Esther Hammerton

An etching of Esther Hammerton

Esther, or Hester, as she is sometimes referred to, was born in 1711, and baptised on the 16th March of that year in All Saints Church, where her father Abraham was working as the sexton. 

Sextons were responsible for the maintenance of the church, including digging graves, and Esther’s father seems to have involved his whole family in this particular duty. That is exactly what Esther, her father, her brother, and another man were doing on an evening in late February 1730, when her father dug too close to the pillars of St. Mary’s Chapel, which collapsed on top of them. Esther’s father was instantly killed, as was the other man, but she and her brother, though buried in the rubble for seven hours, were ultimately rescued and survived. 

Esther took the role of Sexton at All Saints Church over from her mother in 1742, after her mother’s death. Esther’s father initially took over as sexton after Mary Gardiner, the previous Sexton died. She was described as being unnaturally strong for a woman, but that is mainly because she was made to do heavy labour from an early age, including digging graves and ringing church bells. Her parents appear to have frequently taken advantage of Esther, making her do things that were technically their own jobs. 

Esther was described as wearing “mannish” clothes, which is how she chose to be depicted in portraits made in her lifetime, but this was mainly for practical reasons. After the accident, she could no longer wear stays because of injuries to her stomach, so her normal working outfit was a man’s waistcoat, hat, and neckerchief worn over a loose gown, however, she did dress up in styles more commonly seen worn by women on Sundays to attend church. 

She was described in a book called Kirby’s Wonderful Scientific and Eccentric Museum, published in 1820, as a “strong robust lusty woman, of a comely countenance and good complexion.” By all accounts Esther seems to have been remarkable. Esther was also known for single-handedly preventing two robbers stealing from the church by throwing one of them over a pew, which gained her a degree of fame. She died in 1746 at the age of only 35, possibly from long-term injuries sustained during the collapse of the chapel.