Symbol of the Month – the wheatsheaf

Another view of the Milnes monument, Kensal Green Cemetery.
©Carole Tyrrell

I was on a summer stroll on an early July day in 2017 in Kensal Green Cemetery when I noticed this symbol.  From where I was standing it resembled a mop head which had dried out and been left on top of a grave.  I was planning to carry on stalking obliging butterflies but curiosity got the better of me and I made my way over to the monument. It was then that I realised that the supposed mop head was in fact a beautifully sculpted wheatsheaf.

‘Had the deceased been a master baker?’ was my first thought as it’s a traditional symbol associated with them or perhaps a pub owner as you do see a lot of pubs called The Wheatsheaf. The epitaphs on both side of the tomb were virtually unreadable. However, on one side I could make out ‘Sarah’ and on the other ‘Milnes’. But more of the Milnes later as this family has a strong connection to Kensal Green Cemetery

A sheaf is a tied bunch of grain stalks after they have been harvested by hand with scythes. However with the advent of agricultural mechanisation it is now a bygone image. No-one has ever known the origins of this staple crop and so it has been regarded by many cultures as a gift from God.

The wheatsheaf and resurrection

However, the wheatsheaf symbol has always had strong associations with the theme of resurrection.

This seemingly humble grain has played its part in many funeral cults and mourning rites throughout ancient cultures. For example, the ancient Greeks and Romans regarded it as life springing from death or immortality. Priests are reputed to have sprinkled wheat flour on their victim’s head prior to sacrificing them.  Ceres and Demeter, the Greek and Roman goddesses of harvest and agriculture, often carried either a wheatsheaf or a harvester’s sickle.  Ancient Egypt was seen as the breadbasket of the ancient Mediterranean due to the volume of crops that it produced and Osiris, god of the underworld, was strongly associated with wheat within the context of a representation of rebirth.

Wheat is also important to the Christian religion with the Eucharist bread which represents the body of Christ and his sacrifice and also in remembrance of the Last Supper. There is the famous biblical quotation from Luke 22:19:

‘and he took bread and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: do this in remembrance of me’ King James Bible.

When wheat is harvested the ground is left to lie still during the winter and then re-sown in the spring to begin the cycle of life again. Here it represents renewal and renewal as the cycle of seasons has once more given grain for bread.  There is also the association with the harvesting of years in that Death and his scythe prepare to reap at the end of life.

So there has always been an association with the wheatsheaf of resurrection and remembrance. This is where it is at its most powerful as a funerary symbol. However, Douglas Keister has also suggested that a wheatsheaf on a tombstone can indicate someone who

‘lived a long and fruitful life of more than seventy years and one that was harvested by the Reaper when it was time’

The wheatsheaf and the Victorian cult of mourning

This is a lovely example of a wheatsheaf motif within a piece of Victorian mourning jewellery.
I found it on Pinterest and could not find the source of the image.

According to the art of mourning website, the wheatsheaf was also a very popular motif in Victorian mourning jewellery.  In fact they have suggested that it could be seen as a memento mori in that it denotes life cut and renewal or resurrection of the soul.  Its heyday was during 1820-1860 and it also survived into early 20th century mourning jewellery just as it was going out of fashion.  The wheatsheaf was often found in mourning wreaths, brooches, lockets and rings and was an effective emblem when working with hair to create these pieces.

There is also a stained glass window featuring a wheatsheaf at St Michael & All Angels in Eaton Bishop, Herefordshire but this may be a Victorian addition by Kempe after restoration.

But who lies under the Kensal Green wheatsheaf?

Thomas Millnes and his third wife, Jessie’s grave in Kensal Green Cemetery.
©Chris Bell – a family descendant

This grave contains 2 women who were, respectively, the first and second wives of the Victorian sculptor Thomas Milnes.  He is buried with his third and final wife elsewhere within Kensal Green cemetery under a far plainer stone. He certainly lived a long life – his dates are 21 December 1810 – 6 May 1888 but there’s no wheatsheaf on top of him. Milnes completed a number of funerary monuments which can be seen in churches in Gloucestershire, Cumbria and Suffolk and also statues which still stand in Norwich and Woolwich. Milnes exhibited statues and busts at the Royal Academy after entering its schools on 21 April 1841.  He also designed another monument in Kensal Green, the horse and child on top of Alfred Cooke, which, although damaged, is still in place.

However he wasn’t destined to became a major British sculptor despite, in 1858, being invited to design and model the four lions for the base of Nelson’s column.  It would have been the commission of a lifetime but his designs were deemed ‘unsuitable’ and the commission went to Sir Edwin Landseer’s monumental symbols of Empire instead.  However, Milnes lions which are, in my opinion, more lively and playful than Landseer’s can be seen in Saltaire, near Bradford.  After that he seems to have sunk in obscurity.

The ‘Sarah’ that is still legible on one side was Milnes’ first wife: Sarah Betsey Harrad. They married in London on 19 May 1836.   Sarah died on 1 April 1867 of ‘apoplexy’ which is now known as a stroke or cerebral haemorrhage.  Frances Eidsforth became his second wife on 16 July 1867 at St Georges, Bloomsbury and she died on 16 July 1875. She is buried with Sarah.

Milnes married his third and final wife, Jessie Anne Fletcher, on 1 June 1876 but there were no children from any of his marriages

A closer view of the Milnes wheatsheaf – beautifully carved and assumed to be by Tomas Milnes himself but no direct evidence.
©Carole Tyrrell

Little seems to be known about either Sarah or Frances and it’s a real shame that their epitaphs, presumably on either side of the monument are now illegible.  However I would assume that the wheatsheaf placed on top of them is a symbol or resurrection and a hope that they would all meet again in eternity.

The wheatsheaf is remarkably well carved and has outlasted the epitaphs. It has been presumed  that it is by Milnes himself but no definite proof has been found to be able to attribute it to him with certainty.

There is another smaller wheatsheaf in Kensal Green which is on the Samuel Horsley memorial.

These two examples are from Oak Grove Cemetery, Fall River, Massachusetts, USA – I don’t have any further details on them unfortunately.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell otherwise stated

I am indebted to Henry Vivian-Neal from the Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery for the biographical details on Thomas Milnes.


Douglas Keister, Stories in Stone: A field guide to cemetery symbolism and iconography, Gibbs Smith 2004


A tale of two Hebes…..

Another possible Hebe on the Jamson headstone St Mary’s churchyard, Higham ©photo Carole Tyrrell

Although I didn’t see many symbols in St Mary’s churchyard in Higham that I hadn’t previously seen before, my attention was drawn to this one.  

It appears to be another version of the carving, although in far better condition, that I called Hebe after the Greek Goddess and first saw in the churchyard of All Saints, Frindsbury.   Higham is only, just under 3 miles, away from Frindsbury so a journeyman stonemason could probably walk or ride there in a day.

View showing the elegance of the carving on the Jamson headstone, Higham. ©photo Carole Tyrrell

The one in Higham is on a in a unusual roundel on a headstone dedicated to Catherine Jamson who died on 26 August 1806 at 52.  It’s beautifully carved and still crisp but with its head missing.  There is an almost ghostly  impression of where it once was if you look closely.  It seems to be a clean break but is it vandalism, as they always like to go for the heads on statues or carvings, or just wear and tear over the years? We may never know.  In 2012, according to the Kent Archaeological Society, the epitaph read:

“While in this World I did Remain,
My Latter Days were Grief and Pain,
At Length the Lord did think it Best,
To Take me to a place of Rest”

Thomas Jamson is also buried with her and he died on 3 November 1828 aged 82 years.  He was a house carpenter and left a substantial will to his second wife.

The Caryer headstone in 2011 , All Saints Frindsbury Photo Kent Archaeological Society

In All Saints churchyard, Frindsbury, the headstone is a sad one as it is dedicated to Hannah Caryer, wife of John who died young aged 30 years in 1809.  John, her husband died later and also young aged 41 and their young son who predeceased his mother by 8 years. The Frindsbury Hebe still has its head although there has been some wear and tear over the years.  So could it be the same stonemason as they were itinerant craftsmen who travelled from parish to parish.  Sometimes you can see their work in several churchyards but of course it could be two separate stonemasons using the same symbol, perhaps from a pattern book of the time.  However, it’s interesting to note that both ladies died 3 years apart – a fashionable emblem at the time?

However, part of the pleasure of researching symbols in country churchyards is in attempting to identify an individual stonemason’s work.  I have not yet been lucky enough to find any signatures or identifying marks on carvings.  But maybe I’m not looking in the right places.  But this seems to be almost a coincidence that this symbol appears on the headstones of two women in the same area. Especially as it’s a pagan image, if it is Hebe the Greek goddess, in a Christian burial place.

Although I have found several occupations on headstones such as carpenter, caulker, baker and gunner, the only stonemasons grave I have found so far in All Saints churchyard in Maidstone. There are two of them and they date from the 19th century.  But I am sure that I will find one that dates from an earlier period if wear and tear hasn’t got there first.

©Text and photo Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated

I am indebted to the Kent Archaeological Society at for the epitaph on Catherine Jamson’s headstone.

A birthday card to you as Shadowsflyaway celebrates its 7th birthday!

Yes, it’s been seven years since shadowsflyaway began – during which I have visited so many churchyards and cemeteries looking for symbols and interesting stories and, often, I may spot a symbol from a bus or a train and feel compelled to immediately get off and go back to see what it is. It has been fascinating to be able to see how symbols have evolved over the centuries and the way that people want to use them to define themselves after death. Even if it is just the passing visitor stopping to look and then asking themselves ‘Why on earth did they choose that?’

So here’s to another year of shadowsflyaway and unearthing more hidden gems in country churchyards and city cemeteries. Let’s raise our virtual glasses of champagne, or whatever else you choose, and drink a toast to us all. And with symbol finding, I still have a death weekend in Edinburgh to plan……

Best wishes to you all!

Charles’s Churches Part 2 – the naughty nuns of Higham – a visit to St Mary’s Higham, Kent

St Mary’s Higham ©Carole Tyrrell

St Mary’s church in Higham is another one that is associated with Charles Dickens.  I am beginning to think that if he even so much as sniffed in the direction of a building or local place, then it is forever part of ‘Dickens country’.

The church was his parish church when, in 1859, he moved into Gad’s Hill Place on the Gravesend-Rochester road.  Katey, his daughter, was married there, and in the same year, he began Great Expectations.  The abandoned gun emplacement where the convict, Magwitch, hides has been suggested as being that of Shornewood Fort.

I set off to visit St Mary’s church which, like St James in Cooling, is also in a remote place in a rural area roughly 2 miles outside Higham (which is pronounced Hi-am and means ‘high village’).  It was never anything but sparsely populated and in the 1860’s most of the population moved inland, away from the marshes, towards Upper Higham.  There isn’t much to Higham I have to say. The pubs have gone, the shops have gone, all now converted into accommodation. The houses and streets soon gave way to a straggle of terraced houses, an orchard and then open fields.  Above me the sky was azure blue with only chem trails from planes crossing it.

It was a long road with little traffic and I enjoyed being out in the open air again with the sun shining down on me.  The church came into sight at last and it was as pretty a country church as I could have wished for.  Grade 1 listed St Mary’s has striped walls of flints and Kentish ragstone which were roughly set in horizontal bands and it nestled within its churchyard.  (I revisited it over the Platinum Jubilee weekend and the wooden spire has been repaired)


St Mary’s Wooden spire repaired – June 2022 ©Carole Tyrrell

The church is now under the care of the Churches Conservation Trust as it is closed. There was a very small street or ‘street-ette’ along one side of the churchyard which had 2 houses with thatched roofs, one of which was the clerk’s house.  

I paused for a moment to drink it all in.  The lychgate, dedicated in 1918, had scenic views from both side; on one side was the church and on the other was fields. Inside the church, originally Norman, much of the 14th century features still remained despite an enthusiastic remodelling in 1863.  The 16th century iconoclasts don’t seem to have troubled this corner of Kent as the Cooling church had also retained most of its ancient artifacts 

Sadly, there is no longer any medieval glass at St Mary’s and, instead, it all dates from the 19th century.  But the 14th century chancel screen, the beautifully carved wooden entrance door, the font and the pulpit still remain.  The church door is a superb example of medieval carving in that it resembles a four light window and contains flower designs, animals and a small Green Man (on my second visit I found him!).

St Mary’s church door. ©Carole Tyrrell

Green Man from church door?©Carole Tyrrell
Horned man on church door. ©Carole Tyrrell

St Mary’s lychgate and view. ©Carole Tyrrell

St Mary’s also has 2 naves and 2 chancels. One of the chancels contains a tomb niche with a wide cinque foil arch decorated with corbel heads which was originally contained the tomb of Abbess Joan de Hadloe who died in 1328.  Every time I think I’ve seen the earliest memorial, monument or tomb, I promptly come across an earlier one!   At last, I hear you say, a naughty nun?  Not yet.   There was also a memorial to Ann Cordewell who died in 1642.   It has an epitaph verse on its wall.  Nearby is a plaque dedicated to Ann’s barrister grandson, Samuel Levinge, who died in 1748.  To be in St Mary’s was to be in the middle of a community’s history as another memorial recorded a woman who had died in 1615.

Tomb niche to Joan de Hadloe. ©Carole Tyrrell

Epitaph to Ann Cordewell. ©Carole Tyrrell

Memorial to Samuel Levinge. ©Carole Tyrrell

Interior of St Mary’s. ©Carole Tyrrell

As I admired the rare surviving Tortoise stoves, a 19th century form of heating and their proud statement ‘Slow but sure combustion’, two middle aged ladies bustled in presumably from the side road and began regaling me with tales of the medieval ‘naughty nuns’ who offered travellers more than bed and breakfast…..or perhaps they thought I might attempt to run off with the font in my bag..

A ‘Tortoise’ heater. ©Carole Tyrrell
The top of the Tortoise heater. ©Carole Tyrrell

Prior to the Dissolution, there was a medieval priory at Higham near the church and the village is reputedly built on it.   It was a substantial place which had a fishery and other buildings and the nuns would ferry people across the river.   Travellers could also stay at the priory and perhaps received more than bed and breakfast…..

There was a mother church at Saint Sulpice La Florentine which still exists and is in Brittany.  It was a Benedictine order and the prior existed from 1151-1521.  But according to the records, by 1504, only 5 nuns were still living there.  The arrival of a new priest, Edward Steroper, may be what created the image of the ‘naughty nuns’ as he is reputed to have made 2 of them pregnant.  Apparently, according to the guidebook the ‘notorious’ conduct of the Higham nuns was common knowledge in the district’ Oo-er!  Looking at this now, almost lonely, spot it’s hard to believe that it was once a thriving community, with the nuns clearly making their own entertainment.  The priory had an early dissolution and the buildings and land were transferred to St John’s Cambridge.   The tomb recess to Abbess Joan de Hadloe is all that remains of the priory and the nuns.

The churchyard that nestles around the church appeared to mostly 19th century memorials with a sprinkling of now unreadable 18th century ones.   

The two friendly ladies suggested that I visit the side road where there were some ancient houses.  It was very pretty and it emerged out into an empty farm.  2 large blue Emperor dragonflies flitted above the small pond as the marshes stretched on into the distance. A notice revealed that 6 houses were to be built here in the not too distant future and the locals didn’t seem happy about it. The views over the Kent marshes are towards Stanhope-le-Hope, the oil refineries and Shell Haven and Langdon Hills in Essex.

The Clerk’s House Higham. ©Carole Tyrrell

Detail of the Clerk’s House (someone’s got a sense of humour!) ©Carole Tyrrell

The Kent marshes stretching on into the distance. ©Carole Tyrrell

Back view of St Mary’s September 2021. ©Carole Tyrrell

I walked back to the station along the empty road and, as I sat waiting for the train, a bat flew above me.  I wondered how many other churches there were in Kent that were, even vaguely, associated with Charles Dickens and if I had the stamina to visit them all. 

Text and photographs ©Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated

References and further reading:,_Higham