An extract from the parish magazine of September 1898 says of him: “Ben Wangford, as he was generally called, lived about the middle of the last century. I can’t say if he was a native of Watford or if married. But he was buried in St Mary’s churchyard and had a handsome tomb for that period. He was a man of enormous size. It is said that his boots could contain a bushel of corn.
“I have not heard what was placed in the coffin but a fig tree appeared and for years was passed unnoticed by strangers. Now it is very much talked of and people travel for miles to visit the tomb.”
The Book of Watford (compiled and edited by Bob Nunn) mentions a similar story about a lady atheist and states that the tomb was accidentally opened during the lowering of the churchyard in the 19th Century.
Countless burials had taken place around the church without benefit of coffins, with the result that earthwork grew so high the parishioners had to step down some three or four steps to enter the building. This caused considerable dampness and inconvenience.
During the lowering, rows of skeletons were uncovered, which appeared to have been buried side by side, and were probably remains of those who died during times of plague. In 1540, some 47 burials took place between July and September, and there were similar interments in 1592, 1594 and 1625.
In his History of Watford (1884), Henry Williams says: “Under the south wall of St Katherine’s Chapel stands a tomb through which is growing a fig tree that each year exhibits considerable luxuriance and sometimes produces figs. This fig tree has probably grown there for close upon 100 years, as some 15 or 16 years ago I enquired of one of the oldest inhabitants what knowledge he had of its age, and he told me he remembered that, when he was quite a child, it was growing there and apparently as large as now.”
Hundreds visited the churchyard, many making long excursions for the purpose of seeing the tree and, if possible, taking home with them a leaf or small branch.
“By some of the believers in the legend, the tree was looked upon with veneration, as to them it was evidence of the existence of a God that must have come directly from the Almighty against unbelievers.”
However, Mr Williams says that when the tomb was opened it was found that the root of the tree was some four or five feet above where the occupant’s head must have been. He said some tendrils had attached themselves to the bottom of the vault and to this he attributed the luxuriant growth of the fig tree, as these must have obtained much more moisture than those parts of the root that grew from the top of the vault.
For some, the fact the tree did not grow out of the coffin discredited the old legends, while others still held it was strange such a tree should grow out of a tomb at all.
Interestingly the coffin inside the tomb was found to have a projection at the top. This led to the conclusion that the person must have died with his or her knees up and that, after death, the knees could not be straightened.
There is also a theory that the seed of the fig tree could have been accidentally thrown into the tomb by the Honourable William Robert Capel, who was vicar of St Mary’s from 1799 to 1855.
He was very fond of figs and used to grow the trees. As he made his way from the vicarage to the church, entering the latter through the little south door, he would eat the figs and throw the pips away.
The churchyard was taken over by Watford Council some years ago and has been an open space for a long time. Sadly the Fig Tree itself died in 1963 after the infamously long and cold winter though it is thought by some it was helped on its way by local officials who thought it to be in the way.