IN ATTEMPTING to write anything about Jane Squibb, or Little Jane as she is more usually known, it is first necessary to mention the man without whom her story would not have been possible in the first place. and would certainly never have been set down.

That man was Legh Richmond, who in the summer of 1797 came to the little parish of Brading and Yaverland as its deacon. He was then a young man in his early twenties, and full of new ideas which he hoped to bring into use for the benefit of the people of the parish. A year later, after he had become estab­lished he was made the priest in charge. It was shortly afterwards that it occurred to him that some of the younger members of his flock were not as fully conversant with the teachings of the Church as he would like, so he at once set about arranging a small school for them, which was conveniently held on Saturday after­noons, in the garden of his house, next to the Church. It was as a member of these weekly meetings that Jane first came to his attention. She was then twelve years old and at first he took little notice of the child who did not appear to be any different from the others, although she listened readily enough to the stories he told them.

Legh Richmond was an ardent naturalist. He saw in the natural world around him the best possible opportunity of bringing out the points he wished to make. It was during one of these Saturday teachings that Jane first made her special interest in the work he was doing known to him. He had set the children to go into different parts of the churchyard ind each to learn by heart one of the epitaphs, which were then usually quite a long verse, expressing sentiments which it was thought desirable for children to learn. Little Jane returned in due course with the others, but to Richmond’s sur­prise, she had memorised two verses on adjacent stones, instead of the one that was required. Her reason for doing so astounded and delighted him. She told him that she had thought the second verse particularly meaningful, and had learnt it by heart for the good of her soul. Her unexpected understanding of the work he was trying to do led Richmond to take an increasing interest in the child during the next few weeks.

Then, quite suddenly, for several of the Saturday meetings, she was absent from the little group in the garden. Upon enquiring after her, Richmond learnt from a neighbour that Jane had taken to her bed, that she was suffering from tuberculosis and was not expected to live long. The neighbour also passed on to him Jane’s urgent request that he should, if he could spare the time, come to visit her. This he did a few days later, to find her alone in the house, in bed in her damp and crumbling room upstairs. Large pieces of the wall had broken away and what remained of the window was covered with paper. Richmond knew of the poor financial situation of Jane’s family and was not surprised to find such disorder but the change he saw in Jane herself startled him. Her normally healthy appearance was gone, its place taken by a grey pallid face and a sharp dry cough which shook her violently from time to time. Jane however was glad to see him, and at once began to pour out to him her thoughts and feelings about Christianity and the things he had taught her. As on the previous occasion he was amazed at her understanding and the clarity of her thoughts on the subject of religion.

This was to be just the first of many visits that Legh Richmond was to make to Jane. At first her parents strongly disapproved of their daughter’s new in­terest. They themselves had no time for Jane’s deep concern for the state of her soul which they presumed to be based on her knowledge that her own death could not be far off. She continued however to rise in Richmond’s estimation. With every visit she seemed more pious, more gen­uinely affected by the religious convic­tions she now held so deeply, and, under his guidance, she tried to prepare herself for what was to come. But she was deeply troubled by her family’s complete dis­regard for the things she had come to find so important, and her most urgent desire was for them to be converted to the philosophy she now followed.

It was in the early dawn of a late summer morning that Richmond received a message to call on Jane for the last time. It was not unexpected and he lost no time in taking his usual way to her cottage, trying as he did so to compose his thoughts. As he climbed the stairs he found the family altogether for the first time. In between bouts of unconscious­ness, Jane was talking to them, and far from showing their previous indifference, they seemed deeply affected by what she said. Just before she died they accepted her faith. As the sun came up, Jane spoke to them each in turn, thanking them, and saying goodbye.

As he left and began the walk home, Richmond felt that an important episode in his life had in a way reached a satisfactory conclusion. Jane’s life had been a short one; but she had been a real influence for good in the small commu­nity in which she had lived. He deter­mined that her story should not be forgotten, and included it in his ‘Annals of the Poor’ published some years later, and again recently. Little Jane’s cottage can still be seen at Brading and her tombstone stands in the churchyard that was once her first inspiration.

From Wight Life April/May 1972

Brading page

23 September 2007