Memorial to “Lord Darnley’s Toe” – 1835

toeMany seek but few find the monument to Lord Darnley’s toe. It’s not as close to the Mausoleum at Cobham, Kent, as many believe – but the remains of it can be found after a short walk from the Mausoleum at OS map reference – TQ 69877 68424. For those without an OS map, paste 51.3894301 0.4401402 into Google Earth.

Toe Mem

Coming from the Mausoleum – at the ‘crossroad’ turn right. Then bear to the right leaving the downward path – following the fence. Look to the left for the clump of yew trees. 

We know little about the circumstances that led to Edward Bligh, 5th Earl of Darnley, injuring his foot. What we do know is that the injury led to him soon showing the symptoms of tetanus (lockjaw) which quickly worsened, and rapidly led to his death.

The following is therefore less of an account of the ‘lost toe’ but more of the man who, judging by accounts of his funeral, was a highly regarded & respected landowner. As a member of the Whig party he was a supporter for political reform – and probably regarded by many as a ‘Radical’.

We must therefore remember that the story is also about the tragic loss of a young family man who at the age of 40 left a widow and five children. So moved by his loss his widow had a memorial erected at the site at which the accident to his toes occurred. Over time the site has become known as a ‘memorial to the lost toe’ – but I feel it’s more likely to have been a memorial to a much loved husband.

The Man – “His politics were liberal, and his manners kind and conciliating”. (Sherborne Mercury – 16 February 1835.)

Edward Bligh (25 February 1795 – 12 February 1835) was a Whig {Liberal} MP for Canterbury from 1818 to 1830. On the death of his father in 1831 he inherited the title of Lord Darnley and moved to the House of Lords.

By all accounts Edward Bligh, 5th Earl of Darnley, was a highly honourable man and as a member of the Whig party would have been party to the political reformations of the early 19th century.

He was probably amongst the most honourable of the aristocracy of the time. He cleared £100k of debts that his father built up through borrowing money to buy more land. He apparently was not obliged to clear this father’s debts but he believed it was the right thing to do.

Whilst at Harrow, and as an undergraduate at Oxford, Bligh’s moral character was described as being of the highest order. At university his conduct was unimpeachable. “Instead of giving way to the allurements which beset a young nobleman at university, he diligently applied himself to his studies” and achieved highly credible results in his examinations. (Dover Telegraph and Cinque Ports General Advertiser – 28 February 1835.)

The Injury

The circumstances that led to Darnley inflicting an injury to his foot appear to be unrecorded – or recorded without citation. Some say he was demonstrating how to use an axe – but would this have been necessary if he had experienced woodsmen? Perhaps he was just working alongside his labourers? In truth we do not know.

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Billhook

To be pedantic the instrument that caused the injury to Darnley’s foot was not an axe but a billhook – a tool used to clear undergrowth and to trim hedges. (Kentish Gazette – 24 February 1835.)

Whilst using or demonstrating the use of the tool, Darnley ‘removed’ the great (big) toe from his ?right? foot, and cut into the neighbouring toe. The doctor who first attended Darnley wished to remove the remains of the toe from its socket. Darnley though refused on the basis that his labourers frequently suffered worse injuries, and they got over them.

As Darnley’s condition deteriorated he was attended by Sir Benjamin Brodie (a surgeon and physiologist who specialised in bone diseases), Mr Buckley Bolton, a consultant surgeon and a Dr Farr. Despite their efforts tetanus tightened its grip and in defiance of every remedy, Darnley’s symptoms worsened. Four days after sustaining the injury to his toe, Darnley died.

The Loss

Lord Darnley was placed in the family vault is Cobham Church on 19 February 1835. Only family and friends were invited to the funeral.

At 2pm on the day of the funeral mourners gathered on the lawn in the south front of the hall. Darnley, in a plain coffin, was placed in the hearse that carried him to the church. It travelled along the avenue of trees {an avenue is still in place} to meet the roadway and then onto Cobham Church.

Cobham Ave

Image of the Avenue – 2012. Over 100 turned out for one of my Dickens Tours to commemorate the 200th anniversary of his birth 

The cortège was led by family and dignitaries who were followed by “powerfully affected” tenants & members of the household staff. A large number of people gathered along the avenue, and either side of the road leading to the church. The upset amongst the onlookers was far from a “mockery of woe” (Morning Post – 3 March 1835) {something that Dickens wanted to avoid at his funereal} – the sorrow across all classes was genuine and widely experienced. Shops and houses closed their shutters, and the bells of Gravesend church were tolled at intervals throughout the day.

On reaching the church the coffin was carried by six principal tenants of the estate. Although only close family were invited to the funeral many more attended. It was reported that nearly 20 clergymen were present along with most of the magistrates and other Principal Gentry of the area.

After the service Darnley was carried into the churchyard and interred next to his father in the family vault.

The Monument

The story is that Edward Bligh’s widow arranged for a stone monument to be erected on the site where the accident took place. Based on what we know of the man and how badly upset his wife was, I believe it is wrong and unfair that some have described the monument as a “monument to stupidity and arrogance”. (I do not want to give credence to this with a reference – as no evidence is offered to support this assertion. I feel it’s more likely to have been a memorial to a much loved husband; perhaps no different to the roadside memorials we see today where someone has died in a road accident.}

Sadly the ravaged of time and nature – no doubt aided by some vandalism – has led to components of the monument now being scattered around the area. So far I’ve found no illustration of how the monument may have looked.

So should you visit the site of the memorial try to think of the man, a bereaved family – as well as the story of the toe, and how lucky we are today to have a vaccination against tetanus. {Before World War 2, around 200 people in the UK died of tetanus each year. A vaccine was introduced in 1961 and now only a handful of people in the UK die of tetanus each year – mostly amongst unvaccinated older people. (Oxford Vaccination Group)} 

The following photos were taken in December 2019 – the ruins of the monument may be harder to spot when everything in leaf.

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Bligh Griffin

The Bligh Griffins on the Darnley Mausoleum

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