I attended a school, long since closed, on the road between the Dartmoor villages of Manaton and Widecombe. It was a wild and beautiful spot. If you walked up the lane at the back of the school, climbed over the gate and took the road to the right toward Hound Tor, after a few hundred yards you came to a grave at the roadside, at a point where a bridleway formed a crossing with the tarmaced road. It was Jay’s Grave and every boy in the school knew why the grave was there.
An orphan, Mary (or, according to some sources Kitty) Jay was an apprentice at a local farm around 1800 and fell pregnant to one of the boys on the farm. A poor girl, with no family to whom she could turn, she could not bear the shame and stigma heaped on unmarried girls who found themselves in her situation, and she hanged herself in one of the barns at the farm.
None of the local parishes would allow her to be buried in consecrated ground and her body was laid to rest at a crossroads between Widecombe and Manaton.
There very quickly grew up a local tradition of placing flowers on her grave, the ordinary people obviously feeling she had been wronged. In 1860, James Bryant, a local landowner who had heard the stories that grew up around the grave, had the grave excavated and having found the bones of a young woman, placed them in a coffin and reburied them.
According to some traditions, it was in the year 1806 that Mary Jay died. For more than two centuries the grave has been a reminder of what the church is like. 200 years of people regarding the church in a less than glorious light. Whatever the niceties of church doctrine in centuries past, whatever the theological points, when I was at school there was never a single person who thought it right that the church should have treated a young woman in such away, if this was what the church was like, then we wanted nothing to do with it.
The burial of Mary Jay was not just about the treatment by the church of one individual, it was about the way that the church treated ordinary people. To the people who week by week put fresh flowers on the grave, (there were purple flowers there this evening) and to those who leave other tributes (including the coins now left at the top of the headstone), Jay’s Grave remains a witness to people in the 21st Century of the church’s belief that it had the right to treat ordinary people just as it wished. When one looks at the reported cover-ups in the Bishop Peter Ball case, including by the Archbishop of Canterbury, there is not much sign it has changed.