‘A Life on the Ocean Wave?’ You could be forgiven for thinking this whenever you see an anchor on a headstone or monument and perhaps assume that it’s a mariner’s grave. But if it appears on a Commonwealth War Grave like this one in Brompton’s Cemetery then it will undoubtedly be on the grave of a naval man or woman.
But when it appears elsewhere then the anchor can have several other meanings. It was a popular motif in the 19th century and appears in many cemeteries. This example comes from the churchyard of St John the Evangelist in Southend on Sea.
The definition of an anchor is that it is a heavy object made from metal and connected to a rope or chain which is then connected to a ship. It holds the ship in place by digging into the seabed under the ship. There is a metal shank with a ring at one end for the rope or chain and, at the other end, there are two flukes with barbs to dig into the seabed and it’s these that give the anchor its distinctive shape.
But, despite its popularity with the Victorians, the anchor symbol Is much, much older. It was used by the ancient Christians in Rome prior to them adopting the fish symbol. The anchor resembles a cross and so was a covert way of identifying other Christians. It was seen as a metaphor for faith and steadfastness in that it grounds a ship and keeps it fixed in a secure place despite storms and bad weather and faith does the same thing by keeping the faithful grounded and secure during the difficult times in life.
The anchor appears in the New Testament of the Bible in Acts 27:13,17, 29-30 and 40. In Hebrews 6:18:19 it says:
‘That by two immutable things, in which it was impossible for God to lie, we might have a strong consolation, who have fled for refuge to lay hold upon the hope set before us;
Which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which entereth into that within the veil’. King James Bible.
This is where hope and anchors become entwined and there are many pubs in the UK named ‘The Hope and Anchor.’ But more of Hope later.
In these examples, you can see that the anchor is very firmly chained to the cross and so to God. The deceased believed in eternal life. On the one below dedicated to the Maskelyne family, there is a well carved anchor with a rope attaching it to a cross. This has been carved to resemble wood, perhaps Christ’s cross, and with ivy winding around it as a symbol of eternity.
However, I think that the wide spread use of the anchor during the 19th century was due to an immensely popular hymn of the time which is still sung today and is one of the most well known in the English language. It was written by a Sunday school teacher, Priscilla Jane Owen (1829-1907).
Will your anchor hold in the storms of life (We have an anchor)
Will your anchor hold in the storms of life,
When the clouds unfold their wings of strife?
When the strong tides lift, and the cables strain,
Will your anchor or firm remain?
We have an anchor that keeps the soul
Steadfast and sure while the billows roll,
Fastened to the Rock which cannot move,
Grounded firm and deep in the Saviour’s love.
It is safely moored, ‘twill the storm withstand,
For ‘tis well secured by the Saviour’s hand;
And the cables passed from His heart to mine,
Can defy the blast, through strength divine.
It will firmly hold in the straits of fear,
When the breakers have told the reef is near;
Though the tempest rave and the wild winds blow
Not an angry wave shall our bark o’erflow.
It will surely hold in the floods of death,
When the waters cold chill our latest breath;
On the rising tide it can never fail,
While our hopes abide within the veil.
Note the reference to the Rock which appears in these two monuments.
On some of the monuments that I’ve seen, the chain to the anchor is broken and it’s difficult to know if this is deliberate to indicate that the deceased’s earthly life is over or just general wear and tear.
There have been other suggestions about the anchor motif in that it might have been a tribute to St Nicholas who was the patron saint of fishermen or to St Clement of Rome who was rumoured to have become a martyr by being tied to an anchor and drowned. But there is no firm evidence of St Clement’s watery death.
Now let’s return to Hope. She appears in cemeteries as the statue of a woman dressed in vaguely classical robes and holding an anchor in one hand. This one is on a monument to Louisa Mutton in Brompton Cemetery. Hope is one of the Seven Virtues of the Christian religion, and she is with Faith and Charity. Note that her right arm is raised with the index finger pointing to Heaven and symbolising the pathway to Heaven. The other example is from the Blondin monument in Kensal Green cemetery in which Hope does not have a raised arm but, instead, is looking heavenwards. So, Hope was the deceased’s way of telling those left behind that they were entering into eternal life. According to Wikipedia, the earliest Hope statue was in Dublin in the 18th century. But there has also been a suggestion that Hope was influenced by the Statue of Liberty.
So, the Hope and Anchor have become entwined as examples of faith, steadfastness and a hope for an eternal life – a comforting message perhaps for both the deceased and those left behind.
©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.
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