Charles Rose, an inhabitant of Darking in the nineteenth century, is the principal source of intelligence relating to the funeral of the man we know as the Walking Dunghill. Mr Rose was not an eye-witness to the event, not having been born until some years after, but he received his account from the most reliable of sources: one of the children of Major Labilliere’s landlady—in fact, none other than Elizabeth Watford, later Mrs Taylor, who was the very girl charged with the duty of dancing on the Major’s coffin. This is what Mr Rose has to say, in his account in Recollections of Old Dorking (1878):
‘On the morning of the funeral day, the 11th of June, two carts, one laden with sprigs of box, the other with those of yew, passed through the town, and all who chose were thus enabled to supply themselves with evergreens for the afternoon’s ceremonial. The body of the deceased was conveyed to the hill in a van. The day was fine, and this circumstance, the strange sight they were about to see, and last, but not least, the esteem in which the deceased was held, drew together large numbers of people to witness the interment, which, by the expressed wish of the deceased, was without religious rites. A considerable portion of the grave was occupied by the sprigs of evergreens which were thrown into it, and the vacant space being now filled in, the remains of this good, but eccentric man were left in their last and solitary resting-place.
‘Some of the spectators, it appears, did not reach their dwellings without the occurrence of another incident they were equally likely to remember, for Mr Brayley states that “the slight wooden bridge, which then crossed the Mole, having been removed by some mischievous persons during the ceremony, many were obliged to wade through the river on their return homewards.”
‘Ben Brierly’s Journal, after referring to the removal of the bridge, says:—“When the people returned from the hill in the evening they had either to go a long way round or wade the river. Many chose the latter alternative, preferring wet legs and a short cut to a long one with weary ones. Several young men, however, carried their sweethearts across, ‘an fine fun there was I’ll a warrant ye,’ an old lady told us with great animation, adding ‘an I was one that was carried across myself.’”
‘For some years after, it was the custom of numbers of persons to visit the Major’s grave on the anniversary of his burial, to have a picnic on the hill that day, and to engage in the pastime of dancing. . . .’
Charles Rose’s account continues: ‘And now for a few remarks on the extraordinary event which has made the name of Labelliere famous. Respecting this, Mr Brayley says that the Major was interred as described [headfirst], “In compliance with his oft-repeated wish, in order, as he said, that, as the world was turned topsy-turvy, it was fit that he should be buried so that he might be right at last.”
‘Mr. Timbs makes a statement substantially the same, for he says of the Major that “he was buried in this manner, it being a constant assertion with him that the world was turned topsy-turvy, and therefore at the end he should be right.” This is the tradition that has come down to the present day.
‘Mrs. Taylor, however, strongly questions the correctness of the popular impression as to the Major’s motive for being thus buried. She says, in fact, that she does not believe anything of the kind, and thinks it far likelier that, possessed of the same spirit of humility as led (according to tradition) to the crucifixion of the Apostle Peter, with his head downwards, the Major desired to imitate, as to the position of his body in burial, his namesake’s example.’
The description of the Walking Dunghill’s funeral rituals in Coldharbour Gentlemen is based on these accounts. One of the things that made me wish to write stories about Darking was my affection for a community that treasures and remembers a man like Peter Labilliere.
4 September 2021
E. W. Brayley, A Topographical History of Surrey, 5 vols. (London, 1841–48).
Rose, Charles. Recollections of Old Dorking, 1878, reprinted in Memories of Old Dorking, edited by Margaret Kohler (Dorking, 1977).
John Timbs, A Picturesque Promenade round Dorking, in Surrey (London, 1822).