Road trip

by Kristof Smeyers

When you wander into the woods around Dunkirk, near Canterbury, there is little to remind you that this is the site of the last civil insurgence on English soil. Trees are huddled closely together; the undergrowth is thick. Little moves apart from the territorial robins trying to chase you off with overconfident bravura. The monotonous sound of the motorway nearby is domineering and hypnotic.

On the last day of May 1838 however, nothing was quiet as the 45th Regiment, nicknamed the Sherwood Foresters, marched up the road and into these woods. Shots were already ringing out ahead of them, where a few farmers, impatient of waiting on the weathered soldiers, had taken it upon themselves to get rid of the rebels. A few members abandoned their ragtag band that had disrupted local life so much. By the time the 45th Regiment initiated a pincer movement, only between 35 and 40 members of the band remained. All of them—most were farmhands and agricultural artisans: fathers, husbands and sons—carried sticks, apart from their leader, who bore pistols and an exotic scimitar. The weapons were only part of this strange man’s attire. He was dressed in bright red, sported a Christ-like beard and wildly waved his hands, adorned with the stigmata. He looked not unlike an oversized, overconfident robin.

In a ditch not far from where this band was hiding lay the mangled body of Nicholas Mears, brother of the local constable, who had tried to apprehend the strange man earlier that morning.

The 45th Regiment had therefore taken its precautions. About a hundred soldiers now moved through these woods. They had only recently returned from suppressing unrest in the colonies. One arm of the regiment’s pincer came upon the farmhands first. The Christ-like man stepped forward from the trees and shot the lieutenant, and the Battle of Bossenden Wood, as it later became known, started. It lasted only a few minutes. Forty farmers with sticks were no match for a hundred veteran soldiers. Sir William Courtenay, as the extravagant vagabond leader called himself, was the first of the rebels to die; the battle dispersed after seven of his followers were also killed or mortally wounded.


‘Sir William Courtenay alias John Thom, the pretended Messiah and his credulous followers’, coloured soft ground etching by W.L. published by William Spooner, 1840 © National Army Museum, Study collection (

In the next days, approximately 20,000 curious Brits came down to the stables of the Red Lion Inn where Courtenay’s body was put on display, some with the specific aim to acquire a souvenir or relic. Media attention also soared; before the end of the year an astute publisher had released a detailed but fatally flawed account of the Courtenay rebellion. The Red Lion still stands today (three stars on TripAdvisor), a little lost by the side of the dual carriageway to Canterbury. Further down a car showroom—‘Courtenay Cars’—echoes the forgotten history. A few locations bear unofficial names that still refer to this episode, like ‘Mad Tom’s Corner’ on Boughton Hill and ‘Courtenay’s Gate’. A ghost is said to roam the Red Lion, but it is unclear whether it is Courtenay or someone else.


As a researcher of stigmatics in nineteenth-century Britain based in Belgium, at times it feels as if I am both temporally and geographically removed from the societies that I study. The historian’s conditions of work and observation are established in the present, which implies as a consequence that we can employ insights, categories and concepts developed alien to the period of study. ‘Presentism’ is one of the polemical terms for those historians who commit that cardinal sin in history: anachronism. The gap between past and the unending, constant now is reflected in the chasm between history and memory. We know how the story ended; we know William Courtenay died in the forest. But being there, whether ‘there’ is a muddy hill crowned by birches or a quiet pub on a Monday afternoon, can go some way in bridging that gap and instilling in the research a sense of directness and presence. At the same time, it is vital to acknowledge that such a road trip is reminiscent of the pilgrim’s or devotee’s voyage to ‘their’ stigmatic. They too wanted to establish a directness, to evoke a physical sensation. For a project that aims to put people with stigmata into the societies in which they lived and which they helped define, it proves essential to undertake a road trip past the loci of those societies, to sense their presence even when their legacies have disintegrated. John Nichols Thom (colourful Sir Courtenay’s real name) is largely unknown in the annals of British history. Not far from the Red Lion lies Hernhill cemetery, where a simple plaque shows he is buried under his real name.


A trip past our stigmatics’ sites of memory is useful for other reasons, too. It makes explicit just how busy these charismatic Victorians were. Unlike many of their continental colleagues, they travelled intensely to promote their cause—sometimes out of devotional strategy, but just as often out of necessity: forty years after the tragedy in Bossenden Wood, the influential stigmatic Mary Ann Girling (1827-1886) and her followers were forced to leave London after repeated harassment. They moved to the edges of the New Forest in Hampshire. (Forests seem to hold a specific sway over our mystics.) There they were evicted from their lodgings for not paying the mortgage within two years of arriving.

The road trips stigmatics made, their devotional routes across the country (Girling started her career as a lay preacher in the Methodist churches of Suffolk), epitomise their materiality in a way that is wholly different from the relics and devotional objects they left behind. But they are similarly revelatory to explore a figure’s legacy. The modest grave at Hernhill is indicative of how John Thom is remembered: as a local nuisance with a tragic end. Mary Ann Girling, however, though she too has been reduced to the proverbial ghost in the historiographical inn, leaves clearer geographical traces across the country. Following her takes us from her family home in Ipswich and the places where she preached the Second Coming to the railway arches of Walworth Road in London, where she ‘performed’ her prophecies and ecstasies for ever larger crowds. The railway arches in London provided shelter to many smaller denominations and spectacles. Girling was by no means an exception. Not far from her mission one could go look at a pyrotechnic miracle: in a realistic tableau the Vesuvius erupted night after night. Further still, at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, on the site where the Southwark Martyrs were allegedly burned, pastor Charles Haddon Spurgeon would command a crowd of ten thousand with his speeches. Even if Girling’s presence in southern London was short-lived, her legacy remains. In June 2011, the art exhibition ‘Holy Shit! Visions of the Walworth Jumpers’ reimagined religious iconography through a collection of murals in those Victorian rooms under the rail tracks.



The exhibition was concluded with a two-day series of workshops, from life-drawing ‘under the watchful spirit of Victorian nutty Mary Ann Girling’ to ‘Start your own cult’. Quoting from the promotional material: ‘In this workshop, you will learn: How to develop the history of the founding of your cult; Cosmic vision and charisma skills; Effective strategies for recruitment and promotion; Tips for communal living and member management; Branding and marketing material. The first half of the workshop will focus on cult story-creation and leadership, followed by a fifteen minute Kool-Aid break. In the second half, workshoppers will put their visions into practice with some hands-on pamphlet and icon production, recruitment role-play and the building of a communal shrine.’

From the cell in Walworth Girling’s path leads to her independent mission at several locations throughout the city. Again falling prey to harassment, she took up the offer of a generous soul and shepherded her following—increasingly known as the ‘Walworth Jumpers’ or ‘Shakers’ due to their excessive jumping in ecstasy, though she preferred the name ‘Children of God’—further south, to a lodge in the rural New Forest (now still called ‘Shakers Place’).

When that too proved problematic (as mentioned, paying a mortgage is not evident for a community that does not believe in money), the Children of God were evicted and forced to live in tents by the side of the road. Naturally, the group became smaller and smaller; simultaneously however the popular attention for Girling grew. From 1872 to her death in 1886, local, regional and national media reported regularly on the wellbeing of the sect—partly, it seems, out of concern, mostly because of the extravagance and spectacular entertainment value of the story. For a while, people from around Hampshire would go down to the Girlingites’ tent camp on a lazy Sunday afternoon to see just how badly they were suffering, and in the hope of catching a glimpse of their notorious eccentricity. Entrepreneurial minds in Southampton and Bournemouth were quick to provide a coach service to the ‘Children’ and their ‘Mother’. Accounts of the trip to the encampment were published in local newspapers; they mentioned details about Girling and her sermons, but also the atmosphere during the journey (‘the whole waggonette, so to speak, repeatedly shook its sides with laughter!’), the most picturesque roads to take, and the best pubs to stop for tea.

Not far from the tent camp the socialist and spiritualist lawyer Andrew Peterson mobilised a few of Girling’s ‘Children’ to construct a concrete tower that was to function in honour of Girling’s supernatural status, as well as to serve as a magnet for cosmological energy. Rising 66 metres above the ground, it is the tallest non-reinforced concrete structure in the world. Each of its twelve floors was dedicated to one aspect of Peterson’s spiritualism: from clairvoyance to spirit writing and séances. The tower still dominates—or rather: constitutes—the skyline today. ‘Peterson’s Folly’ (just one of its many names) can be seen from the Isle of Wight.


The New Forest also fostered Britain’s love for eccentricity and the supernatural in its many forms. Girling was called to the Lymington court for a variety of reasons, but one of them was the repeated accusation of being a mesmerist, ‘enchanting’ the limbs of her followers into wild dances. Folk stories about Girling (or rather, her materialised spirit) persist to this day. People claim to have seen her in the twilight hours, dressed in black, ecstatically jumping up and down still. In a near-empty coffee shop in Lymington, the baristas tell each other ghost stories while outside rain pours in harsh sunlight. The taxi driver that takes me along the outer edges of the forest speaks of witches convening in the woods. On the horizon, over the treetops, night awakes.

The next and last location our compagnon de route Girling brings us to is the churchyard of the village of Hordle, down the road. On 22 September 1886 more than five hundred people attended Girling’s funeral. To get a sense of what that meant to a place like Hordle, it is worth it to stand at the little cemetery gate. The churchyard must have been massively overcrowded, with the public and the press vying for a good view of the interment. Now, the part of the churchyard that is overlooked by a memorial plaque is eerily empty. At Girling’s headstone, and at every headstone of twelve of her apostles buried there, was planted a yew tree, symbol for the Resurrection. A few hopeful followers stood vigil by her grave all throughout the night, awaiting the evidence of Girling’s immortality. Three of them claimed they saw her spirit rise from the tombstone three days after the funeral, but nowadays the graves and even the yew trees have disappeared.

Yew trees are a popular sight in British churchyards; a particularly big one stands by the Hernhill Church, where John Thom was buried. They are evergreen trees, and therefore apt symbols for eternity and resurrection. When bearing fruit, the bright-red berries cling to the tree’s limbs before falling, one by one, to the floor like droplets of blood.

Peterson’s Tower, Bossenden Wood, the railway arch on Walworth Road, the cemeteries, the Red Lion Inn… Especially in the case of the British charismatic stigmatics mentioned in this blog post, it is vital to take locations such as these into account. They are as much part of the material culture surrounding stigmatics as the devotional shrines, the handwritten letters, and the blood, bone and cloth that make a stigmatic’s relics. What do these places say to the stigmatic’s historian? First they are sites of memory: unlike devotional shrines, they didn’t see a steady stream of pilgrims and devotees pass by. They are almost never places of devotion, but nonetheless they form an integral part of the stigmatic’s story. Like Mary Ann Girling’s upended grave, they illustrate how lasting or fleeting a stigmatic’s legacy can be. Second they serve as reminders that the stigmatic’s archive extends far beyond diocesan collections; that people like Thom and Girling, but also more outspoken religiously orientated stigmatics like Teresa Higginson, had a worldly impact and that they influenced the communities they preached in or travelled through.

Finally, a road trip past these locations (one could call it the first leg of the historian’s initial pilgrimage, if the second leg is the pilgrimage to the archives) sends the stigmatic’s story into unforeseen directions and weaves into its web threads as disparate and diverse as court cases, construction works, elections, political rebellions and social experiments. And the consequences of the stigmatic’s actions. After the tragic battle of Bossenden Wood in 1838, the British government undertook a series of measures to help prevent future outbreaks of similar unrest; first by religious means—Dunkirk was made a parish in its own right and a church was built—and second by educational means—Dunkirk was now also given its own school. These measures were meant to arm the local population both spiritually and intellectually against future stirrers like the self-styled Sir William Courtenay. The small Dunkirk elementary school and a ‘Start your own cult’ workshop under the railway arches of London are as much a testament to a stigmatic’s impact and legacy as the devotional paraphernalia coveted by their followers.

One thought on “Road trip

  1. Have you come across this article? It’s many years after The Battle of Bossenden Wood, but contains reminiscences of a local woman, passing mention of the stigmata, and a hint of Jewish messianism:


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