St James Garlickhythe, the Wren church standing forlornly by the Upper Thames Street dual-carriageway, is an odd church, and very plain from the outside. Inside however, it is a beautiful building, full of light and mystery.
One of the greatest mysteries of the church is its mummy, Jimmy Garlick. Jimmy has lived all over the church at various points in his non-life; starting in the vaults beneath the church where he was discovered in a state of almost perfect preservation, then moving to a cupboard in the narthex, even behind the organ, where people paid ‘a bob’ to see him. He is a small, wizened character, and for many years it was assumed that due to his size and whippety slender, he was an adolescent boy from the late 17thC.
By the 1850s, Jimmy was an established attraction for both the local parishoners and people who came from other parts of London. For a modest fee, gawkers were taken to his cupboard and could even touch Jimmy if they wanted. There’s a lot of Victorian chat about his eyelashes and side-whiskers and good teeth, but frankly, poor Jim is very naked, and a fine example of petrified manhood, which I’m sure was of at least passing interest to those who paid their fee to have a peep. The woodworm evidence in his special parts is quite alarming.How Jimmy came to be present in the church, as well as his identity, are unknown, but the modern and most likely theory is that he was a sailor who fell sick and died aboard a ship bound for the Thames pool. He was embalmed or pickled on board and brought into the church upon the ship being landed at one of the nearby wharves. After being interred, his preservation and the conditions beneath the church meant his corpse did not degrade.
This arrival by sea also supported the claim that Jimmy was in fact Seagrave Chamberlain, the 16yr old son of a sugar planter, who died on his way from Barbados to London in 1675. However, recent scientific investigations have proved that Jimmy was between 5’7” and 5’8” and weighed a little over ten stone, and that he was older than poor Seagrave, due to strong beard growth (as stubble). He had both ears pierced in life, but nothing remains with the body. A recent radiocarbon sampling of the body placed Jimmy’s lifetime between 1641 and 1804. It is likely Jimmy’s real name will never be discovered, but the church looks after him and it is rumoured that in turn, he looks after it. During the Second World War, a shrouded man was seen walking through the church before air raids by various parishoners. A fireman risked his life during a bombing to ‘rescue’ a pale-robed man who refused to quit the church, and then faded from sight before the fireman’s eyes.
Jimmy now has a fine coffin and is hidden from sight inside the body of the church, his existence as a tourist attraction mercifully ended. Hopefully, it will also end his ghostly ramblings too. Another ghost of St James’s church which cannot be put to rest despite more than one attempt, and has been seen flitting through the congregration for centuries is that of Dick Whittington’s cat. St James Garlickhythe (literally because it sat upon the wharf or hythe where garlic came in from France) is a beautiful little Wren church, and I recommend it to anyone who may have passed it by before. Open Thursdays.