Major Thomas Hill and the untold story of a popular Bay holiday spot hiding a gruesome tragedy
- Credit: Submitted
Local history lover Chris Thorndyke wants to reveal the history behind some of the Bay's most well-known - and little-known- landmarks. He brings them to life by telling a story and starts here with Major Thomas Hill.
On an area of grass in Goodrington’s Young’s Park the final resting place of Major Thomas Hill is marked by the park’s solitary gravestone. But who was he and why was he buried here?
Goodrington is mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 as a small swampy coastal settlement by the name of Godrintone. Much later in the 18th century its name was changed to Goderington, the name gradually transforming over the next century to what we now know today as Goodrington.
During the hot summer of 1976 I worked on Goodrington Beach as a deck chair attendant.
Growing up in Paignton during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s meant spending many a happy time in the wide-open space that Young’s Park offered. However, whilst revelling in the freedom of the park I never knew what lay beneath the rich green grass my friends and I played on. That is, not until that hot summer of 1976.
One sultry evening after finishing stacking the last of the stripey chairs, I took the route through the park thinking of the cold beer I was going to enjoy in my local tavern, The Torbay Inn. Taking the path that would lead me past the boating lake, I noticed a man in his forties wrapped in a black cloak and sitting alone on a bench in front of the solitary gravestone that had become a well-known feature of the park. Most people passing this landmark rarely take any notice of it. To me, it
seemed to project a kind of sadness as though whoever lay beneath it felt unrecognized and abandoned.
“It’s the only one,” he said looking up at me as I passed the bench.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “The only what?” “The only testimonial of what lies beneath here,” he said sadly. “Come and sit and I’ll tell you.”
I sat next to him regarding his thick handlebar moustache that stretched as far as the long bushy sideburns running down each side of his face. "You see that long high wall over there, behind that is a building that was used as a hospital for soldiers and sailors.”
I looked over at the wall running along the top of the grassy area that shielded a bar and eating place.
“Most of them arrived on Royal Navy frigates summoned to take the wounded back from the battle that ended Boney’s march through the continent.” He had to be referring to the battle of Waterloo.
“I can tell you what those ships were like,” he continued. “Wretched. Many of the wounded died on the crossing and were buried at sea. There were hundreds of them being brought in by the ships. The place was like a butcher’s shop, limbs and guts strewn everywhere while the floor looked as though it was awash with casks of spilled wine. Infection was the biggest killer. They had a gang of gravediggers digging up the whole of this area in front of us, from down there to the latrines and back there to where the pathway leads past that lake. Throughout the day, the dead were brought from the hospital to here where they were laid in pits and covered over with soil. There’s nothing here to remind anyone of what lies beneath this lovely park except that,” he said pointing to the gravestone.
“The final resting place of Major Thomas Hill, 47th Regiment. Died of his wounds on 22nd July 1815. He should have been taken back to his family in Cornwall. Why oh why did they leave him here? This is not home!”
His account of Goodrington’s macabre past seemed very factual. Turning, I looked back at him sitting alone on the bench, a twinge of sadness pricking me as I imagined the suffering that had taken place in what now stood as a holiday makers’ bar and restaurant.
With a deep sigh I crossed over to the path that led past the boating lake, looking back again over my shoulder. The bench was deserted. A few wildflowers wavered over the grave in front of the bench as though something had only that second disturbed them. I stopped and offered up a quiet meditation for all those unfortunate heroes resting beneath the park.
That day was 22nd July. The realisation of whom I had just met slowly sinking in. I took a look back at the lonely grave. I thought of the man on the bench and in my mind promised him to try and pay my respects at his resting place every year on this day.
(Dedicated to Major Thomas Hill – Chris Thorndyke.)