A GHOST STORY Beyond The Stained Glass by David Pearce
Berkhamsted Review June 2006, pp.16-17
Two stained glass windows – perhaps a third – in St Peter’s church feature historical likenesses. That third is the east window of St Catherine’s Chapel and it represents significant stages in a priest’s life. It is dedicated to Harry Johnson, son of the Rector, and himself a priest, but for only five years until his death in 1889. The fact that the same man is featured in the centre and right hand window suggests that it is the portrait of the priest. Another stained glass representation, and one that cannot easily be seen, is in the bottom light of the chancel, now the vestry, east window. It is of the poet, William Cowper.
But the actual portrait of our present interest fills the top quatrefoil of the south window nearest the organ, and is of a woman with three children.
The dedication is to Caroline Bartrum who died on 20th March, 1869, just a fortnight after giving birth to her third child. She was 32. Caroline was the wife of Headmaster Bartrum. That south chapel of St John was used for School services in those days. It was, in effect, the School Chapel. The two lower lights of the window have a Victorian orthodoxy: formal saints, the cross, and the anchor of Hope. The top window is quite different, intimate; it shows the mother, in a green-grey striped dress, with her three children, the youngest on her lap. There is a nimbus around her head, and the word Caritas embraces them all. It is a touching group and the central figure is certainly a portrait of Caroline.
Headmaster Bartrum married again, and the three children were looked after. Those are the historical details but the story does not end there. Most ghost stories are told by hearsay, but this that I shall tell is corroborated by strange coincidence, and the author can vouch for it. A boy, BS Lombard, who had entered the School in 1878 recounted a story concerning the old School House housekeeper and a new matron, both of whom lived in the house with the boys and the headmaster’s family. The matron had been kind to Lombard when he had been in the sick-room with scarlet fever. One night that matron was going to bed, and was carrying a cage of dormice which had been left in her care by Lombard’s brother during the holidays. She saw in front of her a lady in a black silk dress with broad green stripes. The lady turned into the children’s room. The children had all been crying but when the lady entered the nursery, their crying stopped. The matron followed thinking that the second Mrs Bartrum, who had gone out to dinner with the headmaster, had returned early feeling ill. As the matron entered the room she distinctly saw the figure bending over the bed of one of the children. She was about to offer her assistance when the lady disappeared, seeming to fade away and become one with the bed-curtains. The matron was more surprised than frightened, and ran down and told the housekeeper what she had seen. The old woman said nothing, but going into her own room returned with a photograph of a lady in a dark dress with stripes, and said, ‘Was that anything like what you saw? If ever you hear the children cry at night, you will see her looking after them.’
The housekeeper would aver that the children’s mother took good care of them even though she had passed over. There is a sequel. This involves Anne, the young daughter of the later headmaster, Basil Garnons Williams. The family had only just come to Berkhamsted and taken up residence in School House. The year was perhaps 1954. Anne became very ill with rheumatic fever. Her parents decided that she should be nursed at home. Her bed was in the room next to the parental bedroom. She was kept in bed for six months, and, lying still, it was impossible for her to read. A team of readers was organised, and different people would arrive, sit by her bed and read. One day she asked her parents who was the nice lady with a full-skirted grey dress who would sit by her and comfort her. They had no answer. It must be understood that neither Anne nor her parents had at that time any knowledge of the story of Caroline Bartrum. Anne is now a doctor and she told me the story as if it were factual and immediate, as if there was no distinction between the strange visitation and the ordinary routines of her life. She told me that one night she was lying in bed very frightened. We all remember the time when we want to hide under the sheets. There was a light of some sort. Into the room came a lady dressed in grey. Anne was very specific in the detail: the dress was grey; the dress had full skirts. The lady sat beside her and stroked her forehead saying that all would be well, and that she had come to look after her. She was ‘a very comforting presence’. Anne remembers that she was so used to having people visit her unexpectedly that she was not in the least surprised. As Anne told me the story, her husband, also a doctor, remarked that there was another link because Caroline would have died of puerperal fever, which, like rheumatic fever and scarlet fever, is a streptococcal infection.
I have long had the privilege of using a room on the same floor in the old Tudor School House and near the room in question. When I work there late, I deliberately pass the room in the darkness and hope to see the kind lady in the grey dress. I have waited, even on the anniversary of her death, and whispered the name of the woman who once, as a mother, brought sweetness and joy to the house. But Caroline does not appear to me. Perhaps you have to be a child, and perhaps very ill, for her to stir again in a mission of compassion. You, though, my reader, may see her in the church window on the south side.
The Bucks Herald 27th March 1869 – states she died ‘of ‘congestion of the brain’.
Caroline Bartrum is buried in Rectory Lane Cemetery.