‘My slender Thread of Life is broke’: Chester Cathedral’s Hidden Poem

Tucked away in a secluded corner of the St Werburgh’s Cathedral churchyard a curious piece of poetry lies forgotten.

Regrettably, the churchyard was flattened in the latter half of the 20th century (see photograph of the original graveyard below); its gravestones were torn out and laid down as the paving that surrounds the memorial garden we see today.

One such tombstone, set apart from the others, once marked the grave of a Mr John Bowden. His son, also called John, decided to memorialise his father’s passing with a unique poem. Though a tad morose and not lacking in religious austerity, the text makes use of some especially powerful imagery, with even a supposed address from the deceased gent himself to the living reader, and is yet another example of Chester’s unique and unusual heritage.

chester ctahedral graveyard

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For the good of the Reader
over the remains of JOHN BOWDEN
who departed this Life April 23rd 1772
aged 56 years
My long afflicted Father dear,
Whose gross material Part lies here,
At length has ta’en flight;
In Christ redeem’d , who Spirit’s Pow’r
Hath sav’d him in the trying Hour,
Into a World of Light.’
Yet still he shall (the dead) proclaim
The Truth in his Redeemer’s Name:
Turn not your Ears away;
Ye thoughtless Souls he calls on you;
 Believe th’important Accents true,
While thus ye hear him say:
“Death (thro Disease) hath struck the stroke;
My slender Thead of Life is broke:
Reader to thee I cry,
“One sudden stroke may snatch thee hence
“From all the Joys of Flesh and Sense,
Therefore prepare to die.
“O Sons of Adam, know your Fall,
“And Seeing Grace extends to All,
“Cast all your Sins away:
 “Repent, believe and be BORN AGAIN,
“Or all the flatt’ring Hopes are vain,
“To reign in Endless Day.”
Also JOHN BOWDEN
Author of the above Lines
Died Sepᶧ 1818 aged 77 years.

Do you know anything more about the lives of these intriguing and departed Cestrians? Or do you know of any other unusual inscriptions in the city?

chester cathedral yard

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4 thoughts on “‘My slender Thread of Life is broke’: Chester Cathedral’s Hidden Poem

  1. John Bowden died 1818 published ” The Epitaph Writer “, Chester, 1791 part 2 page 22. Originally in St. Oswald Chester. Can you tell me anything about him? The book is in my possession.

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    1. Hello, Steven. How wonderful that you own such a book! May I ask how you came by it? I’m afraid I know nothing more about him than what I found on his tombstone, and any google searches of his name have sadly drawn a blank. Could you tell me a little more about the book at all?

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      1. Dear Matthew,
        Fifteen years ago I bought the library of a Lincolnshire scholar, C J Sturman, a Tennyson expert who, sadly, died of cancer at the age of fortyseven. His Tennyson collection went to the museum at Louth but the majority of his books, some 12.000 volumes, came to me. The bulk of these I have sold over the intervening years but those which most interested me, in particular the beginnings of a collection of the works of the so called ” unlettered ” poets, I have kept. This has since been augmented by some happy purchases and it is these poets which are at present the focus of my attention though my major interest is in the books and literature of the 17th cetury.
        J. Bowden’s book, ” The Epitaph Writer…..” Chester, J. Fletcher, 1791, is in 8vo, original boards and pages untrimmed as issued. ( no ownership inscription as front free end paper is wanting ) xxii prefatory essay about epitaph writing and his purposes in writing these 600 model verses. I have already indicated ” my long afflicted father dear…” pp22/23. According to the index the last epitaph in the book was actually published in the Chester Chronicle, May 8th, 1785.
        A note on the last page refers to J B’s wish to publish ” a book of original epigrams under the title of, The Epigrammatic Microscope, in three parts.”
        I know nothing of JB. Internal evidence suggests that he was a Chester man. Would the Chester County Archive or public library have a copy? Manchester University claims to have one.
        I doubt that I can enlist JB into the ranks of my unlettered poets but he is the author of some 600 hitherto unnoticed verses, serious, humorous and satyrical.
        I would relish any information you come by. I am in exile in Italy so have not resources at my fingertips.
        Yours gratefully,
        Steven St. C. Smallwood

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      2. Hello Steven,

        Thank you so much for getting in touch.

        I am incredibly jealous that you have an original copy of the text. I’ve managed to purchase a modern version online that should be with me in a few days.
        Sadly, the libraries of Cheshire West Council didn’t have any record of works by Bowden on the system. However, I’m intrigued by your mention of the Manchester library claiming to have a copy.
        The Epigrammatic Microscope sounds fascinating, and I will certainly do my best to chase up any more information regarding both the text and its mysterious author.
        I’m so glad I stumbled across that solitary tombstone that fateful day I felt especially curious on a stroll. I hope I can shed further light on both our behalfs.
        If you have any further questions/comments, I’d be delighted to hear them. If you wish to leave me a contact email address should I discover more, I’d be happy to contact you.

        Kind regards,

        Matthew

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