My name is John Wakelin, sexton of Murston church. Like others in this parish, I am a man of the soil; although they are brick-makers and I am a gravedigger. They shovel away at the surface, collecting clay and chalk; I delve deep, disappearing into my own pit, pursued by the sulphurous gasp of brick furnaces.
Most people never give the soil a thought. It’s just the stuff beneath their feet, inert, lifeless. But I have seen its mysteries. The smell of wet clay, the crumbling white chalk that streaks my spade, roots as fine as hair or as thick as fingers, the subtle odours, the variations in colour, the working of earthworms and insects, the fragments of pot and bone, the water that seeps in after a heavy rain.
Nothing rests beneath the surface, not even the dead. I see their crumbling coffins, catch a glimpse of corpses through rotten planks; rings glowing dully on wasted fingers, grave clothes grey and tattered. I do not fear them. They keep me company although, down there, we all observe a discrete silence: they do not talk, I do not whistle.
I know most of the cemetery’s new residents, brick-workers mostly; Moulders, Flatties, Pushies, Sorters, Setters and whole teams of Brick-makers. Their trademark? The Kent Stock brick; yellow, self-firing, cinders mixed with clay. Barges bring us London’s ashes and we send back bricks to build homes and hospitals, bridges and viaducts. Half of London is built with Kentish soil.
I am both gravedigger and night-soil man. By day, I lay the dead to rest; by night, I rouse the living with the rattle of my buckets. Graveyard earth smells sweet compared to the stink of excrement. Soil and shit. I shovel both.
I am John Wakelin, disposer of human waste. Bad luck, bad smells. Few want to shake my hand. To quote the Bible, I am a man acquainted with grief, despised and rejected of men. I follow humbly in the footsteps of another; His suffering, my consolation.
Photograph: Traditional tools and materials used in brick-making. Courtesy of Sittingbourne Heritage Museum