So what can you do with a ruined, vandalised building in the middle of a wood?
Hope that it falls down and solves the problem?
Forget about it, let nature take its course and make it into a romantic ruin?
Wait for someone else to finish the job and try and blow it up again?
Luckily for the Mausoleum, there were local people who cared about it and knew what a jewel they had in their midst. They were determined to save it. So in 2001, Gravesham Council took the bold step of buying it and Cobham wood from HM Government and, with funding from Union Railways, the Cobham Ashenbank Management Scheme or CAMS for short was formed. This included several stakeholders such as the National Trust and English Heritage and with a £6million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund they carried out the restoration. They were lucky that Wyatt’s original drawings still existed as well as James Wraight RIBA’s 1946 full drawing with measurements which were invaluable resources. In 2010 the project won at the Kent Design Awards and the National Trust took over in 2013. It must have been a real challenge to turn a ruin back into the glorious building that it is again. It opened to the public in April 2014.
It’s a remarkable building which has survived because local people appreciated its beauty and importance.
Mausolus, the journal of the Mausolea and Monuments Society commented:
‘That it’s a reminder of thwarted sepulchral ambition and episcopal control’
and it is an apt description in many ways. For a funerary symbol enthusiast like myself it was a fascinating structure to walk around it and see the various motifs of death. I was so glad that I made the effort to visit at last.
If you want to visit the Mausoleum then be prepared for a walk. You can come up through the Ransford Nature Reserve which is a lovely stroll, especially if the poppy field is in bloom. Continue walking up through it to the top of the hill and then follow the Darnley trail through the woods. I did manage to get lost on my return journey but kept following the rule of going down all the time. The alternative is to walk through Cobham village and onto Lodge Lane at the bottom and follow the directions on the map on the noticeboard.
However, I saw the Mausoleum on sunny days but on a darker, greyer day it could feel far more eerie and melancholic. A cold wind blowing around it would remind the casual passer-by that eternal rest can be a very, very long time. Perhaps that’s the effect that the Darnleys wanted to achieve.
But then who’s to say that maybe the ghosts of long dead Darnleys don’t drift up from the churchyard of St Mary Magdalene and take up their allotted space within the Mausoleum’s crypt? There’s enough room for 32 of them after all…….
Cobham Wood can feel like a haunted place. This is where the 19th century artist, Richard Dadd, murdered his father in a spot still known as Dadd’s Hole and so began his journey to a lifetime in Broadmoor. But before Mr Dadd gave into his murderous impulses, there was another place associated with death that sits alone in the woodland. Once intended as a grand and capacious building to house the dead of the Earls of Darnley, it was never used and, for a long time during the 1980’s and 1990’s, it was surrounded by piles of burnt out cars and motorbike scramblers. The hilltop location was ideal for these nocturnal sports.
But on 5 November 1980 someone went too far and lit a pile of tyres and petrol cans in an attempt to blow the mausoleum up. It brought down the chapel floor and the Mausoleum was open to the elements. But it survived.
However, it was a sorry sight in 2003 when it featured on BBC TV’s ‘Restoration’ programme as an appeal was launched for funds to restore it. However, the Mausoleum’s future looked bleak and even I thought that, due to its location, any restoration would be destroyed again. You can see how it looked at the time: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01mvbfj
But in June 2020 I made the pilgrimage through the poppy field of Ranscombe Nature Reserve and up through the woods to the Mausoleum. As I emerged from under the tree canopy I was amazed by the Mausoleum’s size. It is big, very big and was designed to hold 32 coffins in a lower crypt. It’s an extraordinary building and was originally sat at the highest point of the Darnley estate. It became an important feature of the landscape, almost an eyecatcher folly.
The Mausoleum is square in shape with a pyramid shaped roof, a dry moat and a vandal proof fence.
It’s Grade 1 listed and a rather unlovely door keeps it secure from unwelcome visitors. Just above it I could see one of the 4 lunettes or half-moon windows as the sun shone through the amber stained glass. This was a tantalising taste of what lay inside as the light shining through them is intended to create an ethereal light inside. But, alas, the building is closed to visitors at present due to COVID-19. The building is made of brick and faced with Portland stone. It can be seen as
‘a very grand classical temple that emphasised the Age of Enlightenment’s preoccupation with aclassical way of death’ according to the National Trust’s website.
It drips with symbols of death and remembrance. The square, circle and pyramid are classical motifs of eternity, the downturned torches indicate a life extinguished and there are 4 little sarcophagi on each corner. These were stone coffins designed to hold the dead and the word comes from the Greek for ‘flesh eater’. I was in my element as you can imagine.
But who built it and chose its location? It was the 4th Earl of Darnley who commissioned the fashionable and exacting architect, James Wyatt (1746-1813) to design the Mausoleum according to detailed instructions in the 3rd Earl’s will. The Earls of Darnley had always been buried in Westminster Abbey but after the 3rd Earl’s death in 1731 the Abbey was full. So the Mausoleum was to be the solution and would hold the coffins of the Earls and their family members. The 3rd Earl:
‘left detailed instructions in his will in which he clearly stated that he wanted a square stone building with a ‘prominent pyramid’ surrounded by a dry moat. He left £5000 or £10,000 if the first amount wasn’t sufficient.’ National Trust
The source of the pyramid might have come from the Earl’s Grand Tour when he may have seen the tomb of Caius Cestius in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome. There is also a building with a pyramid roof in the background of a 1647 painting by Nicholas Poussin, ‘The Sacraments of Ordination’. He was a highly regarded painter in the 18th century and there were several paintings by him included in the sale of Cobham Hall.
As the journal of the Mausolea and Monuments Society says:
‘Pyramids were rare in in English Georgian architecture and made their first appearance at Castle Howard;….Wyatt and Darnley trying to recreate the solemn grandeur of the ancients…’ Masusolus
Another source of inspiration may have been the famous tomb of King Mausolus at Halicarnassus in Asia Minor. He died in 353BC and such was the fame of his tomb that his name became synonymous with all subsequent stately tombs. As a result they became known as mausoleums.
The Darnleys lived at nearby Cobham Hall so the Mausoleum it would have been handy to have your loved ones nearby for eternity. Of course you may have been looking at it and wondering when you might be joining them. In 1786, at its completion, the Mausoleum cost, in total, £9000 which in today’s money is £1million. It is a lavish building with a marvellous interior from photos I have seen.
Wyatt’s designs were exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1783 and a modified design completed in 1786. However, it was George Dance the Younger (1741-1825) who supervised the work as Wyatt was renowned for having a bad reputation in erecting his own work. After completion, Humphry Repton (1752-1818), considered to be the last great landscape designer of the 18th century spent the next 30 years designing the landscapes around Cobham Hall for the 4th Earl.
But the Mausoleum was never consecrated and so couldn’t be used for its intended purpose. According to Mausolus, the journal of the Mausolea and Monuments Society,
‘the Bishop of Rochester was disapproving of buildings in secular sites and refused to consecrate a building that so brazenly evoked pagan arcadia.’
Repton himself suggested that it be converted to a viewing platform so that it could be put to some use and the views would have been amazing but it didn’t happen.
But instead of being laid out in the Mausoleum as intended the Earls of Darnley have been interred in the vaults and churchyard of St Mary Magdalene in Cobham village. There is a fine display of their memorials at the rear of the church and in the churchyard.
The Darnleys income came from a 25,000 acre estate in County Meath, Ireland. However their fortunes declined and in 1957 they sold Cobham Hall. After the arson attack there were many suggestions and schemes for the Mausoleum’s future. A developer bought it, intending to convert it into a residence but went bankrupt. He was presumably hoping to find a buyer who liked seclusion and could find a use for 32 coffin spaces in a crypt. The building passed into the hands of the official Receiver and HM Government became its new owner. The 4th Earl’s creation’s future looked bleak, its interior blackened from the arson attack and covered in graffiti and surrounded by a rusty junkyard.
The cawing of rooks in the bare trees kept me company as I walked towards St Mildred’s in Nurfield, just outside Meopham. It was a dark, wet, overcast day and St Mildred’s huddled surrounded by fields at the end of Church Lane. In fact, it’s known as ‘The Little Church in the Field’.
Kent has many of these picturesque churches and I hoped to discover more symbols or interesting headstones in the churchyard. Coronavirus was snapping at my heels and I knew that all churches would soon be closed.
On the horizon of one field outside the churchyard I could see the bright yellow traces of a future rapeseed crop but the other field, alongside it, was still ploughed earth. The bare trees tried to stretch up to the sky on the other side of it. I’ve always loved these in winter as you can really see the shape of the tree and the delicate pattern of branches and twigs.
St Mildred’s was closed but the church door was protected, or hidden, by four tall yew tree sentinels. A pot of purple pansies beside it were a splash of colour on such a grey day.
Despite the damp weather there were large patches of Spring flowers; Violets, both purple and white covered parts of the churchyard, together with smaller groups of Lesser Celandine which is one of the seven signs of Spring. Daffodils shuddered in the wind and a group of them huddled together for warmth by headstones. But I was determined and found the symbol of a closed book on one grave to a man who had died young. The oldest headstone was now unreadable and was decorated with tiny pom-pom shapes of a lichen. An imposing Celtic Cross was dedicated to a priest. The bright yellow flowers of lesser celandine had closed themselves up and who could blame them? Primroses kept their heads down but in one corner of the churchyard there were indications of living residents. These were of the four legged kind who had dug deep holes and left pungent evidence…..
Nurstead was described 700 years ago as ‘a poor little parish with a church.’ St Mildred’s was originally a Saxon church and made of wood. The current flint structure dates from the 14th century and the guide leaflet says ’that together with the 14th century hall of nearby Nurstead Court it is the only surviving part of the Manor as it existed in 1349.’
Meopham is pronounced Meppham and it’s more of a hamlet than a village. But it does possess another, larger church at the other end of it. This is dedicated to St John the Evangelist and appears on the village green town sign. St John’s was open and I gratefully sheltered inside glad of the respite from the weather.
The church on the sign – St John the Evangelist
Inside it was peaceful and St Johns had some interesting features. There was a very decorative wooden pulpit attributed to Grinling Gibbons and dated 1632 and the colourful and beautiful tiles decorating the chancel. They were uncredited in the guidebook. There was also a window containing fragments of medieval glass which have been dated to 1346. Curling hazel branches had been placed on windowsills and I wondered if it was in honour of Branch Sunday. Outside in the churchyard I explored and my shoes soon became soaking wet. A bonfire had been lit in an adjoining garden and the combination of that and the gloomy weather made it feel more like November. The Millais painting, ‘Autumn Leaves’, with its melancholy atmosphere sprang to mind. A patch of primroses cuddled up to each other in a drift of fallen leaves and the Lesser Celandine flowers had closed themselves in response to the rain. A lone dog violet stood in defiantly in the middle of them. It was time to go home.
But when I returned two days on the Saturday it was under sunny blue skies. St Mildred’s was now open and despite the wind that made the daffodils blow this way and that I noticed that the Spring flowers seemed to have colour again. The crisp white blossom of blackthorn foamed in one corner as did the Wild Cherry blossom on the other side of the churchyard. Late snowdrops nodded in the wind as I entered the church. The interior was very plain and simple with large ledger stones providing the nave flooring. The bare fields now looked as if they were impatiently waiting for the forthcoming crop to burst forth. I had hoped to see a March hare but no such luck. The headstones were bathed in the golden glow of the sun and the bright flowers of Lesser Celandine lifted their heads upwards and basked.
These were dedicated to past residents, the Edmeades, of nearby Nurstead Court, and dated back to the 17th century. They are actually buried in the vaults beneath the stones. A squint could be seen in the West Tower and the slow, regular ticking of the church clock was the only sound. St Mildred and her stag featured in the window above the altar and an ancient piscina was decorated with wheat ears and grapes. A reference to a farming community? The wind howled round the little church as it had done for centuries, as if trying one last time to blow it down, but it still stood.
In contrast St Johns was closed but the bright sunshine revealed several headstones that I had missed. I’m not quite sure what this figure represents but he does seem to be pointing to the small skull in the corner.
This is on the headstone dedicated to
‘Hannah, wife of Joseph Munn the elder Feb 15th 1715 in either the 34 or 54 year of her age.’
Mr Munn is buried beside in a separate grave with his second wife but not with such an intriguing symbol.
Also this naive head or skull on one headstone.
The sticky buds on a venerable Horse Chestnut tree at the entrance reminded me that despite the horrible weather we’ve had over the last couple of months Mother Nature was just getting on with it as she studded and carpeted churchyards with the bright colours of Spring flowers and blossom.
Sadly, my poking about in churchyards has had to be put on hold this Spring due to the virus. However I did manage to visit two Kent churches just before the lockdown and I will blog about this on a future post. One churchyard was awash with symbols!
I hope that you are keeping well and safe during these strange times. Life has taken on a surreal quality for some of us as others, keyworkers, keep things going and risk their lives. Will things return to normal afterwards or will we not take so much for granted again? Who knows.
There’s no Symbol of the Month this month as it’s shadowsflyaway’s 4th birthday!
Yes, it’s been 4 years since I started this blog and it’s been a joy to share my enthusiasm for symbols and other cemetery related stories with you.
I thought that I might have exhausted the supply of symbols on which to write about but no I always find a new one and undoubtedly there are still more out there waiting for me.
I always look forward to exploring a new cemetery or churchyard as there’s often a new gem for me to discover. Recently I have been poking about in medieval Kent churches and discovered a devil’s doorway, windows with eyes and a fine selection of 17th and 18th century names in a list of churchyard burials. Sadly, I don’t think that Beardsel, Chariot or Sundial are going to rediscovered but you never know…..and also some of the finest memento mori.
But mostly I’ve enjoyed letting the dead speak to me through the symbols they chose to have as their lasting message to the world.
This photo was taken in the churchyard of St Peter & St Paul in Seal, Kent. The view from the back of the churchyard looks out onto the North Downs and it was literally a view to die for (sorry couldn’t resist that one)
So let’s drink a toast, mine’s a lemon and lime flavoured water, and let’s see where we go in shadowsflyaway’s 5th year!
Yes, dear reader, it was three years ago in 2015 that I began this blog. A complete novice, I set it up in order to talk about primarily funerary symbols which are my main interest and to promote my work in progress which will be a book about them. One of my great pleasures in life is exploring cemeteries, graveyards and cemeteries to find new symbols to write about. But a word of warning, remember to take a camera with you and take photos of the graves around the one that you’ve chosen otherwise they can be difficult to relocate. I feel that symbols are the deceased’s final message to the world. It can either be a way to say goodbye or a message of comfort to those left behind. However, I can only speculate on the reasons for their choice.
But, while writing this blog, I’ve also become interested in the living residents of cemeteries – the wildlife. Often cemeteries are locked up at night and are usually quiet places which enable wildlife to flourish. There are often wild areas where the grass is left uncut and these can be a vital lifeline in an urban green space. They can support many different varieties of wildflowers, butterflies, moths, grasshoppers, dragonflies and also foxes and birds. At a recent Brompton Cemetery Exploring Butterflies day 13 species of Butterflies were found. It’s interesting how people use cemeteries as one man enthusiastically recommended Brompton Cemetery’s plentiful supply of blackberries for his smoothies!
So, thanks to my readers and visitors for staying with me over the last 3 years. I hope you’ve enjoyed my posts, photographs and theories on particular symbols. There’s plenty more to come including exploring what remains of the Necropolis Railway at Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey, a return visit to Chaldon Church to look at the churchyard memorials and also to the place where my interest in cemeteries began, St Lawrence’s Hospital burial ground also in Surrey and a Roman necropolis surrounded by back gardens in Italy.
And as always there will be Symbol of the Month. It’s always fascinating to undertake the research for these as there may be several different interpretations of meaning and it can also led into other directions.
So please come with me through either the cemetery gates or perhaps the lychgate to a churchyard and let’s explore together. There’s a symbol over there that I haven’t seen before and although I’m not sure what it means now I soon will…..
It was a, shall we say, bracing February day in Brompton Cemetery. The snowdrops were clinging together for warmth along the main avenue and a drift of daffodils near the soon to be completed café thought better of coming out in bloom. But I, and the apps designer, local GP Simon Edwards, didn’t let this spoil our fun. We had previously worked with together on the Brompton animals app and it was good to have another pair of eyes with me.
Our aim was to devise an app that gave a good selection of symbols within the cemetery, both common ones that can also be found in other cemeteries and others that were perhaps unique to Brompton. There would be a brief comment on each one by yours truly and there was also the opportunity to see me in person. You’ll have to make up your own mind about whether I’m attempting fruitlessly to hide behind a Celtic Cross or draping myself elegantly around it.
Brompton opened in 1840 and, due to the 19th century anti-Papist movement. crosses, Christ statues or angels were not popular. Instead other cultures and civilisations and other older cultures and influences were used as inspiration. These included Classicism from ancient Greece and Rome, the Celtic and Egyptian Revivals, Biblical quotations and references, the language of flowers as well as animals and insects.
Simon was also looking for additional images for the Brompton animals app and soon found a group at the top of the Stevenson Celtic cross. These are supposedly based on Viking animal images but although, when we looked more closely, it was difficult to make out exactly what kind of animals they were. Brompton’s Celtic crosses are very interesting due to the variety of decoration on them from spirals, traditional Celtic strapwork, flowers and even a cat. I will be writing about them in next month’s Symbol of the Month.
But soon we were exploring the alpha and omega, the Chi Rho, shaking hands, downturned torches, and flowers amongst others.
Among Brompton’s more unusual symbols are the two Aladdin style lamps on the Cornwell headstone, the polar and cub on the Hills one in the modern burials section and the small stone boat tied up at the base of the cross on the McCaig monument.
So if you feel like taking a self guided Symbols tour around Brompton Cemetery then please click on this link:
The Great Churchyard in Bury St Edmunds is big. Very big and forms a useful shortcut for the locals from an uninspiring car park (aren’t they all I hear you say) to Honey Hill. But the Great Churchyard is steeped in history and, according to a volunteer in nearby St Mary’s church, some of its pathways date back to Saxon times. The church sits perched further up the hill and so looks down and over the churchyard’s permanent residents.
I came upon the Great Churchyard by chance on a day trip in 2006 while exploring the extensive Abbey ruins. The Abbey’s ruins have eroded into strange shapes over the centuries and now look like lumpy fingers pointing accusingly at the sky. But after Henry VIII dissolved the Abbey in 1539, much of its flint and mortar has been ‘recycled’ by the locals and can be seen in walls and nearby houses. But it was the Churchyard’s memorable epitaphs that stayed with me and so on a bright December day last year I returned.
There is a plethora of 18th century symbols on display: skull and crossbones, winged angels, open books and one memorial had its own duvet of moss on the coffin lid shaped top.
As I explored, I found this tombstone and remembered that M R James had written a book on the Abbey’s history. Ann Clarke is the name of the unfortunate character in his story ‘Martin’s Close. I did wonder if this was his inspiration……
But the real jewel of the Churchyard is undoubtedly the 13th century roofless Charnel House. A rare survivor and its flint walls were lucky not to have suffered the same fate as the Abbey’s. The Charnel House was where all the disinterred bones from the Churchyard were stored. It’s empty now and is protected by iron railings. The Charnel House now acts as a roost for birds and also as a backdrop or gallery for the epitaphs that I remembered from 2006.
Amongst the collection are two 17th century tombstones placed on the walls. One is illegible although the symbols are still clear and the other is to a Sarah Worton, wife of Edward. Under the epitaph is the verse:
Good people all as you
Pas by looked round
See how Corpes de lye
For as you are from time ware we
And as we were f(s)o must you be.
If you take a closer look you can see how the mason had to slightly squash the letters to get all the words in.
But there are 4 significant epitaphs on the Charnel House walls and these are dedicated to the good, the bad and the just plain unlucky.
Firstly, the unlucky……..
Henry Cockton (1807 – 1853)
No. I’d never heard of him either until I started researching this post. This is not a name widely known today although his first and most successful novel, ‘The Life and Adventures of Valentine Vox the Ventriloquist ‘ is still available from various online booksellers. Note the symbol of a blank scroll of paper and quill pen above the epitaph which is the sign of a writer.
According to Wikipedia. Cockton was born in Shoreditch but ended up working in Bury St Edmunds where he married a local girl whose family were involved in the local pub trade. They had two children, Eleanor and Edward. As we shall see alliteration was a theme of Henry’s life. Valentine Vox was a largely comic novel about a man who teaches himslef ventriloquism and the jolly japes that ensue from this. It also involved social issues as, at one point, the hero is incarcerated in a private lunatic asylum and in the book’s preface Cockton rails against these places. Valentine Vox was a huge success and sold over 400, 000 copies and was published, like Dickens, in serial form. After this Cockton should have gone onto greater things but he was destined never to make any money from his writing. Editors cheated him, publishers went out of business and he was imprisoned for debt after being declared bankrupt. In 1843 he wrote ‘Sylvester Sound, the Sonanambulist’ which was about a sleepwalker who performed daring feats during his sleep but it didn’t enjoy the success of its predecessor – see what I mean about alliteration?
But he kept on writing until 1845 when he announced to his readers that The Love Match would be his final novel. Unfortunately bad luck continued to dog him – he was like King Midas in reverse as the song goes – everything he touched turned to mud. He stood surety for his brother who thanked him by fleeing to Australia and a speculative malting venture collapsed and ruined him. He and his family moved into his mother-in-law’s house and he wrote a further 3 unsuccessful novels. Sadly, aged 46, he died of consumption and 4 days later was buried in an unmarked grave in the town churchyard without any obituaries. Its exact location is still unknown. The plaque was put up by admirers and friends.
Henry’s widow petitioned the Royal Literary Fund for financial assistance and in 1856 a local paper printed another appeal for his family. But Valentine Vox, his most successful novel. has enjoyed a life beyond its creator. Jack Riley, a performer and writer on ventriloquism uses it as his stage name and Chris Jagger’s 1974 album also borrowed it. So a tragedy all round? It certainly was for Henry but not so much for his family…….
While researching online I found a blog on which there was a lively dialogue between the blogger and respondents who claimed to be Henry’s descendants. According to them, Henry’s widow remarried, Eleanor became a teacher and Edward eventually became Professor of Music at the Greenwich Royal Naval College.
And the the victim of a somewhat unkind Act of God……
Mary Haselton (1776-1785)
This fulsome eptaph is dedeicated to the unfortunate Mary Haselton who, in 1785, was struck by lightning while saying her prayers. There was virtually nothing about her online but I may contact the town’s Local Studies department. The epitaph reads:
Here lies interred the Body
A Young Maiden of this Town
Born of Roman Catholic Parents
And Virtuously brought up
Who being in the Act of Prayer
Repeating her Vespers
Was instantaneously killed by a flash
Of lightning August the 16 1785
Aged 9 years
Not Silom’ (?) ruinous tower the Vicoms slew
Because above the many sinn’d the few
Nor here the fated lightning wreak its rage
Its Vengeance sent for crimes manned by age
For while the Thunder’s awful voice was heard
The little supplicant with its hand upraised
Answered her God in prayers the Priest had taught
His mercy (?) and his protection sought
The last 4 lines are unreadable even on Zoom view. But it’s an amazing piece of verse and the mason who carved it really earned his money if he was paid by the letter.
It’s interesting that Mary’s parents religion is so openly stated. There had been a relaxing of attitudes towards Catholics in the 18th century despite the 1780 anti-Catholic Gordon Riots.
However there’s no way of knowing Mary’s actual burial place within the Great Cemetery but her memorial is in safekeeping on the wall of the Charnel House.
Part 2: The good and the bad…a Founding Father and a notorious crime.
Shadows move on the coffins and walls. Above you the glass orbs set into the high ceiling admit a little light into the depths but you prefer the intimate illumination of the flame. It reflects on the brass fittings and the patterns of the nails on the coffin on the shelf beside you. Your loved one now rests eternally in Brompton catacombs as you sit by the head of the coffin in its space or lochulus. Family news, world events: you talk to them as if they were alive with your voice the only sound in the silence. Then you open the book that you have brought with you at the bookmarked page, and then read the next chapter of what was their favourite novel. It’s almost like having your own private mausoleum.
Finally, almost reluctantly, you close the book, after having marked next week’s chapter and pick up the candleholder. As you walk towards the cast iron entrance gates, your footsteps echo behind you and the candle finally goes out as you open them. The sun outside temporarily blinds you as you pull the gate closed and then lock it with your own key. The symbols of eternity and mortality on them remind you of the other world behind. Then you ascend the flight of steps and return into Brompton Cemetery and the noisy world again. You have been ‘communing with the dead’ as our guide, Nick, explained.
Brompton Cemetery isn’t holding an Open Day in 2017 due to the ongoing restoration project but, instead, on 15 July they held catacomb tours. These are not usually open and I haven’t visited these for some time so eagerly took up the opportunity. It was a drizzly day so it was good to be under cover. The catacombs have the most magnificent cast iron doors featuring snakes, downturned torches, an ouroboros and a winged hourglass – all symbols of mortality and eternity. You know that you are entering the realm of the dead once you step inside.
I have visited several catacombs located in large London cemeteries and what has always remained with me is the special and unique atmosphere that each one has: Kensal Green, Highgate, Brompton and the Valhalla that is West Norwood. One of Nunhead’s catacombs has now become the Anglican chapel crypt and is only open on certain days.
Catacombs never became popular in England and most of the coffin spaces available were destined to only have dust as an occupant. These are known as loculi or loculus in the singular. Even Highgate was unable to sell all theirs in the Egyptian Avenue and I would have thought that they would have been snapped up. However, there is reputed to be a cemetery in Cheshunt which is doing a roaring trade in selling them as they have an Italian and Greek community who view catacombs differently.
There is another set of catacombs under Brompton’s western colonnades with an identical set of doors on the other side of the circle but these have remained unused. The other Western catacombs on the boundary side were never used and when reopened were crammed floor to ceiling with spoil which took a year to remove.
We were visiting the Eastern colonnade crypt and a flight of steps led to the iron doors. As Nick said imagine six pallbearers carrying a coffin on their shoulders down them on a wet day. The coffin would have been triple lined: wood, lead, wood so a heavy load indeed. Brompton, unlike other catacombs, such as West Norwood or Kensal Green, didn’t have a chapel above the catacombs with a handy hydraulic catafalque to transport the coffin down into the darkness.
Nick indicated an interment in the first chamber behind the doors. This was sealed in with a plaque and epitaph dedicated to Captain Alexander Louis Ricardo of the Grenadier Guards. For me, it was a reminder of the still unsolved Victorian Charles Bravo murder. Captain Ricardo was Florence Bravo’s first husband who died young from alcoholism in Cologne. I noticed ferns growing from a family vault beneath him and wondered about damp as a perennial problem.
Lit candles had been placed on the coffin shelves to light our way which added to the ambience. Victorians were fascinated with the idea of an afterlife and seances and mediums were big business. Sir William Crookes of the notorious Katie King case is also buried in Brompton. Nick added the Victorians were a heady mix of hardheadiness and sentimentality.
The glass inserts that allowed some light into the catacomb have long gone and been bricked up. Brompton’s original owners, The Westminster and West London Cemetery Company initially offered 4000 loculi for sale but of these only 700 were sold. So if you have a hankering for going underground they still have at least 3300 spaces available. Nick informed us that the last request for a catacomb space was in 1926.
English catacombs were based on the ones in Rome. Cremation was illegal until well into the 19th century so it was either under or over ground burial until then. Catacombs at Brompton were also called upon as a temporary mortuary when necessary. A visitor noticed that one coffin was just under the roof above four other coffins stacked on shelves and asked how the cemetery workers got it up there. Nick indicated the pulley blocks that they could have used to lift it up and manoeuvre it into place. Quite a feat.
Nick indicated the plumber’s diaper mark on the exposed side of one coffin which indicated that he had sealed it properly and there would be no leakages. He also pointed out the wreaths, somewhat desiccated by now, that mourners often left by the coffins, and there was a small elegant urn containing ashes placed on a shelf next to one.
Our visit lasted 30 minutes and we filed out towards the light of the outside world again leaving Brompton’s catacomb’s incumbents to eternally sleep on.
The attractive colonnades of Brompton are above the catacombs and have plaques on their walls. These were to enable friends or other relatives without keys to pay their respects to the deceased at the plaque. These are reputed to be affixed directly above the departed’s place within the chamber.
A word of cautionfor anyone considering visiting a catacomb for the first time: if you feel uncomfortable about seeing coffins, and a lot of people do, then don’t visit or think carefully about it first.
Please note: Photography is not permitted in the Brompton catacombs.
Yes shadowsflyaway is two years old this month! I’ll just blow out the candles on the birthday cake…
When I started shadowsflyaway in July 2015 I had no idea if anyone would read it although I invited a few like-minded people to view it. But sometimes putting something out into cyberspace with no idea of who, or if anyone, is going to look at it can be very liberating.
But some of my readers and followers have been with me from the start so thank you for staying with me and the blog.
And also welcome to my new followers and readers – it’s great to have you on board!
I really enjoy writing and researching shadowsflyaway as well as taking the photos to accompany the posts. I never know where the research might take me from a simple symbol to an unsolved Victorian murder. I know that Symbol of the Month is very popular and there’s many more out there for me to write about and discover. As a tour guide leading a recent Symbols tour within Brompton Cemetery it was a privilege to share my passion with other enthusiastic people face to face.
Shadowsflyaway started out to support my proposed book on symbols which is still an ongoing project. But the blog has taken on a life of its own and has also encompassed other aspects of cemeteries such as wildlife etc.
So raise your glasses,mugs or cups and let’s drink a toast to you for your support and to the next year of shadowsflyaway……now let me take you by the hand and we’ll explore that shadowy, overgrown part of the local cemetery as I’m sure there’s an interesting symbol under all that undergrowth……trust me I know these things.
It’s often on a winter’s night, just as dusk begins to fall and the lamp lights in St Georges churchyard come up, that the fine selection of 18th century tombstones are at their best. Carved skulls leer at you, an hourglass emphasises time passing and the gravedigger’s tools stand ready for the next interment. And perhaps there is still a phantom schoolteacher using his sculpted globe to teach geography to his spectral students.
There has been a church on this site since the 14th century and in one place in the graveyard the number of burials over the centuries has made the ground rise up on both sides. But, as well as 18th century examples of funerary symbolism, there are also some wonderful 19th century ones as well. Inside the church there’s also a good selection of impressive wall monuments dedicated to prominent local families dating back to the 1600’s. They are buried in the vaults beneath the church. St George’s also has the country’s oldest lych gate in that the current one incorporates elements from a far older one. The churchyard is a pretty one for a short walk through to the bustling High Street especially when the spring flowers begin to appear, carpeting the grass between the stones with bluebells and flitting butterflies.
However for this month’s Symbols post I will concentrate on the 18th century memorials within the churchyard. These tombstones are topped with classic memento mori symbols. This is Latin for ‘remember me.’ They are the visual accompaniment to the immortal epitaph from Dundee’s Howff graveyeard:
‘Remember Man as you pass by
As you are now so once was I
As I am now so must you be
Remember man that you must die.’
Graveyard symbolism, according to Douglas Keister, began when the well to do could no longer be buried with in their local church due to lack of space. Instead, they took up their eternal residence in the newly consecrated burial grounds outside and surrounding the church walls. These were often known as’God’s Acres’ and gave the wealthy the opportunity to erect a lasting memorial or tombstone in their memory.
St George’s churchyard became the last resting place of prominent local familes, some of whose descendants still live in the area. The oldest tombstone dates from 1668 and the 18th century ones are nearest to the church walls which in effect meant that they were ‘‘Nearer my God to Thee.’
I’ve always enjoyed walking through the churchyard as it can feel like walking through a gallery of funerary symbols. There’s something very exuberant about these 18th Century motifs of mortality even though some have eroded and only one epitaph is still fully readable. However, the skull and crossbones, the Death’s Heads and others have, in several cases, lasted better than the epitaph below them.
The skull and crossbones are an effective, if macabre, reminder of what is left of a body after it decomposes and there are several good examples in St Georges.
This one is near the church entrance and features a skull and crossbones with what appear to be protruding palm fronds. It also seesm to be resting on something whch may be a shield. All that can now be read on the epitaph is…who dep….’
Nearby is another skull and crossbones with a winged hourglass above it. This is a reminder that ‘Time flies’ or ‘Tempus Fugit’ and that the onlooker will soon be bones and dust and it’s important to make the most of their time on earth. On the left hand side is a pick and shovel. These are a sexton’s tools which made me wonder if this was a sexton’s grave but the epitaph is now illegible. The sexton’s role not only encompassed maintaining and looking after the church but also the churchyard. In larger graveyards the sexton would have been more of a manager but in smaller ones he would have had sole responsibility for preparing the ground, digging and closing the grave, mowing the lawn and also maintaining the lawn and paths.
Skulls also feature prominently on two other tombstones on the other side of the church very near the wall. One seems to have a very sharp pair of horns and a definite smirk. On each side of it there appear to be small trumpets but it’s too weathered to see if anyone’s blowing them. Maybe he’s keenly anticipating the Last Day of Judgement.
Nearby is a large tombstone with what seem to be two somersaulting skulls on them although one is more eroded than the other. Below them is a small worn hourglass. I believe that these two examples of skulls may be unique to St Georges as I’ve haven’t yet seen them anywhere else.
Douglas Keister has suggested that the skull and crossbones slowly began to be replaced by the much less stark and macabre ‘Death’s Head.’ This is a human face with wings on either side of it. I’ve always known it as the ‘winged cherub’ and there are also several good examples within the churchyard.
I am also a huge fan of calligraphy having studied it for two years at evening classes and it has undergone a revival on late 20th and early 21st century tombstones. However 18th century calligraphy has a style all of its own and is instantly recognisable. The only legible 18th century epitaph in St Georges is the one dedicated to a John Saxby. It reads:
‘ ‘Here lyeth the body of John Saxby of the Parish who Departed this life…year of May 1731 aged 41 years. ‘
A fine example of a Death’s Head is on top with an open book beside it which may be the Bible or the Book of Life and there’s a stylised flower on the other side. The open book may be a depiction of the incumbent offering their life to God for judgement as an ‘open book’. People are sometimes described as an ‘open book’ as they have their feelings and thoughts open to the world with no attempt to hide them.
On another memorial two small faces, presumably from the angelic host, peer out from either side of the clouds surrounding a crown. It’s a representation of the reward that awaits the faithful in heaven. This verse from the Bible refers to it:
A plump faced death’s head is surrounded by another open book and what I think maybe a small skull in the far corner of the stone.
But one of the most unique and impressive tombstones in St George’s, or perhaps anywhere, is that of John Kay. He was an 18th century schoolmaster and his life and talents are recorded by the tools of his trade that have been carved on his stone. There’s a globe on a stand, a trumpet, what appears to be a cornet, an artists palette, a pair of compasses and other items which are now too indistinct to read. He was obviously very erudite and much appreciated by his students. Sadly his fulsome epitaph is now virtually unreadable. He lies near Mr Saxby under a spreading yew tree.
On the other side of the graveyard is a large chest tomb. There is a dedication and an armorial on its top and I feel that some patient research in St George’s burial registers may reveal the incumbent’s identity. There are blank cartouches on each side with death’s heads on top and two skulls beneath each one. At one end are palm fronds which are a Roman symbol of victory which were then adapted by the Christians as a martyr’s triumph of death. The palm as a symbol originated in the ancient Near East and Mediterranean region and is a powerful motif of victory, triumph, peace and eternal life. It’s traditionally associated with Easter and Palm Sunday and Christs’ resurrection and victory over death. On the other end of the tomb are what appear to be olive flowers. The olive’s association with wisdom and peace originally came from Greek mythology when the goddess, Athena, presented an olive tree to the city that was to become Athens. Successive Greek ambassadors then continued the tradtion by offering an olive branch of peace to indicate their goiod intentions. The olive tree is also associated with longevity, fertility, maturity, fruitfulness and prosperity. In the Bible, Noah sent the dove out after the Flood to see if the floodwaters had receded and when it returned with an olive leaf in its beak Noah knew that the Flood had ended. Even today the phrase ‘ offering an olive branch’ means the someone wants to make peace. But in this context the olive branch may mwean that the soul has departed with the peace of God. So one memorial incorporates powerful motifs of mortality and resurrection.
St George’s has also used old tombstones to pave two of the pathways within the churchyard of which some are still readable. It always feels as if I’m walking over someone’s grave although they are buried elsewhere in the graveyard. However, although the 19th and 20th century memorials are rather more restrained and far more legible I prefer the more ‘in your face’ 18th century symbols. But in the case of the horned skull I can only frustratingly only guess at its meaning and the person who lies beneath…..