Pottering about cemeteries, burial grounds and graveyards as I do while undertaking research can often lead to unexpected discoveries. As I search for symbols and epitaphs, and the occasional wildlife, I often find unusual names recorded on headstones and memorials, They’re often names that you don’t see every day and so, if you’re a writer like myself, cemeteries can often provide inspiration for naming characters especially if it’s a historical piece.
So here is a small selection from St Mary’s churchyard, Riverhead, near Sevenoaks, Kent that I saw earlier in February 2019 on a lovely Spring like day, Crocuses and snowdrops clustered around the headstones and seeing a name like Mercy Bellchambers on a headstone felt really appropriate. Now that’s a name really crying out to be used in a historical novel…..
Due to a major mistake by my internet provider I have been offline for over two weeks but shadowsflyaway is back again!
Animals increasingly appear on modern memorials and I’ve often wondered if they are a totem for the deceased or maybe they just like them or maybe they had a pet. Cats are very common and I’ve seen them either in 2D carved on a headstone or in 3D form as a small statue.
But this one is unusual as it’s very personal, almost in a code, and is on a memorial stone in Brompton Cemetery’s Garden of Remembrance. Most memorial stones are small and people use calligraphy or a very small motif due to the limited size. The family name isn’t stated on this stone and the images are almost playful.
I was lucky enough to meet the widow of the man commemorated on the plaque. She is Maria Kacandes-Kamil and the mommy cat represented her. The two her cats were her daughters and the camel depicted her husband, Steven, who died in 2011. The significance of the camel is a reference
to the family name (you may have guessed it already) which is Kamil. Also note that the mommy cat, Maria, is pointing at the camel to possibly denote the marital bond.
It was lovely to find a modern memorial which had a touch of humour as well as being very personal.
How many casual passer-bys like myself would have guessed the significance of the animals?
For years a romantic ruined church fascinated me whenever I saw it from the bus as we sped along Grand Depot Road in Woolwich. There seemed to be no reason for it to be there, standing quietly under spreading trees with an unlovely corrugated roof over part of it and no sign nearby. Sometimes I could see what I thought was a large mural at the very back of it and always meant to get off and have a closer look. Then the bus would move on and I would forget about it again.
So it wasn’t until 2017, on an Open House weekend, that I finally visited it and discovered what makes this church, or what’s left of it, unique. The mural was actually a mosaic and one of the glittering, restored mosaics which is assumed to have been made by a famous workshop in Venice. They are the survivors of an interior which was once richly decorated with them. But why are they here in SE18?
The marching feet of the parade ground may have now become the marching feet of commuters on their way to the DLR but there’s still many reminders of Woolwich’s military past to be found. The church’s official name is St George’s Garrison Church and it was built to serve the Royal Artillery. Once an important and landmark building that could hold 1700 people inside, it didn’t always sit in solitude. When it was originally built in 1862-63 in the Italian-Romanesque style it was part of the Royal Artillery barracks with the parade ground before it.
St George’s was built as many other garrison churches, hospitals and barracks in response to the outcry about soldiers living conditions after the Crimean War of 1853-1856 and to improve the ‘moral wellbeing’ of the soldiers.
However, St George’s decline began in the First World War when it was bombed and its rose window destroyed. But, on 13 July 1944, a flying bomb started a fire that gutted the interior. During the 1950’s there were suggestions about it being rebuilt but these came to nothing. The widening of the Grand Depot Road in the 1960’s finally separated St George’s from the parade ground and it has sat marooned ever since.
The upper levels were demolished during the 1970’s and the church became a memorial garden. This is when the functional corrugated roof was placed over the mosaics. The Royal Artillery moved to Wiltshire in 2007 and so they will forever be apart.
The corrugated roof has been replaced by a much more attractive canopy. However The Friends of St George’s Trust information leaflet warns visitors:
‘not to stand beyond the altar, the apse and to be ‘careful of fragile/falling fabric as you explore the sanctuary and chapel.’
That sounded scary but I was careful as I didn’t want to become one of the residents of the memorial garden just yet.
But it was the large central mosaic of St George and the Dragon that attracted me. I’ve always been fascinated by mosaics and have seen many in cemeteries. After years of glimpsing it from a bus it was wonderful to be able to see it close up and to admire the quality of its workmanship. According to the Friends of St George’s Trust website:
‘the mosaics are thought to be based on the Roman and Byzantine mosaics in Ravenna, Italy. St George and the Dragon and those around the chancel arches are assumed to have been made in Antonio Salviati’s workshops in Venice.’
But who is Antonio Salviati? The St George and Dragon mosaic form the centrepiece of the impressive Victoria Cross memorial behind the altar. This was funded by subscriptions in 1915 with no expense spared. The importance of this monument, dedicated to the 62 Royal Artillery men who received the prestigious VC, is emphasised by the fact that they went to one of the 19th century’s leading Italian glassmakers to create it.
Antonio Salviati (1816-1890) is considered to be one of the leading figures in 19th century glassmaking. Originally a lawyer, he became involved in the restoration of St Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. This led to him becoming interested in glassmaking and establishing his own factory. Salviati also re-established the island of Murano, near Venice, as a major centre of glassmaking and it still has that reputation today. He also created a European interest in brightly coloured pieces of Italian glass as decorative objects. Salviati’s factory soon began receiving commissions from France and England and it’s credited with creating the mosaic glass on the altar glass of Westminster Abbey and part of the Albert Memorial. There are also other surviving works in many churches and cathedrals in the UK.
Restoration work on St George’s mosaics was carried out in 2015 and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Although some of the tesserae from the mosaic – these are the small blocks of stone, tile, glass or other material used in its the construction – are missing, the conservators made the decision not to replace them
The chancel mosaics feature birds and vines. The lovely peacocks are appropriate symbols of immortality and rebirth and vines for abundance and as reminders of Christ and his followers. (see Symbol of the Month – the vine for more information.) There are also phoenixes which are traditionally associated with rising from a raging fire and are an ancient symbol of Christian resurrection. It felt appropriate as St George’s is a remarkable survivor of Woolwich’s military past and has risen again. But it’s still a building at risk.
There are pieces of the church on site such as the capitals to two of the broken columns. These feature winged lions and winged griffins. I walked around the memorial garden and thought how lucky we were that its mosaics had survived for us to still enjoy.
St George’s remains consecrated and holds 4 services each year. It’s now open on Sundays and you can admire the newly installed iron entrance gates. Archive photos show what an imposing building it once was but imagine it when newly built as the sun shone through the rose window illuminating the beautifully decorated interior making St George and the Dragon dazzle.
This month’s symbol is the Mourning Woman who is derived from Classicism and its association with ancient Greece and Rome. I would hesitate before describing their presence in Victorian cemeteries and churchyards as a monstrous regiment but they have mostly been on duty for over a hundred years. They patiently watch over and grieve for the departed. An eternal mourner, often with a veil covering her head and swathed in flowing robes, she keeps vigil.
The Mourning Woman can be a free standing statue on top of a monument or plinth looking sorrowfully down on the viewer. She can also be in the form of a 3D relief weeping over an urn containing the beloved’s ashes as in these examples:
At West Norwood cemetery there is this example of one resting on a lifesize cross (I hate to say it but whenever I see her I’m always reminded of the George Formby song ‘I’m Leaning on a lamp post…etc.).
Classicism held sway when London’s Magnificent Seven cemeteries were created. The anti-Catholic movement from the Georgian era was still a major influence with the cry ‘No Popery!’ loudly shouted. So no crosses, no statues of Jesus or any angels were permitted. Instead the clear cool lines of the ancient world were used as well as some of their traditions.
Mourning women were one of these as women played an integral part in the funerary ritual in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. In the latter they were paid professional mourners as the more mourners there were at a funeral the more wealthy and prestigious the departed had been in life. In the funeral procession which took place prior to the cremation the professional mourning women, who were not part of the deceased’s family, would loudly wail, rip out their hair and also scratch their faces in mourning according to contemporary records. It was felt that women could more easily express emotions as it was unacceptable for a man to weep in public.
There are several Biblical references to the mourning women. They are mentioned in Amos 5:16, Chronicles 35:25 and also in Jeremiah 9:17 as below
Thus saith the LORD of hosts,
Consider ye, and call for the mourning women,
that they may come;
and send for cunning women, that they may come: King James Bible
The reference to ‘cunning’ women means ‘skilled’ women.
They would often weep noisily and copiously spilling their tears into vessels known as tear catchers or lachrimosa. At the recent excellent Museum of Docklands exhibition, The Roman Dead, there were some on display. They were small glass vessels and were placed in tombs, presumably overflowing, after the funeral was complete. Again, if many tears were collected, it signified that the deceased was held in high esteem and those crying the most would receive a higher payment.
Incidentally the tear catchers became fashionable again in the 19th century with the Victorian cult of death. But this time the bottles had special stoppers that allowed the tears to evaporate and when they did the mourning period would be over. There is also a Biblical association with the practice of collecting tears in bottles in Psalms 56:8:
Thou tellest my wanderings:
put thou my tears into thy bottle:
are they not in thy book?
King James Bible
In ancient Greece it was again women who prepared the body and then laid it out ready for viewing on the second day.
Kinswomen, wrapped in dark robes, stood round the bier, the chief mourner, either mother or wife, was at the head, and others behind. This part of the funeral rites wasthe prothesis. Women led the mourning by chanting dirges, tearing at their hair and clothing, and striking their torso, particularly their breasts.
Here is a 6th century depiction of ancient Greek professional mourning women in full flow:
So for centuries women have been associated with, and played a major part, in the funerary process which may have been one of the reasons for the Mourning Woman appearing in cemeteries.
I feel that these women could be seen as a forerunner of the winged angels that flew into cemeteries towards the end of the 19th century. Both of them were guardians of the dead protecting them for eternity.
To end on, here is an lovely example that I unexpectedly discovered while on a Sunday afternoon stroll in the ‘secret’ graveyard behind St Nicholas’s church in Sevenoaks. She stands, surrounded by back gardens, and is a particularly elegant version. The memorial beneath her feet is dedicated to Elizabeth Dick and was erected by her sorrowing husband.
Sleep well for eternity Elizabeth and all those guarded by the mourning women.
Welcome to 2019! and we begin with an unusual variation on a common funerary symbol which I recently discovered in Brompton Cemetery
One of the most common symbols in a large Victorian cemetery is that of the shaking or clasped hands.
Usually, most of the hands illustrate the right hand in a grasp with fingers overlapping the other hand while the left hand is open. This is often interpreted as a man holding a woman’s hand which could indicate marriage or a close bond between two individuals. Clasped hands are also symbolic of a farewell or last good-bye. If you look at the cuffs of each hand you can soon guess who is the man and who is the woman as the latter usually has a frilly cuff.
There are also several other explanations of this image: the clasped hands may mean ‘Farewell’, marriage, or the that first one to die holds the surviving spouse’s hand guiding them to heaven. If on a family tomb they can mean either hope or reunification in the next life or simply ‘see you soon’ which may not be as comforting as it sounds with the Victorians high mortality rate.
But, while pottering about in Brompton Cemetery over Christmas and New Year, I found this variation on the theme. It’s undoubtedly two women shaking hands in farewell as each has a frilly cuff and is remarkably well carved.
At the base of the cross there is an inscription saying ‘In Loving Memory of our Beloved Mother.’ Beneath that at the very base of the monument there is a date, a name and the age at death.
It was such a cold day that I didn’t loiter too long except to take photos but I am intrigued enough to plan to do further research. Brompton Cemetery’s burial records have been digitised which is very helpful and once I have the name and date of death I should know more.
This month’s symbol is a rare one and I discovered it in my local churchyard, St Nicholas in Sevenoaks. It’s on the grave of the Beckley family.
However, I have also previously seen crosses with real cloth draped on them in two big London cemeteries One was in the Greek Section of West Norwood. At that time I thought that perhaps it was to commemorate an anniversary or a particular religious festival. However, during my research for this post. I have discovered that the colour of the West Norwood cloth, white, is associated with Easter Sunday.
As you can see from the above photo of the Beckley headstone, the cloth is wrapped loosely around the cross and, according to my research, it’s a resurrection symbol. In fact it’s known as the Resurrection Cross or the Shrouded Cross. Some of its other names are: the Draped Cross, the Empty Cross, the Risen Cross or the Deposition Cross. The latter is a further reminder of Christ’s descent from the cross
It’s intended to be a representation of Jesus no longer being on the cross. Although there are also plain crosses on graves unless they have the cloth they are not Resurrection crosses. The cloth is a supposed reference to Christ’s grave clothes or shroud that were found in the tomb after he rose from the dead. It emphasises to the bereaved left behind that death isn’t the end.
Within the church calendar, the cloth draped around a cross during important dates in the Christian calendar particularly Easter has special significance according the colours of the fabric. These are white, purple – the colour of royalty, and black. The latter is used from Palm Sunday (the week prior to Easter) until Good Friday and denotes mourning after Christ’s death on the cross.
The shrouded cross on the Beckley headstone is a striking image which caught my attention and really stood out in a churchyard containing several headstones with fascinating symbols on them.
So this one may be an affirmation of faith on behalf of the deceased or a strong belief in the afterlife with death being seen as the beginning of a new life.
Where do you go to grieve when there’s no memorial with which to remember them?
I can’t recall exactly when I first spotted the floral tribute in a jam jar placed on a ledge of the Howard monument in West Norwood Cemetery. The memorial is near the columbarium and over the last 2 or 3 years I began to make a habit of looking to see what flowers would be in the jam jar this time. There were never any accompanying cards or identification, just the flowers and sometimes a tea light. They were always fresh.
The bright colours of the flowers always stood out against the pale plaster on the monument behind them and often provided a wonderful photo opportunity.
The Howard monument is a handsome and large one with two magnificent downturned torches on each of its four sides and a fulsome epitaph above the flowers.
But who put them there? A mysterious mourner like the black clad visitor to Edgar Allan Poe’s grave? A descendant of the family marking a special day?
It was at the West Norwood Open Day in July 2018 I finally met the mystery mourner. As I walked past on my way to the columbarium, she was arranging a new bunch of flowers in their jam jar and we got chatting.
She was a local woman, let’s call her Mary, and was nothing to do with the Howards at all. Instead her flowers and tea lights commemorated a loved one who’d been cremated a long way away. We talked about where do you go to grieve if you have no permanent memorial or your deceased loved one is too faraway to visit.
She mentioned the mourning process and said that she used to come everyday but now it was less often. ‘It doesn’t mean that you don’t think about them but it’s not quite so raw. You start to move on.’ she said and added ‘You can get caught up in it.’ I mentioned Queen Victoria’s extended mourning period after Prince Albert died. At some point, at which only the mourning would know, they will become a cherished memory and the outward mourning begins to fade. I didn’t ask her why she’d chosen that particular monument but maybe she had her own reasons.
When my father unexpectedly died, it had been difficult for me to grieve as I had nowhere tangible to go and so, like Mary, I did adopt an angel in a nearby Victorian cemetery as my mourning place. There was something about being in a place where the outpouring of grief was unashamed and open with the need to have a permanent memorial that said I was here. It felt more appropriate that the neatly trimmed municipal cemeteries. I felt drawn to it although he’d never been there.
But the old cliché is true in that time is a great healer, life does go on and the dead live in our hearts in the ways in which we choose to remember them. With me I became a blood donor in my father’s memory as he had also been one.
One day Mary may no longer feel the need to leave a floral tribute to her departed friend and it will have served its purpose. I will miss passing the Howard monument to see what flowers are in the jamjar this time.
RIP Mary’s friend whoever and wherever you were. I hope you know that Mary always remembered you and that you were not forgotten.
Here’s another interesting piece from the BBC news website on murder memorials dating from the early 19th century. They are usually found in country areas as the victim and murderer would often be known to the community.
By Natalie GriceBBC News
26 October 2018
Wandering around the picturesque cemetery at St Catwg’s church in Cadoxton, Neath, a first-time visitor might be startled out of their gentle stroll by the stark message on top of one tall, weathered stone – MURDER.
This memorial in south Wales is one of a handful of “murder stones” erected around the UK, the majority over a period of about 100 years, to commemorate violent deaths that shocked the local communities.
The Cadoxton stone is dated 1823, and recounts the death of Margaret Williams, 26, who was from Carmarthenshire but was working “in service in this parish” and was found dead “with marks of violence on her person in a ditch on the march below this churchyard”.
Miss Williams’ story, such as is known from contemporary reports, tells of an unmarried young woman who had been working for a local farmer in Neath when she became pregnant.
She had declared the father of the child was the farmer’s son, and when her apparently strangled body was discovered head down in a watery inlet in marshes near the town, he was the prime suspect.
But whatever local opinion may have believed, there was no evidence to tie him or anyone else to the crime, and her murder remained unsolved.
However, the murderer was left in no doubt as to the feelings of the local community after this stone, part gravestone and part warning, was erected over poor Margaret’s body.
Giving the details of her fate and the date of her death, the stone, erected by a local Quaker, continues: “Although the savage murderer escaped for a season the detection of man yet God hath set his mark upon him either for time or eternity, and the cry of blood will assuredly pursue him to certain and terrible righteous judgement.”
This unsolved killing is unusual in the history of the surviving murder stones in that the murderer escaped justice. Most of the other memorials are to people whose killers were quickly detected, sentenced and dispatched via the gallows.
Dr Jan Bondeson, a retired senior lecturer at Cardiff University and a consultant physician, has made a study of the history of crime alongside his medical career and has written a number of books on the subject.
He became interested in murder stones after editing a book which featured them.
He said: “The murder stone in Cadoxton is the only one in Wales. There are plenty of them in England.
“There was an instinct for the local people to erect them. There was a strong instinct to commemorate a tragic murder.”
Dr Bondeson has documented several further murder stones across the English counties, and one early example of the type in Scotland.
One murder stone has been immortalised by no less a writer than Charles Dickens himself. In the novel Nicholas Nickleby, the eponymous hero walks through the ominously named Devil’s Punch Bowl at Hindhead in Surrey.
There, he and his companion come across the real-life stone marking the 1786 murder of a man known only as the Unknown Sailor.
The unnamed man was en route to his ship in Portsmouth when he visited a local pub in Thursley. There he fell in with three fellow sailors, and paid for their drinks and food before leaving with them.
The sailor was repaid for his generosity in the following way: They “nearly severed his head from his body, stripped him quite naked and threw him into a valley”.
The three did not get far. The sailor’s body was found soon after, and James Marshall, Michael Casey and Edward Lonegon were chased and captured after trying to sell the dead man’s clothes at a pub.
They were hanged from a triple gibbet near the murder scene, and the unknown man was buried in Thursley with a stone paid for by local people.
But the local mill owner, James Stillwell, went a step further. He placed a stone in Devil’s Punch Bowl itself, with this grim warning to future generations:
“ERECTED, In detestation of a barbarous Murder, Committed here on an unknown Sailor, On Sep, 24th 1786, By Edwd. Lonegon, Mich. Casey & Jas. Marshall
“Who were all taken the same day, And hung in Chains near this place, Whoso sheddeth Man’s Blood by Man shall his, Blood be shed. Gen Chap 9 Ver 6”
Dr Bondeson said the majority of the stones appeared around the 1820s, adding “That was the high level for the erecting of murder stones. All of them are in the country – none are in urban areas.”
Elizabeth – Bessie – Sheppard was just 17 when she set out from her home in Papplewick, Nottingham, on 7 July 1817, to seek work as a servant in Mansfield, seven miles away. She found a job, but she never found her way back home, because on her return journey, a travelling knife grinder found her.
Charles Rotherham, a man in his early 30s, had served as a soldier in the Napoleonic wars for 12 years before beginning this new stage in his life.
He was seen on the road coming from Mansfield after drinking several pints where his path crossed Bessie’s.
Her severely battered body was found in a ditch by quarrymen the next day. Her shoes and distinctive yellow umbrella were missing and there was evidence her attacker had tried to remove her dress but had failed.
Rotherham had sold Bessie’s shoes and was on his way to Loughborough when he was arrested. He confessed to the crime and was returned to the scene where he showed a constable the hedge stake he had used to kill Bessie.
Like all murderers at the time, Rotherham swung for his crime. Local people, outraged by the attack, banded together to raise money for a stone to commemorate Bessie, which was placed on the site where she was attacked.
Bessie’s stone simply honours the memory of the dead girl, but another stone erected to a female victim of violence has more of a moral tone, seemingly warning women against certain behaviour as much as expressing anger with the killer.
“As a warning to Female Virtue, and a humble Monument to Female Chastity: this Stone marks the Grave of MARY ASHFORD, who, in the twentieth year of her age, having incautiously repaired to a scene of amusement, without proper protection, was brutally violated and murdered on the 27th of May, 1817.”
The story behind Mary Ashford’s death and its aftermath is one which left a permanent mark on English legal history.
She had gone to a dance in Erdington, Birmingham, with her friend Hannah Cox, whom she planned to stay with overnight before returning to her place of work at her uncle’s house in a neighbouring village.
At the dance, she met a local landowner’s son, Abraham Thornton, and later reports confirmed the pair spent most of the night dancing together and having fun.
When they left the dance, Mary told her friend she would spend the night at her grandparents’ home – possibly a ploy to spend more time with Thornton – and Mary and he went off together.
Mary returned to Hannah’s house at 4am, changed her dancing clothes for her working clothes, collected some parcels and set out for her uncle’s home.
About two hours later a labourer found a bundle of clothing and parcels on the path leading to Mary’s home. The alarm was raised and her body was found submerged in a water-filled pit.
An autopsy showed she had drowned and had been raped shortly before her death.
People believed Thornton, having been rebuffed by Mary during their hours together, had lain in wait for her to return home and raped her before throwing her into the pit to drown.
He was duly arrested and tried, but a number of witnesses placed him at another location at the time of Mary’s death and he was acquitted.
But the story does not end there. Mary’s brother William Ashford began a private prosecution under an obscure ancient law, which allowed relatives of murder victims to bring an “appeal of murder” following an acquittal.
Thornton had a surprise up his sleeve though. In response, he demanded a trial by combat as was his right under that law, under which he could legally have killed Ashford, or if he defeated him, gone free.
Ashford was much smaller than Thornton, and declined the battle. Thornton was a free man, and the case was swiftly followed by a change in the law in 1819, banning such appeals and therefore trial by battle.
Other victims include:
William Wood, of Eyam, Derbyshire, murdered by three men who robbed him of £100 in 1823 – his head was “beaten in the most dreadful manner possible”. Two men were caught, one escaped justice. A permanent memorial was erected over 50 years after the crime after earlier versions were destroyed or removed, which showed the strength of feeling still present in the community about the murder.
Father and son William and Thomas Bradbury, who were brutally attacked in William’s pub The Cherry Arms, known as Bill O’Jacks locally, on 2 April 1832 in Greenfield, Saddleworth. Their unsolved killings were recorded on a stone which noted their “dreadfully bruised and lacerated bodies”.
The Marshall family – the “special horror”, as noted in The Spectator at the time, of the Denham murders in Buckinghamshire, where a family of seven including three young girls were beaten to death at their home attached to their father’s blacksmith’s premises. The youngest, Gertrude, four, was found still clutched in her grandmother Mary Marshall’s arms. Killer John Jones was found a few days after the killings on 22 May 1870 and speedily tried and executed. They are buried in one grave in St Mary’s Church, Denham, where the original worn murder stone has been supplemented by a modern plaque to remember the victims.
The last word goes to those who chose to commemorate Nicholas Carter, a 55-year-old farmer from Bedale, Yorkshire, killed by a farm labourer as he rode home from market.
The stone laid at the murder site in Akebar – later to become a Grade II listed monument which hit the headlines earlier this year when it was badly broken in a car crash – had a very simple message, along with the date of his death, May 19, 1826.