Symbol of the month – The Good Samaritan

A Closer view of the Good Samaritan image. ©Carole Tyrrell
The row of tombstones along the wall of St Margaret’s Church, Rochester. ©Carole Tyrrell

The tombstones in St Margaret’s churchyard, Rochester are arranged like teeth along one wall. It faces out onto the Medway and, if you’ve got the strength, to look over there’s also a steep slope beneath. But it was here that I found the Good Samaritan headstone.  Never underestimate the power of a lovely sunny day to really bring out the beauty of a good carving.

A man is depicted on it, lying half naked being comforted by another man while a horse, presumably the victim’s, stands nearby.  In the distance two figures, presumably men, walk away with their backs to the scene.  It’s a well carved little picture and  I immediately thought of Parable of the Good Samaritan.

The epitaph beneath the carving. ©Carole Tyrrell

I am indebted to the Kent Archaeological; Society for the transcript of the epitaph. .  Even at 400% magnification, all I could make out was


….this life…



It actually reads:

(In memory of)

Catherine Wife of Will Bromley

Departed this life

The ( ) Feb 1777

aged 33 years

Also Six Children

Will Bromley

departed this life

( ) June 1783 aged 41 years

Also William Gerrad Bromley died

the 30th of January 180(7) aged (36 years)

The Parable of The Good Samaritan comes from the Gospel of Luke, verses 10:25-37 and here is a shortened version taken from the World English Bible:

‘Jesus answered, “A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who both stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. By chance a certain priest was going down that way. When he saw him, he passed by on the other side. In the same way a Levite also, when he came to the place, and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he travelled, came where he was. When he saw him, he was moved with compassion, came to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. He set him on his own animal, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, gave them to the host, and said to him, ‘Take care of him. Whatever you spend beyond that, I will repay you when I return.’ Now which of these three do you think seemed to be a neighbor to him who fell among the robbers?”’

He said, “He who showed mercy on him.”

Then Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

The Samaritan who stopped to help is described as Good but in reality Jews and Samaritans hated each other. They were known to destroy each other’s temples but few people have heard of the Samaritans nowadays. According to Wikipedia, the parable is now:

…….often recast in a more modern setting where the people are ones in equivalent social groups known not to interact comfortably. Thus, cast appropriately, the parable regains its message to modern listeners: namely, that an individual of a social group they disapprove of can exhibit moral behaviour that is superior to individuals of the groups they approve.’

At the time in which the Parable is set, the Jerusalem to Jericho road was known as ‘The Way of Blood’ due to the amount of blood that was spilt on it from attacks on travellers by robbers.  It was extremely dangerous.  In fact Martin Luther King Jr in his ‘I’ve been to the Mountaintop’ speech given the day before his death, had more sympathy for the Levite and priest who ignored the victim and went on with their journeys. He described the road as:

‘As soon as we got on that road I said to my wife, “I can see why Jesus used this as the setting for his parable.” It’s a winding, meandering road … In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the “Bloody Pass.” And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking, and he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’’]


The old road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Shared under Wiki Commons

There are several other interpretations of the Good Samaritan parable and if you are interested you can find them here:

The phrase ‘Good Samaritan’ has become part of modern language and denotes someone who helps a stranger. There are several worldwide hospitals named after him and it has inspired art, fiction, photography and sculpture amongst others.   This is a 17th century painting from 1647

Bathasar van Cortbernde The Good Samaritan (1647) Shared under Wiki Commons

and here is a modern sculpture from Nova Scotia.

Monument to William Bruce Almon by Samuel Nixon St Paul’s Church Nova Scotia 2019 Shared under Wiki Commons

However, the only images that I could find that resembled the headstone carving were from 19th century bibles which were much later than the carving on the headstone. This is taken from the 1875 Children’s Picture Bible Book.

This image come from the Children’s Picture Bible Book 1875. Shared under Wiki Commons

So was the wife or the husband buried in St Margaret’s churchyard the Good Samaritan or was the image chosen to remind the viewer to be one to their fellow men?  We may never know.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated

References and further reading:


Wildlife in cemeteries – the dark side of the snowdrop

It’s snowdrop time again and already they are beginning to put out their heads and make passers by feel that Spring is finally on its way. But there’s more to snowdrops than their pristine white colour.

February 2 was Candlemass and it seemed appropriate to revisit an older post featuring one of the first, and perhaps one of the most symbolic, flowers to appear in the New Year….

Snowdrops in St George’s churchyard, Beckenham. ©Carole Tyrrell

Imagine yourself in a gloomy medieval church on the festival of Candlemass. You, and your fellow parishioners, have each brought your candles to be blessed by the priest and, after the procession which will fill the church with light, they will all be placed in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary.   Candlemass marked the end of winter and the beginning of Spring and the blessing is to ward off evil spirits.  It traditionally falls on February 2 and is shared with the Celtic festival of Imbolc.  And in the churchyard outside you can see green shoots forcing their way up through the hard winter earth.  The snowdrop’s milk-white flowers show that spring is on its way as they begin to emerge into the light.

The placing of the lit candles in front of the Virgin Mary’s statue gave the snowdrop one of its many other names – Mary’s Tapers.  But there are many others such: Dingle Dangle, Candlemas Bells, Fair Maids of February, Snow Piercer, Death’s Flower and Corpse Flower.

Snowdrops, Brompton Cemetery, January 2018 ©Carole Tyrrell

The snowdrop’s appearance has also inspired many comments . According to the Scottish Wildlife Trusts website they have been described as resembling 3 drops of milk hanging from a stem and they are also associated with the ear drop which is an old fashioned ear ring.  Anyone who has seen a group of snowdrops nodding in the wind will understand what they mean.   The snowdrop’s colour is associated with purity and they have been described as a shy flower with their drooping flowers.  However, the eco enchantments website reveals that the flower is designed in this way due:

‘to the necessity of their dusty pollen being kept dry and sweet in order to attract the few insects flying in winter.’

Snowdrops have been known since ancient times and, in 1597, appeared in Geralde’s ‘Great Herbal where they were called by the less than catchy name of ‘Timely Flowers Bulbous Violets’.  Its Latin name is Galanthus nivalis.  Galanthus means milk white flowers and the nivalis element translates as snowy according to the great botanist, Linnaeus in 1753.   In the language of flowers they’re associated with ‘Hope’ and the coming of spring and life reawakening.

However, yet despite all these positive associations, the elegant snowdrop has a much darker side. Monks were reputed to have brought them to the UK but it was the ever enthusiastic Victorians who copiously planted them in graveyards, churchyards and cemeteries which then linked them with death.  Hence the nickname name ‘Death’s Flower.’

They were described by Margaret Baker in the 1903 ‘Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore and the Occult of the World’ as:

‘so much like a corpse in a shroud that in some counties  the people will not have it in the house, lest they bring in death.‘

So that’s where the ‘Corpse Flower’ nickname came from.

Snowdrops, St George’s Beckenham. ©Carole Tyrrell

Snowdrops are also seen as Death’s Tokens and there are several regional folk traditions of connecting death with them. For example in the 19th and early 20th centuries it was considered very unlucky to bring the flower into the house from outside as it was felt that a death would soon occur.  The most unlucky snowdrop was that with a single bloom on its stem.    Other folk traditions were described in a 1913 folklore handbook which claims that if a snowdrop was brought indoors it will make the cows milk watery and affect the colour of the butter.  Even as late as 1969 in ‘The Folklore of Plants’  it was stated that having a snowdrop indoors could affect the number of eggs that a sitting chicken might hatch.  A very powerful plant if these are all to be believed – you have been warned!

It’s amazing that this little flower has so many associations and legends connected with it but I always see it as a harbinger of spring, rebirth and an indication of warmer days to come.

But the snowdrop also has a surprise.  This came courtesy of the Urban Countryman page on Facebook – not all social media is time wasting!  If you very gently turn over a snowdrop bloom you will find that the underside is even prettier and they also vary depending on the snowdrop variety.

Here is a small selection from my local churchyard and one from Kensal Green cemetery.

So don’t underestimate the snowdrop – it’s a plant associated with life and death but watch out for your hens and the colour of your butter if you do decide to tempt fate…..

©Carole Tyrrell text and photos unless otherwise stated


Faith, Hope and Love – The Queen Alexandra memorial, Marlborough Road, London Part 2

Queen Alexandra’s memorial ©Carole Tyrrell

The memorial is set into the garden wall of Marlborough House which had been Queen Alexandra’s London home and was sculpted in bronze by Alfred Gilbert who also designed the Eros monument in London’s Piccadilly.  Alix’s memorial was his last great work and he worked on it during 1926-1932. It was his biographer who brought him back to England after his scandalous flight to Bruges with creditors chasing after him. He had left the tomb of Alix’s son, the Duke of Clarence, unfinished after going wildly over budget. It’s in Prince Albert’s Chapel near St George’s Chapel in Windsor. The tomb was also in the Art Nouveau style and is wildly extravagant. The Duke lies on top of the tomb dressed in a Hussar uniform while above him a kneeling angel bends over him to place a crown upon his head. Alix never fully recovered from his death and kept the room in which he had died as a shrine. So Gilbert was an obvious choice for Alix’s memorial despite Edward loathing him.  After 20 years of silence, it was presumed that Gilbert was dead.  However, he had been living in Rome on a Civil List pension. But, despite his antipathy to Gilbert, Edward knighted him and made the Royal Academy re-admit him. And, finally, the missing figures in the Duke’s tomb were completed.

Alfred Gilbert by Frederick Hollyer 1887. Shared under Wiki Commons

Arthur Sanderson, drawing of the tomb of the Duke of Clarence, Prince Albert’s Chapel, near St George’s Chapel, Windsor. from Pinterest.

Queen Alexandra’s memorial has been adapted from Perpendicular Gothic architecture with 3 buttressed and pinnacled canopies over the 4 allegorical figures and linenfold motifs on the screen behind them.  On either side of the central figure there are 2 more smaller figures; one holds a cross and represents Religion and the other has no attribute. The two pillars on either side of the figures have lamps in them at the top and I imagine the effect must be quite ghostly and mysterious at night.

The figure called ‘Religion’ ©Carole Tyrrell

The unattributed figure ©Carole Tyrrell

Faith ©Carole Tyrrell

Hope ©Carole Tyrrell

Love Enthroned ©Carole Tyrrell

I think it’s a Marmite statue in that you either love it or loathe it and, admittedly, it’s not for everyone. The four figures, all female, remind me almost of a Pieta as they surround a young girl whose arms are in the shape of a cross. I am indebted to the Victorian Web who quote Richard Dorment’s comments on the composition:

The four figures, all female, two of whom appear to be asleep, and three are crowned. In the central group, the crowned woman behind the young girl represents ‘Love Enthroned’ and she is supported by Faith and Hope on either side of her.  She is directing a young girl on the cusp of womanhood setting out across the river of Life which springs from beneath her throne.  This represented Alix’s charity to children and her coming to Great Britain across the water from Denmark.  

The three crowned women are bowing and ministering to the young girl and the central figure draws out the child’s limp arms to form a cross.’ The Victorian Web, Richard Dorment

Dorment then goes onto compare elements of the memorial’s composition to the depiction of the Lamentation which is:

‘where three women who either attend the prostrate Virgin Mary at the foot of the cross, or mourn over the body of the dead Christ at the Crucifixion.’

He also adds that:  

‘Now we come to the girl whom he positions between the legs of the figure of Charity. In Renaissance painting the placement of an infant or adult between its parent’s knees symbolises parturition and therefore descent from the preceding generation: the placement of the child in the Alexandra monument implies that she is born from a Trinity of Faith, Hope and Charity and that the Queen, who possessed, all these virtues, has passed them on to a younger generation of women’

The Victorian Web, Richard Dorment

I think that it’s an interesting interpretation and I haven’t found any others with different meanings.

The memorial was described at its unveiling in 1932 as having ‘

‘A ghostly, neo Gothic appearance’


‘inspected from across the road, it was of great bronze doors to an Italian cathedral’

On the bronze base are the words:

‘a tribute of the Empire’s love 1925.’


 ‘Faith, Hope and Love. The Guiding Virtues of Queen Alexandra

is inscribed on the granite base. and the memorial. in its enigmatic way, is a representation of it.  When I visited a cut rose and a bunch of roses lay on top of it, presumably in tribute.

Inscription to Queen Alexandra ©Carole Tyrrell

Survey of London – Whitechapel Volume New Royal London Hospital. Statue to Her Majesty Queen Alexandra.

There is a more conventional statue of Alix in the grounds of the London Hospital in Whitechapel. She was its President, was keenly involved in its work and was reputed to have visited the Elephant Man while he was a patient there.  In 1904 she introduced the Finsen light cure for Lupus to England and presented the first lamp to the hospital. The statue was erected by the Friends in 1908. But I know which one I prefer. 

Queen Alexandra memorial ©Carole Tyrrell

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.

References and further reading:

Alexandra Rose – Our mission is to give families access to fresh fruit and vegetables in their communities (info on children etc)  -the Alexandra rose  words to Ode written by John Masefield music by Elgar Alexandra Park Hastings – details of opening statue of Alexandra in Whitechapel within the ground sof the London Hospital useful quote

Queen Alexandra – SW1 : London Remembers, Aiming to capture all memorials in London

Caroline’s Miscellany: The guiding virtues of Queen Alexandra (

Queen Alexandra Memorial – Marlborough Road, London, UK – Figurative Public Sculpture on  

Alfred Gilbert – Wikipedia

Faith, Hope and Love – The Queen Alexandra memorial, Marlborough Road, London Part 1

The Queen Alexendra memorial ©Carole Tyrrell

People pass by Queen Alexandra’s memorial every day on their way to and from the Mall.  It’s set back from the road in an alcove and is a rippling Art Nouveau composition, if bronze can be said to ripple.  I am indebted to the Tea and Morphine facebook page for featuring it and as soon as I saw it and found its location I knew I had to go and see it.  I love Art Nouveau and there was an air of mystery to the sculpture.  Who were the figures?  Who was Queen Alexandra? The memorial is very close to the royal monument section of the Mall and, on my way, I passed tourists busily snapping away at memorials of George VI and the Queen Mother as well as walking along the Diana, Princess of Wales, memorial walk. Buckingham Palace is only a short walk away.

But this particular monument is to a Queen who lives on in the many, many memorials to her in every road, avenue, street, park, hospital and even another palace high up in the North London hills that have been named after her. There are 67 Alexandra Roads in London alone. This memorial has a tale to tell of a scandalous sculptor who was persuaded back from exile and ignominy to create his last major work to commemorate the longest serving Princess of Wales in history.

Queen Alexandra as the Princess of Wales in 1881 by Alexander Bassano. Shared under Wiki Commons

Christian IX of Denmark with his family in 1862. From left to right Dagmar, Frederick, Valdemar, Christian IX, Queen Louise, Thyra, George and Alexandra. Shared under Wiki Commons

Princess Alexandra Caroline Marie Charlotte Louise Julia (1844-1925) or ‘Alix’ as her family knew her was chosen, aged 16, as the future wife of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, the son and heir of Queen Victoria.  18 months later they married in 1863 and were crowned in 1902 after Queen Victoria’s death. Alix came from Danish royalty as her father was King Christian IX and her brother was appointed King of Greece as George I.  She was Princess of Wales for 38 years from 1863-1901 and was immensely popular. Fashion conscious women copied her dress sense but she had no political power. 

Instead, she worked tirelessly for various causes and founded her own charity, the Alexander Rose, in 1912 which aimed to support Londoners in poverty.   It’s still going today but, since 2014, it has issued Rose vouchers to enable families to access fruit and vegetables. Alix’s great, granddaughter, Princess Alexandra is its patron. I can still remember buying paper roses on stick pins in June in the 1970’s for Alexandra Rose Day and there is still an Alexandra Rose plant. Alix brought the idea of selling paper roses from her native Denmark.

Princess Alexandra Rose from an online seed catalogue.

But Alix’s marriage was not a happy one. Edward was openly unfaithful with several mistresses, one of which was the actress Lily Langtry. The public believed that their marriage was a love match but Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Edward’s parents, had begun looking for a possible wife in 1858 believing that an early marriage would settle a ‘difficult’ son.  The couple had 6 children, one of whom died after a day and the Duke of Clarence, who had been second in line to the throne, died after an influenza pandemic, aged 28.  There were many rumours about the Duke including that he was thought of as a possible suspect for Jack the Ripper. Alix suffered from increasing deafness which was caused by hereditary otosclerosis and died at Sandringham in 1925 aged 81 from a heart attack. Poet John Masefield wrote an ode dedicated to her with music from Sir Edward Elgar called ‘So many true Princesses who have gone’:

So many true princesses who have gone

Over the sea, as love and duty bade,

To share abroad, Till Death a foreign throne,

Have given all things, and been ill repaid.

Hatred has followed them and bitter days.

But this most lovely woman and loved Queen

Filled all the English nation with her praise;

We gather now to keep her memory green.

Here, at this place, she often sat to mark

The tide of London life go roaring by,

The day-long multitude, the lighted dark,

The night-long wheels, the glaring in the sky.

Now here we set memorial of her stay,

That passers-by remember with a thrill:

This lovely princess came from far away

And won our hearts, and lives within them still.

Photo ©Carole Tyrrell

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.

Part 2 – The scandalous sculptor of the memorial, Alfred Gilbert, and the possible meaning of the figures.

Symbol(s) of the Month – A quiver of Arrows and garland of oak leaves

A closer view of the two symbols – the bow and quiver of arrows and the oak leaves. Note the acorn. ©Carole Tyrrell

A country churchyard on a warm, sunny May day can be a peaceful and interesting place to explore. All Saints churchyard in Staplehurst is one of those as it looks down over the village from its hilltop perch.

I have already discussed one of the symbols that I found in there which featured in a an earlier Symbol of the Month. This was ‘The Choice’ which I found in the older part of the churchyard.  After exploring the newer part of the churchyard and seeing ‘nature’s lawnmowers’ aka sheep in the field behind I returned to the older section.  I then discovered this headstone with a combination of two symbols on it.

At first glance you might be forgiven for thinking that this is the grave of a warrior or someone involved in warfare as the combination is formed from a bow, a quiver of arrows and a circlet of oak leaves.  The bow and arrows are a symbol that has been known for centuries and since the earliest times has been associated with hunting and survival.

The headstone is dedicated to Edwin Fitch who died at the fairly young age of 43 on 22 January 1869. The epitaph goes on to state that Edwin left behind a widow and two children; Marianne and Walter William.  There is also another inscription above it that states that the stone was erected as a mark of respect by the Staplehurst Cricket Club.

The epitaph to Edwin Fitch in Staplehurst churchyard. ©Carole Tyrrell

But, as with most symbols, there are other meanings and I am indebted to theartofmourning blog for reminding me of these.   For, although a cricket field can occasionally turn into a polite and gentlemanly battlefield, I was sure that there were softer connotations to the bow and quiver.

The other most obvious interpretation is of Cupid shooting his arrows of love straight to a lover’ s heart. Indeed, he is traditionally portrayed holding a bow with an arrow ready to aim and fire. There are also the famous lines in William Blake’s poem, ‘Jerusalem’:

‘Bring me my bow of burning gold

Bring me my arrows of desire.’

There is also a Biblical link with children. In Psalms 127:3-5 children are described as being:

‘Children are a heritage from the Lord,
offspring a reward from him.
Like arrows in the hands of a warrior
are children born in one’s youth.
Blessed is the man
whose quiver is full of them.

I interpret this to mean that a man’s children will continue his family line and achieve their place in the world.

The oak leaves underneath the quiver and bow are an ancient symbol of strength and the oak was known as the tree of life in pre-Christian times. According to it is believed to have been the tree from which Christ’s cross was made.

Close-up of the acorn featured on the Fitch headstone. ©Carole Tyrrell

Edwin had an untimely death and we don’t know if he, his family or members of the Cricket Club chose the symbols.  But I believe that it was a final message from him to his family that he left behind and that this thoughts were of hope.

There is also a small verse underneath the epitaph:

‘My wife and children dear I bid you all adieu,

By God’s commands I leave this world and you

And trust my friends whom I have left behind

May give you comfort, and to you be kind.’

In this Edwin clearly hopes that his friends will support his family after he has gone. The Fitch family may have been in financial straits with the death of Edwin as the Cricket Club provided the headstone.

I have found out more about Edwin and his family.  He married Maria Wickings on 9 September 1852 and they had three children together.

  • Marianne born in 1853
  • Walter William born in 1855
  • Charles born in 1858

Sadly, Charles appears to have been stillborn or may have died in childbirth as he was born and christened on the same day and is not recorded on Edwin’s epitaph. Marianne followed her father to the grave in 1875 aged just 22.

I have approached the existing Staplehurst Cricket Club for further information on Edwin but the present club has only been in existence since the 1950’s.  They thought that Edwin might have been the very first member but are undertaking further research.  One current member thought that there might have been a private Staplehurst Cricket Club associated with the nearby Iden Manor.

This is now a nursing home but was once the house of the Hoare banking family. There are members of this family buried in the churchyard.  In 1904 they sold the manor due to impending bankruptcy and they were well known in the area for holding cricket and football matches, flower shows and other events for the village.

Finally, I think that this is a poignant combination of symbols that left a powerful and comforting message to his family.  A man whose last thoughts may have been of his family and now lies under the green canopy of the tall trees of Staplehurst churchyard with his beloved daughter.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated

References and further reading:

The Hardy Tree – a London literary landmark finally falls.

New Year’s Day 2023 – a sad sight as the Hardy Tree is gone forever. ©Carole Tyrrell

When in Late December 2022, an ash tree finally fell down in Old St Pancras churchyard in central London, it made headlines around the world. For not only was it one of London’s famous cemetery landmarks, as was Highgate’s famous Cedar of Lebanon, but it was also a place of literary pilgrimage.

This was the Hardy tree, its base surrounded by headstones, some of which had become part of it as it had grown.  The legend was that Thomas Hardy, the novelist, when employed as an architectural assistant, had begun to pack headstones around the trunk. These were the stones that had been cleared to make way for the expansion of the Midland railway in the mid 1860’s.  Jon Snow in ‘The Great Trees of London, 2010 explained:

‘In the 1860’s the writer Thomas Hardy, was apprenticed to an architect, Arthur Blomfield, in Covent Garden.  The building of the Midland Railway had disrupted many of the graves in nearby churchyards.  Hardy was tasked with making an inventory and reburying them. He stacked the headstones around a convenient ash tree. (in St Pancras churchyard).’

At least this is the romantic myth.

The information board by the Hardy Tree. ©Carole Tyrrell

I am indebted to the blog ‘The London Dead’ for its research into the Hardy Tree which explored the legend.  The truth is that there is no evidence that Hardy had anything to do with it.  In fact, the tree wasn’t even there at the time.  It may have self seeded and was less than 100 years old.  In 1926 a photo was published in ‘Wonderful London’ edited by St John Adcock which shows ‘a rockery of headstones’ but without a tree.  So, the tree appears to have been much later.

The London Dead also quoted from a book on Hardy apparently written by his widow, Emily entitled ‘The Early Years of Thomas Hardy’.  In the 1860’s he was employed as an architectural assistant to Arthur Blomfield in Covent Garden.  In this she says that:

‘Hardy was not responsible for overseeing the exhumations.  This was the Clerk of Works role.  Hardy was instructed to drop by Blomfield in the evening to keep an eye on the Clerk of Works and make sure that all was proceeding in an appropriately seemly manner.  He was to report back to  Blomfield if it was not.’

There had been rumours of bodies being exhumed and bags ‘that rattled’ being sold onto bone mills from one city churchyard instead of being reinterred. Blomfield did not want this to happen at Old St Pancras. So Hardy was to visit at uncertain hours to check on the Clerk and Hardy’s manager was also to drop in at uncertain times during the week to check on Hardy and the Clerks. The plan was successful and Hardy attended during 5-6pm as well as at other hours.

The plan succeeded excellently, and throughout the late autumn and early winter (of probably the year 1865 or thereabouts) Hardy attended at the churchyard – each evening between five and six, as well as sometimes at other hours. There after nightfall, within a high hoarding that could not be overlooked, and by the light of flare-lamps, the exhumation went on continuously of the coffins that had been uncovered during the day, new coffins being provided for those that came apart in lifting, and for loose skeletons, and those that held together being carried to the new ground on a board merely: Hardy supervising these mournful processions when present, with what thoughts may be imagined, and Blomfield sometimes meeting him there. In one coffin that fell apart was a skeleton and two skulls. He used to tell that when, after some fifteen years of separation, he met Arthur Blomfield again and their friendship was fully renewed, among the latter’s first words were: ‘Do you remember how we found the man with two heads at St Pancras?’

Thomas Hardy (1840-19280 Shared under Wiki Creative Commons

In 2019, I visited the churchyard and was informed by the tour guide that the Hardy Tree was almost certainly going to fall.  It was infected with a fungus and a protective, temporary fence had been erected around it with a gap in the hedge for visitors to look through.  Iain Sinclair in, ‘Lights Out For the Territory’ described the headstones clustered around it as being:

‘like a school of grey fins circling the massive trunk feeding on the secretions of the dead.’

The tree’s final few years were being managed although it had been disturbed by recent storms at the time. It was an impressive sight with the tall ash tree or Fraximus Excelsior to give it the full Latin name, reaching for the sky.

A view of the Hardy Tree in 2019 with the church in the background. ©Carole Tyrrell
Closer view of the Hardy Tree from 2019 in which you can see how the stones and the tree had grown together. ©Carole Tyrrell

I visited the cemetery on New Year’s Day 2023 and the tree did look forlorn as it lay there. A visitor had placed a cut rose on top of a headstone in sympathy and tribute.  If you look closely at the base of the tree, headstones that had grown into it and had been uprooted with its fall can be seen. 

New Year’s Day 2023 and if you look at the end of the trunk you can see that the tree took some of the headstones embedded in it down with it. ©Carole Tyrrell

©Carole Tyrrell

Although the Hardy Tree seems to have ultimately been an urban myth; it is a tale of London and the great changes that the Industrial Revolution brought.  Someone collected the headstones so that the final record of their lives were not lost or broken up and forgotten.   It’s a record of the endless cycle of change and renewal of the capital as, chameleon like, it sheds its skin and becomes something else.  The tree was also part of literary London as Mary Wollstonecroft is buried in Old St Pancras.

But who knows?  Another tree may self seed itself and the Hardy Tree will be reborn again.

Dedicated to Jeane Trend-Hill, taphophile, Londoner and photographer who would have been the first on the scene with her camera. RIP.

©Text and photographs Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated

References and further reading

The London Dead: The Myth of the Hardy Tree; Old St. Pancras Churchyard

The Guardian view on the death of the Hardy Tree: a legend uprooted | Editorial | The Guardian

The Hardy Tree, a Beloved Fixture of a London Cemetery, Topples Over – The New York Times (

Thomas Hardy: Gravestone-encircled tree falls in Camden – BBC News

A Christmas card from me to you

So here we are again – facing the end of another year and looking perhaps nervously at another new one. Old Father Time waits for us all.

I wish you all the best for 2023 and the festive season. The photo was taken in London’s Brompton Cemetery on a December afternoon after a frost. Some of the monuments were edged with it which made them look even more dramatic.

Let us raise a glass, mug, cup, water bottle to what ever lies ahead. Salut!

©©text and photos Carole Tyrrell

The Cemetery that Changed my Life – Death’s Garden

Angel Nunhead Cemetery 1989 ©Carole Tyrrell

Below is the article that I wrote for Death’s Garden and it has just been reprinted in Death’s Garden 2. I am no longer involved with the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery and have not visited the cemetery since 2017. However, it was by visiting Nunhead that I became involved with cemeteries and churchyards and which led to my interest in symbols. There is something about the wild, Gothic splendour of large Victorian cemeteries that attracts me; the large memorials, the art and sculpture and the space they give you in which to grieve and be alone despite being in the busy metropolis. they have given me so much and I have always tried to give them something in return.

The Cemetery that Changed my Life

It was the long, hot summer of 1989 when I first visited Nunhead Cemetery.  It was their annual Open Day, and I took the opportunity to enjoy its Gothic atmosphere and admire its overgrown, slightly mysterious monuments and memorials. My father had died unexpectedly earlier that year and it had been the first death of someone really close to me.  He’d been cremated and there was no resting place for me, or anyone else, to visit and grieve.

I was already drawn to Victorian cemeteries after reading Hugh Meller’s ‘London Cemeteries’ and Nunhead is one of London’s Magnificent 7.  Lucinda Lambton once described them as ‘a jet black necklace running through London.’  Nunhead was no tidy, municipal, neatly manicured, tombstones in neat rows like teeth, cemetery.  Instead, inside the imposing gates with their bronze downturned torches, was overgrown Gothic splendour; angels under dark canopies of leaves and ivy, the ruined, roofless chapel and a myriad of fascinating monuments, mausoleums and memorials.  I felt that I wanted to be amongst these reminders of the dead and departed and mourn. I was home.

The ruined chapel at that time was closed to the public and classed as a dangerous structure. Little did I know that, 20 years late on another Open Day, I would be watching the Dulwich Ukelele Band performing inside whilst 2 visitors jived on its tower roof roughly 100 feet up. I joined the Friends on that day in 1989 and began working on the monthly FONC publications stall which accompanied the general cemetery tours.  You never knew who would come up to the stall to speak to us.  Often it would be local residents who could remember playing in the cemetery when it was abandoned and locked up by its owners in 1969.  Its railings long gone for the war effort, there was nothing to prevent anyone going in and exploring – I wouldn’t have been able to resist it.  There were always eerie tales of mausoleums being broken into, coffins lying about after having been rifled for jewellery and skeletons as well.   Eventually questions were asked in the Houses of Parliament about what was going on and, as a result, the local council bought it for £1.  But the visitors often said that, although Nunhead felt creepy, it was an amazing place it was inside. 

One man told me that he was a psychic and that he could sense all the departed spirits around him.  He added that he was reassuring them and sending them on their way elsewhere.  He seemed co I’ve often wondered since what it must be like to have that kind of ability and he seemed completely sincere. 

Sometimes visitors would ask about a particular symbol as they couldn’t understand what it was doing in a cemetery.  One asked me why a dollar sign was on a headstone, and this led me onto do research into symbols for any future questions from visitors.  It was in fact the combination of the letters IHS which means ‘Jesus Honimum Salvator’ and led me into a fascination with symbols and their meanings.

In fact, as a result, I created the Symbols tour and so began my career as a tour guide. I shadowed an experienced guide, started taking the general tours and then a specialist Symbols tour.  Originally it was just going to be about symbols, but visitors also wanted the general history of the cemetery and the reasons behind the Magnificent 7’s creation.  I lead a Symbols tour in another of the Magnificent 7 now and it’s still always a little scary when you announce yourself to the gathered group, all eyes turn to you and your mind goes completely blank.   

But visitors are always very keen.  On one very wet Sunday afternoon I kept turning round thinking that the group behind me would all have given up but, no, they kept going right to the end.

Unfortunately, although the Victorians ‘borrowed’ from classical antiquity, Arts & Crafts, Celtic and Egyptian civilisations they didn’t put them in chronological order, so we do have to often zig zag around the cemetery to see as many as possible. I always emphasise on my Symbols tours that they are an introduction to the subject and there are many more to find. Even on modern memorials there is often a symbol, a way of individualising it and in Nunhead there was a 15 year old boy’s grave ornamented with a football and snooker board and the masks of comedy and tragedy on an actor’s grave.

I soon realised the value of visual material to hand round and spent an afternoon in the British Museum researching Nunhead’s largest monument; the John Allan tomb, based on the tomb of Payava in Lycia, near Turkey which is in there and takes up an entire room.

You never know what you might find in a cemetery despite how familiar you are with it.  I was updating my tour notes in winter 2014 and whilst walking along a familiar Nunhead path I looked up to see a small face carved at the centre of a cross which I had never seen before.  In 2013, during a long winter, an unusual anchor shaped tombstone was discovered that commemorated a sailor killed in the First World War although he wasn’t buried in Nunhead. 

I only had one strange experience in the cemetery or rather outside it. One Christmas I was on my way to a FONC Christmas social at a local community centre and, as I passed by the cemetery‘s high walls. Suddenly, I heard children’s voices from inside Nunhead at a particular spot.   I couldn’t  see anyone around and the road was deserted.  The houses opposite were dark and, as it was a cold night, I didn’t think children would be out playing.  I walked on and the voices faded behind me.  Interestingly enough, the voices were near the old, now bricked up entrance to the cemetery that led to the long gone Non-Conformist chapel which was bombed during WW2.  The entrance had to be closed as local children made fun of the non-conformist burials that entered through there.

It was during the winter of 1989, whilst exploring with my posh new film camera, that I took the picture of the angel.  At the time I thought she belonged to the grave on which she’s perched.  But my lady moved around on the path and, although the years weathered, she  is still there.  I used to always go and check on her on my visits.  Unfortunately, the child angel is long gone.  It was on top of a child’s grave dedicated to Albert Anthony Dufourg who was an only child and died aged 5 years and 3 months.  For several years I used the angel as a guide to where I was in the cemetery until one day it vanished – presumably stolen. It was a poignant reminder of unrealised hopes.

I have visited cemeteries in the UK, America, and Venice.  The way in which the dead are treated is often an indication of how the living are treated.  Tears pricked my eyes at Ground Zero and Calton Hill in Edinburgh was certainly the eeriest one I’ve visited.  Then there was the supernatural experience I had in Greyfriars Kirk but that’s another story.  But Nunhead always felt like home. There are no famous people, no royal connections but, instead, a place in which to wander, to reflect, admire the view of St Paul’s Cathedral from the top of the hill as butterflies flutter around you on a warm summer’s day.

But in all the cemeteries that I have visited I have never found the answer to the question of why, when angels are actually male, are the angels in cemeteries reflective young girls?

©Carole Tyrrell text and photograph

Symbol of the Month – the Cadaver tomb

A full length from the feet up of Benet’s cadaver tomb with the modesty cloth. ©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell

I have to admit that I am fascinated by cadaver tombs and it was in December 2018 that I had the opportunity to examine one more closely. Tastes change and people can find them a little disturbing. This example, in St Mary’s Bury St Edmunds was once brightly painted as medieval churches were during this period. We are so used to seeing plain churches that it is hard to imagine the bright colours in which they were originally painted. Traces can still be found in some churches and there is some on this example. Cadaver tombs are intriguing as you never know where you’re going to find one and this one was a complete surprise.

This month’s symbol is a cadaver or pardon tomb from St Mary’s in Bury St Edmunds.  These medieval tombs  were an extremely visual  way of reminding everyone that, despite what you had achieved during life, death would make you equal with all men.

It was as I stood in St Mary’s church, Bury St Edmunds after having admired its magnificent hammerbeam roof with lifesize angels pinned to it like exotic butterflies, that I saw John Benet’s tomb resting against a side wall.

I’d seen two, somewhat worn, cadaver tombs in Winchester Cathedral but not one so close up and so well carved. Even now it’s still crisp and detailed but due to its current location it was difficult to take a full length photo. The tomb depicts John Benet lying on his back as a lifesize corpse with a shroud or towel protecting his modesty.

Although St Mary’s guidebook describes Benet’s tomb as a Pardon tomb, they are more often known as a transi or cadaver tomb.  This definition comes from Wikipedia who describe a transi or cadaver tomb, as a ‘memento mori’.  This is Latin for ‘remember you will die’ and a reminder of the inevitability of death.  Wiki goes onto add that this type of tomb is in the form of:

‘…a type of gisant or recumbent effigy tomb featuring an effigy in the macabre form of a decomposing corpse…’

This type of tomb is particularly associated with the Middle Ages which is roughly when Benet’s tomb was created and I’ve always known them as cadaver tombs. However, they’re not always in the form of a decomposing corpse as they can also be in the form of skeletons or the body of the deceased wrapped in a shroud. I am indebted to the flickeringlamps blog which featured transi tombs in the form of ‘double-deckers’.  This is where the top layer of the tomb portrays the body of the deceased as they were when alive wearing their robes and then below on the bottom layer as a decomposing corpse.  This is an extremely visual reminder of what the person once was and what they will inevitably become as earthly glory is fleeting and all must die.

Cadaver tombs can be found in several UK cathedrals and parish churches. The earliest surviving one is in Lincoln Cathedral and is dedicated to Richard Fleming. It dates from the 1430’s.  St Paul’s cathedral has a later example from the 17th century which commemorates the poet John Donne.  Cadaver tombs are also known in Europe, particularly in Italy, as well as France. Germany and the Netherlands.

But who was John Benet?

Another full length view of John Benet’s cadaver tomb looking from the head downwards. ©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell

According to St Mary’s guidebook, John Benet was a medieval cloth trader and one of St Mary’s most important benefactors.  He financed the very ceiling that I’d been admiring and also his own private chancel chapel and tomb. Within his lifetime, Bury St Edmunds was a thriving town built on the local wool trade.  This led to the creation of a rising merchant class who were able to use their money to leave a lasting memorial to themselves in their local church as proof of their good and pious life.  Surely admittance to the Pearly Gates would be assured if you provided your church with some embellishments…. After they couldn’t take it with them but they could definitely prove that they’d had it while alive….

John Benet was a rich and powerful man within his local town  which is why he was able to afford to have a cadaver tomb made for him and one that was so well sculpted.   It originally lay in his own private chapel.  This has now gone but if you look up you can still see its glittering ceiling  which was restored in 1968.   You may just be fortunate enough to see the light glisten on the tiny pieces of concave mirror glass inserted into the gold stars to give the illusion of real stars twinkling.  Benet’s motto, ‘Grace me Governe’, his initials, coat of arms and SS collar are also part of the intricate decoration.  The latter, again from St Mary’s guidebook:

’….was a gift from the Lancastrian kings in recognition of a special or personal services.  It was in the form of a collar or chain in which the letter ‘S’ was engraved.  The letter ‘S’  which presumably stood for ‘Sovereign.’

The restored ceiling of what once was the ceiling of John Benet’s private chapel. ©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell

So Benet moved in high circles and wasn’t afraid to shout about it for all eternity.

There are Latin prayers on the ceiling’s edges which include ‘Pray for the soul of John Benet, ‘Let us praise the Lord gloriously’, Alleluia, Honour and glory to the only God.’, ‘My soul shall delight in the Lord’, ‘Seek only the highest’ and finally ‘May the pure Virgin Mary bless us with issue.’  Benet was not a man who stinted where his soul was concerned.

The tomb has moved around the church interior several times. But not of its own volition as far as I know. It has been surmised that the effigy of him portrayed as a decaying corpse was made during his lifetime.

Now there’s an interior design feature for you…it would have been intended as a constant reminder of his own inevitable death and the need to make preparations for the afterlife. It’s in remarkable condition and is the best one that I’ve seen so far and may have been created in the nearby Abbey’s master mason’s workshops.  This seems very likely given Benet’s powerful connections and the quality of the carving.

Originally he was positioned with his feet facing the east but, in 1884, the tomb was turned around so that the side inscription could be read.  In this, Benet’s motto is carved and a small figure of himself is in the middle of it, dressed in his finest clothes, and holding up the word ‘Me’.  Under one hand of the decaying corpse are the words:

‘He that will sadly beholde me with his ie, May he hyd own mirrour (and) lerne for to die. ‘

A lifesize memento mori if you will. The guidebook, however, describes it as a ‘Pardon Grave’ which isn’t a term that I’ve heard before. It’s meant to indicate that the person who was being commemorated had obtained a pardon or remission from purgatory.  Benet had also left instructions for his papal pardon to be displayed near his tomb for all to see.  I had the impression that Mr Benet was a bit of a show-off but if you don’t blow your own trumpet…. I sincerely hope that all this piety and expense achieved its aim.

The cadaver tomb iconography is based on the medieval Dance of Death or Danse Macabre.

John Benet’s tomb side view, St Mary’s Bury St Edmunds ©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell

Nobleman & Physician from the Lubeck Totentanz courtesy of UT Southwestern

This depicted a long line of people from Emperors to Popes right down to a beggar, each of whom had death in the form of a skeleton at their shoulder. This was a reminder that Death made all men equal.   The first one was recorded in St Paul’s Cathedral and in Long Melford, Suffolk, according to St Mary’s guidebook, long cloths were displayed depicting ‘the dance of Pauls’

It’s amazing that this survived the Reformation and Cromwell’s wrecking crews and still sits in St Mary’s reminding visitors of their inevitable fate.   But Mr Benet has a further claim to fame as, in 2003, he was loaned out to the Victoria and Albert Museum as part of their ‘Gothic: Art of England’ exhibition. Apparently, during conservation, traces of flesh coloured paint were discovered on the figure which included red and green veins especially in the neck.  So try and imagine Mr Benet in his original colouring – it must have quite a sight to see.    I think that he’d be very proud that his tomb, the hammerbeam ceiling and also his chapel ceiling are still in St Mary’s for all to enjoy and remember him.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated. 

References and further reading: 

St Mary’s, Bury St Edmunds A guidebook, Clive Paine, Honey Hill Publishing 1986.

Metamorphosis of a Death Symbol’ The Transi Tomb in the Late Middle Ages an d the Renaissance, Kathleen Cohen (Berkeley: University of California Press) 1973