Symbol of the Month – The Pelican in her Piety

This is another reblog of a n older post from when I began shadowsflyaway and it’s always been a favourite of mine.

I have been out again looking for symbols and have found one or two so looking forward to sharing them with you. I went church crawling earlier this month and visited a church in Kent rumoured to have strange symbols. It certainly did and other curiosities. You never know what you’re going to find in a church and I have often been pleasantly surprised. Beyond the churchyard wall was a field of sheep and lambs, merrily bleating and baa-ing away at each other, and it made me feel so glad to be outside again on a warm Spring day. I also visited a church in the east End of London on a wet, cold day as the tall cow parsley was rampant amongst the tombstones and found something that I didn’t expect. I’m really looking forward to researching and writing about it for next month.

A pelican in her piety. Detail of monument, The Drake Chapel, St Mary's Amersham. copyright Carole Tyrrell

A pelican in her piety. Detail of monument, The Drake Chapel, St Mary’s Amersham.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

This is a more unusual symbol to find in cemeteries and dates from  pre-Christian times.  There are two versions of the legend.  In one, the pelican pierces her own breast to feed her children with her own blood and in the second she feeds her dying children with her own blood to bring them back to life but as a result she dies herself.   In both of them the pelican is a potent motif of self-sacrifice and charity.  It’s also seen as a powerful  representation of Christ’s  Passion in that he gave his life for us and rose again.  The symbol is known as a pelican in her piety.

However, the legend of the pelican is found in Physiologies, an anonymous  Christian work from Alexandria which dates from the 2nd century.  It contained legends of animals and their allegorical interpretations  which is where the attribution of the pelican’s sacrifice to the Passion of Christ come from.   It states that

‘ the pelican is very fond of its brood, but when the young ones begin to grow they rebel against the male bird (the father) and provoke his anger, so that he kills them, the mother returns to the nest in three day, sits on the dead birds, pours her blood over them, revives them, and they feed on the blood.

The pelican in its piety was very popular during the Middle Ages and can be found on altar fronts, fonts and  misericords in churches.  Also, when tabernacles were occasionally suspended over the altar, they were shaped like pelicans as was one in Durham Cathedral.

Later, in St Thomas Aquinas’s hymn ‘Adoro te devote.’ or Humbly we adore thee’, in the penultimate verse he describes Christ as:

‘the loving divine pelican able to provide nourishment for his breast’

In  Nicholas Hilliard’s famous 1573 portrait of Elizabeth I which is known colloquially as the Pelican portrait she wears a prominent piece of jewellery which features a pelican feeding her young with her blood which symbolised her role as Mother of the Nation.

The pelican also appears in Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Act IV in which Laertes says:

‘To his good friend thus wide,

I’ll open my arms.

And, like the kind life-rendering pelican

Repast them with my blood.’

The  renowned bird appears in key Renaissance literature.  For example, Dante in The Divine Comedy refers to Christ as ‘our Pelican’. John Lyly in Euphues of 1606 also wrote:

Pelicane who striketh blood out of its own owne bodye to do others good.’

John Skelton wrote in 1529 in his Armorie of Birds:

‘They sayd the Pellycan’

When my Byrds be slayne

With my bloude I them nevyve.  Scripture doth record the same dyd as our Lord

And rose from deth to lyve.’

However, the belief that the pelican nourishes her children with her own blood is a myth.  It may have arisen from the fact that pelicans have a large pouch attached under their bill.  When the parent is about to feed its chicks, it macerates small fish in this pouch and then whilst pressing the bag against its breast, it transfers the food to the babies.

However, its use in Victorian cemeteries may indicate a resurrection motif in that the pelican gives er life to her children so that they are resurrected.   It is quite a rare one to find  although it does appear within churches especially on wall memorials, altars and fonts.

This is a sculpture from a church in Germany. copyright Andreas Praefcke
This is a sculpture from a church in Germany.
copyright Andreas Praefcke

This is a magnificent impressive pelican sculpture from a church in Germany.

There is an impressive monument in a Cuban cemetery which has a large marble pelican and children carving on it and there is also one on a memorial in Arnos Vale Cemetery near Bristol.  This is an especially poignant one as is it is to a young doctor, Joseph Williams, who insisted on treating the local workhouse inmates for cholera, during the 1849  Bristol epidemic.  Sadly, and perhaps inevitably, he succumbed to it himself and subsequently died. Here the pelican and her young are a true representation of self-sacrifice.

This is one is in my local church, St Georges in Beckenham and appears on a monument to Dame Ann Frances Hoare who died in 1800 at 64.

And this one is from the Drake Room in St Mary’s Church Amersham.

Here is a more recent use of the Pelican in her piety on a World War II blood donor appeal.

Word war II Scottish blood donor recruitment poster. www.wikipedia

Word war II Scottish blood donor recruitment poster.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.


Pfarr- und Wallfahrtskirche St. Philippus und Jakobus, Bergatreute Hochaltar: Vogelnest, 2007, photographer Andreas Praefcke

How to read symbols, Clare Gibson, 2009, Herbert Press

An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, J C Cooper, Thames & Hudson 1979


A wandering spirit and wandering bones in SE London

In darkest Eltham, there is a headstone dedicated to an Aborigine who came to England in the 18th century. It was the New World meeting the Old World. The English had begun to colonise New South Wales which had been his home although he called it by another name.  The country itself wasn’t called Australia when he left his home for England.  In fact, it wouldn’t be called that until 1804. It was known as New Holland.  He was a young man who died in England and never returned home. 

So who was he?

And why is he buried here? After all, Aborigines believe that, until the bones are returned to his ancestral homeland, he is destined to remain forever a wandering spirit, homeless and alone. If he’s actually still here.

I was out exploring, during the Christmas/New Year relaxation of lockdown. when I visited the churchyard of St John the Baptist in Eltham.  It has a fine old churchyard with a few 18th century memento mori.   Then I found this headstone by the boundary wall which is dedicated to Yemmerrawanyea, a native of New South Wales. The full epitaph reads:


Memory of


a Native of


Who died the 18th of May 1794

In the 19th Year of his


I was intrigued as the headstone is a substantial one and it isn’t everyday that you discover an Aborigine grave.

This is a silhouette portrait of Yemmarrawanyea which was created by William Wentworth who was his landlord during his time in London. Wentworth spelled the name as Yuremany

There are several spellings of the name but I will keep to the spelling on the headstone as it’s easier. 

In the 18th century, the British had begun to colonise what they called New South Wales and they wanted to establish relations with the Aborigines.   George III was very keen for this to happen and the first Governor of the colony, Arthur Phillip, resorted to kidnap to get one man, Bennelong, involved. There will be more on him later.

Yemmerrawanyea was a member of the Wangai tribe, part of the Eora nation of Aborigines.  They lived in the Port Jackson area on the south bank of the Parramatta river where Sydney is now.  He was known to the settlers and Capt Watkin Tench, as ’ a good tempered, lively lad who became a great favourite with us, and almost constantly lived at the Governor’s house.’  He had clothes made for him and he waited at the Governor’s table.  He was a servant.

In February 1791, aged 16, he was initiated according to Aboriginal custom, by having a front tooth and part of his jaw knocked out by a Kebba which was a stone or rock.  This allowed him to use the name Kebarrah which was only given to men who had undergone this ritual.  It was done according to Keith Vincent Smith:

‘… February 1791 at a bay in the Gamaragai territory on the north shore of Port Jackson.  It was Bennelong who officiated, removing the teeth with a specially cut womera or throwing stick. Though Yemmerrawanyea ‘suffered severely, losing apart of his jawbone, he ‘boasted the firmness and hardihood, with which he had endured it.’ wrote Capt Tench.

A portrait of Bennelong in Regency costume.which is signed on the back W.W. This may be William Wentworth, his landlord in London.

He came to England with Bennelong when Phillip returned home to England in 1792-93 after his first stint as the British Governor of the colony of New South Wales.  Apparently, they went on the very long sea journey ’voluntarily and cheerfully’.  Bennelong could speak English but I have been unable to discover if Yemmerrawanyea could also do so.  However, they did have English lessons during their visit.

This could be either Bennelong or Yemmerrawanyea at a fashionable gathering. I haven’t been able to find a credit for it but it came from this site: .

In 1793, they arrived in Falmouth, Cornwall and then travelled onto London.  Mayfair to be precise and there they mixed in high society.  Fashionable Regency clothes were made for them and they were tutored in reading, writing, and English. There are still expense claims on file for their visit.  The men visited St Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower of London and even went bathing in the Serpentine.  I did wonder what Regency society made of them and vice versa. 

At a fashionable gathering, Bennelong and Yemmerrawanyea performed a native song accompanied by clapsticks and you can hear a modern recreation of it here:

They said that the song was ‘in praise of their lovers; but the meaning of the song has been lost. Only two words have been translated and were apparently about jumping kangaroos.

Edward Jones, (1752-1824) who was in the audience, wrote down and published the words and music and called it ‘A song of the natives of New South Wales.’  It appeared in Musical Curiosities in 1811.  Jones was the composer, Welsh Harpist, folk music collector and bard to the Prince of Wales who became George IV.

However, in October 1793, disaster struck when Yemmerrawanyea fell ill and began to drastically lose weight.  After injuring his leg, his health declined even further.   He and Bennelong were taken to Eltham which was then a village and he was treated by Dr Gilbert Blane. He was the Prince of Wales’s physician.  They lodged at the house of William Kent who had been employed by the former Home Secretary, Lord Sydney. This again emphasises the circles in which the two men moved. But it was to no avail as Yemmerrawanyea died on 18 May 1794 aged roughly 19 from a lung infection.  This may have been tuberculosis but no-one’s quite sure.

Entry in St John the Evangelist parish records recording Yemmerrawanyea’s burial and death.

There are still bills preserved at the National Archives for his burial and,according to Keith Vincent Smith:

‘A gravedigger covered Yemmerrawanyea’s grave with turf at a cost of 1 shilling and 6 pence.  The headstone costs £6.16.00’,

This was a substantial cost for a headstone. 

There have  been several campaigns to have his remains returned to Australia but their current location in the churchyard is unknown.  In fact, they may no longer be there due to the practice of graves being re opened and re used for burials to reduce overcrowding. The headstone has also been moved and restored several times.

In 1982, 3 Aboriginal men made what is believed to be the first Australian Aboriginal pilgrimage to visit Yemmerrawanyea’s grave. But they were unaware that his body may have been removed and that the headstone may not even be over his grave.

Bennelong returned to what is now Sydney in 1795 and went back to the bush.  He was considered by some of Sydney’s white society to be a ‘thorough savage’ who couldn’t be tamed.  Relations between the Aborigines and the colonists were deteriorating as Keith Vincent Smith says:

‘as more and more land was cleared and fenced for farming and they were seen as savages who were unwilling to give their country and become labourers and servants to the colonists.’

Bennelong died on the 3 January 1813 and his grave has been finally been located. The New South Wales Government has announced that it has bought the house and garden in which he is buried.  It would be turned into a public memorial with a museum commemorating the impact of the European invasion on the indigenous people of the Sydney area. The site of the Sydney Opera House is located at Bennelong Point which was named after him.

These were 2 important figures in Aboriginal society and have left their traces in Australia and England.    Yemmerrawanyea’s grave is of cultural significance to the Aboriginal people and their history.   it seems sad that the stone is the only surviving trace of him in the churchyard and yet it’s it’s a reminder of the New World visiting the Old World.  So that passers-by, like me, stop and wonder who he was. how he came to Eltham and remember him.

Gwandalan Yemmerrawanyea

©Text and photos by Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated

References and further reading: – informative article on Yemmerranyea which I have quoted from.