Symbol of the Month – The Pierced Heart

A fine display of symbols on the headstone of Mr Thomas Abbott, St Marys church, St Mary Cray, Kent.
©Carole Tyrrell

I’ll be honest. I’d been out exploring churchyards just prior to the coronavirus and St Mary’s in St Mary Cray was the last on my list. I’d noticed its distinctive steeple from the train on my daily commute and it was on my list so that I could visit and cross it off.  I didn’t expect to find much and my first impression confirmed it. A few ivy clad altar tombs greeted me and then I wandered around the side of the closed church.  What a surprise!  A gallery of 18th century headstones placed in lines with some of the more familiar symbols depicted on them. Ouroboros’s, angel heads, skulls, crossbones and then this fine selection.

As you can see, it boasts a large, sharp scythe, a half open coffin with the incumbent visible, a trumpet blowing from what seems to be a heavenly cloud  and, in the centre, a heart pierced by an arrow.  We usually associate a pierced heart with the ones found on millions of St Valentine’s cards as a representation of Cupid’s love darts. You may be thinking that it doesn’t have the usual heart shape but there may be how the stonemason interpreted it.  This is the Symbol of the Month.

The headstone‘s epitaph reads:

‘In Memory of

Mr THOMAS ABBOTT

Late of this PARISH who departed this life

24 May 1773

In the 75th Year of his life

Also

Near lieth the body of

MRS SARAH ABBOTT  his wife

,,,,who departed ….22 January 1769 aged 69’

A full view of the headstone dedicated to Mr Thomas Abbott, St Marys church, St Mary Cray, Kent
©Carole Tyrrell

 

Although there are other Abbotts buried in the same churchyard I couldn’t find any sign of a headstone or monument dedicated to Sarah Abbott and there was none recorded on the Kent Archaeological Society survey of the churchyard So whether it has vanished over time we will never know.

On Thomas’s headstone, the heart is surrounded by symbols of resurrection and the Day of Judgement when all of the dead will rise. This is the meaning of the half open coffin lid. So is the pierced heart a symbol of everlasting love which means that the Abbotts will be reunited on that day?  After all, Keister suggests that it’s a sign of matrimony which would fit in with both husband and wife being mentioned on the headstone. However, Cooper comments that the pierced heart is also a sign of contrition so perhaps Mr Abbott felt guilty or sad about outliving Sarah by 6 years.

But let’s discuss other representations and interpretations of the pierced heart as well as the heart in general. It’s one of the most powerful symbols and resonates through many cultures and faiths both ancient and modern. Without it, none of us would be alive as it pumps our lifeblood through our bodies.  This is why it has been a central part of religions and cultures since the beginning of time.

Heart symbolism is significant in, Chinese, Hindu and most religions and cultures. For example, it is one of the eight precious organs of Buddha and also the Aztecs whose rituals involved human sacrifice. In these the chests of the victims were sliced open and their still-beating hearts were offered to the gods.  The Aztecs believed that the heart was the seat of the individual and also a fragment of the Sun’s heart.

Section from the Book of teh Dead depicting the Weighing of the Heart showing the heart on one side of the scales and the feather of Maat n the other. Osiris is between them.
Shared under Wiki Creative Commons

In Ancient Egypt, the heart was considered to be the source of human wisdom and the centre of emotions and memory. It could reveal a person’s true character, even after death, and was left in the body after mummification. The ancient Egyptians believed that it would survive death where it would give evidence against or for its owner and so was integral to the afterlife.  This culminated in the Weighing of the Heart which appears in the Book of the Dead.  The heart was given to Osiris, the god of the dead and the underworld who placed it on one of a pair of great golden scales.  On the other was a feather which represented Maat the goddess of order, truth and what was right. If the heart was lighter than the feather then the deceased passed on into eternal bliss.  But if it was heavier, due to past misdeeds, then it was thrown onto the floor of the Hall of Truth where Amut, a god with the face of a crocodile, the front of a leopard and the back of a rhinoceros who was also known as ‘The Gobbler’.  Once he had devoured the heart then the individual ceased to exist. The Egyptians concept of hell was non-existence.

But the heart has an even greater significance in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. There are many references to it in the Bible with over a 100 in Psalms alone.  One of the most famous quotations is in 1 Samuel 16.7 in which it is seen as the seat of emotion:

But the Lord said unto Samuel, Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the Lord seeth not as man seeth; for man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.’ (King James Bible).

The heart is seen as revealing the inner person but not only as the centre of human life. It also expresses spiritual or emotional feelings, wisdom, piety and righteousness.  There is also the famous quote from Matthew 5:8;

‘blessed are the pure in heart’

However, the heart also has a darker side as an evil person is often described as being ‘blackhearted.’  In Ecclesiastes 8:11 it’s seen as evil:

‘ Because sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil.’ (King James Bible).

In Christian iconography the heart took on a symbolic role as an indication of God and piety particularly in the Catholic church where Christ displaying a heart in his hands or on his breast is a key image. It’s known as the Sacred Heart and is one of the most practiced and well known of the Catholic devotions.  The sacred heart is seen as a symbol of ‘God’s boundless and passionate love for mankind.’ The pierced heart was also included in the five wounds that Christ suffered during the crucifixion

 

St Augustine 17th century Portuguese painting Museum of Church Paio of San Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Shared under Wiki Creative Commons

One saint in particular, St Augustine, has a special relationship with the pierced heart. He is often shown holding a heart, in some cases topped by a flame and in others pierced by an arrow. Another passage from the Confessions IX, 2:3 may explain the significance of the pierced heart:

‘Thou hadst pierced (sagittaveras) our heart with thy love, and we carried thy words, as it were, thrust through our vitals.’ 

(The word sagittaveras means literally ‘ shot arrows’ into as in this 17th century painting.

St Valentine’s Day was originally derived from a much darker and bawdier Roman festival called Lupercalia. This took place in Rome from 13-15 February and was intended to avert evil spirits and purify the city.  However, it didn’t involve the giving of chocolates and bouquets of roses. Instead there was animal sacrifice, random matchmaking and couplings which were intended to ward off infertility.  In reality, it was a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture and also to the founders of Rome, Romulus and Remus.  It was finally outlawed as ‘unChristian’ in the 5th century by Pope Gelasius who declared the 14 February to be St Valentine’s Day.   There were two actual St Valentines who were both martyrs.

However, the first person to mention the famous day for lovers was actually Geoffrey Chaucer in his 1375 poem, A Parliament of Fowles (or Fowls). In this he says:

‘For this was sent on Seynt Valentyn’es day

When every fowl cometh here to choose his mate.’

During the Middle Ages it was believed in both France and England that February 14 was the beginning of the mating season for birds and so an ideal date for romance for all.

But it was during the early medieval and early Renaissance when the heart began to resemble the more stylised symbol that we know today.  It took on the shape of a converted A and represented  Amor or Love. Since the 19th century it has been associated with love and romance and the  pierced heart has also been known as the wounded heart due to Cupid’s arrows.

But, due to its placing within other potent symbols of resurrection, I interpret the pierced heart on Mr Abbott’s headstone to be a token of love.  Although he wasn’t buried with his wife he may have hoped that they would be reunited on the Day of Judgement when the angels trumpets sounded and the dead met the living again.

It was one of the most potent symbols that I have found in my explorations and I haven’t seen another one – yet.  The pierced heart has also been one of the most fascinating symbols to research because of its many connotations and associations.  Who would have thought that Chaucer might be the father of the St Valentine’s Day industry that we know so well today.

Was the pierced heart a token of love or a hope of a meeting in the after-life? We will never know but a fascinating collection of symbols for the passer-by to admire.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.

References and further reading:

Stories in Stone, Douglas Keister, Gibbs Smith 2004

An illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols, J C Cooper, Thames & Hudson, 1979

 

http://www.thecemeteryclub.com/symbols.html

https://www.kentarchaeology.org.uk/research/monumental-inscriptions/st-mary-cray

https://www.gresham.ac.uk/lectures-and-events/affairs-of-the-heart-an-exploration-of-the-symbolism-of-the-heart-in-art

https://www.midwestaugustinians.org/the-augustinian-emblem

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1%20Samuel%2016:7&version=KJV

https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-rome/lupercalia#:~:text=Lupercalia%20was%20an%20ancient%20pagan,in%20Rome%20on%20February%2015.&text=Unlike%20Valentine’s%20Day%2C%20however%2C%20Lupercalia,off%20evil%20spirits%20and%20infertility.

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3960665/#:~:text=In%20the%20weighing%20of%20the,were%20placed%20with%20the%20deceased.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sacred_Heart

https://www.christianiconography.info/augustine.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heart_symbol

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©Carole Tyrrell & shadowsflyaway 2015-2020

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The place that haunted me for nearly 30 years – the return visit to St Lawrence’s hospital burial ground

Scan as on film camera.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

 

Where were we?  We’d come into a neatly mown clearing with a small statue of a headless angel on a plinth at its centre.  There were large stones arranged around the perimeter with names and ages inscribed on them. I don’t recall seeing any signs anywhere that indicated what it was.   The tall black trees seemed to whisper to each other around us but otherwise it was silent.  My companion wanted us to move on deeper into the surrounding countryside and so we did.  We’d already roamed around Happy Valley and he was keen to do more. But I had enough time to take one photo and it became an important, and the only, reminder of our visit.

The black pines that I remembered from my first visit.
©Carole Tyrrell

This was in 1990 and I had no idea where we were. In later years I discovered that we had been on Farthing Downs, near Coulsdon in Surrey.   Although I made several return visits and tried to retrace our walk I could never find the exact place. What was it? A farmer’s cemetery for beloved animals? The ages on the stones had been very young but I could never find it or any information online about it. Was it attached to one of the nearby asylums?  Cane Hill Asylum wasn’t that far away across the valley. I was nearly there.  In 2013 a magazine article and a map reference revealed it to be St Lawrence’s hospital burial ground. At last I knew where it was and what it was.

As the wind blew eerily through the bordering pine trees and passing, but invisible golfers, chatted to each other I knew that this was the place that had intrigued me for nearly 30 years.  No tidy clearing now and any memorials were half submerged in the overgrown undergrowth. But at last I knew that  I was standing in St Lawrence’s Hospital burial ground at Caterham which was now in the middle of a very upmarket golf course.  The golf course hadn’t been there in 1990 but its manicured lawns, water features and clubhouse surrounded the burial ground.  St Lawrence’s long, late summer overgrown grass, straggling and profuse bushes of blackberries and rose hips and uneven ground made a sharp contrast.  I trod very carefully. There were now two black painted metal gates at the entrance and an information board with photos and pictures of St Lawrence’s Hospital and the chapel.  This had long since been demolished, but the foundations and base could still be found amongst the long grass and clover.  An overcast day and spits of rain combined with the mournful wind made the burial ground feel abandoned.

As I stood there it seemed impossible that over 3100 people lay buried under my feet in this spot underneath the tussocks and unkempt long grass.  A burial register from 1916-1948 records 3100 people buried in 276 plots with 10-15 in each grave. However, the 1949 -1965 burial register is still missing so there may be 1000’s more buried here. The burial ground is the only surviving part of the Hospital as it closed in 1994 and was demolished to make way for a housing estate.

St Lawrence’s was originally the Caterham Metropolitan Asylum which opened in September 1870. It had a sister asylum at Leavesden, Herts.  They both took in the pauper insane from London’s workhouses as it was felt that the country air would be good for them and help improve their condition. This is probably why there is such a concentration of asylums in the Surrey area. However their location often led to staff shortages due to their remoteness.

According to Lost Hospitals of London:

 ‘There were 1560 patients which were housed in 6 three storey blocks for 860 females and 5 blocks for 700 males. The sexes were segregated as they were in all asylums. Children were also admitted and in 1881 St Lawrence’s also become known as the Caterham Lunatic Asylum for Safe Lunatics and Imbeciles.  The Victorians weren’t very PC and we would now say that these people had ‘learning difficulties’.  In 1913 under the Mental Deficiency Act it became responsible for mentally defective children pauper children or again children with learning disabilities. Children from another hospital and a Training Colony were also sent to Caterham.  It also had a large proportion of older patients who had no chance of improvement. 23.6% of its patients were epileptic. (Treatment for epilepsy was non-existent in the 19th century and even 40 years ago it was still in its infancy)

In 1981, St Lawrence’s and another hospital featured in a documentary called ‘Silent Minority’ which drew attention to the poor conditions in these places exacerbated by staff shortages. The media took an interest and patient care, amongst other areas, were investigated by government Inquiries.  It focused on the scant and impersonal natures of the wards, deficiencies in nursing care and staffing ratios for profoundly disabled patients. It was said that the hospital management had sanctioned the programme in the hope that public awareness of the extent of the problem might bring about change for the institution. Patients began to be moved out into homes and hostels and into the community.’

 When the burial ground was closed for burials in 1965 the memorial stones were removed from the main burial area and placed on the perimeter so that the grass could be mown. This is how it looked when I saw it in 1990 when the hospital was still in operation.  Like Netherne, the burial ground was almost forgotten and became overgrown and abandoned until in 2008, concerned locals took matters into their own hands and started tidying it up. Local residents, cub packs and schools all wanted to be involved and in 2010 13 memorials had been located either intact or in pieces.

Here is a selection of the memorials that I saw:

The overgrown uneven ground was obviously due for one of its two annual brush cuts and I trod carefully as I explored. I found a few memorials which were clustered in the overgrown memorial rose bed. I could make out dates and names on some of them and they were poignant reminders of the hospital’s patients.  According to the information board, these were the memorials that were found in 2011:

John                                                                  1945-1960

Valery Muriel Ann Howcroft                       1953-1962

Graham W Cleghorn                                     1936-1957

Brian W Udy                                                   1889-1917

Frederick Albert Houghton                        1948-1957

Ann Margaret Hazell

Bobby Wise

Terry                                                             aged 6 years

George Henry Hale                                    1884-1961

Edna Phyllis Millward                              1909-1953

Percy Herbert Goddard Barnes              1891-1963

Leslie Charles Alfred Nash                     1924-1963

Pattie (Patricia) Hill                                1912-1934

Donald Douglas Chamberlin                  1907-1924

Joseph H Wenderott                              1926-1942

Malcom Dow                                           1929-1938

 

I am indebted to The Downlander for information on two of the memorials:

‘Percy Barnes was in the 1890 Census where he was living at 98 Farringdon Road where his parents kept a coffee house.   By 1911 he was a kitchen porter and lived in Shoreditch with his parents, 2 sisters and 3 brothers.  But nothing is known of him from 1911-1963 so how did he end up being admitted to St Lawrence’s?

Leslie Nash’s memorial is under the black pines but I didn’t see it on my visit. ‘The burial ground restoration team were contacted by a cousin. He told them that Leslie’s brother was still alive and had been searching for Leslie’s memorial for many years. You can imagine how thrilled he was to know its location at last. Apparently Leslie had epilepsy and cerebral palsy and was sent to St Lawrence’s in 1938 when he had become too heavy for his parents to lift. They had three other children as well. Leslie’s epitaph reads:

Leslie Charles Alfred Nash

Born 6.6.24 – Died 20.9.63

Sweet the sleep you so much needed

Free from suffering care and pain on thy face so peaceful.’

The restoration team managed to make contact with a small number of relatives of those buried here so that they are not forgotten. As I wrote this, a relative was trying to trace her aunt who had been admitted to the hospital aged 18 and died there at 35. I was glad that the burial ground had been reclaimed by local people and that a few of the relatives had been located. As at Netherne they seemed to vanish once they were in the system unless a determined relative decided to look for them.

However, there would have been very few memorials and these would originally have been wooden markers which rot or simple metal markers bearing a number. Originally there were two angels marking the graves of two children and the one that I saw in 1990 may have been one of them. I found another one in the luxuriant undergrowth but it wasn’t the one in my photograph. .  The bodies of those who died without friends or family were given to the School of Anatomy to help doctors with medical research and training.

The information board also records:

‘that the Chapel was demolished in 1971 (and from the photo wasn’t a particularly decorative building). However it was large enough to house 8 coffins. The burial service took place in St Lawrence’s Hospital Chapel. A horse drawn hearse with a tarpaulin cover was led by the hospital porters through the gate at the back of the hospital farm and crossed the field to the burial ground. In later years the Head Gardener’s truck was used. It had an iron frame with a hood over the top and rollers for the coffin. But a former head Gardener recalled that the burials were ‘always done with dignity, never rushed.’

The burial ground is in an isolated spot and is reached by walking up a long, secluded lane. So unfortunately it attracts vandalism.

The memorial seat with the black pines behind it. I was able to confirm that this was the place by the trees.
©Carole Tyrrell

The lovely, very solid seat that I saw on my visit in 2017, surrounded by carved wooden animals, was set alight in an arson attack in 2019. It had been carved with a chainsaw by a local sculptor, Andris Bergs and weighed over a ton. The main seat was made from London Plane and its supports from oak wood. The animals were created from Douglas Fir and it seemed sad that these lovely creations were destroyed for no reason.  They had been part of the burial ground’s restoration.  It’s also seen as a haven for wildlife and newts have been found here.

However, I’m always surprised that asylum graveyards and burial places survive at all. Netherne Hospital Cemetery is also located in an out of the way place and maybe this is why it’s survived. The hospitals to which they were attached no longer exist and in time they might have been forgotten or just built over. In 1990 on my first visit all the big asylums in the area were about to close due to ‘care in the community’.  They had become too large, too overcrowded and once inside people seemed to find it difficult to get out of them and so became institutionalised.

But I had finally found the place that had haunted me since 1990. The Royal Surrey Golf Club didn’t open until 1999 and at that time it was just countryside for miles.  Paupers surrounded by posh golfers. It seemed almost ironic. Maybe after lockdown it’s time to make a return visit and pay my respects to the permanent residents of St Lawrence’s Burial Ground.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.

References and further reading

The Downlander issue 51 Spring-Autumn 2011

http://www.caterham-independent.co.uk/latest-news/56-work-on-st-lawrences-hospital-burial-site-begins/

http://www.countyasylums.co.uk/caterham-mental-hospital/

http://www.aim25.ac.uk/cgi-bin/vcdf/detail?coll_id=11891&inst_id=118

http://www.caterham-independent.co.uk/latest-news/1466-nhs-gives-burial-ground-to-chaldon-village-council/

https://www.countyasylums.co.uk/caterham-mental-hospital/

https://ezitis.myzen.co.uk/stlawrence.html