Poor Sarah Hare died in 1744 at the age of 55 of a commonplace accident. It was said that she “used to sew on a Sunday and as a punishment died from pricking her finger. “ Sarah did indeed die after injuring herself while sewing – from septicemia, or blood poisoning.
Sarah made no extraordinary contributions to this world except one – a wax effigy of herself, the only such mortuary statue of its kind in England outside of Westminster Abbey. (Most mortuary statues at the time were made of marble.) She was the youngest daughter of Sir Thomas Hare of Stow Hall in Stow Bardolph, Norfolk, where the family lived in a Jacobean style red-brick mansion. The Hare family had lived in a house on that site since 1589 and played a significant role in the village of Stow Bardolph. In 1622, Sir Ralph Hare built six almshouses and provided them with 86 acres of land for division among the inmates.
Today we know very little about Sarah Hare’s life except that she never married and was not very pretty. Sarah must also have had a premonition of her death, for she requested the following in a will dated August 1743:
“I desire Six of the poor men in the parish of Stow or Wimbotsham may put me in to the ground they having five shillings a piece for the same. I desire all the poor in the Alms Row may have two shillings and sixpence each person at the Grave before I am put in. This I hope my Executor will see firstly performed before Sunset…..I desire to have my face and hands made in wax with a piece of crimson satin thrown like a garment in a picture hair upon my head and put in a case of Mahogany with a glass before and fix’d up so near the place were my corps lyes as it can be with my name and time of Death put upon the case in any manner most desirable if I do not execute this in my life I desire it may be done after my Death.”
Her wishes were met. During her lifetime or after her death molded impressions were made of her face and hands, which were poured in wax. She was buried in the Hare mausoleum in Holy Trinity church. One can only imagine the solemn procession which carried this spinster to her grave. Surrounding her closed mahogany cabinet , which is situated in a corner of the vault, are memorials to the Hare family, dating from the 17th-20th centuries.
Her cabinet is plain. A bronze plate engraved with the words – “Here lyeth the body of Sarah Hare…” – its only adornment. Her lifesize effigy has waited for over 250 years behind a pair of mahogany doors for the occasional visitor to find it.
Eye witnesses to the site have described the shock of seeing an uncanny life-like impression of a woman long dead. Only her torso, head and hands are visible. The effigy is dressed in one of Sarah’s gowns and a dark curly wig covers her head. But it is her plain features , warts and realistically painted skin blemishes that the visitor finds the most striking:
“The door to the cabinet is not without reason – she is terrifying, her face dumpy, warted, defiant. I had seen photographs of her in the years since I found her at school, but nothing could prepare me for the frisson of the cabinet door swinging open. I thought of the fairground peepshows that I can just about remember, and I realised that I would have paid for this, too.” – The Cabinet of Sarah Hare
Another eye witness described her reaction:
“I opened the door, and there, staring at me with loppy eyes, was the waxwork of a seriously unattractive woman – literally warts and all. How big does your ego have to be?” Norfolk, Part 1, Things Go Well
One wonders about Sarah’s motive for having this wax effigy made of her, for she must have known that she was no beauty. Each of us seeks immortality in our own way, some through our children, others through good deeds, inventions, or extraordinary talents. Sarah had the monetary means to make sure that her days on this earth would not soon be forgotten.
Time takes its toll on wax effigies, however. Judith Dore and Monica Dance restored Sarah’s effigy in 1987, a procedure they described in an article “The Saving of Sarah Hare.” Their abstract states:
“The wax surface was cleaned with a mild soap to remove dirt; cracking was stopped by lining of the head with an open weave material dipped in molten wax. A thin layer of water colour was then applied to give a more life-like appearance. For the costume, a highly skilled conservationist was required as it was in such bad condition. The cabinet housing the effigy was damaged and rodents had gained access and eaten part of the costume. General condition, cleaning and restoration of the costume is described in a report enclosed with this article. The cabinet was also repaired.”
Sarah Hare’s spirit can rest easy for another couple of centuries, content in the knowledge that her image has been preserved for generations to come.