The sad story of Harriett Fleming

wye velley youth hostel, welsh bicknor 2
Wye Valley Youth Hostel, Welsh Bicknor

 

It had been a splendid weekend. We had rented out Wye Valley Youth Hostel in Welsh Bicknor, near Goodrich.  It’s become somewhat of a tradition of mine to rent a youth hostel in January, something to look forward to after Christmas and a great opportunity to meet up with friends.  As the years pass it’s become less of a question of ‘Where can we put the cot?’ and more ‘Would you mind putting me down for a bottom bunk?’ Vacating a hostel by the midday deadline on a Sunday used to be a struggle as people recovered from a very late Saturday night.  This year however, after a day of walking or cycling in the Forest of Dean, people were clambering for their beds before midnight and up to experience the lovely Spring like day on Sunday.

st margaret's church, welsh bicknor 2
St Margaret’s Church and River Wye, Welsh Bicknor, from Wye Valley YHA

The Youth Hostel is the old rectory building adjacent to the idyllic St Margaret’s church on the banks of the River Wye.  It is part of the Courtfield estate, rich in history.  A young King Henry V even lived here for a while after the death of his mother.   It must have been one heck of a rectory.  The hostel is on three floors and sleeps 46 not including the staff.  How much space does a rector need?  It’s actually the ‘new rectory’ built in the 1800s.  The old rectory was adjacent to the church, which itself was also rebuilt in the 1858.  They had the sense to build the new rectory in an elevated position safe from any flooding.

harriett fleming grave

The grave of Harriett Fleming

I took a peaceful stroll in the Sunday morning sunshine down to the River Wye and St Margaret’s church. My eye was caught by one particular grave, not an ancient one and not a particularly attractive one.  It looks to be covered in concrete which has two holes in it as is the grave once had something on top of it.  The inscription is what interested me.  It reads:

In loving memory of HARRIETT, widow of John Fleming, Ninian Road, Cardiff

Died Dec 29th 1925, aged 60

Gravestones don’t often have an address on and I began to wonder why this one did and why Harriett was buried here in Welsh Bicknor.  The obvious reason seemed to me to be the idyllic setting but was there more to it?  In the week after I got home I started researching Harriett Fleming.

part of 1911 census of 3 ninian road cardiff
Part of 1911 Census of John & Harriett Fleming, 3 Ninian Road, Cardiff

In the 1911 census I found Harriett and John Fleming living at 3 Ninian Road, Cardiff with three children and a servant.  John, aged 52 was a marine surveyor and born in Maryport, Cumberland.  On the census however it stated that John and Harriett had only been married six years and the children were 21, 18 and 15, so pointed towards them being step-children of Harriett rather than her children.  Harriett’s birthplace was down as English Bicknor, just across the river from Welsh Bicknor.  There we are I though, mystery solved, she wished to be buried where she could look over to where she was born.  I almost left it there but felt pulled to do a bit more digging.

3 ninian road cardiff
3 Ninian Road, Cardiff, as it looks today.

In the 1901 census we find the John Fleming was living in Glossop Road, Cardiff with his first wife Jane, their three children, John’s father William, born Holywood, County Down,  and a brother, also called William.  Jane died two years later in 1903 aged 43.  The following year John marries Harriett in Ross on Wye.

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Will of John Fleming

In 1909 John Fleming makes a will, witnessed by a Doctor living next door at 1 Ninian Road and a solicitor.  Maybe his neighbour suggested that making a will was a good idea for in February 1912 John dies and leaves his estate to Harriett, and then on to his children.  Some two years later in 1914 we find Harriett has seemingly moved from Ninian Road and living at nearby Shirley Road. Did her three step-children move with her or were they still at 3 Ninian Road?  And why if she had moved out of Ninian Road in 1914, was the address on her gravestone when she died in 1925?  Time for some more research.

I tried to find out a bit more about Harriett’s background.  I knew from the 1911 census that she had been born in the village of English Bicknor in around 1865.  I hadn’t at this stage been able to find her marriage so didn’t know her maiden name.  Luckily there was only one Harriett in the census records of the right age from English Bicknor and that was Harriett Keene, daughter of Roger Keene a farmer and another Harriet Keene and farming at Cowmeadow Farm.  in 1881 at the age of just 16 Harriett is a school teacher in English Bicknor.  Her parents, Roger and Harriet Keene, had many children and by 1891 had moved away from English Bicknor to another part of the Forest of Dean.  So it still left me wondering why she was buried across the river from her childhood home.

It was then that I found the probate record for Harriett which sadly stated that her body had been found in the River Wye at Welsh Bicknor six months after she had disappeared.   At the time of her disappearance she had been living in Cheltenham.  I’m not quite sure how you can tell the cause of death was drowning is a body has been in the water for six months.

probate of harriett fleming
Probate of Harriett Fleming

Curious to know if I could find out any more I visited a local library, immediately across the road from 3 Ninian Road, the address on her gravestone.  I learnt how to access the newspapers online and found three articles, two explaining her disappearance and one the inquest.

harriett fleming inquest
Inquest of Harriett Fleming nee Keene

The articles explain how Harriett was probably suffering from depression following the death of one of her sisters.  She had been living in Cheltenham but had decided to visit a brother, James Keene, the one closest in age to her and now running his own farm some eleven miles upstream from Welsh Bicknor.  She goes out for a walk but never returns.  A witness thinks he may have seen her on the bank of the flooded Wye and has a short conversation.  Her body is found tangled up in tree roots in the following June.  What a coincidence that her body should be found in the same place she was born some 60 years earlier.

will of harriett fleming
Will of Harriett Fleming

The inquest into her death was held in the Rectory in Welsh Bicknor, the very building in which we were staying that weekend.  She had written a will just a few days before she disappeared whilst staying with her brother at Wier End Farm.  Her will appears to overwrite that of her late husband in that it leaves the bulk of her estate to brother James and her other brothers and sisters but also some to her step-children.

harriett fleming accound of death
Harriett Fleming mystery solved

A sad but interesting bit of research.  I’m still sort of left wondering why she was buried here.  Was it the fact that the family thought it was meant to be as her body was discovered here, next to her childhood home?

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