John Overs, the Ferryman—His reputed Parsimony and Avarice—The Miser's Pretty Daughter—Romantic Tale of her Love Adventures—Black Puddings and provender for the Kitchen—His stratagem to save a Meal—He feigns Death; his Servants' rejoicings thereupon—Its Fatal Results—His Burial—Mary Overs and her Lover—Her Misfortunes—Her Retirement from the World, and her Foundation of St. Mary Overs, Southwark.
JOHN OVERS was a miser, living in the old days when Popery flourished, and friars abounded in England. Some of his vices and eccentricities have been chronicled in a little tract of great rarity, entitled "The True History of the Life and Death of John Overs, and of his Daughter Mary, who caused the Church of St. Mary Overs to be Built." But in giving the particulars of his life, we do not vouch for their authenticity: the tract resembles too strongly a chap book to bear the marks of honest truth; yet the anecdotes are amusing, and the tradition of the miser's pretty daughter reads somewhat romantic.
John Overs was a Southwark ferryman, and he obtained, by paying an annual sum to the city authorities, a monopoly in the trade of conveying passengers across the river. He soon grew rich, and became the master of numerous servants and apprentices. From his first increase of wealth, he put his money out to use on such profitable terms, that he rapidly amassed a fortune almost equal to that of the first nobleman in the land; yet, notwithstanding this speedy accumulation of wealth, in his habits, housekeeping, and expenses, he bore the appearance of the most abject poverty, and was so eager after gain, that even in his old age, and when his body had become weak by unnecessary deprivations, he would labour incessantly, and allow himself no rest or repose. This most miserly wretch it is said, had a daughter, remarkable both for her piety and beauty; the old man, in spits of his parsimonious habits, retained some affection for his child, and bestowed upon her a somewhat liberal education.
Mary Overs had no sympathy with the avarice and selfishness of her parent: she grew up endowed with amiability, and with a true maiden's heart to love. As she approached womanhood, her dazzling charms attracted numerous suiters; but the miser refused all matrimonial offers, and even declined to negotiate the matter on any terms, although some of wealth and rank were willing to wed with the ferryman's daughter. Mary was kept a close prisoner, and forbidden to bestow her smiles upon any of her admirers, nor were any allowed to speak with her; but love and nature will conquer bolts and bars, as well as fear; and one of her suitors took the opportunity, whilst the miser was busy picking up his penny fares, to get admitted to her company. The first interview pleased well; another was granted and arranged, which pleased still better; and a third ended in a mutual plighting of their troths. During all these transactions at home, the silly old ferryman was still busy with his avocation, not dreaming but that things were as secure on land, as they were on water.
John Overs was of a disposition so wretched and miserly, that he even begrudged his servants their necessary food. He used to buy black puddings, which were then sold in London at a penny a yard; and whenever he gave them their allowance, he used to say, "There, you hungry dogs, you will undo me with eating." He would scarcely allow a neighbour to obtain a light from his candle, lest he should in some way impoverish him by taking some of its light. He used to go to market to search for bargains: he bought the siftings of the coarsest meal, looked out eagerly for marrow-bones that could be purchased for a trifle, and scrupled not to convert them into soup if they were mouldy. He bought the stalest bread, and he used to cut it into slices, "that, taking the air, it might become the harder to be eaten." Sometimes he would buy meat so tainted, that even his dog would refuse it; upon which occasions, he used to say that it was a dainty cur, and better fed than taught, and then eat it himself. He needed no cats, for all the rats and mice voluntarily left his house, as nothing was cast aside from which they could obtain a picking.
It is said that this sordid old man resorted, one day, to a most singular stratagem, for the purpose of saving a day's provision in his establishment. He counterfeited illness, and pretended to die; he compelled his daughter to assist in the deception, much against her inclination. Overs imagined, that like good Catholics, his servants would not be so unnatural as to partake of food whilst his body was above ground, but would lament his loss, and observe a rigid fast; when the day was over, he intended to feign a sudden recovery. He was laid out as dead, and wrapt in a sheet; a candle was placed at his head, in accordance with the Popish custom of the age. His apprentices were informed of their master's death; but, instead of manifesting grief, they gave vent to the most unbounded joy; hoping, at last, to be released from their hard and penurious servitude. They hastened to satisfy themselves of the truth of this joyful news, and seeing him laid out as dead, could not even restrain their feelings in the presence of death, but actually danced and skipped around the corpse; tears or lamentations they had none; and as to fasting, an empty belly admits of no delay. In the ebullition of their joy, one ran into the kitchen, and breaking open the cupboard, brought out the bread; another ran for the cheese, and brought it forth in triumph; and a third drew a flagon of ale. They all sat down in high glee, congratulating and rejoicing among themselves, at having been so unexpectedly released from their bonds of servitude. Hard as it was, the bread rapidly disappeared; they indulged in huge slices of cheese, even ventured to cast aside the parings, and to take copious draughts of the miser's ale. The old man lay all this time struck with horror at this awful prodigality, and enraged at their mutinous disrespect: flesh and blood—at least, the flesh and blood of a miser—could endure it no longer; and starting up he caught hold of the funeral taper, determined to chastise them for their waste. One of them seeing the old man struggling in his sheet, and thinking it was the devil or a ghost, and becoming alarmed, caught hold of the butt end of a broken oar, and at one blow struck out his brains! "Thus," says the tradition, "he who thought only to counterfeit death, occasioned it in earnest; and the law acquitted the fellow of the act, as he was the prime cause of his own death." The daughter's lover, hearing of the death of old Overs, hastened up to London with all possible speed; but riding fast, his horse unfortunately threw him, just as he was entering the city, and broke his neck. This, with her father's death, had such an effect on the spirits of Mary Overs, that she was almost frantic, and being troubled with a numerous train of suitors, she resolved to retire into a nunnery, and to devote the whole of her wealth, which was enormous, to purposes of charity and religion. She laid the foundation of "a famous church, which at her own charge was finished, and by her dedicated to the Virgin Mary." This, tradition says, was the origin of St. Mary Overs, Southwark, a name which it received in memory of its beautiful, but unfortunate foundress.
On an old sepulchre, in St. Saviour's church, may be seen to this day, reclining in no very easy posture, the figure of a poor, emaciated, looking being; which rumour has declared to be the figure of John Overs, the ferryman. There is not much to warrant the conclusion, except, perhaps, the similarity which the mind might discover in the stone effigy; and the aspect with which, in idea, we instinctively endow all such objects of penury. The figure looks thin enough for a man who lived on the pickings of stale bones, and musty bread, it must be allowed; and the countenance certainly looks miserly enough for any miser; but then the marble tablet above merely tells the passer by, that the body of one William Emerson lieth there, "who departed out of this life," one day in June, in the year 1575.
The curious little tract, from which we have gleaned many of the above particulars, gives a very different account of the miser's burying-place. On account, it is said, of his usury, extortion, and the general sordidness of his life, he had been excommunicated, and refused Christian burial; but the daughter, by large sums of money, endeavoured to bribe the friars of Bermondsey Abbey, to get him buried. As my lord abbot happened to be away from home, the holy brothers took the money, and buried him within the cloister. The abbot on his return seeing a new grave, inquired who, in his absence, had been buried there; and on being informed, he ordered it to be immediately disinterred, and be laid on the back of an ass; then muttering some benediction, or, perhaps, an anathema, he turned the beast from the abbey gates. "The ass went with a solemn pace, unguided by any, through Kent Street, till it came to St. Thomas-a-Watering, which was then the common execution place; and then shook him off, just under the gallows, where a grave was instantly made, and, without any ceremony he was tumbled in, and covered with earth."