Bringing flowers to a forgotten grave: Celia Holloway (1799-1831)

What is something not-so-secret and somewhat strange that you do that gives you purpose?

For me, it’s bringing flowers to old graves that no one seems to visit anymore. It’s not as random as it might seem. Wherever I live, I seem to get attached to old cemeteries, and in particular churchyards. They bring a sense of calm, and wandering among the tombstones, reading all the epitaphs is kind of like writing a story in my head: I try to figure out who all those people were, what they may have done for a living, what their relationship with their community may have been.

Every once in a while, a tombstone really gets my attention, and I come back to it again and again, wondering about that person’s life and the circumstances of their death.

In the churchyard of old St. Peter’s Church in Preston Village, Brighton, there is a memorial plaque on the western wall. It’s very unassuming, and the contrast between the light-grey letters and the dark-grey slate is so poor that you have to get really close to be able to read what it actually says. Some of the letters have faded over time, making it even more difficult read, unless you get very close. In short, this memorial is very very easy to miss.

Celia Holloway’s memorial plaque in St. Peter’s Church graveyard.

It reads:

Beneath this path are deposited portions of the remains of Celia Holloway, who was brutally murdered. In the Lovers Walk in this parish. In the year of Christ 1831, aged 32 years. “Resting till that day when there shall be no more sin.”

I distinctly remember what I felt when I first came across this plaque, the unadulterated sense of shock that those few words gave rise to. Celia had been close to my age when she was murdered. What did they mean by “portions of the remains”? She must have been dismembered! And all of this had taken place a mere half a mile or so from where I was currently standing, and where her remains had been buried: on Lovers Walk, a dead-end side street that still exists today.

Celia’s age at the time of her death, the geographical proximity of the place where the brutal event had taken place – all of these lent a sense of fresh horror to this murder that had been committed approximately 190 years before.

Celia stayed on my mind, and I kept visiting her grave each time I visited old St. Peter’s. I didn’t find out the details of her murder until later, when one of the volunteers looking after the church shared her history with me.

Some online searches revealed that she was born Celia Bashford in 1799 in Ardingly, West Sussex. In the 1820s, when she was in her early 20s, Celia started working in service in Brighton. It was around this time that she met John Holloway at the racecourse, a popular landmark in Brighton, which had been around at least since the late 18th century.

Though John appears to have been known for his petty criminal enterprises, Celia must have found him rather charming, and fell in love with him. The two started going out, and in 1925 Celia became pregnant with his child. John, however, appears to have had little regard for her and he refused to marry her. Unmarried and with child, Celia returned to her parents’ home and applied to the local parish for “poor relief” – essentially, a form of financial support. She also named John Holloway as the father of her yet-unborn child, which led to authorities sending him to Lewes prison until he would agree to marry her. John spent five weeks in prison before finally agreeing to marry Celia.

The two returned to Brighton, where Celia had their child. The baby, however, was stillborn. After a while, Celia became pregnant again – with a baby girl, who also did not survive. Later reports suggest that, at this time, John was treating his wife very poorly, drinking constantly, and becoming more and more violent towards her.

John spent some time at sea, in the Naval Blockade Service, during which time he met another woman, Ann Kennett. He illegally married Ann while also remaining married to Celia, and in the summer of 1831 it transpired that both Celia and Ann were pregnant by him. Celia demanded that John financially support her through her pregnancy, and the authorities ordered her husband to pay her two shillings per week. At this time, however, John was working as a painter on the Chain Pier (long since destroyed), where he only earned about 3 shillings and 6 pence a week.

Unable to pay his dues to his legally wedded wife, John Holloway decided to get rid of Celia, with the help of Ann. One night in July 1831, John met up with Celia somewhere in North Steyne Row (or Donkey Row), where he and Ann strangled her. To dispose of her body, he dismembered her, severing her limbs and head from the torso. He carried these away possibly using a wooden trunk (which concealed them) and a wheelbarrow, according to some eyewitness accounts.

On 13th August 1831, after some heavy rain had washed away part of the freshly-dug grave, a fisherman’s account of an unusual shallow pit on Lovers Walk led to official investigation, which revealed clothes fragments and Celia’s torso. Her head and limbs were later found in a common privy. 

Lovers Walk today. At the time of Celia’s murder, it was a wooded pathway.

The authorities arrested both John Holloway and Ann Kennett under suspicion of foul play. The inquest was held at a local inn, the Crown and Anchor, which still exists (and serves a lovely Sunday roast). John Holloway was found guilty of “wilful murder” and hanged at Horsham Gaol on 16th December 1831. Ann Kennett, however, was acquitted.

The murder, the ensuing trials and John Holloway’s hanging drew a lot of attention, and his testimonies were even collected and published in memoir form. From them, it appears that Celia had had a peculiar build, which may have helped in correctly identifying her body:

In stature she was only four feet three inches, being in reality almost a dwarf, so that when either washing or ironing, she was obliged to be placed on a high stool before she could perform her work. Her head was of an extraordinary size in proportion to the rest of her body, and her hands turned outwards, like the paws of a mole.

While there are sketches of John Holloway and Ann Kennet, I haven’t been able to find any portraits of Celia. Sad to think that all that is known and remembered of her now is the story of her gruesome murder, and perhaps not even that. What a short and painful life she must have led, and what a horrible way to be forced to exit the world.

3 Replies to “Bringing flowers to a forgotten grave: Celia Holloway (1799-1831)”

  1. Fascinating research of a true horror story. I experienced a shock when reading your description of the memorial plaque. You have brought Celia back, in a way, as her story now lives in my memory, too. Great post!

  2. Just been watching ‘Who do you think you are’ with Richard Osman. Apparently one of his ancestors from Brighton initially found the signs of disturbed earth and the remains of Celia Holloway. He was a witness at the inquest. Very interesting.
    The programme was on BBC1 today Thursday 9th June 2022.

  3. The full story is told in Douglas d’Enno’s “Foul Deeds & Suspicious Deaths Around Brighton” published in 2004. Richard Osman’s ancestor is mentioned in the relevant chapter and I wonder if Richard is aware? Fascinating and desperately sad reading, not just because of the murder of Celia but also that of her unborn child.

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