Welcome to a new year and a short piece on how part of one of my blog posts became part of a youtube film.
I have to say that, after a cursory glance, that ‘Look it’s behind you! The Chaldon Doom painting’’is undoubtedly my most popular post with 4,205 views since it’s publication in 2018. It was a post about what may the oldest wall painting in England which is on the back wall of the church of St Peter and St Paul in Chaldon, Surrey. This is an out of the way place as there’s no real village there. But the church is very picturesque and popular as a destination for walkers especialluy during the summer when there is cake and tea on sale on Sunday afternoons.
The actual title of the painting is the Purgatorial Ladder and was painted in order to instruct the congregation to live a righteous life. After death they were either destined for heaven or hell depending on if they had lived a righteous life. It’s an impressive piece and I did wonder how it might have felt when praying or listening to a sermon with the painting and its angels and demons behind you.
A man called,Richard Gandon from a film company called Eyedears contacted me last year as he’d created an animated explanation of the Chaldon Doom and posted it on youtube. He asked for permission to use my introduction from my blog post on the painting with accreditation. It is a short and accessible explanation of the painting’s elements such as the Seven Deadly Sins and well worth a look at.
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.
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 memorials.com it is believed to have been the tree from which Christ’s cross was made.
An acorn is also depicted on the headstone which emphasises immortality and fertility. There is the old saying ‘ Mighty oaks from little acorns do grow’ and this may be a reference to Edwin’s children and his hopes they would go onto do great things. An acorn is the seed of the oak and so is a symbol of potential.
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.
Part 3 The Man Who Never Was, Bach, Beatles and a man (or woman) ahead of their time)
The Coroner’s Court is situated at the rear of the churchyard and, according to Lester, 7000 bodies had been re-interred beneath it. He hinted at a connection between it and The Man Who Never Was.
This was a Second World War ruse called Operation Mincemeat. A cadaver was obtained and dressed up to become a Major William Martin, R N and put into the sea near Huelva, Spain. A briefcase was attached to the body which contained fake papers which falsely stated that the Allied attack would be against Sardinia and Greece instead of Sicily which was the actual point of invasion. When the body was found, the Spanish Intelligence service passed copies of the papers to their German counterparts who in turn passed them onto their High Command. It was very successful as the Germans still believed that Sardinia and Greece were the targets weeks after the landings in Sicily had begun. But the true identity of The Man Who Never Was has never been revealed although there have been several theories. BBC Radio’s The Goon Show which was hugely popular in the 1950’s were fascinated by it and The Man Who Never Was featured in several episodes.
In 1968 The Beatles needed some new publicity photos and so they embarked on a Mad Day Out in London. Don, now Sir, McCullin accompanied them as photographer. St Pancras church and churchyard were one of the locations they visited much to the delight of local residents. There are many photos of the day online and this is the very bench on which they sat in these photos. It’s amazing to look at the photos now as they look so spontaneous and not part of a publicity machine. It’s a step back in time when stars were more accessible.
Nearby is the memorial stone to the English Bach, Johann Christian Bach(1735-1762).
He is also known as the ‘London’ Bach and was the eighteenth (!) child of Johann Sebastian Bach and the youngest of his eleven sons. He moved to London in 1762and premiered 2 operas at The Kinds Theatre which established his reputation. Queen Charlotte employed him as her music master and in 1766 he married a much younger singer, Cecelia Grassi, but the union was childless. Bach’s symphonies and concertos were very popular in fashionable London circles but by the late 1770’s his fortunes had reversed. After his death on New Year’s Day 1782, Queen Charlotte had to cover his estate’s expenses and to provide a pension for his widow after his steward had embezzled his money.
Lester said that the memorial stone moves around a lot but not whether it was of its own volition…..
But towering over it is the Burdett-Coutts Memorial sundial. This impressive and attractive, in my opinion, structure was built during 1877-79. It’s very High Victorian Gothic and could be seen in some people’s eyes as a Marmite construction in that you either loathe or love it. The sundial is also known as an obelisk and it was created as a memorial to the people buried near the church whose graves were disturbed by the Midland rail works. It comprises of a tall square tower in a Gothic style with a tall Portland stone pinnacle bearing a sundial. Columns of pink and grey granite support it and are on either side of four inscribed marble plaques, These are topped by a Gothic arch and relief sculptures of St Giles and St Pancras. The steps are decorated with mosaic panels featuring flowers, butterflies and the sun. There are also animal sculptures at each of the four corners of the enclosure surrounding the sundial.
Angela Georgina Burdett-Coutts (1814 -1906) was a wealthy philanthropist who inherited her grandfather’s huge fortune. It was £1.8 million at the time but in modern terms is now roughly £160,000,000.
The Baroness was always unconventional. She fended off fortune hunters and instead gave practical help to the East End’s poor. It has been said that Coutts is Cockney slang for ‘boots.’ Angela worked with Dickens to set up a home and rescue centre for prostitutes and ‘fallen women’ in London’s Shepherds Bush. A significant patron to artists and actors, the RSPCA and many other causes.
After inheriting Holly Lodge in Highgate, her grandfather’s mansion, she created the nearby Holly Village in 1865 for her staff. These are Gothic style houses set around a village green and are now very sought after. In 1881, the Baroness married her 29 year old American secretary, William Ashmead, when she was 67. The Baroness was buried in Westminster Abbey after dying aged 92 in 102. As the saying goes, her works live on in her name.
But there is a name on one of the plaques who also defied conventional and was ahead of his, or her, time.
This was the Chevalier d’Eon (1728-1810) a transgender person who moved in high circles in France and Britain during the 18th century. The Chevelier’s full name was Charles Genevieve Louis Auguste Andre Timothee d’Eon de Beaumont but Chevelier d’Eon for short. She was born a male and obtained a law degree, published books on the French tax system, was knighted and was also a celebrated fencer. What could come next? A double life.
In public the Chevalier was a diplomat to Russia and England but in private he was employed by the most secret spy service in France. This was the Le Secret Du Roi or the King’s Secret. He reported directly to Louis XV and became, as a result, the temporary liaison to the English court in 1763. When denied the permanent position he then published a book of French state secrets which he’d collected during his spy’s life but ensuring that he kept back the most controversial. This ensured that he remained on Louis XV’s payroll. A tricky tactician as well and as a result he accepted political exile in England. He became a celebrated public figure but in 1770 a controversy began. It was suggested that she had been born a woman but had been raised as a man in order to collect a family inheritance. Bets were placed on the London Stock Exchange and it was suggested that she had placed some herself. However in 1777 she was officially declared to be a woman at the age of 49. Chevalier then negotiated her return to France with the French government. She gave them the remaining incriminating documents still in her possession and agreed to publicly present as a woman for the rest of her life.
But life was dull after being a spy and diplomat and she returned to London never to leave again. But after the French Revolution she lost her pension from her days as a spy. Despite continuing to write she lived the rest of her life in poverty. But on her death it was finally discovered that she had been a man all along.
A final, fascinating tale of another unconventional St Pancras resident who left behind a reputation and flamboyance.
And here she lies in a London churchyard with many others who made up part of the capital’s cosmopolitan inhabitants. People who were not afraid to take risks, to go against the grain, to set in motion changes to society even though they would not live to see them.
It was quite a shock to leave St Pancras and walk up to the Euston Road and enter the teeming, bustling modern world again.
Escape from the Black Hole, the inspiration for a British icon and Frankenstein
A worn and damaged headstone, with a missing top half marks the last resting place of Captain John Mills who escaped from the Black Hole of Calcutta. He was buried with his wife Isabella and her epitaph was n the missing half. They were an interesting couple.
She was born in 1735 and became a singer of some renown. In 1760 David Garrick persuaded her to take the part of Polly Peachum in ‘The Beggar’s Opera’. But she gave up the stage to marry Capt Mills after the death of her first husband. They spent several years in India before returning to England. She died aged 92 in London in 1802.
Lester invited us to take a closer look so we all drew closer and yes, the words Black Hole were inscribed on the remaining half of the tombstone. But what was the Black Hole?
According to The London Dead blog:
‘the Black Hole of Calcutta’ is a controversial incident of 1756 where troops of the Nawab of Bengal, Siraj ud-Daulah, allegedly placed 146 British and Anglo-Indian prisoners overnight in conditions so cramped that 123 of them died. John Zephaniah Holwell, later Governor of Bengal, was included among the prisoners….Mr Holwell, though alive, was now unconscious…carried towards a window so tha the air there, being less foul, might revive him. But each man near the window refused to give up his place, for that meant possiby giving up his life. Only one, Captain Mills, was brave enough, unselfish enough, to give way to Mr Howell.’
Capt Mills was obviously a courageous and compassionate man who died aged 89 on 29 July 1811. The Scots Magazine gave him a fulsome obituary but sadly I have been unable to find a picture of him.
However, today the words ‘Black Hole’ have a somewhat different connotation and I did find myself looking for any hovering wormholes or portals.
William Jones, one of Charles Dickens schoolteachers, has a headstone here with a little plaque commemorating this fact. However, Dickens didn’t remember Mr Jones fondly at all and based the character, Mr Creakle, from David Copperfield on him. Dicken recalled Mr Jones as:
‘by far the most ignorant man I have ever had the pleasure to know…one of the worst tempered men that ever lived.’
Sir John Soane’s monument within its little enclosure is one of only 2 Grade 1 listed monument within London cemeteries. The other is Karl Marx in Highgate. Sir John Soane (1753-1837) was an architect who designed in the Neo-Classical style and his monument was heavily influenced by it. He was the architect of the Bank of England, although little of his work there exists now, and Dulwich Picture Gallery. However, it’s his museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields that has proved to be his lasting legacy. It’s well worth a visit as it’s very idiosyncrastic and gives you a glimpse into Soane’s influences.
The mausoleum was erected after Soane’s wife’s death in 1815. It contains him, one of his sons and his wife. He was estranged from his other son. The information board states:
‘Classical design. The central marble cube has four faces for dedicatory inscriptions, enclosed by a marble canopy suppoted on four Ionic columns, Enclosing this central structure is a small balustrade with a flight of steps down into the vault. The central domed structure influenced sIr Giles Gilbert Scott’s design of the telephone kiosk.’
The phonebox is another British institution and, although it may now be an endangered species due to mobile phones, it’s still instantly recognisable. I often see tourists posing by one. At their height there were approx 90,000 in use but this has now dropped to roughly 10,000. But redundant phone boxes can still have their uses: I have seen them used to house libraries or defibrilators.
Mary Shelley, the writer of Frankenstein, used to walk through the churchyard with her future husband, Percy, as they discussed their elopement. The fateful night at the Villa Diodata in Italy in 1816 not only produced Mary’s classic ‘Frankenstein’ but also ‘The Vampyr’. Its writer, John Polidori, is also buried in St Pancras. Mary’s parents, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft have memorials here but their remains were transferred to Bournemouth as a result of the railway works during the 19th century. We noticed the offerings placed on top of William’s monument.
Mary Wollstonecraft died 10 days after giving birth to Mary on 10 September 1797 aged 38. This echoes one of Frankenstein’s central themes which is life from death. She was the author of one of the first feminist works, ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ in 1792. The Godwins led an unconventional life and Mary had an affair with the painter Henry Fuseli. She was rediscovered as one of the great feminist icons at the turn of the 20th century.
Despite their transformation into swish new, trendy areas of London, Kings Cross and St Pancras still retain their historical origins if you know where to look.
However, I can remember when St Pancras was the station that time forgot. In fact if Stephenson’s Rocket had puffed its way along a platform at one time I wouldn’t have been surprised, The MIdland Grand, an enormous rabbit warren of a building was still awaiting its Cinderella like transformation in 2003/4. Now, reborn as St Pancras Renaissance, it’s always a magnificent sight to see as you perambulate along the Euston Road.
But behind St Pancras International, as it’s now known, there is still a part of London that has welcomed visitors and immigrants from all over the world and is testament to the capital’s ever-changing history.
In this quiet part of North London, if you listen hard enough you can still hear the running feet of The Beatles or Mary and Percy Shelley discussing their elopement as they take a Sunday afternoon stroll. But, even more gruesomely, you might also hear body snatchers plying their trade.
This is St Pancras Old Church and churchyard. But it’s not to be confused with St Pancras New Church which is the one with the weirdly proportioned caryatids that face the Euston Road.
The Research History Group of Brompton Cemetery visited on an overcast September afternoon when the churchyard, or park, as it’s now known seemed sombre and silent under the canopy of the 160 year old tress. But it wasn’t always like this. Our knowledgeable guide, Lester Hillman, told us that during the 19th century, instead of the elegant iron railings that border the front of the churchyard , there had been pubs and adjacent to the church there had been a terrace of houses.
The famous music hall star Dan Leno had been born in one of them. During the 1850‘s there had been balloon ascents as well and I did wonder how the permanent residents of St Pancras had ever got any of their eternal rest.
Charles Dickens who lived opposite the churchyard as a child described it as:
‘ a desolate place surrounded by little else but fields and ditches’
This seems incredible now as the area is so built up. Dickens featured St Pancras in ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ in which one of the characters, Jerry Cruncher and his son, Jerry Jnr, visit the churchyard in order to ‘fishing’. This was a euphemism for body snatching which was rife at the time.
Although the churchyard is now much smaller, during 1689-1845 88,000 burials took place in it and It’s estimated that 1.5% of the 66 million Londoners who have lived in the capital over the centuries have been buried here. It closed to burials in 1850 and was acquired by parish authorities becoming a public park in June 1877.
We first visited the church which is very attractive and to walk through its door is to walk into London’s past. Roman, Norman and Tudor brickwork are almost cheek by jowl with each other and the memorial of the very first burial is preserved on a wall near the altar. This is to a Mary Berisford who was interred on a very auspicious day, 21 August 1588, which was the day of the Spanish Armada. On the opposite wall is the memorial to Daniel Clark (died 1613) and his wife, Katherine (died 1627) and he was cook to Elizabeth 1st. This large monument is dedicated to William Platt and his wife and they look as if they’re sitting in a box at the theatre.
A piece of a Roman altar is embedded in the top of the present one. It was found nearby and seems appropriate as St Pancras was a Roman saint.
According to the guidebook, the church:
‘may possibly date back to the 4th century…..the present building has been here since the 11th or 12th century close to the River Fleet.’
The river now runs underground but continues to supply Highgate Ponds. Lester informed us that the 17th generation descendant of Richard III swam in them daily. However, little remains of the medieval church.
As we left the church to enter the churchyard I spotted a wall memorial to a Amelia Rogers whose occupation was given as ‘pew-opener’. This undoubtedly referred to the days when there were box pews with doors and she was obviously greatly valued.
One of the features for which the churchyard is renowned is The Hardy Tree. This is an ash tree which has grown in and around the headstones placed around it. Sadly, the tree isn’t looking very healthy these days and an exclusion fence has had to be placed around it as branches have fallen from it. Fungus is clearly visible. The Hardy connection comes from the novelist Thomas Hardy.
During 1862-67, as a young man, he studied architecture under Arthur Blomfield, in London. At this time, the Midland Railway was being built over part of the churchyard and Hardy was given the task of supervising the proper exhumation of human remains and the dismantling of tombs.
‘In The Early Life, Hardy recounts being involved with the overseeing of churchyards that were being cut through by railroad companies. His employer, Arthur Blomfield, described “returning from visiting the site on which all the bodies were said by the railway companies to be reinterred; but there appeared to be nothing deposited, the surface of the ground quite level as before” In order to make sure the bodies were actually buried properly, Hardy was asked to check one such job at irregular intervals. One evening, accompanied by Blomfield, he watched as a coffin fell apart. Out dropped a skeleton and two skulls. When years later he met Arthur Blomfield again, “among the latter’s first words were: ‘Do you remember how we found the man with two heads at St. Pancras?'”http://casterbridge.blogspot.com/2009/05/levelled-churchyard.html
In 1882, 20 years later, he wrote the poem ‘The Levelled Churchyard’ which may refer to this period.
‘O passenger, pray list and catch
Our sighs and piteous groans,
Half stifled in this jumbled patch
Of wrenched memorial stones!
“Welate-lamented, resting here, Are mixed to human jam, And each to each exclaims in fear, ‘I know not which I am!’
“The wicked people have annexed The verses on the good; A roaring drunkard sports the text Teetotal Tommy should!
“Where we are huddled none can trace, And if our names remain, They pave some path or p-ing place Where we have never lain!
“There’s not a modest maiden elf But dreads the final Trumpet, Lest half of her should rise herself, And half some local strumpet!
“From restorations of Thy fane, From smoothings of Thy sward, From zealous Churchmen’s pick and plane Deliver us O Lord! Amen!”
The Hardy Tree is a London legend but no-one’s quite sure if Hardy himself placed the headstones there. However, it was certainly created at the right time. With the Eurostar coming to St Pancras in 2007, another part of the churchyard was lost and there has been a Hardy Homage. A graceful swirl or half circle of headstones marks the spot
Part 2: Escape from the Black Hole, the inspiration for a British icon and Frankenstein
Like many others I turned out on a wet Sunday morning to look at the elusive artist, Banksy’s, temporary emporium of homewares in trendy ‘Tech City’ Croydon.
He created ‘Gross Domestic Product” in response to a greeting card company attempting to copyright his name. He was advised that in order to stop it happening he needed to create his own own homeware brand. This is how the shop came into being.
Amongst a baby’s cradle surrounded by CCTV monitors and the Union Jack vest worn by Stormzy at Glastonbury I found this. The epitaph said it all and this is the artists statement on it.
It may soon be available to buy on Banksy’s online store.
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.
Unfortunately the epitaph beneath isn’t as clear as the carving. Even at 400% magnification, all I can make out is
So I’m not sure if the headstone was erected by a wife or is dedicated to a wife.
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 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
and here is a modern sculpture from Nova Scotia.
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.
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.
The tools of the trade refer to those used by the sexton in his duties as maintaining the local churchyard. The word ‘sexton’ is derived from the Latin word ‘sepeliarus’ which roughly translates as ‘the custodian of sacred objects’. He or she is an officer of the church, a member of the congregation and is also in charge of maintaining the church buildings.
The sexton’s tools can include:·
A spade or shovel·
A turf cutter which is recognisable by its triangular blade·
These can often be depicted either on their own or crossed and are reminders of mortality as they are connected with the dead. I used to think that they only appeared on the headstones or memorials of gravediggers but this hasn’t proved to be the case. Instead they appear to be a form of memento mori and a reminder of the viewer’s ultimate destination. There are variations as in this one on the headstone of Ann Baker in the churchyard of St Nicholas, Sevenoaks. In this combination of symbols, a coffin takes centre stage as it appears to either be rising ominously out of the ground or is being deposited into it.
The epitaph states that she was the wife of Stephen Baker and there is a headstone with that name on it nearby. There is a nicely carved skull on it and I wondered if, as Ann’s symbols are larger and appear to be professionally carved, that perhaps the family had gone up in the world.
This fine example comes from St Peter’s, Falstone, Northumberland and contains several key mortality motifs. A spade or shovel , an open book, perhaps the Bible or a prayer book, a skull and crossbones and a winged angel above.
This example of a skull with a tool amongst other motifs comes from the churchyard of Rochester Cathedral in Kent.
I have found two other magnificent examples in Edinburgh and Northumberland churchyards but am awaiting permission from the bloggers to be able to use them.
However, sextons have another claim to fame as they also appear in literature and plays. For example, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act V, Scene 1, the two gravediggers who are digging Ophelia’s grave debate whether she should have a Christian burial as she is a suicide. Later in the same scene, a sexton unearths Yorick’s skull giving rise to one of Hamlet’s most famous lines:
‘Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well.’
Several famous rock singers have worked as grave diggers including Joe Strummer, Dave Vanian of the Damned and Tom Petty . However, the claim that Rod Stewart was one is only an urban myth.
Charles Dicken featured a sexton, Gabriel Grub, in a ghost story that appeared in The Pickwick Papers called ‘The Goblin and the Sexton’. Gabriel is not a happy man. On Christmas Eve, he walks along Coffin Lane to the churchyard to finish digging a grave which is to be used the next day. Along the way he takes out his ill temper on a boy singing a Christmas carol and then meets the Goblin sitting cross legged on a headstone. This Christmas night will change Gabriel’s life forever. According to the Victorian web this story was Dickens’ version of Rip Van Winkle and is an example of ‘a curmudgeon chastised.’
It seems appropriate that sexton’s tools should feature so prominently in some churchyards. After all, he or she is the last person to take care of your body after death; whether you are buried or your ashes are deposited there and also the preservation of your memorial.
It has been an eventful summer for me, to say the least. I moved house again for various reasons and now live in Rochester, Kent. For those of you that don’t know it, it’s a town associated with Charles Dickens and is on the banks of the River Medway.
But I have also been busy researching 18th century memento mori’s in Kent churchyards, both around Sevenoaks and Rochester. It was quite surprising to see the differences in carvings from church to church and parish to parish. They started out as naïve, almost crude, motifs and then professional stonemasons became involved. In the churchyard of St Peter & St Paul church in Tonbridge there were still 2 tombstones dating back to medieval times. A blog post on my research, or I prefer to call it, poking about in churches and churchyards, is forthcoming as is Symbol of the Month amongst others.
So although shadowsflyaway has been quiet over August I’ve been gearing up for the autumn.
To whet your appetite for the Memento mori post here is one from the churchyard of St Peter and St Paul in Seal, Kent which is almost like a piece of Folk Art in my opinion…