ODSTOCK CHURCH, JOSHUA SCAMP AND THE CURSE OF THE GYPSY QUEEN
St. Mary's Church in Odstock is a 12th century, Grade II listed Anglican church just outside the Wiltshire city of Salisbury. A small rural church, it is perhaps best known for the rose covered grave of Joshua Scamp, an itinerant gypsy who was wrongfully hanged in 1801, with one of his fellow gypsies leaving a curse on the church itself.
The village of Odstock was once a part of the Roman-British villa at Downton, a large farmstead whose inhabitants grew mainly corn. It is thought that its got its name from Ode Stock - the stockade owned by Ode - and is mentioned in the Domesday book as later being owned by Brictic, a senior nobleman after the Norman invasion. The area eventually became a part of the vast swathes of land which made up the estate of the Bishopric of Winchester. The area has always been agricultural, with sheep and corn as the dominant crops, and there are still several farms in the area today.
The small church was the focal point of the village, although in modern times that seems to have been replaced by the Yew Tree Inn, a fantastic local pub with a thatched roof and beamed interior which does some great food, with the church rather shifted to the sidelines.
St. Mary's Church, Odstock
There has been a church on the site from at least the 12th century, although much of what you see there today is from the late 19th century, when the building was largely rebuilt in flint and stone. The interior still has traces of its early heritage, with Norman work in one of the chancel windows, Tudor arches, a 13th century font and a 16th century wooden pulpit.
The interior has a few simple memorials - one a rather tragic one from John Webb, who once lived in the Manor House. John and his wife Mary lost four of their children in infancy in the space of four years of the 1760s, aged from 3 years down to a few months, with the epitaphs even counting the days they lived for. All are buried nearby. Other memorials include an Albert Gay, only son, who drowned when the HMS Cullist was torpedoed by a German submarine in 1917, a former rector who died in 1790 at the age of just 22, a soldier who died at the age of 49 in the Battle of the Somme and a Royal Engineer who died in the Siege of Malta in 1942.
The rest of the church is simple - with a basic organ, a few stained glass windows, polychrome tiled floor and some very basic accessories such as a tatty, well worn pair of candlesticks.
This was clearly a simple church for a rural community of farmers, with few decorative features or embellishments. A former rector, Phillip Miles, left behind ten pages of notes of his 'Memoirs of Odstock', where he describes the dilapidated state of the church when he arrived in 1869 and the attempts he made to restore it, much of which he paid for himself.
He bemoans the lack of interest and the transient nature of his congregation saying that 'the chief thing from which we suffer is indifferentism more than from dissent'. He also describes the life of the villagers as 'a dull one', and how he put on parties and sporting events, 'without creating much real interest and amusement'. It is hard not to feel sorry for the poor man, doing his best in this rural community of farmers, who were plainly more interested in their day-to-day living than any higher purpose.
The graveyard is a traditional one, and is still in use today, with a few crooked headstones, crumbling crosses and inscriptions which refer to their inhabitants as 'a true countryman' and 'a farmer who loved the countryside'. The grave which stands out though is that of Joshua Scamp, covered in a swathe of bright pink sweet-brier roses.
Joshua Scamp was a gypsy, living occasionally at Yew Trees, close to where a Traveller community still resides. A horse was stolen from a John Marsh in the nearby village of Steeple Ashton, and Joshua’s jacket and halter were found in the stable. He was arrested, tried and sentenced to death for the capital offence of horse theft, not telling anyone that he had lent those clothes to his son-in-law.
"At his execution he ascended the platform with firmness and looking around saw his wife and daughters, called them to him and asked if they were prepared to take away his body. On their answering to the affirmative he commended their care and then conversed with other persons. Turning to one of many gypsies present he said "You see what you have brought me to, live soberly and take care of your wife and your family."
He asserted his innocence to the last and behaved with undaunted courage, unmixed with indecent levity or stupid insensibility. Having stretched the rope tight and tried it with his own hand, he gave the signal and died almost immediately. He was a remarkable robust and powerful man. Some time after it became known that the gypsy whom he particularly addressed was his daughter's husband who being afterwards executed at Winchester confessed that his father in law hanged innocently to save the life of his son in law who had stolen the horse."
From County of Wiltshire: Fisherton Gaol. Statistics of Crime 1801 - 1850 compiled by the governor of the Gaol, W Dowding.
It is said that he was allowed to be buried in the churchyard, unusual for a convicted felon, as everyone knew he was innocent, with the burial entry in the Parish Register stating that: 'Joshua Scamp, a gypsy, hanged supposed wrongly.' His grave became a place of pilgrimage to gypsies and travellers because of his courage and self-sacrifice; showing his love for his daughter by protecting his son-in-law so that she did not end up a widow.
His fellow gypsies planted a hedge of roses around his grave and would visit it on the anniversary of his execution. Always dropping in to the Yew Tree Inn first, the event became a rather drunken and riotous affair. The clergy of the church got rather fed up with this, destroyed the hedge and locked the church.
When the next anniversary came around, the gypsies discovered what had been done and Joshua's daughter put a curse on them, saying that “the man who did this deed might die, that the Churchwarden might never prosper, that the Parson might never speak plainly."
The following Sunday, the Clerk died from a fit, the Churchwarden died within the year and the Parson 'never spoke plain afterwards'. (From Phillip Miles’ Memoirs of Odstock)
It is said that the rector then threw the church key into the nearby River Ebble, so that it could never be locked again, where it is thought to remain until this day. The story does have an end as it is said that in the early 20th century, several members of the clergy locked the church, holding hands as they did so, to spread the curse amongst them to ‘dilute’ it.
I haven’t been able to find out if his descendants or modern gypsies still visit the site on the anniversary of his death, but there is still a traveller camp just outside Odstock and they are still a feature of village life, so perhaps they do.
You can ready the Rev. Phillip Miles memoirs here
Visiting St Mary's Church, Odstock
Postcode: SP5 4JA
Looking for refreshment? Try the Yew Tree just down the road, it's a great pub.