This graceful marble figure of a young woman was discovered lying face down in the rubble when the interior of the ruined Old Church in St Day, Cornwall was cleared out in 2000. Affectionately nicknamed ‘Gladys’, the statue clearly belonged to a memorial in the church, but whose? The statue’s plinth was found elsewhere in the church and once reunited they were found to form a monument to Mary Michell, who died in 1861 aged just 18. Not only did Mary die so young, the inscription on the plinth hints at a yet more poignant tragedy – Mary was already married when she died. What happened to this young bride? Did she die in childbirth, as did so many Victorian wives? And how did she come to have such a fine and expensive monument? I couldn’t resist the challenge to research Mary’s story and find out.
The last question was the easiest to answer. As the inscription records, Mary was the daughter of T.J. Tresidder Corfield of St Day. Her father, Thomas John Tresidder Corfield, was a chemist and druggist who ran his practice from a large shop in Church Street in the centre of St Day, then a small but thriving mining town. Born in 1843, Mary was the eldest of five children of Thomas and his wife Catherine.
In the spring of 1851 Mary’s youngest sister 17-month-old Kate, died of convulsions. Her mother Catherine, after whom Kate was named, was to die in November 1853. The children were not to remain motherless for long as in the summer of 1855 Thomas married Marcia Burnley in London and the couple returned to St Day. By the time of the 1861 census a further three children had been added to the large family living above the busy shop. Thomas had expanded his business to deal in tea and tobacco and it must have been a profitable enterprise. Here was a man well able to ensure his daughter had a fitting memorial.
Was Mary already planning her wedding when that census was taken? Just a few months later on 25 July 1861, and 6 days after her 18th birthday, Mary married mine agent Joseph Michell of nearby Trevethan in the parish church. At 34 years old Joseph was considerably older than Mary and we can only speculate at what brought the couple together.
The newlyweds set up home at Anton Hill Cottage in Mabe. Described as a “desirable and pretty cottage” with garden, stables, coach-house, outbuildings and about four acres of grass land this “genteel country residence” near Penryn and Falmouth had become available for let as the previous occupant was leaving the country. Conveniently, the agent responsible for letting the property was another Thomas Corfield from Penryn, so family connections may have helped secure the property with its “extensive and lovely views that cannot be surpassed”.
Sadly, young Mary did not have long to enjoy the views, or life as a wife. At the beginning of September, after only 6 weeks of marriage, she became unwell. Mary may have been aware of a cut or scratch, or perhaps an insect bite, but probably would not have connected it to her illness. However, soon a painful red rash would have appeared because through such a small break in her skin Mary had contracted the bacterial infection erysipelas. Easily treated with antibiotics today, erysipelas was often fatal in Mary’s lifetime, long before their discovery. Little could be done to save her and Mary died 14 days later on 16th September. The young Mrs Michell was brought back to St Day, to the church where she had so recently married, to be buried on 20th September.
Her grief-stricken husband had no desire to stay at Antron Hill Cottage, and the property was advertised to let the following week. Instead, Joseph appears to have moved in with Mary’s ever growing Corfield family back at the shop in St Day where he can be found in the 1871 census. He later lodged in Falmouth in 1881, before retiring to St Agnes. Joseph never remarried and remained close to the Corfield family, who knew him as “Captain Joe”.
Today Mary’s memorial stands in a quiet corner of the Old Church, just yards away from where she made her wedding vows.
“To the memory of
the beloved wife of
of Trevethan in this parish.
Eldest daughter of
T.J. Tresidder Corfield of St Dye.
Born July 19th 1843. Died September 16th 1861.
She lived and died a Christian.”
(Photos courtesy of Mark Johnson)
About St Day Old Church
St Day Old Church was closed in 1956 and the roof was dynamited in 1985. In 1988 the St Day Old Church Appeal was launched, funds were raised, and a huge programme of stabilisation was undertaken, so that the church could be opened to the public. In 2016 the St Day Old Church Community Interest Company was formed, and it is now in the process of buying the building from Truro Diocese, with the aim of making it a community space for plays, films, music, and exhibitions. You can follow the progress of this project on Facebook here.