Many years ago I read extracts from the Journal of a Somerset Rector 1803-1834 by John Skinner and came away with the impression that he was a miserable bad tempered creature. Reading his diary again does little to alter my first understanding of him, but on reading the book again, I have at least come to see why he was so miserable.
He was vicar of Camerton from 1800 to 1839 during this period he wrote his journals and during this time had to face a great deal of personal sorrow through the deaths of his immediate family and also as vicar at Camerton the deaths of his parishioners.
The village of Camerton is also famed in the archaeology record as being the site of a Roman settlement, and also having been mined for coal since Roman times, in fact the 'everlasting flame' on the altar of Sulis at Bath was said to have been fuelled by coal from here. Skinner also had a theory that Camerton was Camulondinum as well. Yes, Skinner was an antiquarian, like Dean Merewether he would saunter out in summer, and with a few miners lay waste to any barrow that took his fancy. We decry this vandalism nowadays, but these 'heathen savages' whose bones occupied these barrows were to our nineteenth century religious zealots a great curiosity, perhaps at the back of their minds, a trickle of uncertainity had begun to emerge at their own faith in an invisible god....
At least their imagination ran riot as to thoughts of white robed Druids performing unspeakable ritual acts in the stone circles and they were fascinated by this 'other' world - like the later writers who were to collect folklore of the British scene, or to put it more simply the naive superstitious stories of giants and fairies that roamed England - our vicars were also absorbed by the paganism of earlier history, which in turn had drifted down through the centuries, paganism was still rife in the countryside.
Skinner was sensitive, nervous and irritable.. a cantakerous individual tormented by the social upheavals that were happening in the early nineteenth century. He had to contend with drunken miners in his own parish, 'fallen' women, and a poverty that we can scarcely comprehend today. This was no pretty quaint village with thatched cottages as depicted by later sentimental Victorians such as Allingham, this was life in the raw.
To put it in the words of Virginia Woolf who wrote an essay on the man,
"Behind him lay order and discipline and all the virtues of the heroic past, but directly he left his study he was faced with drunkenness and immorality; with indiscipline and irreligion; with Methodism and Roman Catholicism; with the Reform Bill and the Catholic Emancipation Act, with a mob clamouring for freedom, with the overthrow of all that was decent and established and right...."
Skinner's archaelogical exploits have drifted across my path the last few years, the most famous of course being Stoney Littleton Barrow, but also nearer to my home the Charmy Downs Bronze Age Barrows, now destroyed by a first World War airfield, the barrows followed a linear path on top of the Downs. Also Skinner excavated (or dug down) the Ashen Hill barrows, a linear group of 8 barrows, very near to the group of the Priddy Nine Barrows, in fact these two groups make up a bronze age cemetery, not too far from the famous Priddy Circles.
All these eight barrows were investigated by the Reverend John Skinner in 1815, and all barrows produced one or more cremations. Some of these contained Early Bronze age urns and were covered with stone slabs (similar to Lansdown barrows cemetery). Three barrows had bronze daggers, one in a wooden sheaf. One barrow contained a rich burial which included beads and other objects of amber (maybe faience) and a miniature incense cup. from Ann Woodward - British Barrows........
There is a poignant passage in his journals regarding the Mendips, and it has to do with the death of his favourite daughter Laura at fourteen years old in May 1820. A few months later after her death he had ridden up to the Mendips in a solitary manner, and in his diary had written the following passage;
"I could not help thinking how differently this morning was to be spent by myself, an obscure imdividual, on the desolate heights of Mendip, and the Queen of these realms in the midst of her judges in the most splendid metropolis in the world. Yet when half the number of years have rolled away which these tumuli have witnessed how will every memorial, every trace, be forgotten of the agitation which now fills every breast; all the busy heads and aching hearts will be as quiet as those of the savage chieftains which have so long occupied these hillocks"
But there were happier times in his life, and in 1822 he describes riding out with a party of friends to Stanton Drew Circles;...
"When the country in the vicinity was covered with wood, and the white robed Druid stood in solemn silence, each one by his stone of power in the centre of this gloomy recess, the scene of course was more impressive"
The full horrors of death was an experience that he had to contend with as a vicar, as mentioned earlier. He lost his brother and two sisters to consumption in 1810, his wife must have also caught the infection for she was to become ill as well, in 1811 she gave birth to a daughter who died three monthslater of consumption. Then in 1812 his wife died. All this happened in a matter of short time, later on in life, after the death of Laura again to consumption, his son Joseph was also to die of the same illness.
In the village itself, death was commonplace, the coal mines were dangerous, men and children were occasionally killed by falling rock. Drunkeness was also a killer, a woman died horribly by falling on the fire in her home. Men fell down shafts inebriated, and on one occasion a man walking through a hedge into what he thought of as a field, in actual fact plunged down into a quarry. Age and poverty were also great killers, the two linking together, no social service to put food on the table or clothes on their backs of the poor, they must in the end succumb to a miserable death, sometimes in the poor house, sometime under a hedge or a barn.
Skinner mental health seemed to deteriorate after 1839, his journals became less interesting, and one day in October, armed with a pistol he strode out of his house and shot himself in a nearby beech wood. The Coroner's verdict gives some idea of the state of his mind; According to one source Skinner seems to have shot himeself in despair of his son's illness, again consumption, perhaps he could not face this death of his third child.
"The Rev. gentleman's health had been declining for sometime and his mind had latterly been very much affected. On Friday morning, in a state of derangement, he shot himself through the head with a pistol, and was dead in an instant."
Roman high status stone coffin found on Boscombe Down