741
Newcastle Courant, 5 September 1741