Symbol of the month – The Butterfly

This is another older post about a symbol that is not common within churchyards and cemeteries and so I am always thrilled whenever I see an example.  This gorgeous example is in below is in the interior of St Nicholas’ church in Chislehurst, Kent. It’s dedicated to a woman and perfectly illustrates the use of the butterfly as a symbol of transformation and resurrection.

As the lockdown edges closer to more restrictions being relaxed, I hope to be out exploring again very soon!

Butterfly on monement, interior of St Nichols church Chislehurst, Kent, copyright Carole Tyrrell



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©Carole Tyrrell


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©Carole Tyrrell


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©Carole Tyrrell

The Gordon monument butterfly motif in all its glory. Kensal Green Cemetery. copyright Carole Tyrrell
The Gordon monument butterfly motif in all its glory. Kensal Green Cemetery.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

Cemeteries and graveyards can be happy hunting grounds for butterflies.  But not just the bright, dancing summer jewels, borne on the breeze, but also the much rarer kind which perches in them for eternity.

So far I’ve only discovered two of this particular species which were both in London.  One was in Brompton and the other was in Kensal Green.  But I have also seen others online in American cemeteries.

But I’m surprised that the butterfly symbol isn’t more widely used as it is a deep and powerful motif of resurrection and  reincarnation.  It has fluttered through many cultures which include Ancient Egypt, Greece and Mexico.

In classical myth, Psyche, which translates as ‘soul’, is represented in the form of a butterfly or as a young woman with butterfly wings.  She’s also linked with Eros the Greek God of love.   It is also a potent representation of rebirth and in this aspect, the Celts revered it.  Some of the Ancient Mexican tribes such as the Aztec and Mayans used carvings of butterflies to decorate their buildings as certain butterfly species were considered to be reincarnations of the souls of dead warriors.  The Hopi and Navaho tribes of Native American Indians performed the Butterfly Dance and viewed them as symbols of change and transformation.

The butterfly is an archetypal image of resurrection in Christianity and this meaning is derived from the 3 stages of a butterfly’s life.  These are:  1st stage = the caterpillar, 2nd stage = the chrysalis and 3rd and final stage = the butterfly.  So the sequence is life, death and resurrection.   The emergence of the butterfly from the chrysalis is likened to the soul discarding the flesh.  It has been depicted on Ancient Christian tombs and, in Christian art, Christ has been shown holding a butterfly.   It is supposed to appear chiefly on childrens memorials but the two that I’ve seen were on adult memorials.

Butterflies also feature in Victorian mourning jewellery and there is a fascinating article on this with some lovely examples at:

http://artofmourning.com/2014/10/25/butterfly-symbols-and-19th-century-jewellery/

In the 20th century, butterflies appeared in the flowing, organic lines of Art Nouveau and often featured in jewellery and silverware.

Face and butterfly on exterior of chapel. copyright Carole Tyrrell

Face and butterfly on exterior of chapel.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

This example is from the Watts Chapel in Surrey and shows the flowing lines and stylised butterfly.   They also appear in vanitas paintings, the name given to a particular category of symbolic works of art and especially those associated with the still life paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries in Flanders and the Netherlands.    In these the viewer was asked to look at various symbols within the painting such as skulls, rotting fruit etc and ponder on the worthlessness of all earthly goods and pursuits as well as admiring the artist’s skill in depicting these.  Butterflies in this context can be seen as fleeting pleasure as they have a short life of just two weeks.

Butterfly traditions

There are many superstitions and beliefs associated with butterflies.  They are often regarded as omens, good and bad, or as an advance messenger indicating that a visitor or loved one is about to arrive. In Japan, they are traditionally associated with geishas due to their associations with beauty and delicate femininity.

Butterfly & Chinese wisteria by Xu Xi Early Sing Dynasty c970. By Xü Xi (Scanned from an old Chinese book) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Butterfly & Chinese wisteria by Xu Xi Early Sing Dynasty c970.
By Xü Xi (Scanned from an old Chinese book) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Chinese see them as good luck and a symbol of immortality. Sailors thought that if they saw one before going on ship it meant that they would die at sea .  In Devon it was traditional to kill the first butterfly that you saw or have a year of bad luck as a result. In Europe the butterfly was seen as the spirit of the dead and, in the Gnostic tradition, the angel of death is often shown crushing a butterfly underfoot.   In some areas in England, it’s thought that butterflies contain the souls of children who have come back to life. A butterfly’s colours can also be significant. A black one can indicate death and a white one signifies the souls or the departed. It’s also a spiritual symbol of growth in that sometimes the past has to be discarded in order to move forward as the butterfly sheds its chrysalis to emerges complete. So it can indicate a turning point or transition in life. There are also shamanistic associations with the butterfly’s shapeshifting and it has also been claimed as a spiritual animal or totem.

Brompton Cemetery, tomb unknown

This example with its wings outstretched is from Brompton Cemetery in London.   Alas, the epitaph appears to have vanished over time and the surrounding vegetation was so luxuriant  that I will have to return in the winter to investigate further.  Note the wreath of ivy that surrounds it.  Ivy is an evergreen and is a token of eternal life and memories.  The wreath’s ribbons are also nicely carved.

The Gordon monument, Kensal Green

The second one is perched on the tomb of John Gordon Esquire, a Scotsman from Aberdeenshire who died young at only 37.  As the epitaph states   ‘it was erected to his memory as the last token of sincere love and affection by his affectionate widow’.    Gordon came from an extended family of Scottish landowners who had estates in Scotland and plantations in Tobago amongst other interests.  The monument is Grade II listed and is made of Portland stone with a York stone base and canopy supported by the pillars.  There was an urn on the pedestal  between the four tapering stone pillars but this was stolen in 1997.

The butterfly also has an ouroboros encircling it so, not only a symbol or resurrection,  but also of eternity with the tail devouring snake.  It is a little hard to see but it is there.

The butterfly symbol of the roof of the Gordon monument Kensal Green Cemetery. copyright Carole Tyrrell
The butterfly symbol of the roof of the Gordon monument Kensal Green Cemetery.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

The pharaonic heads at each corner are Egyptian elements within an ostensibly  classically inspired monument. Acroteria, or acroterion as is its singular definition, are an architectural ornament.  The ones on this monument are known as acroteria angularia. The ‘angularia’ means at the corners.

The entire monument is based on an illustration of the monument of the Murainville family in Pugin’s Views of Paris of 1822 and also on Moliere’s memorial which are both at Pere Lachaise in Paris.

The Gordon memorial incorporates elements  of the Egyptian style and symbolism that influenced 19th century funerary monuments after the first Egyptian explorations. Kensal Green contains many significant examples and there are others to be found in Brompton, Highgate and Abney Park.  The Victorians regarded the Egyptians highly as it was also a cult of the dead.

So when you next see a butterfly fluttering on the breeze or even perched on a memorial for eternity remember its importance within the tradition of symbols, religions and cultures.  Who knows it might be one of your ancestors…..

© Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.

References:

http://www.gardenswithwings.com/butterfly-stories/butterfly-symbolism.html

http://www.whats-your-sign.com/butterfly-animal-symbolism.html

http://www.spiritanimal.info/butterfly-spirit-animal/

http://www.pure-spirit.com/more-animal-symbolism/611-butterfly-symbolism

http://www.shamanicjourney.com/butterfly-power-animal-symbol-of-change-the-soul-creativity-freedom-joy-and-colour

http://www.bbc.co.uk/london/content/articles/2005/05/10/victorian_memorial_symbols_feature.shtml

http://www.thecemeteryclub.com/symbols.html

https://stoneletters.com/blog/gravestone-symbols

https://www.reference.com/world-view/butterfly-symbolize-cf9c772f26c7fa5

https://www.reference.com/world-view/butterflies-symbolize-19a1e06c9c98351c?qo=cdpArticles

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Butterfly

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vanitas

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acroterion

https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1191024

Clare Gibson, How to Read Symbols, Herbert Press 2009

Douglas Keister, Stories in Stone, A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography, Gibbs Smith, 2004

J C Cooper, Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, Thames & Hudson 1978.

A ‘free range’ walk on the West side – Highgate Cemetery July 2020

The Egyptian Avenue on a Highgate Cemetery ‘free range

One of the greatest cemeteries in London is Highgate in North London. Crammed with the great and good and also some of the not so good it contains some of the most dramatic funerary architecture to be found in the capital.

The cemetery is bisected by Swain’s Lane with Highgate West on one side and Highgate East on the other. Usually the West side can only be accessed by being on an official tour but this year it was a little different……

Social distancing, in this case, was a good thing!  As The Friends of Highgate Cemetery Trust(FOHCT) were unable to hold tours during the summer they cunningly decided to offer ‘free range’ tours instead. For £10 you could book a time, agree to follow a few sensible rules on safety etc and then wander round the West side at will. And if you had the energy, as Highgate West is large, have a look round the East side as well. The West is very overgrown and FOHCT like their visitors to be safe.  They didn’t want their visitors to have a nasty accident and then haunt them forever more.

Please note that I have covered Highgate in a previous post – 16/2/2016 to be exact so some memorials mentioned here will have been covered more fully in that post.

So, on 10 July, I entered through the arch of the chapel and into the green cathedral of the West side.  The trees had linked arms above the graves, monuments and memorials to form a canopy over the entire site.  It felt as if everything was bathed in green light as I walked up the hill.  At its highest point Highgate is 375 feet above sea level. Cemeteries are often built on these as their permanent residents are nearer ‘my God to thee.’

I passed the empty chair memorial to a young actress and spotted a pelican in her piety symbol amongst the undergrowth. The overgrown nature of the West side gives it a real charm and mystery.  A helpful steward directed me to the Rossetti group of graves which I’d always wanted to see but he also pointed out the grave of a woman who had died when her dress had caught alight. Apparently this only ceased with the coming of the mini-skirt and possibly central heating.

The Rossettis have their own path named after them but the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Dante Gabriel Rossetti is not buried with them.  Instead his parents Gabriele (1783-1854) and Frances (1800-1886), his brother William (1829-1919) and William’s wife Lucy Madox Brown (1843-1894), who was the only daughter of Ford Madox Brown, his sister Christina Rossetti (1830-1894) and Dante’s wife Lizzie Siddal (1829-1862) occupy the plot.  

Lizzie features as the model in several of Dante’s paintings and the Victorian web points out that she died aged 32 instead of at 30.  She was addicted to laudanum which was derived from opium and was a Victorian cure-all. Laudanum was prescribed for morning sickness and cranky infants amongst others.  It was easy to become addicted and she succumbed.  Lizzie was pregnant at the time of her death, although she may not have known it, and had already had a stillborn child with Dante.   It is still not known  if she died of an overdose or a deliberate act of suicide. However, she was a talented artist in her own right and some of her work was featured in the 2019 exhibition ‘Pre-Raphaelite Sisters.’

But Lizzie has also been commemorated by an act that occurred after her death.  One of Dante’s early biographers  recorded it:

On the day of the funeral Rossetti walked into the chamber in which the body lay. In his hand was a book into which at her bidding he had copied his poems. Regardless of those present he spoke to her as though she were still living, telling her that the poems were written to her and were hers, and that she must take them with her. He then placed the volume beside her face in the coffin, leaving it to be buried with her in Highgate Cemetery. This touching scene will some day doubtless be the subject of a picture. Time, after its wont, hallowed and sanctified the memory of loss, but the bereavement was long and keenly felt. Meanwhile, the entombment of Rossetti’s poems had an effect upon which the writer had not calculated. They were familiar to many friends, and passages of them were retained in the recollection of some. These poems were during subsequent years the subject of much anxiety and wonderment, and the existence of the buried treasure was mentioned with reverence and sympathy, and with something of awe. Seven years later Rossetti, upon whom pressure to permit the exhumation of the volume had constantly been put, gave a reluctant consent With the permission of the Home Secretary the coffin was opened” by a friend of Rossetti and the volume was withdrawn. [Knight 76] from the Victorian Web site

It would haunt Dante for the rest of his life.   In one of his most famous paintings ‘Beata Beatrix’ painted in 1869, which is an amalgam of several drawings of Lizzie, a white poppy features. The red dove represents their love and the poppy the laudanum that hastened her death. It’s derived from poppies. Dante died in 1882 and is buried at Birchington-on- Sea.

Elizabeth Siddal circa 1860 unknown photographer shared under Wiki Commons
Beata Beatrix Dante Gabriel Rossetti completed 1870.

William Rossetti was a founder member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and wrote widely.  He was also the biographer of his family. One of Christina’s most famous poems was ‘Goblin Market’ and she also featured in ‘Pre-Raphaelite Sisters.’

I returned to the path but discovered a selection of the rich and famous as I walked up to the Circle of Lebanon. 

The epitaph says it all
Lucien Freud artist
Jean Simmons actress.- she starred with Kirk Douglas in Spartacus

Alas, the venerable 250 year old Cedar of Lebanon after which it was named succumbed to old age in 2019.   It was a survivor from the Ashurst estate on which Highgate West was built on and was an impressive sight.  Now a wildflower garden stands on the spot. I had come out onto the upper terrace and from there I could see the layout of the Circle much more clearly. There are some impressive monuments here: Nero the lion eternally slumbers on the Wombwell monument. George Wombwell was a Victorian menagarist who owned 3 travelling animal shows.  The monument to John Maple features low relief carvings from the life of Christ. He owned a very successful furniture business which occupied a large site on Tottenham Court Road.   It no longer exists.   The Circle is built in the Classical style and the inner circle contains 20 vaults and another 16 were added in 1870.

The Circle of Lebanon from the upper tier and note the wildflower garden that replaces the Cedar after which the Circle was named.
Nero, the lion, guarding the Wombwell monument.
The Maples monument on the upper tier of the Circle.

The Terrace catacombs were closed although I have been inside them on a previous visit. By contrast they are in the Gothic style and were built on an existing terrace from the Ashurst estate.  The frontage is 8 yards long with room for 825 people in 55 vaults each containing 15 loculi or coffin spaces.  I was reduced to peering through a doorway on this occasion before turning to the magnificent Beer mausoleum which was built for his 8 year old daughter, Ada.

The Gothic style terrace catacombs
The Beer mausoleum

As it was a self-guided tour I had time to admire the summer wildflowers which were growing in profusion.  Cemeteries are good places to find these; Acanthus, ragwort, verbena, Ladies Bedstraw, Vipers Bugloss, Rosemary Willowherb and also a buddleia in full bloom studded with Peacock butterflies on Faraday Path. 

Peacock tucking into a Budleia blossom on Faraday path.
Viper’s Bugloss
Acanthus

A sidepath from the Circle led me along another path which I’d not previously seen.  The atmosphere seemed different and it was certainly darker, perhaps due to a thicker tree canopy, as I walked along it to a gate at the other end.  This would have originally opened onto Swain’s Lane and there was what appeared to be a former gatekeeper’s lodge nearby. It still bore the monogram of the London Cemetery Company who were the original owners of Highgate cemetery.  Time slips have been reported along this path and I wondered if it was the gate through which a man is reported to look out at unwary passers-by.

A possible former gatekeepers lodge
The monogram of the London Cemetery Company

I retraced my steps towards the magnificent Egyptian Avenue one of Highgate’s highlights. Tom Sayer’s monument lay to my right with his faithful dog, Lion, eternally keeping guard and then the  Sleeping Angel.  This is dedicated to Mary Nichols who was a Londoner who died in 1909 from heart failure and diabetes.  It’s a lovely tribute.

Lion guarding the gave of bare knuckle fighter Tom Sayers
The Sleeping Angel on top of Mary Nichols
The Acheler memorial

The horse on top of the Acheler memorial records John Acheler who became wealthy and well known as a ‘Knacker’.  He called himself ‘horse slaughterer to Queen Victoria’.

The Egyptian Avenue!

And then the Egyptian Avenue!  The centrepiece of Highgate West in my opnion. It may be looking a little tired but it’s a magnificent example of how the Egyptian explorations of the 19th century influenced funerary architecture. Note the two large obelisks flanking the entrance and the stylised lotus flowers on the columns as you enter through the arch and into the passage that will take you into the lower tier of the Circle. 

The Avenue was also a catacomb but they were never really popular as other London cemeteries soon realised. After all if Highgate couldn’t sell all theirs then who could? The passage contains 16 vaults on either side which were each fitted with shelves to hold 12 coffins. These were bought by individual families for their own use.

The passage from the Avenue entrance into the Circle of Lebanon.
The vaults on either side of the passage.
The Circle of Lebanon as you emerge from teh Egyptian Avenue.

By then I thought it was time to explore the East cemetery while I still had the energy.   

Wildflowers were also in profusion here: clover, bird’s foot trefoil and vetch Butterflies flew about on the heat of a late summer afternoon. 

Bird’s Foot Trefoil – Highgate East

I saw my favourites; Jeremy Beadle, Malcolm McLaren, Karl Marx and Patrick Caulfield.   There was also the grand piano dedicated surprisingly enough to a pianist, Henry Thornton, who died in 1918 during the ’flu epidemic.

Jeremy Beadle – Highgate East
Patrick Caulfield – a sense of humour
Malcolm Mclaren
Henry Thornton, a pianist

The East side isn’t as overgrown as the West side and as I explored further I found a memorial which highlighted a dog. This was dedicated to Ann Jewson Crisp and her faithful dog Emperor. 

But as I left the East side I spotted another of its more celebrated residents settling down for a siesta behind the Great Train Robber, Bruce Reynolds’, memorial.  It was a cemetery cat who was soon hidden deep in the grass and I didn’t want to disturb him or her.  What a playground!

A cemetery cat having a kip in the last afternoon sunshine.

As I left the East Cemetery and walked down Swain’s Lane to Archway tube station I still had time to admire my ideal des res – Holly Village – which was built by Victorian philanthropist, Baroness Angela Burdett-Coutts. It is said that she planned it with Charles Dickens. She built the Burdett-Coutts Memorial Sundial in St Pancras Old Burying ground.

Thj Gothic beauty of Holly Village

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell except where indicated

References and further reading

http://www.victorianweb.org/sculpture/funerary/216.html

https://highgatecemetery.org/about/the-friends

Highgate Cemetery – maps to East and West cemeteries.https://www.hamhigh.co.uk/news/fascinating-history-of-unique-village-within-a-village-1-628284

Symbol of the Month – The Winged Soul

A lovely example from St Peter & St Paul, Shoreham, Kent.
©Carole Tyrrell

The skull and crossbones. One of the central motifs of 18th century Memento Mori and intended to be a stark and macabre  reminder of the viewer’s inevitable destination.  This would be all that would remain of you after death.

However it wasn’t a very comforting message to either the loved ones left behind or to the living.

But fashions and tastes change, even in funerary symbolism, and the skull and crossbones had served their purpose.

Instead they were replaced by the winged soul. This consisted of a small child’s head flanked by a pair of wings or a garland of leaves.  They have the faces of babies with big, round eyes, plump cheeks and pouting lips and resemble Renaissance putti which are child-like.  Putti represent the sacred cherub as they are known in England.

The winged soul may have been intended to be a more comforting image as the wings represented the soul of the deceased ascending to heaven.  This could also give hope of a resurrection to those left behind.  According to headstone symbols:

‘In the USA the winged soul is known as a soul effigy.’

It was immensely popular and in my explorations of medieval Kent churches and their churchyards I found many examples. In fact, in one or two churchyards they outnumbered the skull and crossbones symbol. They mainly had one winged soul on a headstone but there were sometimes  two or three clustered together as in these examples:

They can also appear in several combinations with other classic memento mori symbols as here:

In addition, every mason seemed to have his own interpretation of feathers as they can be carved as typical fluffy feathers, resemble broad leaves or be very stylised.

With wings in general they are an important symbol of spirituality.  They express the possibility of flying and rising upwards to heaven.  For example, in the Hindu faith, they are:

the expression of freedom to leave earthly things behind…..to reach Paradise.’

New Acropolis

 

However, as the full flowering of the Victorian language of death in the 19th century began to appear the emblems of memento mori were retired. Although a couple, such as the hourglass and ouroboros, were revived.   But I did find two modern examples of the winged soul in the churchyard of St Martin of Tours in Eynsford, Kent.

I had always previously thought of the winged soul as being a more general symbol and just a decorative feature.  I called them winged cherub heads or death heads and never considered that they might have had a specific meaning or purpose.  It was exciting to see so many variations and interpretations sometimes within the same churchyard.  But it depended on the skills of the mason as to how well they were carved and whether they were 2 dimensional or 3 dimensional.

But as a message of comfort it is one of the most poignant in memento mori. The other central motifs emphasise time running out, think about your life now and this is all that will be left. The winged soul suggests an eternal life and a more uplifting message.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated

References and further reading:

http://www.thecemeteryclub.com/symbols.html

https://headstonesymbols.co.uk/headstone-meanings-and-symbols/deathheads/

https://stoneletters.com/blog/gravestone-symbols

https://www.boston.gov/departments/parks-and-recreation/iconography-gravestones-burying-grounds

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Funerary_art_in_Puritan_New_England

https://library.acropolis.org/the-symbolism-of-wings/

http://www.speel.me.uk/gp/wingedcherubhead.htm

https://gravelyspeaking.com/2012/12/29/winged-cherubs-head/

https://www.sacred-texts.com/lcr/fsca/fsca11.htm

 

 

Symbol of the Month – The Empty Chair

Mary Emden’s empty chair, Highgate West cemetery.
©Carole Tyrrell

When out exploring large Victorian cemeteries you may see the welcome sight of an empty chair on top of a grave.  However, please don’t give into the urge to perch yourself on it for a quick rest but instead, ponder on its meaning.

An empty chair is intended as a reminder of loss, absence and a memory of someone dear who has now gone.

It’s one of the most poignant symbols of loss and is a staple of old Hollywood movies and also some soap operas. There’s a large family gathering, preferably at Christmas, and everyone’s round the table. Then, in the middle of all of the jollity, the camera pans down to an empty space set with cutlery and china and a vacant chair. Then it all grows quiet as everyone looks at it and remembers the absent family member.

Douglas Keister has suggested that these memorials can often be found on childrens graves  with a tiny pair of shoes attached  and one usually on its side.  He considers that they are obviously associated with the death of a child or young person and, in his book, Stories in Stone, he cites a poem by Richard Coe, Jr that appeared in Godey’s Lady’s Book in January 1850.

THE VACANT CHAIR

by Richard Coe, Jr.

When we gather round our hearth,
Consecrated by the birth
Of our eldest, darling boy,
Only one thing mars our joy:
‘Tis the dreary corner, where
Stands, unfilled, the vacant chair!

Little Mary, bright and blest,
Early sought her heavenly rest.
Oft we see her in our dreams ­
Then an angel one she seems!
But we oftener see her, where
Stands, unfilled, the vacant chair.

But ’twere sinful to repine;
Much of joy to me and mine
Has the gentle Shepherd given.
Little Mary is in heaven!
Blessed thought! while gazing where
Stands, unfilled, the vacant chair.

Many parents, kind and good,
Lost to them their little brood,
Bless their Maker night and day,
Though he took their all away!
Shall we, therefore, murmur, where
Stands, unfilled, one vacant chair!

Little Mary! angel blest ‘
From thy blissful place of rest,
Look upon us! angel child,
Fill us with thy spirit mild.
Keep o’er us thy watchful care;
Often fill the vacant chair.

There is also a famous Civil War ballad dedicated to an 18 year old, John William ‘Willie’ Grant who was killed at Balls Bluff, Virginia in October 1861. This also mentions ‘the empty chair’ in the context of a departed loved one.

I haven’t yet seen one dedicated to a child or young person in my explorations of UK cemeteries. Instead, the examples that I have seen are dedicated to adults both men and women.  But I’m sure that I will see one dedicated to a child sooner or later.

Full view of Mary Emden’s empty chair in Highgate West cemetery.
©Carole Tyrrell

This is in Highgate West Cemetery in London and is dedicated to Mary Emden (1853-1872). She was a 19 year old soprano who died young of TB.  Mary’s real name was Marie and she and her husband, Walter, had only been married a year and a glittering career would have lain ahead of her.  He was a successful architect of theatres and these include the Royal Court, the Garrick and the Duke of York’s theatres which are still standing today. Mary’s chair sits under a Gothic canopy with a sculpted stole draped across it as if she had just got up out of the chair and left it there intending to return.  To read more about Mary’s life please visit: https://misssamperrin.blogspot.com/search?q=mary+emden

These come from Kensal Green Cemetery in London and are on the graves of two distinguished men.

The empty chair or throne on MP Charles Middleton’s grave, Kensal Green Cemetery.
©Carole Tyrrell

This is almost a magnificent throne it’s so large! Sadly the epitaph is long gone although there appears to be a coat of arms at the top. I have been told by the Friends of Kensal Green that it’s dedicated to Charles Middleton MP. However the only Charles Middleton MP that I have found so far died in 1813 which is long before Kensal Green Cemetery was created.  But it is so imposing and dramatic.  When things are easier I will go back and see if I can get a better picture of the coat of arms as that may help.

Henry Russell’s empty chair in Kensal Green Cemetery.
©Milky

This elegant chair is on the grave of Henry Russell and his wife Hannah. He was a prolific composer and one of his most celebrated works is still performed today. He was born in Sheerness on Sea in Kent which seems appropriate for the composer of ‘A Life on the Ocean Wave’.  Henry grew up in the Anglo-Jewish community of Blue Town and he started his musical carer early at the age of 3.  However, at 10 he was working in a local apothecary’s shop. This didn’t last long as it’s rumoured that he

‘gave a customer sufficient Epsom Salts to bring down an elephant’ www.jtrails.org.uk/trails/henry-russell-and-life-on-the-ocean-wave-at-sheerness

Clearly the apothecary shop wasn’t his calling in life. But music was in his blood and, after his voice broke, he travelled to Italy to study under Rossini. On his return to England he took up the post of chorus master at Her Majesty’s Theatre.

Henry Russell. Print shows Henry Russell, half-length portrait, facing slightly right, with right hand resting on piano keyboard, open sheet music in the foreground and a shipwreck on storm tossed waves in the background. Includes six lines of text from poem “Wind of the winter night, whence comest thou?” Shared under Wiki Commons.

But America was tempting him and it was there that he would discover his songwriting talent. He would also be able to collaborate with the songwriters and poets who would provide him with the lyrics that he set to music.  He arrived in Rochester, New York and became an organist and choirmaster at the First Presbyterian Church.

In total he composed 800 songs and another of his most well-known ones is ‘Woodman Spare That Tree’ which was based on an incident in the lyricist, Charles Wood’s life. Russell also collaborated with such luminaries as Longfellow, Tennyson, Dickens and Thackeray.   However it was Dickens who re-arranged another of Russell’s well known compositions ‘The Fine Old English Gentleman’ into a parody and satire based on the Tory government at the time. You can read it here: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/may/14/charles-dickens-gentlemen-poem-week

But with no copyright protection Henry didn’t reap the rewards of his success and instead it was the publishers that made the money. He had already lost the £10,000 that he had made in America by investing in the United States Bank which collapsed and took all its investors’ money with it.  However t was Henry’s performing that brought in the money as he was immensely popular.

Many of his works deal with social issues of the day such as slavery or private mental asylums and he raised over £7000 for victims of the Irish Famine.  He returned to England in 1844, married twice and gave his final performance in 1891 when he sang at a concert given in his honour.  Henry had 5 sons, two of whom followed him into the musical profession. Sir Landon Ronald Russell (1873-1938) became a conductor, pianist and composer and Henry Russell (1871-1937) who was an opera impresario.

Is it a coincidence that two of the empty chairs are on the graves of theatrical people?  The throne would have suited Macbeth! I found Mary Emden’s memorial to be the most poignant with the air of someone who had just left.

However there is a sinister side to the empty chair.  They often appear in urban explorer photos of derelict hospitals and asylums.  In these, for some reason, the chair looks menacing and if it’s lying in wait……….these two photos again come from Kensal Green and were taken by cemetery photographer, Jeane Mary.   An elegant chair in the middle of decay and dereliction why is it there? A prop for a photo shoot?  A discarded piece of furniture?

 

As I was writing this post I saw a series of photos by a photographer on the Folk Horror Revival Facebook page.  She had been out walking on a lonely moor and found a recliner style armchair sitting  in the middle of nowhere.  It could have just been just dumped there but it seemed a long way to go to do that.  The photographer emphasised that she had decided not to sit in it and it did look very creepy in her photos.

Next time I visit Kensal Green I may well be tempted to sit in the throne.  I only hope that it’s not already occupied……

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated

References and further reading:

Douglas Keiser, Stories in Stone, Gibbs Smith, 2004

https://www.umass.edu/AdelphiTheatreCalendar/actr.htm

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/may/14/charles-dickens-gentlemen-poem-week – this contains Dickens’ parody of Russell’s’ The Fine old English Gentleman’

http://www.traditionalmusic.co.uk/songster/05-the-fine-old-english-gentleman.htmlyrics to Henry Russell’s The Fine Old English Gentleman

https://misssamperrin.blogspot.com/search?q=mary+emden – Grave Expectations and Doyennes of Death

http://www.jtrails.org.uk/trails/sheerness-and-blue-town/articles/c-889/henry-russell-and-life-on-the-ocean-wave-at-sheerness/

 

 

However there is a sinister side to the empty chair.  They often appear in urban explorer photos of derelict hospitals and asylums.  In these, for some reason, the chair looks menacing and if it’s lying in wait……….these two photos again come from Kensal Green and were taken by cemetery photographer, Jeane Mary.   An elegant chair in the middle of decay and dereliction why is it there?

A prop for a photo shoot?  A discarded piece of furniture?

 

As I was writing this post I saw a series of photos by a photographer on the Folk Horror Revival Facebook page.  She had been out walking on a lonely moor and found a recliner style armchair

sitting there in the middle of nowhere.  It could have just been just dumped there but it seemed a long way to go to do that.  The photographer said that she had decided not to sit in it and it did look very creepy in her photos.

Next time I visit Kensal Green I may well be tempted to sit in the throne.  I only hope that it’s not already occupied……

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated

References and further reading:

Douglas Keiser, Stories in Stone, Gibbs Smith, 2004

https://www.umass.edu/AdelphiTheatreCalendar/actr.htm

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2012/may/14/charles-dickens-gentlemen-poem-week – this contains Dickens’ parody of Russell’s’ The Fine old English Gentleman’

http://www.traditionalmusic.co.uk/songster/05-the-fine-old-english-gentleman.htmlyrics to Henry Russell’s The Fine Old English Gentleman

https://misssamperrin.blogspot.com/search?q=mary+emden – Grave Expectations and Doyennes of Death

http://www.jtrails.org.uk/trails/sheerness-and-blue-town/articles/c-889/henry-russell-and-life-on-the-ocean-wave-at-sheerness/

 

A wandering ghost and a memorial to a favourite deer – Crawford Priory, Cupar, Fife

Crawford Priory in ruin shared via Wiki Creative Commons
©David Kelly

On windy nights, the derelict and romantic ruin that is Crawford Priory is reputed to have a familiar visitor.  A wandering spirit walks through the estate which she once owned accompanied by a retinue of the per animals that she knew and loved.  This is the ghost of Lady Mary Lindsay Crawford who is rumoured to walk the grounds when the wind is high.

Is she keeping a watch on the crumbling building or her crypt which is a mile away.  Or does she see the Priory as it once was with its fine furnishings and decoration and a butler opening the front door to visitors as she, smiling,  descends the sweeping staircase to meet them?

Deep in the Fife countryside lies the shell of a derelict, once grand country house.  For over 25 years it has been abandoned to nature which is fast obscuring it from memory and the world.  Ivy and saplings have thrust their way through broken windows and doors and a fire in 1995 was the final indignity. In 1997 its current owner applied to have it demolished but it may just eventually fall down by itself.

The cawing of crows or the wind whistling around what’s left of the Gothic styled Crawford Priory are the only sounds that the casual visitor will hear now.

However, it was never actually a priory and no religious order ever lived there.  But the name went with the romantic Gothic touches such as the pointed windows and the battlements and so it became one.

Lady Mary’s crypt, Crawford Priory in sad decline
©British Listed Buildings

A mile away near Lady Mary’s Wood lies an equally ruinous crypt dedicated to the Priory’s creator and the last of her line, Lady Mary Lindsay Crawford. From urban explorers websites, the last great recorders and finders of the abandoned, the crypt is in no better state than the Priory.  Its door is now bricked up although a hole has been made in it and the crypt is falling in on itself. The pet cemetery is rumoured to be still there but I haven’t seen any photos of that while researching this article.

To add to the romance of the place there is also a belief that the pale wraith of Lady Mary drifts across the site as she gathers her pet animals around her.  She had the crypt built so that she would always have a good view of the Priory even in death.

I am indebted to a Facebook friend who lives in Scotland with her family. They like to go out and explore the local countryside and share their photos and adventures online.   They have been kind enough to give me permission to use their photos to illustrate this article.  Crawford Priory was a real gem as it’s the sort of place that I would like to explore myself.

Crawford Priory was originally merely a hunting lodge built by the Earl of Crawford in 1756 and then completely remodelled in the then  fashionable style in the early 1800’s. Lady Mary employed well known architects of the time to create it.  She died in 1833 and was known as a reclusive, religious woman. The pet cemetery was also created by her to remind her of her favourite animals.  They flocked to her and she was frequently attended by tame foxes, birds, dogs, cats and even a pet deer.  However, I have been unable to find any images of  Lady Mary but she must have been formidable as well as kind. There is a tombstone near the outer wall of the Priory dedicated to a pet deer which is what caught my attention and intrigued me enough to research further.

Lady Mary lived alone, except for her servants, and administered a large country estate as well as the Priory.  This included limestone kilns, coal mines and farms amongst other business interests.  This was remarkable in the 19th century for a woman alone.

This keen business sense and her managerial abilities led to Lady Mary being regarded as odd and her obituary, according to alex cochrane’s blog, considered her eccentricities as

‘lean’d to the virtue’s side for  the cause of humanity .’’

Also, according to adcochrane, a distant relative of the family, quotes from one of Lady Mary#s letters on his blog, in which she says:

‘this hall is raised under bad and awful auspices ‘

and then goes onto to describe how her dog:

‘howled in the most dreadful manner in the next room to the new building…yet in spite of its cries would not leave the dining-room’

It sounds like a page from a Gothic novel as the heroine eats her dinner at a candle-lit dining table while her dog howls and the wind picks up speed around the battlements.

Lady Mary left generous bequests to the local poor, friends, servants and her animals. The Priory then came into the possession of the Earls of Glasgow and the Cochranes   The photos on adcochrane’s blog and now in the possession of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (rcahms for short) reveal how lavishly decorated The Priory’s interior was:

The grand hall was magnificently decorated with fan vaulting and hanging pendants; suits of armour stood under canopied gothic niches; medieval style stained glass lit the hall. The drawing room and morning room opened off a rib vaulted chamber decorated with gargoyles, both with gothic fireplaces inlayed with coloured marbles. The principal staircase…was decorated with gilded armorial panels and armorial stained glass of the Earls of Glasgow.” adcochrane

ADcochrane also goes onto recall that

‘The grand bedroom was hung with panels of wallpaper depicting the life of Psyche from the ancient Latin story by Apuleius.’

He adds that in 1990 a lot of the internal decoration was still there but now it’s all gone.  Even the sweeping staircase has finally collapsed.  To see archive photos of the Priory in its glamorous heyday please visit his blog:

https://adcochrane.wordpress.com/2014/01/06/crawford-priory-riddle-of-a-ruin/

Eventually the Priory became just too expensive to maintain like many country houses.  They usually required a retinue of servants to maintain them and after the Second World War these were in short supply. Adcochrane adds that both his godfather and cousin remembered exploring huge unused rooms and clambering about dusty piles of trunks.

In the 1960’s the Prior needed an expensive and major restoration but this never happened.   No use has been found for it since and so it was left to lie empty until it fell into its current state.

If Lady Mary does walk in her wood and the Priory grounds then one hopes that she sees the Priory as it was and not how it is now.

© Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.

References

https://www.derelictplaces.co.uk/main/rural-sites/35632-crawford-priory-revisit-scotland-october-2017-a.html

Helen Grant FB page

http://www.derelictplaces.co.uk

 

 

Names from the Necropolis – No 1 in an occasional series.

 

The Bellchambers headstone, St Mary’s, churchyard, Rverhead, Kent
©Carole Tyrrell

 

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…..

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell

Symbol(s) of the month:  A camel and a family of cats

Due to a major mistake by my internet provider I have been offline for over two weeks but shadowsflyaway is back again!

The circular stone in Brompton’s Garden of Remembrance featuring the family motifs.
© Carole Tyrrell

 

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?

RIP Steven.

 

© text and photo Carole Tyrrell

 

 

How a piece of glittering Venice came to SE18 – a  visit to St Georges Garrison Church, Woolwich

The Victoria Cross memorial in full.
©Carole Tyrrell

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.

Exterior view of St George’s which doesn’t indicate of the riches inside
Shared under wiki Creative Commons

 

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.

Exterior view of St George’s which doesn’t indicate of the riches inside
Shared under wiki Creative Commons

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.

View of St George’s from the entrance showing the rather more aesthetically pleasing canopy roof – even from here St George gleams.
©Carole Tyrrell

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 shared under wiki Creative Commons.
Th is is in the public domain in the USA.

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.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.

References and further reading:

https://www.ianvisits.co.uk/blog/2018/10/03/go-inside-the-ruined-st-georges-garrison-church-in-woolwich/

https://www.stgeorgeswoolwich.org/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_George%27s_Garrison_Church,_Woolwich

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Antonio-Salviati

 

The mysterious mourner of West Norwood Cemetery

 

Spring time view of the Howard monument 21 April 2018 – note daffodils on ledge.
©Carole Tyrrell

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.

Fresh flowers at the Howard monument. July 2018
©Carole Tyrrell

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell

Murder memorials: A grisly history written in stone

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.
  • 26 October 2018
Murder stone in St Catwg's church
The tragic tale of Margaret Williams is hinted at on the stone which condemns her murderer

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.

St Catwg's Church, CadoxtonImage copyrightCR LEWIS/GEOGRAPH
Image captionThe peaceful graveyeard of St Catwg’s in Neath hides a harrowing tale in its midst

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.

Stone to unknown sailor, Hindhead, SurreyImage copyrightPETER TRIMMING/GEOGRAPH
Image captionThe murder stone at the Devil’s Punchbowl, Surrey, features in Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby

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 Sheppard murder stoneImage copyrightDEBORAH MCDONALD/GEOGRAPH
Image captionBessie Sheppard was murdered on her way home after going to look for work

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.

Mary Ashford and Abraham Thornton
Mary Ashford and the man accused of her murder, Abraham Thornton

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.

Murder stone commemorating William WoodImage copyrightCOLIN PARK/GEOGRAPH
Image captionThis murder stone at Disley in Cheshire commemorating William Wood was erected 50 years after the crime

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.

Do No Murder.