‘I squeezed through the hole and found myself standing on a coffin’

Tony Lord recalls exploring the burial vault in St Luke’s Church, Charlton

One morning many years ago, Roger, the deputy editor of the Mercury, rang me up and asked me whether I would like to go along to St Luke’s Church, Charlton with Hilary, one of the newspaper’s reporters. The contractors repairing the old church had broken through the paved floor above the burial vault which contained the coffins of the Spencer family who long ago had lived at Charlton House, just opposite the church.

Hilary was none too keen to go down there alone.

So I got on my bike and found the young lady waiting for me, notebook in hand, at the church door.

Inside, the builder was arguing with his apprentice, who was refusing to go down into the vault.

Possibly the lad had seen too many of those horror films starring Peter Cushing, the gaunt-faced British star of Dracula and his Vampire Bride etc, etc.

The dark hole in the church floor was only about one yard wide and had a ladder propped in it.

The builder (whose name was not Bob, by the way) said he’d been down there once that morning to have a look at the foundations, and wasn’t going down there again as nothing needed doing to the stonework.

Hilary handed me a torch and suggested I lead the way down the ladder. The thought occurred to me, “Why am I doing this? I’m not even being paid.”

But being an intrepid sort of fellow I squeezed through the hole, went slowly down the ladder and found myself standing on a coffin which had been lying there undisturbed for 200 years.

It creaked ominously and I quickly switched on the torch and stepped down on to the floor.

Surprisingly the atmosphere was warm and musty. Black coffins with gilt handles were piled around me, even up-ended and covered in cobwebs. There was no sign of Dracula or Professor Frankenstein.

I have heard of cases where people have asked to be buried standing up, and this was the wish of one of the Spencer family.

The vault was quite small and when I mentioned this later to the workman he said that quite possibly there were other vaults under the church, as well.

Anyway, I called up to Hilary that it was alright to come down into the gloom, which the brave girl did.

She took some black and white photographs, (the Mercury didn’t do colour in those days) and we spent a few minutes looking for the coffin of Spencer Perceval.

This good fellow, born in 1782, entered Parliament in 1796 and became Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1807 and then Prime Minister in 1809.

He was assassinated on May 11, 1821 in the lobby of the House of Commons by John Bellingham, who fired a bullet into his chest, killing him instantly.

Bellingham, a bankrupt merchant, actually intended to kill the Foreign Secretary, blaming the man for not paying out the money which he thought was due to him. Perceval retains the doubtful distinction of being the only Prime Minister to be murdered while in office, though Mrs Thatcher came close when that IRA bomb exploded near her bedroom in Brighton’s Grand Hotel on October 12, 1984.

We didn’t find the premier’s coffin, so Hilary went back to write her story down in the paper’s offices in Deptford High Street. I went across the road to the Bugle Horn and had some liquid refreshment. Poor Spencer, a classic example of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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