A 66 million-year-old headstone

[All photos courtesy of Rob Coles]

This has got to be one of the most unusual graves l have ever seen and – as it turns out – is the final resting place of a local man who – when he wasn’t driving steam locomotives – was out collecting evidence of the life that existed in these parts more than 60 million years ago.

Local photographer Rob Coles tells me he was walking through St James Cemetery on the Lower Bristol Road near Oldfield Park station – looking for a vantage point to photograph the passing Pullman trains.

“I stumbled upon a very striking grave.  Rather than the traditional stone headstone, there was a large ammonite fossil about two feet across. The curbs were lines of smaller ammonites. 

I spent my early years living in the cemetery lodge, where my grandfather was superintendent, and I considered it to be my back garden. I do not, however, remember being shown this curiosity.

It was also surprising that it survived the Bath Blitz, with the bomb map of the city showing a high explosive bomb landing very near, and some headstones did not survive. 

The inscription was unreadable, so who was this person, a famous geologist or paleontologist? Consulting the excellent Bath Burial Index, available online from Bath Record Office, was difficult without a name  In the end I drew a plan of the area of the mystery grave – adding the inscriptions that could be read. 

 I compared this with the Record Office maps and register. I was finally able to identify the incumbents.  It was John Williams and his family who lived at 24 Sydenham Building, right next to the Great Western Railway.  Mr Brunel’s “gentleman’s” railway was still broad gauge when John was first there.   

John, however, was a Somerset and Dorset Joint Railway engine driver who died, aged 69, on April 12th, 1907.   

He was reported in the Bath Chronicle to be a keen Geologist and an ardent lover of wildlife.  John moved to Bath in the very early days of the S&D.J.R Bath extension line.  He first lived at 9 Lorne Terrace, where later William Friese Green, “Photographic Artist” and Cinematic pioneer was to live.  John moved to 24 Sydenham Buildings by 1880 where he remained for the rest of his life. 

Armed with this information, l felt the man had become real to me and could be imagined walking the slighter greater distance along the Lower Bristol Road early in the morning.  He would have turned right into Victoria Bridge Road to walk up the path to sign on for his shift in the shed master’s office. 

An S&D Johnson 4-4-0 locomotive that John Williams would have driven. 

He would drive his Prussian Blue locomotive with its train to Templecombe and maybe beyond.  Looking out of the rather basic cab he would notice the fossil-rich strata of Lias stone in the new cuttings.  As he crossed Tucking Mill viaduct he no doubt gave a thought to William Smith, Father of English Geology, whose home was once in the valley below.   

Once over the Mendips, as his train rolled along, so close to his place of birth in South Somerset, he would have seen foxes, pheasants and much else, another of his interests.  He would be pleased that  foxes are now the live inhabitants of the cemetery in which he lies.

John may have worked first on the Somerset Central Railway, at first a broad gauge line.   Seeing the construction of the line to Bath from Evercreech in the late 1860’s and the exposure of rock strata could have fired his enthusiasm for geology.  His move to Bath may have been a promotion to drive the longer-distance trains. He had a wife and six children to support, but we will never know.   

When he was born in 1839 in South Somerset it was very much an agricultural economy by the end of his life there had been massive changes. 

With the railway author E L Ahron referring to the rather casual timetable of the S&D in the early years, leaving Bath at afternoon tea time and arriving Wimborne at around super time, there could have been a Titfield Thunderbolt moment of stopping for fossils he had noticed on an earlier journey.   

Reading again the account of the early days it has given an added dimension knowing these personal details of a driver at that time.  The infamous 1876 accident at Foxcote that happened during the career of John Williams brought more order to the railway.

 It was rather a coincidence – and a great surprise – that a hunt for a Pullman photo led me to discover all this, bringing an engine driver back to life. I think it is worth remembering!”

Thanks Rob.

Ammonites were shelled cephalopods that died out about 66 million years ago. Fossils of them are found worldwide, sometimes in very large concentrations.