The Poor Man’s Friend: John Bell

Most times when I visit a graveyard where my ancestors are buried there is no headstone to mark their time on earth. Even so, I still love to walk the graveyard reading the headstones of their neighbours. Neighbours not only in death, but sometimes also in life, for often I find many my ancestors would have known in the village community. They might have been friends, they might have just been acquaintances or they might have even been enemies, but they are all characters of their time and I enjoy meeting them and wondering about their lives and relationships with my ancestors.

Recently, I visited the village of Blanchland in Northumberland which is the area where my 2 x Great Grandfather, Dr Frederick Williams Cadwalleder Beavan, grew up. The eldest of nine children, his parents were Dr Frederick Beavan and Barbara Leyson. In about 1810, the family moved from Llansamalet in Glamorganshire, Wales eventually settling in Blanchland by about 1812 after making a couple short stops at a couple of nearby villages for the baptisms of new babies. Various members of the family stayed in the area until at least the mid-1850s.

Frederick senior passed away in 1844 and was buried in the graveyard at St Mary’s Abbey, Blanchland. He has no surviving headstone so I walked the grounds anyway and read the headstones that had survived. One inscription in particular really caught my eye:

The inscription reads:

The poor man’s friend lies here at rest. Who was with peace and plenty blest. O may an angel guard his grave, till with the virtuous and the brave. His ashes rise from death’s sweet sleep and from the grave to Jesus leap.

While the other side says:

Erected in memory of John Bell who died April 16th 1811 aged 60 years. 26 years a miller at Blanchland. His body has returned to the dust. His spirit breathes in a milder clime above

John Bell sounds like a lovely man. He had passed away a little before I think my family was living there, so they probably did not know him personally. I cannot find a record of his burial, although I have not checked the actual parish registers. I do know that there were quite a few babies called John Bell born about the same time as he in nearby villages. In the 1841 and 1851 census’ there are some Bell families in the village so they possibly are relatives of John.

It was nice to meet you John Bell, a man who obviously made a great impression on his neighbours, may you continue to rest in peace.

Affection from the Past

I have just returned from a month long adventure in England, some of which involved more researching into my Beavan family. I had planned to spend some days at the record offices in Durham but I was quicker than I thought, so I took the opportunity to travel to Newcastle & Tyne Archives & Museums.

Newcastle is where many of my Great Great Grandfather’s siblings and their descendants ended up, including a couple of daughters marrying in to the Fenwick family. The Fenwicks are well known in the area, originally they were drapers and now they have Department Stores.  I knew the archives had a collection of records from them including some personal family items and that some of those records related to the Beavan side. So I decided to see what I could find.

Firstly, I discovered that access to their particular collection has restrictions and I could only copy some items with permission of the archivist. I could understand as many of the people mentioned in the collection were alive and well, so privacy was a concern. Luckily for me, the archivist was there and I could explain who I was and my mission so she could approve my selections if appropriate. Otherwise I would have had to hand in a list and arrange for postage of the items. In turn, I was able to confirm her research on the Beavan side which she was very pleased about.

I began digging, the collection is vast and there were many interesting items that would add to the family story and I was allowed to have copies of most. I had nearly finished with the documents (there were photo albums too!) when I had the Eureka moment!

Holding it in my hand, I felt goosebumps as I read and saw the handwriting from so long ago. It was a letter, written in 1824, from my 4 x Great Grandfather, Thomas Leyson to my 2 x Great Grandfather (the future Dr) Frederick Williams Cadwalleder Beavan at Acton House, Blanchland Northumberland where the family lived for many years. I had been to the house earlier in my travels so this had extra special meaning.

The obvious and expressed affection and pride of a Grandfather in his Grandson was something I had never seen in any of the old family letters I have from that time period. Most of the letters I do have are to or from outsiders. So this was a very special “pinch me” moment and I felt so privileged, I had to write about it.

Ystrad Letter snip

Reference. Newcastle & Tyne Archives & Museums, DF.BVN/3/1(1) & (2).  Above is a snippet from the photocopy they did for me. Below is my transcription :

Ystrad Cottage, Swansea
23 Janry 1824

Mr Dear Grandson
Having been from home has been the cause of not answering your Ltr ere [sic] this to express the Pleasure it affords me to find so great Proficiency in your Education & that you will still persevere in the same way & your Little Sisters & Brothers to whom I assure [sic] my love.
We are all concerned to hear of the death of your Grand Mother of w’ch we were unacquainted. She was an excellent character and it is easy to observe the old Latin Adage in reference to her “De Mortuis nil nisi bonum” but we sh’ld at all times remember “Momento Mori”.
I am very glad to find that your Father & Mother are in good health & we are thro mercy in a similar state having had no occasion for a Doctor in 20 years.
In my official capacity occurrences have been hitherto unfavourable otherwise I sh’ld have paid you a visit but our duty is humbly to submit to the Will of Providence & wait the Lord’s time it may not be far off.
There is now a new system adopted in the Customs the Officers are to be changed at the Disposal of the Board of Customs for a certain period to any Post in England, Scotland or Ireland. I am apprehensive it will be my turn soon & I can not say where till Orders, when it occurs I shall write & inform you if it is some comfort to think it will be more beneficial to me.
Your Aunts write with me in most affectionate Love to you all & shall add our prayers to our best wishes for your Temporal & Eternal Prosperity.
I remain
Yours most affectionately
Thos. Leyson

Envelope Postmarked Swansea 1824
Addressed to:
Mr Fred’k W.C. Beavan Jun
Acton House, Blanchland
Near Hexham

My adage is never leave a stone unturned, for you never know what you might find and once again it paid off.


  1. “De Mortuis nil nisi bonum” – Of the dead, nothing but good – do not speak ill of the dead
  2. “Momento Mori” – The ancient practice of reflection on mortality that goes back to Socrates, who said that the proper practice of philosophy is “about nothing else but dying and being dead.”
  3. Frederick was born in August 1808 so he was 15 years old at this time. Mary Thurston/Beavan/Scurrah was the Grandmother who had passed away aged 65 years.
  4. Thomas was aged about 62 in 1824. He died in 1840 at the age of 78 years.
  5. Thomas was at various times J.P. , H.M. Deputy Lieutenant for County of Glamorgan, Comptroller of the Customs Neath and Magistrate for County of Glamorgan.
  6. The Aunts would be the two youngest spinster daughters, Agnes and Mary Leyson. Both Thomas’ two wives had passed away by this time.