The Honest Hairdresser

At the far eastern side of the Old Ground, close to the monument to Amon Wilds, there once stood a headstone bearing the following epitaph:

JOHN JORDAN                                                                                                                           Many years a respectable hairdresser of this town                                                      Died November 13th 1810

When first placed it also included the following couplet;

Say what you will, say what you can                                                                                  John Jordan was an honest man

After a few days these last two lines were removed. According to Erridge in his ‘History of Brighthelmstone’  “a species of levity about these two lines … (was)… unbefitting a place of Christian sepulture” That humourless parish authorities removed the lines is however open to doubt, and a recently rediscovered account tells a different story.

Bad blood ran between Jordan and fellow hairdresser Edward Belcher who failed to prosper and blamed Jordan for taking his trade and driving him to the edge of ruin. Taking his enmity beyond the grave Belcher determined that Jordan should not retain his epitaph and paid an itinerant labourer to chip away the text, however the labourer cheated Belcher and instead of permanently erasing the work he simply begged a pot of lime mortar from a builder working nearby, watered it overmuch as it had begun to set, and had given the carved inscription a rough render, disguising the offending script.

Jordan had been a popular man, and the disappearance of the epitaph was soon noticed. People suspected Belcher and planned to confront him the following day. That night the first of the winter storms struck the town. Freezing rain lashed down driven by fierce winds and none were abroad that didn’t need to be. Two young friends of Jordan, excited by the fierce weather decided to play a joke on Belcher whom they spied taking a drink nearby. They rushed at him with fear in their eyes calling to Belcher that they had seen the spirit of Jordan roaming the churchyard laying down curses on those that had desecrated his headstone, and calling for Belcher by name on this account. Belcher first laughed at them and bid them gone, but they threw down the challenge to return with them to the churchyard and prove he was not guilty. And return with them he did.

After leading him into the churchyard, the youths ran off into the storm not wanting to be present for the rest of their joke. Belcher, suspecting the trick they had played, approached the headstone nevertheless to inspect the work. As he did so, a sheet of lightening  illuminated the monument and he saw the blank stone where the inscription had once been. Then – to his horror – he saw the words reappear on the stone as though carved by an unseen hand;

Say what you will, say what you can                                                                             John Jordan was an honest man

Fear gripped him and he staggered back paralysed against a nearby tombstone, cowering in the driving rain, staring at the work of this ‘ghostly’ hand. After many minutes, and with nothing else of note taking place, he began to regain his senses. Eyes fixed at the cursed script he noticed a quantity of grey residue washing around the base of the stone. He came closer and all at once understood how he had been cheated by the ‘mason’ who had taken the money and left town before the true nature of his work was uncovered by the storm, washing away his poor render mix to expose the untouched lettering underneath. In a rage Belcher leapt up and ran to his lodgings. He returned directly with a bag of tools and began to hammer and chip away at the offending engraving, working through the night to finally erase his rivals self penned tribute, driven by the humiliation wrought on him that day.

The storm raged through all of the night, letting up finally at dawn. The townsfolk went forth to inspect what damage had befallen their homes in the fierce weather, and this is when they found   Edward Belcher. Cold as stone at the foot of Jordan’s grave with his chisel tight in his dead fist. The text on Jordan’s headstone covered three lines, with a hewn space at its base with no mark left to show that words had ever been placed there.

For years following, anyone abroad on November nights would listen in fear for the chink of the masons chisel which told them that old Belcher was abroad once more, trying – or so they said – to re-engrave those last two lines, make good his folly and give his soul some rest.

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