The coffin in the crypt | Looking Back

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Almost 250 years after the funeral of the young Milton Abbey heir, questions remain about whose “body” was actually buried. Roger Guttridge reports

Anne Damer left her husband a year before his reported suicide

According to the Milton Abbas parish register, the funeral of the Honourable John Damer took place on 21st August 1776.
Amid much pomp and wailing, the body of Lord Milton’s eldest son and heir was laid to rest in the family vaults beneath the north transept of Milton Abbey church. But were they?
Milton Abbas villagers had serious doubts. Persistent rumours suggested that the young Damer not only survived his own funeral but was often seen out and about in later years.
There is also cause to suspect that the coffin that today sits beneath the memorial to Lord and Lady Milton may contain something other than their son’s mortal remains.

Wild and foolish
As a young man, John Damer was the very definition of profligate.
His costly pastimes included gambling and horse racing and his estranged wife Anne’s biographer Percy Noble described him as ‘one of a wild, foolish set about London, whose whole glory in life was centred in the curl of a coat-collar and the brim of a hat’.
Noble added: ‘These young fops made up for a want of wit by the most extravagant display of ridiculous eccentricity.’
Three times a day, Damer appeared wearing a brand-new suit, and after his alleged death, his wardrobe was sold for the collossal sum of £15,000 (roughly £1.3m today). He ran up debts estimated at £70,000 (over £6m in 2022) – well over twice the annual income of his father’s Milton Abbey Estate.
By 1776, his creditors were closing in and Lord Milton – who also had two other extravagant sons – had run out of patience and was refusing to bail him out.
In the early hours of 15th August, 32-year-old Damer apparently shot himself in the head at the Bedford Arms in Covent Garden.
At an inquest in the same pub later that day, a 22-man jury concluded that he had killed himself while not of ‘sound mind, memory or understanding, but lunatic and distracted’.
But the circumstances were not straightforward. Innkeeper John Robinson explained that Damer had earlier dined in an upstairs room along with five entertainers he had requested – four women who sang and a blind fiddler called Richard Burnet.
The ladies left at 3am after which Burnet was asked to leave the room and return in 15 minutes.
Twenty minutes later, the sightless fiddler told Robinson that Damer had not spoken since his return to the room and that there was a ‘disagreeable smell’ he thought might be from a candle that had fallen over.
When the landlord joined him, however, he found Damer dead in his chair, bleeding from a head wound with a discharged pistol at his feet.
On a table was a suicide note, which stated: ‘The people of the house are not to blame for what has happened, which was my own act.’

Milton Abbey and House in Damer’s time

In collusion
Damer’s house steward John Armitage told the coroner his master had been in ‘oppressed spirits’ of late and Burnet confirmed he was not his usual cheerful self.
If there is anything in the stories that Damer did not die that day, he must surely have had an accomplice or two and a replacement body waiting in the wings.
This would not have been difficult to arrange, especially if the body was ‘borrowed’ to be returned later.
In 1776, it was normal for a coroner and jury to view a body, but it’s fair to assume that none of them knew Damer personally so would not have known if it was not his.
Given that Burnet was blind, it appears that Robinson and Armitage were the only people in a position to identify Damer’s body.
Both had served him loyally for years. Could it be that they also co-operated in some elaborate scheme to fake his death?
On the face of it, that is no more than speculation.
A hundred years later, however, one Frederick Fane of Fordingbridge added substance to the story.
During a visit to Milton Abbey, Fane heard about the legend of the ‘bogus funeral’.
As it happened, his visit coincided with some repair work on the north transept, and the clerk of works invited him into the vaults, which were usually inaccessible.
Among numerous coffins was one bearing John Damer’s name and the date of his death, and Fane was invited to lift it.
‘This I found impossible due to its extraordinary weight,’ he later recalled.
Invited to lift a second coffin, Fane did so ‘without the slightest exertion’.
‘There, sir,’ the clerk told him. ‘This one contains a body gone to dust. The other one is full of stones, as it was supposed by the old villagers would be the case if any opportunity occurred for investigation.’
Once the works were complete, the vaults were re-sealed and their coffins left to sit undisturbed indefinitely.
Perhaps one day a need will arise to open the vaults once again.
Until it does, the mystery of John Damer’s death will continue to remain a mystery.

• Roger Guttridge’s books Ten Dorset Mysteries (1989) and Dorset: Curious and Surprising (2016) both include a chapter on the Damer mystery.

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