Grave of George Alexander Gratton

Nominated by: Mary Tebje
Painting by Coventry, found in All Saints Church

This tale is full of contradiction, cruelty and the absurd; of a young ‘fanciful child of nature’ bought by a showman to exhibit to the public until his death and burial at All Saints Church in Marlow. George’s grave is currently being restored and his story researched, by local arts and heritage group, SV2G (St. Vincent & the Grenadines). This painting hangs in All Saints Church in Marlow and was painted by Coventry, who was commissioned by John Richardson.

Facts in this case are hard to verify. This is the tragic story of a young boy born on 24th July 1808 on a sugarcane plantation on the island of St Vincent and the Grenadines and sold into slavery. At this time it was customary for slaves to be given the family name of their owner or overseer: in this case, Mr Gratton was the overseer and the plantation owner was a Mr Alexander.  King George lll was on the throne, so it’s my guess that would account for the boy’s first name.  According to an 1819 edition of the Literary Journal, as a baby, George was shown in the capital Kingstown “at the price a dollar each person” before he was sent to Bristol.  It’s not known if he was accompanied by his parents, the circumstances of his sale and passage abroad the ship ‘Friends of Emma’ to England, and who in fact benefited from the 1,000 guineas that John Richardson, showman, paid for the boy.

Richardson, formerly a farm labourer from Marlow, had left town to make his fortune running fairs and sideshows, typically earning as much as £1,200 in just three days.  The reason the toddler was of interest to the showman?  George suffered from a condition known today as Vitiligo.  This a long-term skin condition is characterised by patches of the skin losing their pigment and becoming white.  It is more noticeable in people of colour. 

Richardson bought the boy to add to this travelling horror show, where he was advertised as ‘a fanciful child of nature, formed in her most playful mood’.  He was exhibited during the intervals of plays and other entertainments, sometimes for upwards of 12 hours a day. Venues included the famous Bartholomew’s Fair in Smithfield, London. 

We know little about the relationship between Richardson and George, but that George was brought to Marlow and eventually buried at All Saints Church.

I think it only right we show George the dignity he deserves and identify him by his given name, not his ‘circus name.’  We don’t after all know his birth name, nor who his parents where.  We know very little about him.  It is a difficult tale to digest and tell here, not least of all with the offensive 19th century attitudes and some insensitive use of contemporary language.  I am of course viewing this sorry tale through the prism of 2020 enlightenment and my experience as a mother; I can’t help but not feel the tremendous sadness and subsequent loss at their parting – did she know what happened to her son?

Thanks to the work of SV2G, George’s grave will be restored and we will soon have a better understanding of his story – once we do, we will share the additional information they have found.  I wondered if we, the community, can begin to afford George the dignity in his memory, that he did not have during his brief, tragic life and place flowers on his grave, as is still done for another of the Chilterns prodigal son’s – on Peter the Wild Boy’s grave in Northchurch, near Berkhamsted.

Read the full article about Charles Alexander Gratton on the Chiltern Hills blog.

This painting of George Alexander Gratton was nominated by Mary Tebje.