JOHN HOARE'S FAMILY HISTORY
John Cheesman 1789 - 1858
Some time ago the 'Guardian' newspaper digitised its archive, and made it searchable online. To launch the facility they gave readers free access for the first few days. Being a good family historian I looked up my family's names but the only likely positive result was a report of a death of a John Cheesman. When in Brighton I took the opportunity to look up local paper reports for the same date, and struck gold. Here is a distillation of the reports I found. I have tried to respect the social climate of the time (for example, the reports don't use the term 'mister' for the working classes), whilst telling the story and making the text understandable to the modern reader. The original reports are on this site as PDF files.
John was the second born in the family; the first, also John, only survived a year. If I have interpreted the the records correctly there were fourteen in all. The family seems to have been prospering, and John would have been expected to be successful in life. As far as I know John had only one child; also John, who died before him.
John Cheesman died on the railway line outside Lancing on Friday, November 19th, 1858. The events leading up to his death were revealed in horrifying detail by the inquest, held before Richard Blagden, the coroner for West Sussex, at the Farmers hotel, Lancing, on Monday, November 22nd 1858. A stated aim of the inquest was to establish whether the death was attributable to the actions of Railway employees, an accident, or 'self-destruction'. There was little doubt that the cause of death was coming into contact with a moving train.
Mr. Somers Clarke (Well known Brighton solicitor, Vestrey clerk of Brighton 1830-1892) attended on behalf of the family. Also present were Mr. Cheesman's nephew George Cheesman junior, and one of Mr. Cheesman's grandsons.
One of the first questions to be addressed was the correct form of Mr. Cheesman's name. He had used the form 'John Cheesman Childrens' and George Cheesman had signed his name 'George Cheesman Childrens'. The coroner asked if this was an assumed name, but George couldn't say. Did it relate to coming into possession of property? 'I should say not, certainly'.
Mr. Somers Clarke, for the family, said that it was a matter of vital importance, and suggested that the Coroner should record the name as 'John Cheesman. otherwise known as John Cheesman Childrens'.
George confirmed the identity of the body, using the agreed format, and that he had been living at 19, Egremont place. When he died he was aged 69. He had formerly been a shipowner and coal merchant, and recently had done a little business as a coal merchant but was substantially retired.
First the inquest established events on the day of the death.
John Cheesman left his home in Brighton just after 9am, wearing a black coat. He told his wife that he would be back at about 2pm as usual. The weather was fine.
The incident took place about a quarter mile East of Lancing Station, about eight miles West of Mr. Cheesman's home in Brighton, on the Brighton and Portsmouth line, at a level crossing. This consisted of a white gate on each side of the line, providing access to Mr. Stanford's Old Salt Farm. The ditch each side, which was about two feet deep, was covered with a water plate and there were rail-posts each end to stop cattle falling off the end into the ditches, extending to within a few feet of the line.
He was first seen walking around the area at 12:45, by a labourer name of Charles, who was ploughing Mr. Stanford's land. He gave the impression that he was inspecting the line for the railway company. At about 1pm the up train from Portsmouth passed Lancing station. As it passed the area the driver, Stephen Clarke, saw a gentleman, who must have been John Cheesman, standing on the North side of the line, the side his train was on. He had his hand on one of the rail-posts, and was trying to pull himself up to the track level. He did not accomplish this, and as the train passed he slipped back onto his knees in the ditch. The labourer Charles reported that after the train had passed he stood on the up line and watched it until it was out of sight, after which he continued walking around the area.
The down train left Brighton at 2pm,driven by a Joseph Ellison, and reached the crossing at about 2:25, travelling at a speed of about 40MPH. He saw Mr. Cheesman climb up from the ditch in a stooping position, and kneel down and put his head right on the track, facing the oncoming train which was no more than 150 feet away..
Mr. Cheesman was hit by the 'life-guard' and axle boxes and thrown onto the rail-posts, some twenty feet (6 metres) in all, and so was not run over by the locomotive. The driver stopped the train as quickly as possible. Mr. Cheesman was picked up dead by the guard. According to an initial report he was so disfigured as to be not recognizable. The inquest was told that there was no blood, but he was severely bruised; his body was doubled up, but his face was largely undamaged. Death was considered to have been instantaneous. mr. Cheesman was identified by the card in his pocket, which read 'J. Cheesman, coal-merchant, 25, Egremont Place, Brighton'. The body was taken back to the station on the train and on to the Farmers' Arms Hotel at Lancing..
Once the circumstances of his death had been established the inquest looked into Mr. Cheesman's state of mind.
George Cheesman junior gave evidence that his uncle John had left his business as a ship-owner and coal merchant around 1838, and became severely depressed. He resumed business around 1848, but suffered from further depression. He had no financial problems.
Mr. John Cordy Burrows (a well known and well loved figure in Brighton life, whose statue can be found on the Steine in Brighton), who was the Mayor in 1858, was a surgeon, and had attended Mr. Cheesman. He reported that he had treated him for gout around 1848, and the treatment used was capable of causing mental side-effects. In his opinion Mr. Cheesman had been in poor mental health except for the last two years.
Mr. Cheesman suffered a severe financial loss around 1850, when his grape crops failed.
The situation was made worse by the death of his son, with whom he was very close, following a long illness, in some five years previously, in February. For some time he was inclined to wander around for hours on end, not speaking even to close friends and family.
A juror asked if Mr. Cheesman had fallen out with his family or had any other cause for his recent depression, but the answer was negative.
There were reports that for the last year of his life Mr. Cheesman had become less depressed, and much better company, being noted for his remarkable memory. In Easter 1858 he had taken up the position of Director and Guardian.
It was reported that a month before his death there was a problem in connection with houses built by Mr. Cheesman in Howard Place, and the Council had written to him asking him to take the fronts back, which would have incurred considerable expense. A letter to that effect from Mr. Lockwood, the town surveyor, had been found in Mr. Cheesman's pocket. Mr. Burrows, the Mayor, stated that the Council had since decided not to press the case.
Harriet Boniface had been a servant in Mr. Cheesman's household since 1851. she attested that he had been very depressed until 1855, but after that his state of mind had improved. However, he had sunk into depression over the last fortnight of his life, and was particularly low on the day of his death.
The Coroner instructed the jury that there was little doubt that Mr. Cheesman died by his own act, and pointed out that if he was sane at the time the verdict would be self-destruction, but that his melancholia and the side-effects of his treatment for gout may have led to a form of temporary insanity.
The jury retired for a few minutes before returning a verdict of suicide whilst in an unsound state of mind, and John Cheesman was buried privately at Brighton Cemetery on Tuesday, 24th November 1858. The death certificate gave the cause of death as 'Killed himself when insane by throwing himself under Railway Engine'
Source documents -
This page is based on three contemporary newspaper reports which contain more detail -
Brighton Herald Saturday 20 November 1858 (700kB, opens in a new window)
Brighton Gazette Thursday 25 November 1858 (4.3 MB, opens in a new window)
Brighton Herald Saturday 27 November 1858 (1.5MB, opens in a new window)
Matters arising -
Why didn't the family know why they had added the name 'Childrens' to Cheesman?
Why was the exact state of mind important?
What were the circumstances surrounding the death of John Cheesman's son?
© John Hoare May 2009