A Leap-Year Puzzle

Leap-year Grave in Clive Churchyard

Here’s a little mystery.  This gravestone is in Clive Churchyard. I took this photo last night while I was in Clive with the storytelling group Telling Space on our annual Storywalk. (Our regular monthly meetings are at Mythstories Museum in Wem.)

This is the inscription:

SACRED to the Memory of Thomas Green late of Shrewsbury who died Febuary 29th 1835 Aged 49 Years

Okay, the engraver left a letter out of February, but dodgy spelling is not that rare on an old headstone. And even though it’s the least likely date in the calendar, some people do die on the 29th of February every leap year.

But hang on, 1835? That wasn’t a leap year — the year’s not divisible by four.

Dez Quarrell told us the local tale about this stone. According to village tradition, this man was born on the 29th of February, in a leap year, and being close to the point of death on the 28th of February was determined to hang on long enough to manage to die on it too. And, also according ot the story, he didn’t quite live long enough. He died very late on the 28th, but his friends made sure the 29th was put on his gravestone, because he’d so nearly made it.

A nice little story. But if he died at 49 in 1835, he wasn’t born in a leap year either. Of course, there’s an old country custom of adding a year once you’ve had a birthday, so after your 48th birthday you would say you were in your 49th year. So he could have been 48 by the usual modern reckoning.

If he’s 49 in 1835, he is born in 1786. If he’s 48 he’s born in 1787 — neither of them leap years any more than 1835 is. That’s not getting us anywhere. Let’s look for another explanation. Perhaps the simplest is that the stonecarver who couldn’t spell February simply carved the wrong day of the month. But that’s a bit boring, and besides it ruins the story.

I have a theory. I don’t know about you, but one of the most common errors I make with the date is writing last year’s date when it’s early in the new year. Our stonecarver might be like me. First tombstone he’s been asked to make this year, and oops, there goes the old year on it. (Not easy to correct stone carvings, is it? Maybe he hoped people wouldn’t notice until he’d been paid.) And that saves the story: the unfortunate Tom Green is born on the 29th of February in 1788 — a leap year — and (almost) lives until the 29th in 1836. At the start of his 49th year (or his 48th birthday) and, yes 1836 is another leap year. 

After the group picnic and our visit to look at the Leap Year Grave in Clive Churchyard, we walked up Grinshill in the evening sunshine. A gentle hill, which has provided the sandstone for many of Shropshire’s buildings. Plenty of it still left there, with a beautiful view from the top. We enoyed the grand view and shared more stories. There are a few more photos from the Grinshill Storywalk here on Flickr.

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One Response to “A Leap-Year Puzzle”

  1. Maybe there’s no future for dyslexic monumental masons, but there’s obviously a past.

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