Interlude — The Sin-Eater of Ross

Interlude — The Sin-Eater of Ross#

Far from being introduced as a Welsh tradition, Aubrey’s description of the sin-eater, which underpins much of the “legend”, actually describes an individual in Ross-on-Wye, which lies in the English county of Herefordshire rather than Welsh county of Monmouthshire.

In the county of Hereford was an old custom at funerals to hire poor people, who were to take upon them the sins of the party deceased. One of them (he was a long, lean, ugly, lamentable poor rascal), I remember, lived in a cottage on Rosse highway. The manner was that when the corpse was brought out of the house, and laid on the bier, a loaf of bread was brought out, and delivered to the Sin-eater, over the corpse, as also a mazard bowl of maple, full of beer (which he was to drink up), and sixpence in money, in consideration whereof he took upon him, ipso facto, all the sins of the defunct, and freed him or her from walking after they were dead. e.g. Hone's Year-Book, 1832, pp.858-9

The original manuscript is available as part of Lansdowne MS 231/3, dated 1568-1637 — although commentary by Aubrey (“Mr. Gwin, the minister [of Llanggors], about 1640”) is later — sets the time at which this “long, lean, ugly, lamentable poor rascal” lived as the first half of the 17th century or even earlier.

Local legend today still has it that the sin-eater’s house was near the old cross-roads at the top of the evocatively named Corpse-Cross Street. If you visit Ross today, on the main road leading up the hill out of the market square is Copse Cross Street. The name itself perhaps hints at a standing cross that once stood there, albeit with one of the branches at the crossroads being a small branch road to the adjacent churchyard.

Correspondence in the Ross Gazette of Thursday, 26th October, 1911, p3 suggests that this, in fact, a relatively recent name.



To the Editor of the Ross Gazette.

Sir,—In a recent issue of your paper, the Revising Barrister is reported to have said when examining the voters’ lists for Ross, that he much preferred the old name of Corpse-Cross-street to the new one of Copse-Cross-street.

The change, if I remember rightly, was made about ten years ago, and at the same time Dockstreet was altered to Wye-street.

For my own part, I have always held the opinion that in both cases the change was greatly to be deplored. ” Corpse-Cross” is, I understand, Corpus Christi, and ” Dock ” is reminiscent of the days when the river was used as a means of communication for trading purposes. I believe the reason given at the time for the alteration was that ” Corpse ” was a very unpleasant word, and that ” Dock ” might lead visitors to think that those who lived in that street belonged to the criminal classes.

Our Urban Council have recently been dealing with the question of street nomenclature. Will they ” take occasion by the hand, ” and restore their ancient names to these two thoroughfares? Yours &c., THETA. 17th October, 1911.

The old name of Dock Street suggests this road led down to the river, as well as out along the river to Wilton Bridge. My understanding of the Corpus Christi reference was that this is a misnomer, althogh there was a procession on that festival date [I forget where I read that!].

According to the website, “[t]he names ‘Alton Street’ and ‘Alton Road’ come from ‘Old Town Street’ and ‘Old Town Road’” Furthermore and these were the original main roads into and out of the town in the middle ages.”

Looking closely at a town map of Ross, we see that walking up the hill from the market house along Copse Cross Street, or perhaps, Corpse-Cross street, leads to a crossroads with Old Maid’s Walk to the right, (leading to the Church, and then back down Church Street), Walford-road continuing straight up the hill, and Old Town Street (Alton Street), to the left. Alton Street itself then changes direction and becomes Alton Road, leading up to what is now (new) Gloucester Road and back up to the market square.

An aerial view of the crossroads today, showing the site of the old workhouse and toll house. Alton Street is Old Town Street.

Another feature of old Ross were the almshouses on Church Street, described by in the following terms:

The Tudor-fronted Rudhall almshouses in Church Street are still inhabited. These were founded in the fourteenth century and rebuilt in 1575. They were restored relatively recently in 1960, by the Ross Charity Trustees and at this time the five original houses were changed into three larger houses without changing the fronts. These Almshouses are probably some of the oldest buildings left in Ross with parts of the Church probably being the oldest.

There are records of people who were not wealthy leaving money for the upkeep of the almshouses showing their importance within the community. For example, an Alice Spencer, who was just a servant at Rudhall, left money to the Rudhall almshouses in 1677.

A postcard is also described with the following inscription:

THIS Hospital, of very ancient foundation, appears to have been purchased by one of the Rudhale family together with a rent-charge of four groats per annum issuing out of the Church Orchard or Orleton’s Court (Alton Court) Farm; and in 1755 it was repaired by William Rudhale of Rudhale, and vested in his heirs for poor persons of Ross.

“Orleton’s Court” perhaps offers an alternative derivation of “Alton” than “Old Town”?

It perhaps also worth noting that [t]he current Market Hall was built between 1650 and 1654, replacing an older probably wooden building, suggesting threre was a Market Hall already in place at the time Aubrey was writing, and the one we see today was built shortly after and would have been a familiar site even at the end of he 17th century.

Looking at a larger map of the area suggests the major roads that crossed at Ross-on-Wye went out to Hereford (NNW), via Wilton and Pengethly; Ledbury (NW), via Much Marcle; Goodrich (SSW), and on to Monmouth via a route south of the river, via Walford; and Gloucester (SE), via Weston-under-Penyard.

A strip map shows the four major routes out of town.

From a map published by John Cary in 1790, we clearly see the routes out of Ross, including two routes out of Ross to Monmouth, one on either side of the river.

Map of Herefordshire (routes out of Ross), John Cary, 1790

The road to Walford is also show as passing through Ham Green (Hom Green), presumably following the route of what is Archenfield Road today.

Presumably this means we should regard the town itself as a cross-roads, and the junction of Old Town Street, and the original road to Gloucester via Weston-under-Penyard, Cross-Corpse Street down to the market place, and Walford Road towards Walford as one part of “the cross-roads at Ross” (it doesn’t seem to make sense the Old Maid’s Walk was a major throughfare, although it did lead to the Church and Church Lane), and the market-place itself, with roads leading out towards Ledbury and, via Dock Street, to the Wilton Bridge and west towards Goodrich and Monmouth, as well as northwestwards to Hereford, as the other? Alton Street, and then Alton Road, themselves, were pehaps the main road into town.

According to the website, the “new” Gloucester Road wasn’t built until 1825. Indeed, an 1823 street map of Ross by Thomas Wakeman clearly shows just the location of what is now known as Old Gloucester Road, a little way up Corps Cross Street from the marketplace. We also note that today’s Church Street was named Lower Church Lane* at that time.

The website further documents the history of the town’s important buildings and features, as well as each of the roads in Ross. For example, we learn that Wilton Bridge, a red sandstone structure built between 1597 to 1599 out of red sandstone, replaced an earlier wooden bridge across the original ford in the Wye that was there. The description further suggests that there was no stone bridge over the river Wye between Hereford and Monmouth, citing Leland’s Itinerary (I’m not sure which volume?) as follows: “[t]here is noe Bridge beneath Hereford on Wye, untill a little above the Confluence of Wye and Mone River…. there is a Wood Bridge by Rosse.” (The Mone river goes through Monmouth). The site also explains the origins of the stone bridge:

[A]lthough the River Wye was low in the summer, it’s source in the the mountains meant that in the winter it was a raging torrent the ford was impassable and so during the high water periods a ferry ran across the river.

At one point the ferry sank and as a result of an Act of Parliament in 1597, it was ordered that a stone bridge needed to be built to stop this from happening again. This was funded by imposing a tax on every town and village in Herefordshire except for Hereford city itself.

After it was completed, the rights of pontage (as it was a toll bridge) were granted to Charles Bridges as a reimbursement for his loss of ferry rights.

Near the the top of Old Town Street, (the site that is now the Ross Community Hospital and Alton Street Doctors Surgery), was the Ross Work House, originally built around 1777 on land bequeathed to the parish of Ross in 1728. This original workhouse was demolished and rebuilt in 1836-7, and again in 1872-3 [reference]. The original workhouse housed up to 100 or so inmates, and its replacement further increased the capacity, at one point housing over 150, male and female, young and old, as well as “idiots”, “imbeciles” and the mentally ill. Several songs collected by Cecil Sharp from the workhouse were published in The Ross Workhouse Songbook. In the late 1800s at least, there was also a pub near the top of Alton Street, tied to Wintles Brewery of Mitcheldean, called the Harp Inn.

By the junction of Cross-Corpse Street / Old Town Street / Walford Road was a toll gate, the Walford Turnpike Gate. A toll house was later erected at the same location — the house on the corner of Old Maids Walk and Walford Road today — by the Ross Turnpike Trust in 1748.

Coltman’s map of turnpike roads in William Coxe’s An historical tour in Monmouthshire of 1801 hints at the turnpike roads out of Ross around the end of the 19th century.

Fragment of Coltman's map of turnpike roads, 1801, relating to Ross

The complete map gives a more detailed view of the road netwrok, including turnpike roads, across Monmouthshire.

Nathaniel Coltman's map of turnpike roads in Monmouthshire, 1801, published in "An Historical Tour in Monmouthshire" by Williams Coxe in 1801. The 'Explanation', bottom left, identifies: Turnpike Roads, Bye Roads, Rail Roads, Towns, Parishes and villages, Encampments, Canals (Monmouthshire Canal and Brecon Canal) and Rivers.

A more detailed map of Herefordshire by John Cary in 1790 shows the comprehensive road network in that county.

Map of Herefordshire, John Cary, 1790


The website provides a specialist history of turnpike roads, a network of well maintained and toll-supported roads developed in the 18th century.

A turnpike was a defensive gate, originally formed from a frame of pikes, that prevented passage unless a toll was paid. Local “Turnpike Trusts” managed roads in their local, of 20 miles or so in length, by Act of Parliament, specifically 12 Geo1 c.13, (Roads, Gloucester to Hereford Act 1725 c. 13) 1725, with various towns, including Ross, taking local control of their roads via the Hereford Roads Act 1748, c. 26 (22 Geo. II), &c., to wit: “[f]or repairing and widening the several roads leading into the town of Ross in the county of Hereford. Certain tolls granted for 21 years.

The website provides the following history of toll gates around Ross:

Prior to 1830, the town boundary was at Brookend Street and there was a tollgate there. Once the town boundaries were changed then the position of the gates changed.

The Ross Turnpike Trust was a powerful organisation in the area. This can be seen as in 1839 in the Ross area there were around twelve Toll Gates under the Control of the Ross Turnpike Roads Trustees. These are thought to have been located at: Wilton, Pencraig, Marsh, Hownhall, Ryeford, Corps-Cross (now Copse Cross), Coughton, Walford, Overross, Gatsford, Coldbrough, Marcle.

Each of these were up for Let by Auction and bidders had to pay £100 pounds upon making their first bid to ensure they had enough money to pay the first months rent in advance. This money was returned to the bidder upon completion of the Auction or used for payment for the advance rent.

One gate was charging 6d (about 2½ pence) to enter or leave Ross per day. Being as it cost about 7s (about 35p) for a return ticket to London, this was quite a high price.

By 1872 when the Ross Highway Board took over control of the roads due to the local Turnpike Trusts being abolished, the toll gates were at: Walford, Wilton, Ledbury Road, Over Ross, Copse Cross Toll Gate.

Regarding Copse (Corpse) Cross Street, the website provides the following information :

[R]unning south from the point where the High Street meets Old Gloucester Road, [i]t runs up to and becomes Walford Road just after the junction with Old Maids Walk, Alton Street and Sussex Avenue, at the point where the Copse Cross Toll Gate stood.

The name Copse Cross Street is thought to come from Corpse Cross Street. This has two possible derivations for this, one idea is that there was a hang mans cross at this point, or because suicide victims were buried at the cross in a hastily-dug hole without a Priest present. This was a common method of burying suicide victims as they were thought to be “unholy”. The act of interring suicides here is thought to have continued here until 1923 when laws was passed to prevent the act. This second idea ties in to one story about the derivation of Old Maids Walk.

A letter in the Ross Gazette of Thursday, 5th August, 1875, p4, also reviews the origins of the name of Corpse-Cross Street.

CORRESPONDENCE. LOCAL NOMENCLATURE. To the Editor of the Ross Gazette.

Dear Sir,—In looking over your very nice and improved re-issue of the Wye Tour, I see that you quote two derivations of the name, Corpse-Cross-street. It occurs to me that both these are far-fetched, and that the mame is properly ” Corpse “-Cross, and was given in consequence of a custom of burying suicides at the junction of the four roads. When I was a child in Ross, I was told that persons then living could remember such burials at that place; and I dreaded to go near it at nightfall. I dare my some of my seniors could give interesting particulars if they chose. Why was the road adjacent, leading to the Church, called ” The Old Maid’s Walk”? The title is suggestive, and there must have been some legend connected with it. “L. E. L.” (Miss Landon) did not reside in Ross. She used to visit her aunt, who lived the home opposite Claireville House, close to Corpse Cross. I have a dim recollection of seeing her, when I was very little, at her aunt’s. Yours faithfully, W. H. GREENE.

Whilst there is no mention of the sin-eater, it does seem as if there were “unusual” funerary practices at those “Ross crossroads”.

The 1875 letter also raises a (very good) question regarding the origins of the name of Old Maid’s Walk. The website suggests the following:

Old Maids Walk, Ross-on-Wye, runs east - west from Copse Cross Street to Church Street and the main entrance to the church yard. This was one of the last streets to have any development along it because up until 1935 it was the boundary to the south side of the grounds belonging to the “Old” Rectory which had extensive grounds. This was replaced by the “current” Rectory and development of the street happened quite quickly but only for a short period resulting in what is pretty much the same as seen today.

Where does “Old Maids Walk” come from?

During the 17th century, Mr. Markey, a wealthy man obsessed by his garden, owned Alton Court. It is said that an early frost killed his favourite plants and he blamed and fired his gardener. He then had to take on a replacement, a young, handsome man called Ralph Mortimer and, although Ralph was poor, he was reputedly descended from the Mortimers of Wigmore, Leominster.

Ralph was an excellent gardener and the gardens flourished in his care. In parallel, he had secretly fallen in love with Mr. Markey’s beautiful second daughter, Clara. Because of the class barrier, their relationship was never going to get the Markey’s family approval and, to add to the problems, Mr. Markey arranged for Clara to marry a young man from the Rudhall family, another local high class family of land owners.

Clara was wept at the news and Ralph was distraught. This resulted in his suicide and his body was found in the Wye. This resulted in Ralph’s body being taken to the junction between Alton Street and Copse Cross Street (called Corpse Cross Street) after Sunset and a stake driven through his heart, “to ensure he would not walk and bite people in their beds”. His body was then dropped into a hastily-dug hole without a Priest present (which is one derivation of the name Copse Cross Street). The act of interring suicides here continued until 1923 when a law was passed to prevent the act.

A few days later she walked down the isle to marry Mr. Rudhall but she collapsed into a trance before the service completed. She was taken home but vanished a short while later and was found at the Alton Road crossroads looking for Ralph’s unhallowed grave. At every opportunity she would return to the crossroads and pace up and down the lane to Copse Cross Street. Being as no-one seemed to be able to prevent her doing this, her lonely vigil continued for for decades until she died which ended the forever the Old Maid’s Walk.

The source is claimed as The Hereford Times, 14/8/1986, but the original seems to be a story that appeared in the Ross Gazette of Thursday 16 December 1886, and reprinted again in the edition of Thursday 26 June 1913, p5-6. The author was a certain “EREGEN”, who seems to be a regular contributor. For example, at the start of 1888, they author serialisation of The Last of the Rudhalls, A Tale of the Civil Wars in Herefordshire, with Local Sketches in that same newspaper.

Perhaps most interesting of all for our tale, however, is the reference in the story to “Jack the Scape”, a gaunt, miserable old man, who lived by himself in a hovel on the Walford-road, and frequently figured at funerals, as “The Sin-Eater”

There are several things perhaps worth noting about this story. In the first case, copyright is clearly claimed, which suggests the author wanted to assert some form of rights over it, perhaps because it was explicitly created as a fiction. Secondly, we note that the story makes use of several supernatural themes: the mention of witches, possession, and vampires, or at least, ghosts, as well as the sin-eater. We also note the publication date, 16 December, 1886, suggesting this was perhaps offered as a Christmas ghost tale. Whilst the author has clearly drawn on Aubrey, it is not clear by what route they might have been introduced to the notion of the sin-eater (1886 was a relatively “quiet time” in terms of other popular references to the legend).

We also note that the website appears to retell the story relating to the naming of Old Maid’s Walk as a legend rather than a fiction. At this point we might also recall how the story of the “last sin-eater” in Downes’ Welsh Decameron also seemed to transform into a “true” legend in various 19th century accounts of the sin-eater tradition.

In attempting to prove the veracity, or otherwise, of the tale of how Old Maid’s Walk got its name, we note that a house named Alton Court, now a Grade II Listed Building on Penyard Lane, off the point at which Alton Street becomes Alton Road, was built as a timber-framed house in the 17th century. It was apparently built “with early fishponds and a rabbit warren nearby”, and was “the former home of the Bishop of Hereford’s huntsman in the mediaeval park of Penyard Chase”.

As far as the Rudhall family goes, the Tourist’s Guide to the Wye and Its Neighbourhood by G. Phillips Bevan, revised and edited by R. N. Worth in 1892, p49, provides the following references to the family in its description of the Church:

The Man of Ross deserves a better monument than the one erected to him on the N. wall of the chancel, although its poorness is somewhat compensated by the inscription upon him written by his kinswoman, the Countess of Dupplin. But there really is a most interesting series of tombs to the families of Rudhall and Westfaling. The head of the Rudhall family, who lived at the village of Rudhall, about 2m. distant, was Serjeant Rudhall, 1529, to whom and his wife there is a fine gilt and sculptured altar-tomb, the costumes being of the time of Henry VII. There are several monuments of this family, who appear to have been prolific, one having had four sons and thirteen daughters, another five sons and ten daughters. Two alabaster effigies of John Rudhall and wife, in the costume of Charles I., also an upright efiigy of a William Rudhall [d. 1530], a Royalist general, in the dress of a Roman militaire. The Westfaylings, of whom was Bishop Westfayling, of Hereford, succeeded by marriage to the Rudhall estate …

On p49, reference is also made to the Lady or Markey Chapel in the Church.

We also recall the Rudhall almshouses on Church Street.

Regarding the sin-eater, we also have a bit of colour in the story: let’s just review it here. To begin with, we have a description of the circumstancee leading up to the burial:

The remains of poor Mortimer were token in a cart to Mrs. Jones’s house, where he had lodged ; but Mrs. Jones stood firmly in the doorway, and forbad its being taken over the sill. “No,” she said ; she didn’t want her place haunted, and the man wasn’t nothing to her. She wouldn’t have him in there!” So he was taken to the nearest inn, the Welsh Harp, and there laid out in the skittle alley, with a sack thrown over the shapely limbs and comely face.

The burial took place the same night. A strange burial it was.

As the men in the pub feel pity, they feel they should summon the sin-eater:

” The parish wunt allow no coffin,” said Joe Trumper, the horsebreaker, as the evening closed in, and he stood in the Welsh Harp skittle-alley by candlelight, with some companions, looking down, very little moved, at the prostrate, lifeless figure.

“No,” added Sam Morgan, the pig dealer, “and there’ll be no service. Pity though, that the poor chap should be drowed in like a cannibal. We might get Old Jack the Scape to do what he could for him, though; what do’st say? “

Then we have the description of the sin-eater, and his ritual, which borrows heavily from Aubrey, and whose name also invokes the idea of the scapegoat:

Jack the Scape was a gaunt, miserable old man, who lived by himself in a hovel on the Walford-road, and frequently figured at funerals, as “The Sin-Eater.” Such a profession was by no means uncommon in Herefordshire. In half an hour’s time, old Jack was standing by the coffin in the skittle-alley. ” I don’t me’nd,” said he; ” but you ain’t got no bowl made of maple-wood, and that’s what I always has gi’en me, full of beer, as well as the sixpence. “

” No,” replied Tom Morgan ; ” thee must manage wi’out the maple bowl; but here’s a quart-pot o’ good old stingo ; I ha’ paid for him mysen; thee must make this ‘un do ; get to work, Jack, for the grave will be waiting.”

” Very well,” said the Scape ; ” now you must hand me the quart of beer and the sixpence across the body.”

” Had thee got a silver sixpence, Trumper ? ” said Morgan; ” we’ll club round, a penny a piece, and pay thee back, directly.”

Tramper produced the coin ; and the Scape, after receiving that and the bear, across the corpse, pulled off his hat and slowly repeated the usual form of words:—” I, John Clement, do hereby take upon myself the sins of our dear brother, here departed, and do undertake to pray for his pardon and my own, to the end that he may sleep quiet in his grave and not walk as a ghost to disturb the neighbourbood. And may Heaven ham mercy on us all, Amen ! “

This absurd ceremony was observed with solemn silence by the rest of the men present ; and the Scape, with another ” Amen,” drank heartily from the quart pot. ” All for myself, mind,’ he added: “I take all the consequnces, and I has all the beer ! “

The interment follows, a lonely and solitary affair:

The place chosen for the interment was the junction of the cross-roads at top of Alton-street. There, after sunset, a hole was dug in the presence of a few idlers. When it was completed, a considerable number of spectators had gathered. Coldly blew the April wind (it was an easterly one) down towards the churchyard, the small party of men advanced up Alton-street, two of them carrying horn lanterns, and four others bearing the bier, on which was stretched the uncoffined body. They drew nearer and nearer. They stood by the side of the hole, and laid the corpse upon the ground. Not a prayer was said ; not a sigh was heaved. The dead youth had had no companions ; and none of his friends or relatives were present, for postal communication was not so easily available then as in modern times.

At this point, the author ups the gruesomeness level by incorporating a stake through the heart of the body, reminiscent of vampire romances. (Recall the use of the sin-eater ritual to prevent the spirit “walking” as a ghost: it’s perhaps not so for a strech to re-imagine this as a vampire walking…)

“Now, Bill Huggins,” said one of the bearers ; ” Hast thee got the stake ?” … ” What be this stake for ?” inquired a boy.

“Why, to drive drow him, to be sure, or else he’d walk and bite people in their beds, and then every one of ‘em would walk in their turn, and a pretty time Ross would have of it ! “

What followed is too horrible to describe. But in a very few minutes, the mangled body was let down into the grave. The earth was hastily shovelled in ; and soon every one had departed from the dreadful spot. That was how the place acquired its name, Corpse-Cross; and suicides were interred there in similar fashion for a long time afterwards. Not till 1838, did the law intervene to put an end to so odious a practice.

As I start to imagine my own tale of the sin-eater of Ross, I am tempted towards a tradition that follows on from Aubrey’s sin eater, perhaps after a gap of a few years, where poor residents of the almshouses, or perhaps the workhouse, following the tradition of being given payment of food or money doles at funerals, come across the tale of the sin eaiter; and one of them starts to believe that indeed they are a sin-eater…