The poet, Lord Byron
The opening of the Vault in Hucknall Parish Church
Born at Sherwood Rise, Nottingham on 18th June 1876, Canon Thomas Gerrard Barber, M.A., son of Mr. Robert Barber, the well-known solicitor, was educated at Repton and Trinity College, Cambridge. After being ordained at York in 1898 he served as curate at Doncaster, Beeson (near Driffield) and Bath, before coming to Hucknall, Nottinghamshire, as senior curate and priest-in-charge of St Peter’s Church, Watnall Road.
Canon Barber never forgot the day he arrived at Hucknall, a town steeped in Byron lore, early in December 1904. It was a dark dismal afternoon. Rain was coming down in torrents and his first impressions of Hucknall were not happy ones. But he soon settled down under his new Vicar, the Revd E. Roberts, and shortly before Christmas that same year preached his first sermon to a full congregation in the historic parish church of St Mary Magdalene. Brimming over with Evangelism he went into the highways by holding a series of open-air meetings which attracted a great deal of attention in the town, and even after nightfall he and his followers were to be seen carrying on their work with a lantern affixed to a pole.
Canon Barber succeeded the Revd Roberts as Vicar of Hucknall in 1907. He gradually developed a passion for the poet Lord Byron, who died at Messalonghi, Greece, on 19th April 1824, whilst helping the Greeks in their fight against Turkish oppression, and whose body was buried in the Byron family vault in Hucknall Parish Church.
Canon Barber was amongst the guests of the Byron Commemoration Committee at the luncheon held at the Hotel Victoria, Charing Cross, London, on 29th April 1924, to mark the centenary of the death of Byron, and in August 1926 he welcomed King George and Queen Elisabeth of Greece, on their visit to Hucknall Parish Church, to pay homage to the famous poet.
Over the years a strange tradition grew up at Hucknall that Byron’s body was not in the vault in the church along with other members of his family and the rumour became so strong that Canon Barber decided to investigate. In order to do so, however, he had to obtain the approval of the Home Office and the Revd Lord Byron, of Thrumpton Hall.
Both consented and on 15th June 1938 the Byron Vault was secretly opened. The parish church was open for visitors in the usual way that day but at 4.00pm. the building was closed. Canon Barber’s chief object in opening the vault was to establish some archaeological points of interest, or otherwise, of a crypt, and he planned everything with almost military precision.
The Vault itself was smaller than he imagined and was in great disorder. At midnight he had parted with the official members of his party he returned to the vault. Leaving only Claude Bullock, the official photographer, and Jim Betteridge, the church caretaker, at the top of the steps, he descended into the Vault with a lamp. The three men used no lights as they moved through the church, the reason being that the building was on the Market Place and any lights would have been noticed and the police alerted.
Canon Barber may well have felt that he had “a personal appointment with Byron” which explains why he felt compelled to return to the Vault at midnight, and as the lid of Byron’s coffin was not fastened down he was able to take a glimpse of the poet.
Finding that someone had deliberately opened the coffin, the horrible fear came over him that souvenirs might have been taken from within. He also had the terrible thought that the body itself might have been removed. In his famous book, “Byron and Where He Is Buried”, first published in 1939, Canon Barber wrote, “Reverently, very reverently, I raised the lid, and before my eyes lay the embalmed body of Byron in ask perfect condition as when it was placed in the coffin one hundred and fourteen years ago. His features and hair easily recognisable from the portraits with which I was so familiar, the serene, almost happy expression on his face made a profound impression on me.”
Mr. Bullock, the photographer, refused on moral grounds, to take a picture of Byron. He also declined any monetary reward for photographing the Vault. Twenty-five year old George Herbert Clarke, a history teacher, and also a server at the church, was one of the few persons present when the poet’s coffin was opened, but he refused to speak about it until Canon Barber’s book was published in 1939 by Henry Morley & Sons of Hucknall. The book was produced in hardback and cost ten shillings and sixpence per copy.
One of the persons for whom it was of particular interest was the seventy-eight year old Revd Lord Byron of Thrumpton. In November 1948 he came into the news when he took exception to the title of the Gainsborough film “The Bad Lord Byron”. During the shooting of parts of the film at Newstead Abbey, Dennis Price, who took the part of the poet, and a representative of Gainsborough Studios visited the Revd Lord Byron at Thrumpton and it was arranged that if he was well enough he should see the completed film “in the rough” and then discuss the title with Mr. Sydney Box, the director. When the invitation arrived, however, the Revd Lord Byron was too ill to attend, nor could he attend the premiere of the film. His objection to the film’s title was that it was not the poet who merited the tag “bad” but his great uncle, the 5th Lord Byron, who died at Newstead Abbey in May 1798, and was buried in the Byron Vault at Hucknall Church. Despite the Revd Lord Byron’s objection to the title he did not object to the making of the film.
There is no doubt that Canon Barber’s book, published in 1923, and the Gainsborough film, released in 1949, helped to rekindle a great deal of interest in the poet Byron. Canon Barber retired in 1946, after serving for nearly forty years as Vicar of Hucknall. He died on 15th October, 1952.
Copies of his celebrated book “Byron and Where He Is Buried” are on sale at Hucknall Parish Church.
Lord Byron lived in Nottingham for a short while, as a young boy. For several months in the spring of 1799 his tutor here was Dummer Rogers. Mrs Ellis, the author of this article, recently discovered a memorial tablet to Dummer Rogers in St Nicholas’ Church, Maid Marion Way.
Canon Barber’s daughter, Mrs. Betty Cooper, lived for forty years in The Park, before moving to Kingsbridge, South Devon in March 2001.