Riding to Heaven on Solomon Grisdale’s Cow

Posted: November 19, 2012 in Durham, History
Tags: , , , , , ,

Many members of the Grisdale family took holy-orders. Some became rich and mingled with the country’s rulers but many did not. One such was Solomon Grisdale who became Curate of the tiny and poor Durham country parish of Kirk Merrington. We know little about his life but one poignant story has survived – concerning his cow.

Kirk Merrington Church, County Durham

Solomon Grisdale, from the Matterdale Grisdales, had married a Mary Earl in the early 1800s. The couple had at least four children: Mary (1803), Joseph (1805), Jonathan (1807) and Ann (1809), all in Merrington, Durham. He was consecrated Curate of Merrington in 1814, having probably already been schoolmaster.

Just before Solomon’s death in 1818, Merrington was visited by representatives of the Select Committee for the Education of the Poor, where they found “five schools in which 104 children are educated”. One of the schoolmasters (and the curate) was Solomon and he told the visitors that “a considerable part of the poorer class are without the means of education and are desirous of possessing them”.

And that’s about all we know except for this story:

Solomon Grisdale, Curate of Merrington, who was very poor, and had a numerous family, lost his only cow. Mr. Surtees determined to raise a subscription for another cow; and waited on the Bishop of Lichfield and Coventry (the late Earl Cornwallis), then Dean of Durham, and owner of the Great Tithes of Merrington, to ask what he would give? “Give,” said his Lordship, “why a cow to be sure. Go, Mr. Surtees, to Woodifield, my steward, and tell him to give you as much money as will buy the best cow you can find.” Mr. Surtees, who had not expected above a five-pound note, at most, exclaimed, “My Lord, I hope you’’ ride to Heaven upon the back of that cow!” Awhile afterwards he was saluted in the College, by the late Lord Barrington, with – “Surtees, what is the absurd speech that I hear you have been making to the Dean?” “I see nothing absurd in it,” was the reply: “when the Dean rides to Heaven on the back of that cow, many of you Prebendaries will be glad to lay hold of her tail.”

I hope he got the new cow!

Robert Surtees (1779 – 1834) was a historian and antiquary who wrote The History and Antiquities of the county Palatine of Durham (1816). His memoirs were later published in 1852, from which I derive this tale.

Bishop James Cornwallis

One interesting little connection is that Bishop James Cornwallis, who offered to buy Grisdale a replacement cow, was the brother of the Earl Charles Cornwallis who had been the commander of the British forces at the Siege of Yorktown in 1781, and who was accompanied there by his friend the Rev Benjamin Grisdale, a distant relative of our poor Solomon.

Solomon it seems was a poor but good man. His son Joseph fared somewhat better, he was able to study at Emmanuel College, Cambridge and became both a clergyman (curate of Wattlefield) and headmaster of King Edward’s Free Grammar School in Wymondham, Norfolk. He died aged 88 in 1893.


See comments below for the solution regarding who Solomon was.

  1. Barbara Warnes says:

    Riding to heaven on Solomon Grisdale’s cow……
    Solomon Grisdale (of cow fame!) was my husband’s 4xGt Grandfather (I think that’s the right number of greats).
    The story of the cow keeps cropping up and irritates me greatly as I cannot put a date to it. Most of the publications are at least 30 years after Solomon’s death and the careers of the participants are very little help. I suppose I should be grateful to be able to pin it down to a few years. The “numerous family” has caused me concern as I didn’t consider 5 excessive for the time (also John b 1812 died 1816 age 3 – the burial was one of the rare occasions that the vicar turned out). I wondered if he’d had a previous marriage with further children but his marriage when I found it suggests otherwise. Solomon Grisdale bachelor aged 37 and Mary Earl spinster aged 30 were married 16 June 1803 at Lamesley in Co Durham by licence. Lamesley does not appear to have any connection to the families at this point. At this time, Solomon was already curate at Merrington so one may wonder why the marriage was not held in his parish. When we consider the date – 16 June 1803 and the date of daughter Mary’s birth – 20 Dec 1803, we may have an answer.
    Solomon had previously been curate of Rothbury in Northumberland and when I looked at the parish records to check the dates, I came across his predecessor’s burial. Jonathan Earl buried Jan 1801 aged 45. I believe he was Mary’s half brother. I have various pieces of evidence for anyone interested. This could be how Solomon and Mary met. Perhaps Mary was housekeeper for Jonathan and stayed on.
    My next information of interest comes from “The History of the Urban District of Spennymoor” by James J Dodd (originally published 1897). This relates the story of the cow and continues “Solomon Grisedale (sic) appears to have been pursued by his unfortunate destiny right up to the end of his days. He finished by committing suicide, and the stains of his blood can still be discerned on the floor of the old vicarage at Merrington.” The old vicarage appears to have gone so I can’t ask to inspect the floors! It now looks like the church “closed ranks” and kept it under wraps because there is a burial record. At some point, I must go and look at the actual records as the BTs from Family Search are confusing with a note in the margin. “The entry No 140 Page 18 of the Burial of Solomon Grisdale which is dated on the 18th of Nov 1818 and in which the ceremony is stated to have been performed by Patrick George Vicar is found to be erroneous in these two ???? and is added this 25th of April 1820 which an ????? made according to the act of Parliament. ??????, Decr 18th 1818 the true date of the burial and the ceremony performed by Robert Thompson Off??????.” Doesn’t this sound dodgy?? Robert Thompson (I think) was curate of a neighbouring parish. Surely, if Solomon had died a natural death the vicar would have buried him. Then there’s the issue with the date. December would appear to be right as the Durham County Advertiser Sat Dec 19 1818 said he’d died the previous Tuesday but gives no more details.
    Solomon was “very poor” but there was some money somewhere or some benefactors. Mary (daughter) lived in Durham and at times seems to have been of independent means. Joseph went to Cambridge – someone must have paid for that and his education previously. Ann became a schoolteacher in London. Of Jonathan, I can find no trace either alive or dead.
    I know a lot about Joseph’s career. He had his fair share of misfortune and the Grisdale name in this branch died with him as he only had surviving daughters.
    In the Kirk Merrington records, Solomon describes himself as a native of Patterdale. We have trawled the Patterdale records and been unable to find him.

  2. Stephen Lewis says:

    I think finally the mystery of the family of Solomon and his cow can be solved:

    Solomon the son of Joseph Grisdale of Dockray (and Janet Martin) married Ann Bewsher at Barton (the principle church for Patterdale) in 1747. They lived initially in Patterdale and had the following children christened there:- Joseph 1749 ( Christened in Barton Church), Ann 1749, Elizabeth 1754, John 1756, Jane 1759, Agnes 1762 and a son 1764. They subsequently moved to Swinside in Matterdale. Solomon died there in 1799 aged 82. In his Will he referred to his surviving children, Ann, the wife of Daniel Thwaites (married 1791), Joseph, Jane, the wife of Thomas Graves, Agnes and Solomon. It would appear that Solomon may have been the unnnamed 1764 son. It might be worth checking the original registers for 1756 and 1764. The Will calls Solomon, junior, a ‘Clerk’. This is obviously a Clerk in Holy Orders and in my opinion is decisive. The age of of 37 mentioned at his marriage in 1803 ties in (approximately) with the unnamed son’s christening at Patterdale in 1764. I conclude, therefore, that he became Curate at Church Merrington. Joseph (son of Solomon, senior) married Mary Mounsey in 1790. They lived at Swinside. Their eldest son, Solomon, was born in 1796. He had five children and died at Dockray in 1866.

    Some have the unnamed son of 1764 as Simeon, but this is obviously wrong. Maybe there was a visible S?

    Thanks to Maurice Cole

  3. Stephen Lewis says:

    I checked the original registers and indeed the 1764 birth says ‘son of Solomon Grisdale’. So this is definitely in my view Solomon of Cow fame

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