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.’
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.
As I walked along the path to the church’s door I spotted the little angel, maybe a Christmas decoration, maybe a holiday souvenir, perched on top of a tombstone within the churchyard. Was she a warning? But I was nervous and excited at the same time. What awaited me inside? I put my hand on the church door. Would the Red Lady or the White Lady be ready to welcome me…….or would it be both of them? At last I could put it off no longer, pulled open the door and entered.
OK, I admit it. A friend dared me to visit the village of Pluckley which is in Kent and reputed to be haunted by up to 14 ghosts. ‘When will you ‘pluckley’ up the courage to visit?’ the wag quipped. So I accepted the challenge and set off on Easter Saturday.
However, Guinness World Records has stood down Pluckley’s claim to fame as the most haunted village in the UK. This is a shame as I always had visions of a solemn official from GWR turning up with a clipboard and pen to studiously record and tick off each phantom at their appointed location as if they appear to a timetable. Some of the purported ghosts include:
The spectre of the highwayman hid in a tree at the Pinnock
A phantom coach and horses has been seen in several locations around the village
The ghost of a Gypsy woman who drowned in a stream at the Pinnock
The sighting of the miller seen at Mill Hill
The hanging body of a schoolmaster in Dicky Buss’s Lane
A colonel who hanged himself in Park Wood
A man smothered by a wall of clay who drowned at the brickworks
The Lady of Rose Court, who is said to have poisoned herself in despair over a love triangle
St Nicholas church in the centre of the village is reputed to be haunted by two female ghosts: The White Lady and the Red Lady. The latter was supposed to be a great beauty who died 500 years ago and was preserved by her husband in a series of lead coffins and then ultimately in an oak chest. The Red Lady was supposedly a member of the local landowning family, the Derings, and is a sad wraith. She is said to haunt the churchyard searching for the unmarked grave of her still born son.
There had been a recent piece in the Fortean Times ‘It happened to me’ section from a visitor to the church who claimed that he’d found a hostile atmosphere and heard sibilant whispering. A blogger online discovered that none of her photos of the church or churchyard had been recorded by her camera. ‘The church is eerie’ said one friend who had visited it and another commented that the whole village had ‘an atmosphere’. ‘Oo-er!’ I thought, ’would there be an entire company of ghosts awaiting my arrival?’
It was a gloriously sunny, warm day as I walked the mile or so from the station up to the village. Fields of bright yellow rape were almost luminous. I saw my first Peacock butterfly of 2019 as it obligingly posed on a dandelion head and the local sheep bleated in welcome. Or perhaps it was a warning…
Then I encountered my first ghost hunters of the day as a car stopped with an eager looking family inside. The driver asked for directions to the church. I pointed in its direction and they drove off. Later I saw them driving out of the village again looking somewhat disappointed. As I said earlier ghosts don’t appear to order.
In fact Pluckley was teeming with small groups of ghost hunters walking up and down the High Street or briefly visiting St Nicholas looking hopeful. Some drove off quickly as obviously they had been unable to find a spectre with which to pose for a selfie. The village’s other claim to fame is that it was used as the backdrop to ITV’s The Darling Buds of May and I could see why. It’s just ‘perfick.’
St Nicholas was easy to find and it’s a real picture postcard church with a candle snuffer spire. It features on the village sign.
There may have been a church on the site since Saxon times and Pluckley is recorded in the Domesday Book as ‘Pluchelei’. In the 13th century there was a stone church in place and there have been many alterations and repairs right up to the present day. The Derings have their own side chapel and there are brasses set into the floor that record various family members.
They lived at the grand house of Surrenden Dering from the 1500’s until 1928. The house was demolished in 1957 after a fire and part of some of its wood after the fire was used to create the oak cover for the font.
Inside, the church was bustling but not with eager spectres anticipating my arrival. Instead it was a group of flower arrangers placing elaborate arrangements around the church. I should have guessed that the church would be busy over the Easter weekend as the female organist began to practice. The interior of St Nicholas is small and plain with the Dering Chapel on one side. But no ghosts unless they were masquerading as the helpers, or hiding in one of their pockets. Another ghost hunting family popped their heads in and then quietly closed the door.
But no, I didn’t feel anything at all other-worldly
I decided to explore the churchyard which had a fine collection of 19th century headstones and some precariously leaning older ones. They were weighed down by moss and age and any inscriptions or symbols are now lost unless recorded elsewhere. I had to photograph one interesting symbol almost lying down on the grass as the headstone was almost horizontal.
On the other side of the churchyard was an apple orchard, just beginning to blossom, and attracting butterflies and enthusiastic bees. A small rug of multi-coloured primroses were beside a grave with a beehive on the headstone. ‘The local beekeeper?’ I thought and in a corner of the churchyard was a small plot bordered by iron railings on which there was a fulsome epitaph.
After buying postcards in the local shop to prove that I had actually been there and stoutly resisting the temptation to have a cold lager shandy in the Black Horse I retraced my steps to the station.
So is Pluckley the most haunted village in Britain? Does anything or anyone lie in wait in St Nicholas Church? Were the flower arrangers or one of their number ghosts?
The jury’s still out on whether Pluckley deserves its title but on another day in another season, perhaps when St Nicholas is not so busy, it could all be so different. Maybe if I visited during the dark season on a chill autumnal day with perhaps with the chilly fingers of mist wreathing the trees… A forgotten scarecrow blown by a wind that makes it creak and turn towards me in an empty field and the marauding groups of spook seekers are all at home watching their Most Haunted Live DVDs. This time when I enter St Nicholas it’s changed.
The shadows are longer, it feels claustrophobic and I know, by the prickling of my spine that I’m not alone…… I can only hope that this is my chance at last to meet the wonderful people in the dark..
Here’s another interesting piece from the BBC news website on murder memorials dating from the early 19th century. They are usually found in country areas as the victim and murderer would often be known to the community.
By Natalie GriceBBC News
26 October 2018
Wandering around the picturesque cemetery at St Catwg’s church in Cadoxton, Neath, a first-time visitor might be startled out of their gentle stroll by the stark message on top of one tall, weathered stone – MURDER.
This memorial in south Wales is one of a handful of “murder stones” erected around the UK, the majority over a period of about 100 years, to commemorate violent deaths that shocked the local communities.
The Cadoxton stone is dated 1823, and recounts the death of Margaret Williams, 26, who was from Carmarthenshire but was working “in service in this parish” and was found dead “with marks of violence on her person in a ditch on the march below this churchyard”.
Miss Williams’ story, such as is known from contemporary reports, tells of an unmarried young woman who had been working for a local farmer in Neath when she became pregnant.
She had declared the father of the child was the farmer’s son, and when her apparently strangled body was discovered head down in a watery inlet in marshes near the town, he was the prime suspect.
But whatever local opinion may have believed, there was no evidence to tie him or anyone else to the crime, and her murder remained unsolved.
However, the murderer was left in no doubt as to the feelings of the local community after this stone, part gravestone and part warning, was erected over poor Margaret’s body.
Giving the details of her fate and the date of her death, the stone, erected by a local Quaker, continues: “Although the savage murderer escaped for a season the detection of man yet God hath set his mark upon him either for time or eternity, and the cry of blood will assuredly pursue him to certain and terrible righteous judgement.”
This unsolved killing is unusual in the history of the surviving murder stones in that the murderer escaped justice. Most of the other memorials are to people whose killers were quickly detected, sentenced and dispatched via the gallows.
Dr Jan Bondeson, a retired senior lecturer at Cardiff University and a consultant physician, has made a study of the history of crime alongside his medical career and has written a number of books on the subject.
He became interested in murder stones after editing a book which featured them.
He said: “The murder stone in Cadoxton is the only one in Wales. There are plenty of them in England.
“There was an instinct for the local people to erect them. There was a strong instinct to commemorate a tragic murder.”
Dr Bondeson has documented several further murder stones across the English counties, and one early example of the type in Scotland.
One murder stone has been immortalised by no less a writer than Charles Dickens himself. In the novel Nicholas Nickleby, the eponymous hero walks through the ominously named Devil’s Punch Bowl at Hindhead in Surrey.
There, he and his companion come across the real-life stone marking the 1786 murder of a man known only as the Unknown Sailor.
The unnamed man was en route to his ship in Portsmouth when he visited a local pub in Thursley. There he fell in with three fellow sailors, and paid for their drinks and food before leaving with them.
The sailor was repaid for his generosity in the following way: They “nearly severed his head from his body, stripped him quite naked and threw him into a valley”.
The three did not get far. The sailor’s body was found soon after, and James Marshall, Michael Casey and Edward Lonegon were chased and captured after trying to sell the dead man’s clothes at a pub.
They were hanged from a triple gibbet near the murder scene, and the unknown man was buried in Thursley with a stone paid for by local people.
But the local mill owner, James Stillwell, went a step further. He placed a stone in Devil’s Punch Bowl itself, with this grim warning to future generations:
“ERECTED, In detestation of a barbarous Murder, Committed here on an unknown Sailor, On Sep, 24th 1786, By Edwd. Lonegon, Mich. Casey & Jas. Marshall
“Who were all taken the same day, And hung in Chains near this place, Whoso sheddeth Man’s Blood by Man shall his, Blood be shed. Gen Chap 9 Ver 6”
Dr Bondeson said the majority of the stones appeared around the 1820s, adding “That was the high level for the erecting of murder stones. All of them are in the country – none are in urban areas.”
Elizabeth – Bessie – Sheppard was just 17 when she set out from her home in Papplewick, Nottingham, on 7 July 1817, to seek work as a servant in Mansfield, seven miles away. She found a job, but she never found her way back home, because on her return journey, a travelling knife grinder found her.
Charles Rotherham, a man in his early 30s, had served as a soldier in the Napoleonic wars for 12 years before beginning this new stage in his life.
He was seen on the road coming from Mansfield after drinking several pints where his path crossed Bessie’s.
Her severely battered body was found in a ditch by quarrymen the next day. Her shoes and distinctive yellow umbrella were missing and there was evidence her attacker had tried to remove her dress but had failed.
Rotherham had sold Bessie’s shoes and was on his way to Loughborough when he was arrested. He confessed to the crime and was returned to the scene where he showed a constable the hedge stake he had used to kill Bessie.
Like all murderers at the time, Rotherham swung for his crime. Local people, outraged by the attack, banded together to raise money for a stone to commemorate Bessie, which was placed on the site where she was attacked.
Bessie’s stone simply honours the memory of the dead girl, but another stone erected to a female victim of violence has more of a moral tone, seemingly warning women against certain behaviour as much as expressing anger with the killer.
“As a warning to Female Virtue, and a humble Monument to Female Chastity: this Stone marks the Grave of MARY ASHFORD, who, in the twentieth year of her age, having incautiously repaired to a scene of amusement, without proper protection, was brutally violated and murdered on the 27th of May, 1817.”
The story behind Mary Ashford’s death and its aftermath is one which left a permanent mark on English legal history.
She had gone to a dance in Erdington, Birmingham, with her friend Hannah Cox, whom she planned to stay with overnight before returning to her place of work at her uncle’s house in a neighbouring village.
At the dance, she met a local landowner’s son, Abraham Thornton, and later reports confirmed the pair spent most of the night dancing together and having fun.
When they left the dance, Mary told her friend she would spend the night at her grandparents’ home – possibly a ploy to spend more time with Thornton – and Mary and he went off together.
Mary returned to Hannah’s house at 4am, changed her dancing clothes for her working clothes, collected some parcels and set out for her uncle’s home.
About two hours later a labourer found a bundle of clothing and parcels on the path leading to Mary’s home. The alarm was raised and her body was found submerged in a water-filled pit.
An autopsy showed she had drowned and had been raped shortly before her death.
People believed Thornton, having been rebuffed by Mary during their hours together, had lain in wait for her to return home and raped her before throwing her into the pit to drown.
He was duly arrested and tried, but a number of witnesses placed him at another location at the time of Mary’s death and he was acquitted.
But the story does not end there. Mary’s brother William Ashford began a private prosecution under an obscure ancient law, which allowed relatives of murder victims to bring an “appeal of murder” following an acquittal.
Thornton had a surprise up his sleeve though. In response, he demanded a trial by combat as was his right under that law, under which he could legally have killed Ashford, or if he defeated him, gone free.
Ashford was much smaller than Thornton, and declined the battle. Thornton was a free man, and the case was swiftly followed by a change in the law in 1819, banning such appeals and therefore trial by battle.
Other victims include:
William Wood, of Eyam, Derbyshire, murdered by three men who robbed him of £100 in 1823 – his head was “beaten in the most dreadful manner possible”. Two men were caught, one escaped justice. A permanent memorial was erected over 50 years after the crime after earlier versions were destroyed or removed, which showed the strength of feeling still present in the community about the murder.
Father and son William and Thomas Bradbury, who were brutally attacked in William’s pub The Cherry Arms, known as Bill O’Jacks locally, on 2 April 1832 in Greenfield, Saddleworth. Their unsolved killings were recorded on a stone which noted their “dreadfully bruised and lacerated bodies”.
The Marshall family – the “special horror”, as noted in The Spectator at the time, of the Denham murders in Buckinghamshire, where a family of seven including three young girls were beaten to death at their home attached to their father’s blacksmith’s premises. The youngest, Gertrude, four, was found still clutched in her grandmother Mary Marshall’s arms. Killer John Jones was found a few days after the killings on 22 May 1870 and speedily tried and executed. They are buried in one grave in St Mary’s Church, Denham, where the original worn murder stone has been supplemented by a modern plaque to remember the victims.
The last word goes to those who chose to commemorate Nicholas Carter, a 55-year-old farmer from Bedale, Yorkshire, killed by a farm labourer as he rode home from market.
The stone laid at the murder site in Akebar – later to become a Grade II listed monument which hit the headlines earlier this year when it was badly broken in a car crash – had a very simple message, along with the date of his death, May 19, 1826.
I first visited Netherne Hospital cemetery on an overcast day in May 2007. It’s located at the edge of a large farmer’s field and is a broad, sloping strip of land bordered on three sides by huge, majestic, spreading horse chestnut trees. You can look across the cemetery to the local beauty spot Farthing Downs in the distance. The trees were luxuriantly leafy on my visit and the graveyard certainly looked more appealing than in the photos I’d seen of it on an urban explorer’s website. He had visited it in January when it looked very desolate and forgotten. But on that day in May I saw large white candles of horse chestnut flowers in abundance as I peered through the two elegant, probably Victorian, iron gates. Once they must have had Netherne Asylum in large iron capital letters over the top of them but now only ‘NETH’ remained. They were almost being engulfed by large branches and leaves trying to force their way through. ‘Someone will steal them for scrap.’ I thought to myself as I pushed one of the gates open and entered.
Inside Nature had taken over with a thick carpet of green brambles and undergrowth covering the entire site and it looked as if no one had been there in a very long time. Without the gates the cemetery would have just looked like a fallow field. It was impossible to see any monuments or memorials but I did find a raised concrete plinth in which 2 tombstones and a smaller Book of Life memorial had been inserted possibly to preserve them. The Book of Life was dedicated to a 7 year old named Betty Trotman and I wondered why a child was buried here. Little did I know as I closed the gate behind me that it would take me nearly 10 years to find out.
Netherne was sited at Hooley in Surrey and was originally known as the Surrey County Asylum or Netherne Asylum before being renamed Netherne Asylum.. It closed in the 1990’s along with the other large asylums and hospitals in the county. Surrey has always been seen as an affluent region with its exclusive golf clubs, Tudorbethan stockbroker houses and the rolling hills of the green belt. But it has another, less publicised claim to fame. For over a century at least it was also home to several lunatic asylums originally intended for paupers and also homes or children with learning difficulties. It was felt that the incurable or mentally ill might improve if taken out of the city and into what was then countryside.
The creation of the asylums also reduced the workhouse population as they were designed for paupers. Cane Hill in Coulsdon, Netherne in Hooley, the Epsom cluster, Earlswood in Redhill and St Lawrence’s Hospital in Caterham were amongst them. Iain Sinclair in his book, London Orbital, described them as mandalas of madness. All now gone; either demolished or converted into upmarket housing estates.
In 2007 Netherne Hospital as it later became known was still in the throes of being transformed into an instant village; Netherne on the Hill. The developers later stated that they were ‘leaving the cemetery well alone and allowing the wildlife to take over.’ It would be another three years before relatives of those buried there would start to come looking for their last resting place. At that time I had no idea that there were 1350 people buried there and that these included children, ex-soldiers, epileptics, the elderly as well as the mentally ill and those who had nowhere else to go. The people buried in the cemetery seemed to be as anonymous in death as they had been in life apart from the memorials embedded on the plinth.
The cemeteries and burial grounds attached to these asylums and hospitals can be difficult to find. Often the markers on the graves have gone and so there’s no sign of their original purpose and as a result they can often become overgrown and look abandoned. For example, in 2000 the Somerset & Bath Lunatic Asylum, or the Mendip Hospital as it later became, burial ground in Wells was put up for sale by the NHS as a freehold development opportunity. Nearly 3,000 people, patients and staff, are buried here with the last burial having taken place in 1963. The grave markers had long since been removed. However there was a public outcry from the local populace, some of whom may have had relatives living or working in the hospital and they formed a group to stop it. There is a now a thriving Friends of Mendip Hospital Cemetery group and so the burial ground looks safe.
I started researching the cemetery and discovered that asylums had a varied population. In Rachel Lichtenstein and Iain Sinclair’s book Rodinsky’s Room they go in search of a man, David Rodinsky, who vanishes suddenly from a room above a back garden synagogue in Spitalfields and discover that he ended up in Warlingham Hospital, another Surrey asylum, where he died. They speculated that his Eastern European Jewish scholarly background and language of codes and cabbalism may have led to him ending up there as it would have been incomprehensible to anyone unfamiliar with it. Other patients may have suffered from what we now term learning difficulties which the Victorians classed ‘idiots’. There were also the elderly with dementia or people with degenerative diseases such as syphilis.
The soldiers appeared in asylums after the First World War when the authorities devised a scheme to treat the almost half a million wounded and shell shocked soldiers. This involved decanting the current patients elsewhere and then re-designating the asylums as ‘war hospitals’. By 1920 over 250,000 soldiers had been treated with 9% of them with psychiatric problems. It saved lives but caused upset and distress to the decanted patient population. However, not only soldiers were admitted to the ‘war hospitals’ but also their families.
There was an asylum in every county and in 1914 there were 102 in the UK with a total population of 108,000 men, women and children living within them – some permanently. The sexes were strictly segregated and only met at events such as dances or sports days. Men usually worked on the hospital farm and women in the laundry or kitchen. Women could be admitted as a result of having an illegitimate baby, rape or post-natal depression. Asylums were often overcrowded and an epidemic such as flu could kill many patients.
I’d read on the urban explorer website that Netherne that there had been a campaign by a local amateur historian to have the cemetery cleared and accusing the developers of neglect. It was time for a return visit especially as my research had enabled me to put names to some of those buried there and their poignant, often heart-breaking stories.
On a recent visit to Brompton Cemetery to research animals on memorials my companion and I decided to explore a side path to find examples. On a corner where it met another side path we suddenly saw a very large gathering of crows perched on various tombstones, graves and memorials. There were so many that passers-by were stopping to look and take photos. My photo doesn’t do the scene justice as I couldn’t fit all the crows that were actually there in the picture.
Brompton’s crows have always been known for their photogenic and obliging qualities by posing on a nearby tombstone in suitably Gothic fashion but I’ve never seen that many gathered together in one place.
A group of crows is known as ‘a murder of crows’ and it only takes 2 crows to make one of these.
The phrase however, appears to date from the late Middle Ages and comes from the Book of Saint Albans or The Book of Hawking, Hunting and Blasing of Arms, which was published in 1486. This is a compendium of items for gentlemen of the time and had an appendix which consisted of a large list of collective nouns for animals. These were known as ‘company terms’ or the’ terms of hunting’. These include familiar ones such as ‘a gaggle of geese’ amongst other colourful and poetic names such as ‘a skulk of foxes’ or ‘an ostentation of peacocks’. There were also collective nouns for various professions such as ‘a melody of harpers’ etc. The ones that have survived to this day derive from this book include ‘a subtlety of sergeants’ and also ‘a murder of crows’. A crow gathering has often been the subject of folk tales and superstition and amongst these is the claim that crows will gather and decide the fate of another crow.
There are also other traditions, which considering that this was happening within a large London cemetery, are worth quoting ,
‘Many view the appearance of crows as an omen of death because ravens and crows are scavengers and are generally associated with dead bodies, battlefields, and cemeteries, and they’re thought to circle in large numbers above sites where animals or people are expected to soon die.’
Romain Bouchard, Etymology nerd
However, there are birdwatchers who insist that a group of crows should be known as a flock of crows and not a ‘murder’ so the jury’s out on that term.
A Facebook friend identified some of the crows as juveniles by the white patches on their breasts who may have just left the nest and are with their parents. The adults will defend their youngsters very aggressively. Crows are very social, live in tight knit families and they mate for life. They can roost in huge numbers of up to 1000+ as protection from other predators. Crows are also highly intelligent and have a repertoire of at least 250 different calls. A distress call will bring other crows to their aid as crows will defend other unrelated crows. A crow’s black plumage have led to them being associated with death and they are members of the Corvidae family which includes magpies and ravens. They are predators and scavengers and will eat virtually anything including roadkill, snakes, mice, eggs and nestlings of other birds amongst other delicacies. I often see crows inspecting the contents of large waste bins at supermarkets or communal litter bins and have seen them take young ducklings in a flash.
A couple of minutes after I took this photo the entire gathering took flight and scattered and I felt very privileged to have seen it at all.
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…..
The substantial church of St Leonards at Streatham could almost be seen as God’s’ traffic calming measure as it makes the drivers on the busy Streatham High Road inch past its walls. But once inside St Leonards churchyard the noisy flow seems to fade to a hum and you can appreciate a church which has had a chapel on its site for over 1000 years.
I was on a guided tour organised by the Friends of Nunhead Cemetery and our guide was John Brown who had an obvious affection for St Leonards.
The first church was built in 1350 and the lowest part of its tower still stands. St Leonards was then rebuilt in 1778 and altered again in 1831 when the nave was completely rebuilt and a crypt created. During the 1860’s a chancel was added. But, on 5 May 1975, disaster struck when a fire completely destroyed the interior. It was then re-designed and St Leonard’s now has a whitewashed interior within its 19th century walls. This has created a wonderful backdrop on which the surviving wall tablets and memorials are well displayed. An inspiring blend of the ancient and new.
We began by exploring outside and stopped to admire the tower which is known as Sir John Ward’s Tower . According to John, it has the highest oak tree between the Thames and Croydon growing halfway up it. The tower is built from Surrey flint and is topped by a modern spire dating from the 1841.
The churchyard contains over 250 memorials dating from the 18th century with the last burial in 1841. Part of the graveyard was bombed during the 2nd World War and, as a result, has been landscaped to create a Garden of Remembrance. John revealed that some of the burials had only had a wooden graveboard which had long since disintegrated.
St Leonards was a very fashionable church during the 18th and 19th centuries and, as a result, a chapel of ease dedicated to All Saints was built in a nearby road. Alas, even God was expected to adhere to the rigid class system of the time as the local gentry worshipped at St Leonards and their servants would attend their own service at All Saints. Dr Johnson and James Boswell are known to have visited the church. This may be one of the reasons that there are several prominent local people buried in the churchyard. John pointed out some of the more illustrious tombs; Merian Drew, the lord of the manor and his daughter Jane Agnes Fisher, George Pratt of Pratts Department store in Streatham and the Colthurst family member who had owned Coutts bank.
William Dyce, the Pre-Raphaelite painter and polymath, lies under a broken cross. He designed the florin coin and was a much in demand portrait painter. Amongst his many achievements were the frescoes in the robing room of the House of Lords although they remain unfinished. He also painted another celebrated fresco for the House of Lords, ‘The Baptism of Ethelbert’. My own favourite of his paintings is ‘Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th 1858’ with its haunting, melancholy atmosphere and muted colour palette. He was also a churchwarden at St Leonards and was responsible for designing the chancel in 1863. Dyce’s ‘Madonna and Child’ of 1827 featured on the Royal Mail 2007 Christmas stamps. Robert Garrard, the royal jeweller s also lies here and there was a flat, plain slab on the grave of one of novelist Trollope’s nephews who was the owner of the building firm, Trollope and Colls. I also admired the small sculptures of angels on the Montefiore monument. There were also several tombstones dating back to the 1700’s with a scattering of skull and crossbones.
A large monument had been made from the wonder material of the 19th century, Coade Stone. A Mrs Coade, invented it but for a long time the recipe was lost. However it and the techniques for producing the stone have now been rediscovered and a new range of Coade sculptures are currently available.
We then followed John inside to admire two 17th century imposing and magnificent monuments in the porch. The striking Massingberde memorial commemorates a London merchant and Treasurer of the East India Company who died in 1653. The two figures facing each other symbolise the triumph of life over death. The dramatic Howland monument was erected by a grieving widow, Elizabeth, to her husband John who died in 1686 and features a brooding skull and several cherubs.
At the top of the chancel by the altar were the Thrale monuments. These were to Henry Thrale and his mother-in-law, Mrs Salusbury. Henry, who is also commemorated by the nearby Thrale Road, was a wealthy brewer and MP. He and his wife, Hester, entertained the well -known movers and shakers of the day including Dr Johnson and James Boswell. There were two epitaphs written in Latin by Dr Johnson and a beautiful tablet by John Flaxman is set into the wall. It has three female figures on it which were reputedly carved from the life. One of them is Sophia Hoare. John Flaxman (1726-1803) was a prolific sculptor of funerary monuments, mainly in the Classical style, and his work can be seen in Westminster Abbey and Gloucester Cathedral as well as many churches.
A somewhat dog eared and damaged figure lies on top of what looks like a table tomb. This is what’s left of an effigy of Sir John Ward in his armour. Colin Fenn of FOWNC has compiled a list of helpful notes to accompany the reconstruction drawing of it and estimates the figure as dating from 1350-1380. Sir John fought with the Black Prince at Crecy and, in the modern Streatham stained glass window, he appears holding a model of the first, 14th century chapel that he built. The rest of the window records the history of Streatham and St Leonard’s and is well worth seeing. It’s by John Hayward as all the stained glass within St Leonard’s.
There are more intriguing memorials in the Chapel of Unity and John drew our attention to Edward Tylney’s. He was the Master of Revels, under Queen Elizabeth 1 and King James 1, and who put on plays and other entertainments for the Court. He was renowned for being vain and had the memorial created during his lifetime which is why there is a blank space for the date of his death in 1610. But there is another version in which the mason was so relieved at Tylney’s passing that he omitted to add the date of his death. Nearby is William Lynne’s affectionate tribute to his wife, Rebecca which dates from Cromwell’s reign. Part of it reads: ‘
‘Should I ten thousand yeares enjoy my life I could not praise enough so good a wife.’
The oldest inscription, dated 1390, was below the altar and is a small brass plate which asks for prayers for the repose of a long past rector, John Elsefield.
Then we descended the spiral staircase to the crypt. This was an unexpected surprise. Although not as extensive as West Norwood or Kensal Green it was still impressive and atmospheric with incumbents in their loculi.
Loculus which is Latin for ‘little place”, plural loculi, is ‘an architectural compartment or niche that houses a body, as in a catacomb, mausoleum or otherplace of entombment’ Wikipedia
The crypt is laid out with 2 corridors and the gated individual family vaults lead off them. Some contained entire families including the Thrales. John showed us one in which the loculus had been bricked up as the occupant had been buried in only a shroud. This was Mr Costa, a silk merchant, who left instructions that every pauper who carried his coffin was to be given a guinea. Needless to say, his coffin was carried by many poor men and so his wealth was redistributed. Only the undertaker was left empty-handed. There’s also two earls who ended up down there whilst visiting Streatham but I don’t think that the two events are connected.
The crypt was rebuilt in 1831 and was used as an air raid shelter during the 2nd World War during which time an experiment was carried out to determine the depth of the charnel pit under the flagstone floor. The measure went down as far as it would go which was 20ft but the pit extended far below that. More recently it became the home of a local tramp called Black Tommy who had his mail delivered there. One wonders with whom the postmen would have left large packages when Mr Tommy was out.
As a finale, John showed us the substantial headstone of the local ratcatcher which proved that he was certainly busy, successful and appreciated. Sadly, the epitaph appears to have completely vanished. Afterwards a couple of us strolled about the churchyard reading the fine epitaphs on several memorials.