The Tulip Staircase Ghost

As far as famous staircases go, the Tulip Staircase at the Queen’s House in Greenwich already had its share of niche fame, without the need for paranormal visitation. It is supposedly the first unsupported spiral staircase in the UK; a mundane fact, but an impressive engineering feat, and a tourist draw for many years.

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The Queen’s House at Greenwich

The Queen’s House itself was built between 1616-1619 and was inhabited by many female royals over the centuries. The house was commissioned by the wife of King James I (Anne of Denmark) as an elaborate apology for him swearing at her in public. If anything, I believe his verbal response to be quite measured, considering his wife had just accidentally shot one of his dogs.

I’m unsure as to the fate of the dog, but it may well have mimicked Anne’s. The queen fell ill and died in 1619. At this point, the first floor was completed and was hastily ‘capped off’.

Later, during the reign of Charles I, he employed the same architect, Inigo Jones, to complete the project for his wife Queen Henrietta Maria. Yet again, it was not to be. Due to the advent of the English Civil War, the house was abandoned and repurposed as a means of holding prisoners of war.

Following the war, repairs recommenced and royalty finally moved in. Later, it was used for housing the orphans of sailors, as a hospital school and finally, as the National Maritime Museum.

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But why is the staircase so prominent in the murky history of ghost photography?

During a visit to the Maritime Museum in June 1966, visiting Canadians, Reverend Ralph Hardy and his wife wanted to document the beautiful building. Hardy’s wife had been quite taken with a magazine photograph of the staircase from beneath and wanted to recreate it as a souvenir. Sadly, he found the staircase to be cordoned off and could only photograph the staircase from behind a barrier. He quickly took the shot and continues his visit to the museum with no thought to what was on his film.

 

As with all the best ghost photograph anecdotes, Hardy returned home and sent his holiday snaps off to be developed. Upon receiving the finished prints, he was shocked at what he saw.

There had been no one near him when the photograph was taken, the staircase was also inaccessible. But on the print and the negative, was the figure of a person clawing themselves up the staircase.

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Hardy’s Original Image

Its reported that Hardy sent both the negatives and the photographs to a series of researchers who then forwarded them to Kodak laboratories. After vigorous testing, Kodak concluded that neither the print nor the negative had been tampered with.

Hardy released the image to the press and speculation began in earnest.  Many believed the image to show two figures, close together, both struggling to ascend the staircase.

Others conducted a séance by the staircase, attempting to contact the spirits Hardy had captured. Later, an attempt was made to recreate Hardy’s photograph in similar conditions, but it was not fully successful.

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Séance held at night by members of The Ghost Club at the Queen’s House on 24th June 1967

 

But Hardy’s spirit was not to steal all the limelight. There have been several other reports of supernatural happenings within the Queens House, ranging from unseen footsteps, to chanting children and several ghostly figures, gliding through the rooms of the building. Tourists have also reported being pinched by invisible hands. The most elaborate reported spectre is that a ghostly maid, seen mopping up blood from the bottom of the staircase. She was said to be dressed in ‘old fashioned clothing’ and very pale. It is said that a maid was thrown fifty feet from the top of the staircase, dying on impact with the bottom landing.

Ghostly visions still occur at the Queens House to this day, although Hardy’s photograph is the only lasting ‘evidence’ of such. In recent years, a gallery assistant reported that on their tea break with colleagues, they saw a woman ‘glide across the balcony, then pass through the wall on the west balcony.’ They said ‘I couldn’t believe what I saw. I went very cold and the hair on my arms and my neck stood on end. We all dashed through to the Queen’s Presents Room and looked down towards the Queen’s Bedroom. Something passed through the ante-room and out through the wall. Then my colleagues all froze too. The lady was dressed in a white-grey colour crinoline type dress’

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For over fifty years, Hardy’s photograph has enthralled and frustrated believers and sceptics alike. But what do you think? I must say, I think the ghost is rather lovely, especially with its very visible sparkly ring (see pictures). As for the Queens House, the Maritime Museum is open 7 days a week, from 10am to 5pm, for all your seafaring and ghost hunting needs. Although I’d check with management before reaching for a Ouija board…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sources / Further Reading

 

http://www.theparanormalguide.com/blog/the-tulip-staircase

https://www.theblackvault.com/casefiles/tulip-staircase-ghost/#

https://ghostwatch.net/paranormal-reports/apparition-disembodied-spirits/report/9-the-queen-s-house-ghost

https://www.americanhauntingsink.com/spirit-photography

http://www.richard-howard.com/photos.html

 

Quaker Burial Grounds and City Centre Hermits

Beside the towering shadow of Bristol’s St Mary Redcliffe church, sits an unassuming patch of grass, surrounded by trees and overlooked by an impressively unchanged 1980s bar.

From the outside, it looks like a poorly-planned public park. The type that council planners agree to install, to offset the ecological destruction of their building plans. However, this plot has far more stories to offer than its patch of grass and sticky benches suggest.

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The small community garden, now predominantly maintained by local residents, was used as a burial ground by Bristol’s Quaker population since 1667. The site was once double the size and housed thousands of burials, despite there only being 177 surviving headstones.

 

Before discussing the burial ground itself, the small, fenced inlet towards the back of the ground is worth investigating. Lurking beneath the Colosseum pub, hewn into the rock, sits a hermit’s cave. St John’s Hermitage is a scheduled ancient monument and was first used in 1346 where hermit John Sparkes was ‘installed’ by Thomas Lord Berkeley. The hermit’s duty was to pray for the wealthiest Quakers, namely Berkeley and his family. Subsequent hermits took up residence in the tiny cave well into the 17thcentury. But why did Berkeley require constant prayer? According to the research of slwoods.co.uk, Thomas Lord Berkley, otherwise known as ‘Thomas the Rich’ was a feudal baron whose ancestral home was Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire. S L Woods explains that, ‘In 1327 Thomas was made joint custodian of the deposed King Edward II of England, whom he received at Berkeley Castle where he died, believed to have been murdered by an agent of Isabella of France. Thomas de Berkeley was tried an accessory to the murder of Edward II by a jury of 12 knights in the 4th year of King Edward III of England, but was honourably acquitted.’

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With a firm iron gate fixed across the entrance, this cave remains remarkably well preserved and sits free from graffiti and outside damage, with only the influx of autumn’s dead leaves to contest with. The cave, however, does not sit empty. In place of a hermit, rests a large pile of simplistic headstones, stacked to the ceiling. While these are not addressed in any accessible signage (a laminated info sheet is somewhat weather damaged), the former headstones of the ground’s inhabitants were simply stacked away, and have rested atop one another since the 1950s.

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Quaker headstones differ greatly from more common Anglican, catholic or atheist stones from the same time period; these carry simple initials, and nothing more. But why? To understand burial and ritual, one must first, understand the community.

 

Quakers refer to themselves as ‘The Religious Society of Friends’, or simply ‘Friends’ for short. The Quaker movement is a subdivision of Christianity who formed after splitting away from the Church of England.

 

[While they are commonly known today for their peaceful ways and conscientious objection during wartime, they were not always pinnacles of moral values, much like anyone else.

David Emeney, writing for ‘Discover Bristol’ explains that ‘In the late-17th and early-18th centuries, Bristol Quakers such as Charles and John Scandrett were slave ship owners. Famous Quakers who benefited from the produce of slave labour included Frys (cocoa) and Lloyds and Barclays (banking/insurance for ships), and the Galtons (guns). Other families, less known today but leading Bristol merchants of the period, including the Champions, the Goldneys and the Harfords, whose brass and iron goods were traded to West Africa for slaves.]

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Quaker cemeteries are commonly referred to as ‘burial grounds’, rather than the former, which was not widely used as a term by Quakers until the 19thcentury. Earlham College professor Thomas Hammdescribes Quaker burial practises and memorials as ‘unusual’ and ‘an illustration of how Friends try to distinguish themselves from the rest of the world.’[1]

In death, as in life, they believe in equality of status. Subsequently, Quakers believe it improper and unpleasant to elevate and celebrate certain people above others through elaborate headstones. Initially, all tombstones and grave markers were banned by the Quaker movements, believing that any lasting memorial would commemorate one above others, however plain or small in size. During the formation of the Quaker movement in 17thcentury England, churchyards were filling with increasingly elaborate memorials, so the decision to forego them altogether was revolutionary in a sense. Quakers saw these towering monuments as an indulgence in extreme vanity, with the middle and upper classes exercising ‘dominion in death’.

Most early Quaker burial grounds consisted of simple grassy areas, appearing to be little other than a tended garden or yard. Graves were unmarked and there were few outward signs that any burials had taken place at all.

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However, over time, many Quakers believed this to be similarly unacceptable, but did not want to indulge themselves in the elaborate masonry of the day. Many Quakers came to an agreement that a small, simple stone would be appropriate, marking the burial plot of the individual, but nothing else. During the 19thcentury, when many headstones reached their architectural and artistic peaks, Quaker groups came to a consensus that marking most graves would indeed be appropriate after all. It was then deemed appropriate that the name, date of death and age should be recorded on the stone. Stones would be free from any decoration and would be held to strict height and width parameters. From what is viewable through the metal bars in Bristol’s burial ground, many of the more ‘wordy’ headstones are so weathered that cataloguing internments without original documents to refer to would be a hellish task. However, the earlier, smaller stones, featuring initials alone, remain crisp and clear. Despite the Quakers being a relatively small group, the stacked headstones span from 1667-1923 and commemorate lives lasting from a mere eight months to 99 years.

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While the last burial took place in 1923, the ground was maintained by the faith until the 1950s when Bristol City Council’s road-widening scheme took precedence. Unusually though, the land was not obtained by the council through some compulsory purchase scheme. Rather, the Quakers in charge of the plot chose to donate their land for the greater good of the city’s transportation links. However, considering the burial ground, alongside a listed building or two, were sacrificed for the road, it remains a contentious topic today.

It should be noted that the burials disinterred during the road-widening, were re-interred at Avon View Cemetery.

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Initially, the council aimed to maintain the remainder of the burial ground, opening it as a small community green space. Shortly afterwards, in the 1960s, the burial ground was further repurposed and replanted with fragrant plants and flowers to create a sensory garden for the blind. While this wonderful idea was maintained for a short while, it eventually fell into disrepair, with time, weather and vandalism all playing their part.

Today, the part is undertaking a sometime regeneration project, via the hard work of volunteers. And, while this work is slow and perpetual considering its city-centre position, it’s a small patch of 17thcentury Bristol and Quaker history, which is well worth preserving.

 

 

 

Links/References/Further Reading

http://discoveringbristol.org.uk/browse/slavery/historic-site-quakers-burial-ground/

http://quakerspeak.com/how-are-quaker-cemeteries-different/

https://www.slwoods.co.uk/?p=1545

https://www.findagrave.com/cemetery/2609435/quaker-burial-ground

http://heritage.quaker.org.uk/files/Central%20Bristol%20LM.pdf

 

All photographs taken by myself.

 

 

[1]http://quakerspeak.com/how-are-quaker-cemeteries-different/

Hélène Smith: The Medium Who Spoke to Martians

The 19thcentury boasted many notable, influential individuals: Charles Darwin, Queen Victoria, Charles Dickens and Alexander Graham Bell but to name a few. Yet, for some baffling reason, Hélène Smith has been lost to the annals of time. Scientists and social reformers may be all well and good, but what about a young woman who spoke to aliens?

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‘Hélène Smith’ was born Catherine-Elise Müllerin Martigny, Switzerland in 1861 into a Protestant family. Despite this, she was baptised into the Catholic Church and her family, her mother in particular, remained devout practising Christians. Her mother claimed to experience religious visions for many years, which undoubtedly introduced the idea of spirit contact and mediumship to the young Hélène.

She was a solitary, introverted child, prone to daydreams and reveries. She also reported visions, mainly consisting of colourful, hypnotic landscapes that she later attributed to Martian visitation.

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From the age of 13, Hélène worked in a silk shop until she discovered spiritualism in 1892 (an American admirer would later pay her a salary to work as a full time medium). She quickly joined a “development” circle, whereby attendees attempt to develop their psychic and spiritual powers through group tutoring and activities. According to others in her circle, she quickly began to show mediumistic talents, predominantly ‘moral admonitions, treatment prescriptions for the consultants, messages from deceased relatives and friends, and revelations of past lives of the participants of the séance.’[1]

 

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As her development as a medium progressed, she (supposedly) began communication with Italian adventurer and magician Alessandro Cagliostro and French novelist Victor Hugo. When you begin your career with the great and good, it’s understandable that the only way to go is up. Literally. To Mars.

 

As Hélène’s séances began to bring her fame, she was soon introduced to Théodore Flournoy, a professor of psychology and author on Spiritism and parapsychology. It was Flournoy who proposed the pseudonym ‘Hélène Smith’ after his young daughter. After meeting the child, the young medium was satisfied with her new name and took it forwards into her career.

Flournoy, a contemporary of Freud, conducted long-term investigations into Hélène’s abilities which he published under the title ‘From India To The Planet Mars’ (1899). Throughout this study, Smith entered a trance state and channelled a number of past lives…. Flournoy attributed these supposed experiences to ‘cryptamnesia’, a type of subconscious plagiarism and memory bias. Flournoy later suggested that Smith should be diagnosed with multiple personality disorder, and that such mediumistic trances and false memories were the result of the subconscious mind. Not spirits.

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Upon entering a trance, her ‘guide’ of sorts (Leopold, a reincarnation of Cagliostro), would explain Helen’s acts to Flournoy and talk to the investigator, seemingly independent of Helen. She would often awake from these deep trances with no recollection as to the events.

Hélène’s vast array of narratives was termed by Flournoy as ‘Subliminal Romances’, which he used to denote everything from trances involving past lives, through to spirit painting and glossolalia.

Cryptamnesia aside, Hélène’s past lives are staggeringly…wild. Flournoy classed these lives into three cycles; the Hindu cycle, the Royal cycle and the Martian cycle.

 

These past lives, conducted through trance and séance, began with such historical icons as Marie Antoinette. Hélène’s depictions of life at court were detailed, elaborate and mimicked Antoinette’s refined behaviours with high accuracy.

 

Another regular in the Hindu cycle was Princess Simandini, a fifteenth-century Arab princess, married to Sivrouka,a Hindu potentate. In many of her trance sessions, she channelled the Princess’ memories, including her horrific death at her husband’s funeral pyre (committing ‘sati/suttee’). She recounted landscapes, architecture and historical customs of the time. She would also sing “exotic melodies, played with an imaginary monkey”.

As her trances progressed, she named Flournoy as the reincarnation of her husband and together, they recreated scenes from their life together. In these scenes, Smith supposedly spoke Sanskrit and wrote in rudimentary Arabic script. While these narratives were often described as ‘fragmented’ compared to her Martian efforts, her ability to describe romantic scenes and landscapes was astounding.

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But most impressively, Hélène claimed to make regular journeys to Mars. She painted elaborate Martian landscapes and claimed to speak (and write) the language perfectly. Hélène’s Martian cycle included verbal descriptions, writing and paintings, describing landscapes, inhabitants and experiences. She would describe her ‘flight into space’, arriving at a landscape of disembodied, long-dead inhabitants, “carriages gliding by, with no horses or wheels but emitting sparks”; “of houses with fountains on the roof”; and men and women dressed almost similarly.’[2]To accompany these Martian inhabitants were ‘dog-like creatures with heads that looked like cabbages that not only fetched objects for their masters, but also took dictation.’[3]

 

However, it is Hélène’s Martian writing which is most interesting.

This language would come to Hélène in a variety of hallucinations, both auditory and visual, and through visions, showing her how to write the alien symbols.

Her Martian language has long been studied in the field of linguistics as a form of a ‘hereditary tendency to glossolalia.’ While Helen’s native language was French, she was well versed in Hungarian, Spanish, Italian and German, with a rudimentary knowledge of Latin, English and Greek. Her Martian language, while looking truly extra-terrestrial, was dissected by Flournoy and Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussureand described as being a language derived from French idiom. In short, Hélène’s Martian was like a French code, with each symbol relating to a French letter, with similar French grammatical rules.

 

After these French roots were discovered, Hélène then created a second, more complex Martian language, which Flournoy called part of the ‘Ultra-Martian Cycle’, relating to a language from a planet further away than mars. The Society for Psychical Research PSI encyclopaedia explains ‘The Ultra-Martian language was more complex; ultra-Martian inhabitants were more grotesque than those of Mars, which Flournoy interpreted as an unconscious response on the part of Hélène to his scepticism towards her naïve descriptions of the beauty of life on Mars.’

 

In Flournoy’s final work, he attributes Smith’s past lives and supernatural narratives to being ‘products of a subliminal imagination, their content based on her previous memories and experiences, incubated and creatively combined in the subliminal regions of her mind.’ Smith’s lives were very real and legitimate to her, but little more than her mind’s own creation. Nonetheless, her Martian narratives play a fascinating and important role in the wild history of 19thcentury mediumship and spirit contact.

But Hélène and Flournoy’s relationship did not end with the publication of his study. Rather, it negatively escalated. Upon publication, Hélène was incensed by the depictions of her mediumship and the suggestion of their illegitimacy. This led to a strained battle over royalties, which resulted in Flournoy conceding 50% to Hélène. While she stated that the study caused her great embarrassment and had lasting negative effects, she continued her mediumship and alien tales long afterwards, expanding her extra-terrestrial ‘romances’ to Uranus and the Moon.

As Hélène’s career progressed, she left her alien narratives behind, seeking refuge in her paintings and Christian visions. While she renounced her beliefs in her Martian and Hindu cycles, Marie Antoinette remained. Following the death of her mother, her devotion increased tenfold and she spent much of her time painting Christ and the Virgin Mary. While these were never cited to be past lives, they appeared to provide some therapeutic effort in processing her loss.

Over time, Hélène gave fewer séances and continued her religious devotion.  Through the financial support of her American sponsor, she could pursue her spiritual, religious painting and garner a reputation for her skills, particularly within the surrealist movement. Shortly after her death in 1929, a large retrospective of her work was exhibited at the Geneva Art museum, where her strange art was celebrated by art lovers and spiritualists alike. And, despite estrangement from Flournoy, she continued to use the pseudonym he gave her until she died.

 

 

 

 

References:

 

https://psi-encyclopedia.spr.ac.uk/articles/Hélène-smith

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Théodore_Flournoy#cite_note-2

https://scroll.in/magazine/873582/remembering-the-swiss-woman-who-went-from-india-to-the-planet-mars-in-the-19th-century

https://observationdeck.kinja.com/the-languages-and-architecture-of-mars-circa-1899-1648582630

http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/1/i_martian.php

https://www.fnord23.com/the-woman-who-claimed-she-visited-mars-spoke-to-aliens-in-1894/

[1]https://psi-encyclopedia.spr.ac.uk/articles/Hélène-smith#Psi_Phenomena

[2]https://scroll.in/magazine/873582/remembering-the-swiss-woman-who-went-from-india-to-the-planet-mars-in-the-19th-century

[3]http://www.cabinetmagazine.org/issues/1/i_martian.php

Sheffield General Cemetery: The Good, The Bad and the Granite

On the outskirts of Sheffield City Centre, beyond the eternal banks of scaffolding, beside the motorways and specialist supermarkets, lies Sheffield General Cemetery.

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Sheffield General Cemetery, 1830s

 

Opened in 1836, it was the principal burial ground for Victorian Sheffield and, upon closing for burials in the 1970s, contains around 86,000 internments. Much of the original burial ground has since been cleared of headstones and is an open, green space, filled with dog-walkers, families and the occasional early-morning drinker. The cemetery and park land has since been classified as a nature reserve, conservation area, and ‘area of natural history interest’.

 

Sheffield General is one of the earliest working cemeteries in the UK, opening before the Cemeteries Clauses Act of 1847, and well before many of the more famous grounds such as Highgate and Brompton. It was also one of the first privately-run, landscaped cemeteries to open outside London.

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Like most city cemeteries, it was built as a response to overcrowded burial grounds; considering Sheffield’s population boom from an estimated 60,000 in 1801 to 130,000 in 1841. Following a huge cholera outbreak in 1832, many of its victims were buried in mass graves and a solution had to be sought.

In its relatively small grounds, it boasts ten listed buildings and monuments ‘including Grade II listed catacombs, an Anglican chapel, with the gatehouse, non-conformist chapel and the Egyptian Gateway, each listed at Grade II.’ It also holds the largest single grave plot in the country, holding the bodies of 96 poor residents.

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Ongoing conservational works have done wonders for the cemetery in recent years, resulting in the non-conformist chapel becoming a very popular music and arts venue. Built in the classical-revival style, it boasts Egyptian influences and a beautifully carved dove above the doorway. I was fortunate enough to see the chapel in its state of disrepair several years ago, and the transformation from desolation to functional beauty is phenomenal.

Hopefully, in time, the much-neglected Anglican chapel will follow suit, as so many of the monuments and burials within the cemetery are beautiful examples of early Victorian architecture. Much of the maintenance and conservation work has been undertaken by a team of dedicated volunteers, who are invaluable in preserving the future of historic cemeteries and heritage sites. They state on their website that, the cemetery was previously a ‘pretty grim place where none but the brave would enter.’ So thanks be to the volunteers, as my journey into Sheffield’s land of the dead was really rather pleasant!

The first recorded burial is that of Mary Ann Fish, who died of tuberculosis. She now lies in good company, with a host of interesting lives nestled between the plots.

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The cemetery is host to the impressive memorials of several high-profile Victorian businessmen, including George Bassett, the sweet manufacturer, steel manufacturers, missionaries and innumerable bizarre professions, lost to history. (Samuel Dalton, Ivory Merchant springs to mind!)

 

William Parker’s family memorial is one of the more prominent Grade II listed monuments, towering above its counterparts. Parker’s memorial is a large square tomb, topped with a circle of classical columns and god-fearing message. Parker himself was a cutlery merchant, and a popular one at that, with the great and good of Sheffield’s cutlery world taking part in his funeral procession. The website ‘flickeringlamps.com’ recounts the unfortunate tale of Parker’s wife, Katherine.

 

‘William Parker died intestate, meaning that he had no will…Although according to the laws of the time, Parker’s wife was not able to legally own property, it fell upon Katherine to manage her late husband’s affairs and oversee the winding up of his business.  As well as this, Katherine was left to bring up the couple’s five children alone.  Poor Katherine died by suicide in 1844, and the inquest into her death noted that she had had ‘immense anxieties and much to manage.’’

Another striking memorial is that of James Nicholson (industrialist), which features a large statue of a kneeling female figure and table. For a cemetery that sat in disrepair for so many years, many of the more unusual memorials such as these are remarkably intact.

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The Anglican chapel is arguably the last, and largest conservation point within the cemetery. Built in 1850 in the neo-gothic style, it has beautiful ogival windows and an impressively large spire. Interestingly, the spire was purposefully made larger than necessary so that it could be seen from far away.

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The gatehouse, built in a classical style with Egyptian features, has also been sympathetically conserved. It sits over the Porter Brook river giving the entrance of the cemetery a ‘crossing the river Styx’ feel…

 

While the mention of ‘catacombs’ may get many cemetery-lovers hot under the collar, those built into the hillside of the general cemetery were less than popular, with only ten burials recorded in the first ten years of its use.

Alongside merchants, industrialists and prominent names, there are the countless headstones of others; families and individuals whose histories are a mystery to us – yet, so many have beautiful, intricate symbolism carved into their stones, the likes of which are hard to find in most of the UK’s largest cemeteries. Alongside urns, hands and flowers, there are some beautiful examples of intricately carved weeping women, trees and angels. Considering many of these symbols were reserved for larger structures or for jewellery, they stand as proof that each burial ground holds untold secrets and hidden art.

When the cemetery closed to new burials in 1979, the cemetery’s future was in danger. With several large plots sold off to developers, exhuming thousands of bodies was an off-putting task and much of the site fell into disrepair and disuse.

After several hundred headstones were removed to create a green space beside the more ‘landscaped’ part of the cemetery, many more were set into the cemetery’s terrace, fixed in place with a thick concrete.

While this seems an unusual way to repurpose headstones, it offers Sheffield General an entrance way unlike any other I’ve visited. And while Sheffield General may not be cited as one of the greats, it is a wonderful example of a cemetery changing through the years, decaying, growing and rising back.

 

 

Sources:

https://www.derelictplaces.co.uk/main/religious-sites/30024-sheffield-cemetery-september-2014-a.html#.XNnFty3MyCU

https://flickeringlamps.com

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

Hidden Pre-Raphaelites and Tiny Women at Birmingham Cathedral

In the centre of Birmingham, flanked by pubs and fashionable wine bars, stands a dinky cathedral and a handful of sporadically placed headstones. The grounds are busy, with commuters, teenagers and a large homeless population using its paths as a thoroughfare and its flat-topped tombs as tables. There are bus stops at each corner, benches filled with tired shoppers, and in 2017, hundreds of Brummies gathered to sing a rendition of Toto’s ‘Africa’ and raise money for charity. The space, St Philips Square, is ingrained in day-to-day Birmingham life. The building and headstones, however, seem to be an afterthought.

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The cathedral church of St Phillip was built between 1710-1725 and, despite its tiny stature, is the seat of the Bishop of Birmingham. As the population of Birmingham was booming in the 18thcentury, churches were running out of space to hold parishioners and, after a donation of land to Robert Philips in 1710, planning and building began in earnest.

While Birmingham is one of the UKs largest cities today, it didn’t achieve city status until 1889. Six years later, in 1905, St Philips became Birmingham cathedral, with its first bishop, Charles Gore, now standing front and centre in statue form, outside the doors.

Edward Burne-Jones, the famous Birmingham-born artist, features heavily in the cathedral’s interior. While he is mostly known through his association with the latter part of the pre-Raphaelite movement and his intricate, beautiful paintings, he was also a renowned glass designer. Burne-Jones donated several large glass windows to the cathedral, designed by himself and produced by Morris &Co, which continue to be a draw to tourists, worshippers and art-lovers alike.

“The Ascension was installed in 1885 and the Nativity and the Crucifixion two years later. Burne-Jones records “it was in the year 1885 that visiting my native city Birmingham I was so struck with admiration at one of my works in St Philips’s church [that] I undertook in a moment of enthusiasm to fill the windows on either side. He was paid £200 for each of his designs. They are considered characteristic of Burne-Jones’ later style – elongated bodies with small heads in relation to body length and designs which divide in two equal halves, horizontally. This technique separates heaven from earth in each of the windows. The Last Judgement was installed as a memorial window to Bishop Bowlby in 1897.”

– birminghamcathedral.com

 

To cover all architectural points of interest would be a very tiresome task, and I believe some of the most exciting points of interest to be outside the church walls.

But of course, beneath the tasteful baroque architecture and floral displays, lies a mire of other bizarre and exciting stories.

The churchyard surrounding St Philips holds around 60,000 burials, most of which (as with most city cemeteries) were unmarked. Those who could afford headstones have, over time, experienced a similar fate, as only around 100 remain intact today.

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The churchyard was closed to burials in 1858 as it quickly became a danger to public health with the sheer amount of bodies crammed in to such a small area. An 1849 report cites that “the effluvia from the yards and graves is said to be very offensive to the surrounding neighbourhood, especially in the summer months.”

These overcrowded graveyards were not only a public health risk, but were impossible to maintain and burials were poorly recorded. As so many internments were made, the graveyard became a jumble of headstones, with burials frequently disturbed by the boring rods that were inserted to find space below the ground for yet more bodies.

After the creation of Key Hill and Warstone Lane Cemeteries in 1835 and 1848 respectively, some of the pressure was taken off St Philips and its rising ground level.

Aside from traditional headstones and monuments, the churchyard plays host to several family burial vaults, many of which were backfilled and paved over during regeneration projects in the late 1990s. In the 1999 archaeological report, it is recorded that the burial vault of the Baldwin Family (among many, many others) was accidentally discovered following heavy plant work overhead. Works caused a partial collapse in a brick archway, leaving a 0.3 metre square hole in the path. The report continues ‘it was possible to view the interior of the vault from the hole and initial inspection showed the vault to be in good condition and containing several lead coffins.’

The Vault of the Harrison Family was similarly disturbed to ensure the stability of newly installed metal pillars and gates. The remains within this particular vault were intensely researched and studied, to such an extent that biographies and past health conditions are published online. (Samuel Harrison owned and operated the Exhibition Gin Palace in the 1860s, for example.)

While most of the Baldwin and Harrison coffins were identifiable, due to waterlogged conditions and the displacement of name plates, only four Baldwins could be recorded accurately. Similarly, most other burials unearthed during building and conservation work, were unidentifiable and merely recorded as ‘adult inhumation’, ‘disarticulated remains’ or by the integrity of the soft tissue within the less waterlogged sites.

Occasionally, new monuments are added to commemorate significant deaths, such as that to commemorate the 21 victims of the 1974 pub bombings. Also, large monuments are occasionally (unofficially) repurposed as a platform for contemporary displays of grief and loss. The large, squat, cut column beside Temple Row is a popular and prominent choice. The original monument commemorates the deaths of John Heap and William Badger who were killed during the construction of Birmingham Town Hall. On a recent visit, a large display of floral arrangements, cards and laminated newspaper reports were visible beside it, commemorating a young man’s tragic death which had recently come to court. While the churchyard may not be a contemporary burial site per-se, its purpose and visibility as a high-traffic public site is evident through displays and commemorations of deaths such as these.

IMG_5728

The remaining 18thand 19thcentury headstones display a wide range of professions and stories of Birmingham’s past. However, my personal favourite is easily overlooked. Standing alone, a tiny, lichen-covered headstone commemorates the life of ‘Nannetta Stoker.’ While the carving is faint, the following inscription can be deciphered:

 

“In Memory of

Nanetta Stocker

who departed this Life

May 4th1810

Aged 39 Years

The smallest Woman ever in

this Kingdom pofsefsed

with every accomplifhment

only 33 Inches high

a native of Austria.”

 

Nanette (incorrectly recorded as ‘Nanetta’ on her stone) is a forgotten music hall star who died with a huge following. Nanette was a musician, a dancer and a truly fascinating woman. Born in Austria in 1797, her physicality meant that she was forced (or ‘encouraged’, depending on the source) into show business at a young age. As I’m sure we are all aware, the only way for many people such as Nanette to make a living wage in their society was to exhibit themselves. After teaming up with German-born John Hauptman (who stood at 3ft 6inches high), the two extensively toured together, Nanette playing the pianoforte, John, the violin. They would also waltz together, which proved incredibly popular to 19thcentury audiences. In Birmingham alone, Nanette was the headline act at the annual Onion Fair carnival in Aston; a huge event, at which she triumphed.

Nanette is said to have enjoyed sewing and needlework and was ‘engaging and personable’. She was also of remarkably strong character. Her touring partner, Hauptman, proposed to Stocker, but was rejected ‘for reasons known only to herself.’

 

Nanette is but one of thousands of stories held within the cathedral’s grounds, and while most are lost to time, I do recommend taking a trip, should you ever find yourself in the area.

 

 

 

 

 

Sources/Further Reading:

 

https://archaeologydataservice.ac.uk/archiveDS/archiveDownload?t=arch-502-1/dissemination/pdf/birmingh2-48957_1.pdf

 

https://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/local-news/your-pictures-birmingham-cathedral-in-the-nineteenth-183479

 

https://ahistoryofbirminghamchurches.jimdo.com/birmingham-st-martin-in-the-bull-ring/st-philip-s-birmingham-cathedral/

 

https://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/midlands-news/amazing-story-woman-buried-forgotten-14184354

 

http://lesleyannemcleod.blogspot.com/2013/08/nannette-stocker-and-windsor-fairy.html

 

https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=Ym5x3mq2p7EC&pg=PA22&lpg=PA22&dq=nanette+stocker&source=bl&ots=8-axoYiWP5&sig=ACfU3U0Icec60PRjBVv7PY2afM_WnkTS-w&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjy48P2hfbhAhUDQhUIHXJ-CHg4ChDoATAAegQICRAB#v=onepage&q=nanette%20stocker&f=false

 

 

 

All photographs my own unless otherwise stated.

Nottingham Rock Cemetery and the Doubtful Catacombs of Robin Hood

To those travelling down the Mansfield road in Nottingham City, Rock Cemetery is little but an unassuming fence and a few wonky headstones glimpsed between the iron bars.

Yet venturing through its unassuming gates, Church, or ‘Rock’ Cemetery as it is most commonly known, its 13 acre site is anything but subtle and understated.

The cemetery began construction in 1851 (although didn’t open until 1856) following the enclosure acts of 1845. Church Cemetery, like many other cemeteries of this time, was created as a result of overpopulated city burial grounds.

However, unlike many other city grounds, its construction was not straightforward. The land, backing on to The Forest and Mansfield road, was uneven; filled with hollows and very fine sandstone rock. Being previously used as a sand pit and a working landscape for mills and farming, the cemetery had to compete with unusual features.

IMG_5065

The ground held a large pit of sorts, now named Saint Anne’s Valley. This hollow is now connected to the main grounds by a tunnel and is one of the main geographical draws of the cemetery. Much like Birmingham’s Warstone Cemetery, this large pit can be seen from above as a 20ft sheer drop, and is a health and safety nightmare. Previously, this hollow was open to the public by means of a large ramp, but decades of dodgy cemetery partying has resulted in a large metal gate blocking the way, with access regulated by official tours alone.

The Valley is a beautiful structure, and although not exclusively constructed by cemetery workers, its walls and structure was strengthened by the cheap labour of the city’s poor. Subsequently, this valley mainly contains pauper’s graves, with lists of names peeking out from huge slabs, nestled in the grass in rows. Beneath these slabs lie up to 20 bodies; a harsh contrast to the enormous granite monoliths above. Among the names of poor adults lie rows of heart-breaking reminders of historical infant mortality. Names followed by years become months and days, with some names carved next to mere hours of life.

To see these headstones today, your only option is through the caves via a pre-booked tour (or death-defying parkour over the enormous walls). Nottingham itself is famous for its extensive underground cave systems, used for transport, business and nefarious activities for centuries. Much of Nottingham has been quarried for sandstone since the medieval age and that from Church Cemetery was so prized due to the very fine nature of its sand. This sand is ideal for glass-making, and with Nottingham holding innumerable pubs and drinking dens…glass was always in ready demand!

The legend of Robin Hood also feeds into Church Cemetery, with one of the larger caves popularised as once being used by Hood to stable his horses. While these timelines don’t marry up exactly, what’s a little factual inaccuracy to a local legend?

The caves themselves are interesting for their very presence, the height at which miners reached and for their basic geological features. There’s also some questionable graffiti and candle holes to seek out. However, unlike other cemeteries boasting caves, Church Cemetery’s caves are little more than a by-product of industry. They were never intended to hold the dead and are by no means catacombs. Nonetheless, the landscape of the ground is beauteous to behold – its rising hills and hollows certainly make up for the lack of subterranean, cavern burials.

While the cemetery boasts no phenomenally famous residents, it has an overwhelming number of beautiful headstones and a great many notable Victorian philanthropists and businessmen. A mere few of note are:

James Shipstone (1846-1922) of Shipstone brewery.

Marriott Ogle Tarbotton (1834-87), engineer and father of the Trent bridge.

Watson Fothergill (1841-1928) architect of many of Nottingham’s most beloved gothic red brick buildings.

C. Hine (1813-99)Architect.

Edwin Patchitt (1808-88)Solicitor and designer of the cemetery.

But to name a few!

 

 

If turning left by the main gate, the cemetery unfolds into a veritable runway of enormous white angels and figurative monuments. The variety of sculpture no display could easily match if not better many of the UKs more well-known burial grounds. Many of the angels are variations on a theme; identical feminine figures pointing upwards or bowing in lament. However, the most poignant of this is arguably that of Thomas Cutts Seal, whose angel is particularly large and lifelike and carries a baby. Seal’s wife Helen died ages just 29, and the very next day, his only child Nellie, followed, aged 3 years and 5 months. He then married Eleanor Ellen, who was similarly struck down in her prime, aged just 30. Thomas died aged 52, and was outlived by his third wife. Nonetheless, burying two young wives and a child certainly puts our modern health privileges into perspective.

To the right, curving down towards the cave entrances, leads to another wealth of huge family monuments, each more bizarre and larger than the one before.

Behind all these is a small wall of battered square inlets that look to be little more than pieces of hanging rubble. However, after climbing higher above the family vaults, the sandstone walls reveal a former columbarium of sorts. The rows of organised, square niches once held the cremated remains of the deceased. In front would sit a granite plinth carved with names and dates, as with headstones, but much of this is long gone. Some time ago, a group of vandals came to believe that treasure lay within the niches and systematically smashed through the wall of cremated remains. It goes without saying that the vandal was met with little more than ash, but their lasting damage remains.

For a city centre cemetery, Church Cemetery is indeed a hidden gem. With a huge variety of monuments, headstones and history at your fingertips, its worth a day trip in itself, even if you aren’t fortunate enough to catch one of their rare tours.

 

 

 

 

 

Sources/Further Reading:

 

All photographs taken by myself, unless otherwise stated.

 

http://deceasedonlineblog.blogspot.com/2015/02/churck-rock-cemetery-nottingham.html

http://www.chamberlains.me.uk/ss/jamesshipstonei.htm

https://www.nottinghampost.com/news/nottingham-news/mystery-sadness-citys-rock-cemetery-175125

https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1001486

https://www.irhb.org/wiki/index.php/Robin_Hood%27s_Cave_(Rock_Cemetery,_Nottingham)

https://nottinghamhiddenhistoryteam.wordpress.com/2013/06/04/a-visit-to-the-local-cemetery/

The Shrieking Pits of Norfolk

Aylmerton and Northrepps are, by day, perfectly pleasant Norfolk villages a short drive away from the seaside resort of Cromer. Framed by poppy fields and arable farming, these chocolate-box villages conceal an ancient evil, deep within their land.

Known locally as ‘shrieking pits’, these hell dimensions take the form of shallow pits, dug for the purposes of medieval Iron-ore mining and smelting. While these pits are present in a variety of local Norfolk landscapes, it is those at Aylmerton and Northrepps that are known by the moniker of ‘shrieking pit.’

 

It is said that the spectral figure of a woman haunts the five pits at Aylmerton, wailing in search of her lost child. The common story is that the woman’s baby was murdered by her jealous husband, who believed the child not to be his. After killing and burying the child in a pit, he returned to dispatch with his wife. Subsequently, the grieving woman haunts the pit for eternity, searching for her long-dead child. She is said to be tall, clothed in white and wanders and peers into the pits, wringing her hands and shrieking or moaning. It is said that she has been seen at all hours of the day, and is not confined to the typical spectral hours of dusk and night.

The same woman, who is also often described as appearing in a ‘winding sheet’ (a shroud), has been seen roaming around the nearby area of Weybourne. However, the story alters somewhat here; many believe the Weybourne pits to have been created by Cromwell during the destruction of Weybourne Priory.

shrieking-pits-iron-workings

At Northrepps, by the ominously-titled Hungry Hill, the shrieking pits bear the legend of another grief stricken woman.

The Eastern Daily Press reports this legend;

‘It is said that at midnight on February 24, the spirit of a village girl named Esmeralda appears between the veil of the living and the dead. At the age of 17, Esmeralda had fallen in love with a wealthy but untrustworthy young farmer who conducted a secret relationship with her behind his wife’s back.

The local vicar discovered the affair and ordered them to draw it to a close – the farmer skulked back to his wife and, without word from her sweetheart, Esmeralda’s heart broke and she drifted into misery and depression, unable to forget her love.’[1]

While taking a walk one frosty night, the desperate girl threw herself into a pit. An act which she immediately regretted. It is said she called for help for some time, before succumbing to her death. It is said her cries for help can still be heard on February 24th, the anniversary of her death.

Aylmerton_Shrieking_Pits

Northrepps not only has the legend of the suicidal teenager, but several other stories of people disappearing into the pits. Aside from a horse and cart, another legend states that the pits are in fact called ‘grave holes’ and that the shrieking came from the souls of long-dead Viking heroes buried beneath the soil.

Previously, the pits have been cited as graves or prehistoric dwellings. An alternative, and more likely, reality is that the pits are the result of medieval iron ore digging and smelting pits from the 9thand 11thcenturies.

 

Nonetheless, the legends prevail, and Norfolk’s shrieking pits continue their wailing. But ghosts or none, you’d do well to mind your step.

 

 

 

 

Sources/Further Reading

https://www.megalithic.co.uk/article.php?sid=45616

https://www.hiddenea.com/norfolka.htm

https://www.edp24.co.uk/news/weird-norfolk-the-shrieking-pits-of-aylmerton-and-northrepps-1-5055140

[1]https://www.edp24.co.uk/news/weird-norfolk-the-shrieking-pits-of-aylmerton-and-northrepps-1-5055140

Buried Alive! A short history of premature burial and safety coffins

Taphophobia. The fear of being buried alive. The subject of nightmares since time immemorial. With today’s modern medicine, there’s little chance of these fears becoming reality, however, for many centuries, it was a very real threat.

There have been instances of premature burial for centuries; with apocryphal accounts of the presumed-dead clawing themselves out of their coffins. However, the fear of premature burial really reached its peak in the 18thand 19thcenturies.

Coffin-bell

In 1896, social reformer and bearded anti-vaxxer (those have existed for centuries too) William Tebb, co-founded the London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial with fellow germ-denier Walter Hadwen. The association campaigned for burial reforms to ensure the dead were truly, irrevocably dead. Due to the catatonic side effects of diseases such as cholera and malaria, newspapers were filled with accounts of prematurely buried individuals, subsequently dying in unimaginably traumatic ways.

‘WeirdHistorian.com’ cites an instance from the July 22nd, 1890 edition of ‘The Undertaker’s Journal’ where a woman was buried alive –

The body of a woman, named Lavrinia Merli, a peasant, who was supposed to have died from hysterics, was placed in a vault on Thursday, 3rd July. On Saturday evening it was found that the woman had regained consciousness, had torn her grave-clothes in her struggles, had turned completely over in the coffin, and had given birth to a seven-month-old child. Both mother and child were dead when the coffin was opened for the last time.’

premature-burial-title-page
Front Page of Tebb’s ‘Premature Burial’

Together with Edward Perry Vollum, who was nearly buried alive himself, the two men published a book titled ‘Premature Burial and How It May Be Prevented’. The work consisted of suggestions of safety measures and several accounts of individuals later being discovered to have been buried alive. The association distributed this work alongside others of a similarity, such as ‘A Plan for Forming Associations for the Prevention of the Burial of Persons Alive, by an Army surgeon, and The Absolute Signs of Death, and the Prevention of Premature Burial, by the eminent British physician, Sir Benjamin Ward Richardson, F.R.S.’[1]

However, ‘Premature Burial’ is the most gripping of all the Association’s efforts. It remains in print to this day and is as frightening to the contemporary reader as it would have been to the Victorian taphophobe. The Paris Review recorded the lasting horror in these accounts of suffering. ‘There’s the man who sank into such a prolonged lethargy that he was thought dead until he “broke into a profuse sweat” in his coffin; the young woman whose corpse was exhumed for reburial only to be discovered “in the middle of the vault, with dishevelled hair and the linen torn to pieces … gnawed in her agony”[2]

If anything, the work concerns itself with exhumation as much as it does interment, suggested than many Victorian cemeteries were hives of questionable activity throughout their working day!

Considering that death and burial weren’t widely regulated industries, many accounts of premature burial occurred because of misdiagnosis of death by a non-medical individual. Subsequently, the association repeatedly campaigned for parliament to put new regulations in place, requiring a medical professional to confirm death before the body was handled by an undertaker. Previously, death certificates had been widely issued by doctors who had not examined the body, which seems utterly ludicrous to our modern sensibilities. After years of efforts, Tebb was still frequently dismissed by the wider medical community and remained a staunch campaigner for burial reform until his death in 1917. In Tebb’s will, he explicitly stated that his body could only be disposed of following ‘unmistakable evidence of decomposition’. He was cremated a week after his death.

 

Tebb’s death aside, premature burial required very real preventative inventions. In the 19thcentury, this commonly took the form of elaborate coffin mechanisms. The second version of ‘Premature Burial…’ included a handful of elaborate coffin mechanisms to assist the nearly-dead. The first, by Russian Count Michel de Karnice-Karnick, was presented in 1897 following his supposed experience of witnessing a Belgian girl be buried alive. Tebb and Vollum describe the invention as follows –

“…it consists of a long tube, about three and a half inches’ diameter, and a hermetically-sealed box.  The tube is fixed into an aperture in the coffin as soon as the latter is lowered into the grave.  No gases can escape from the tomb into the outer air, as the metallic box into which the upper end of the tube enters cannot be opened from the outside.

On the chest of the supposed dead body is placed a glass ball, several inches in diameter, attached to a spring which communicates through the tube with an iron box above ground.

On the slightest movement of the chest’s wall, as in the act of marked breathing, or movement of the body, the glass ball releases a spring which causes the lid of the iron box to fly open immediately, thus admitting both air and light to the coffin.  At the same time a flag rises perpendicularly about four feet above the ground, and a bell is set ringing which continues for about half an hour.  In front of the box, an electric lamp burns which gives light after sunset to the coffin below.  The tube acts as a speaking tube, and the voice of the inmate of the coffin, however feeble is intensified.”[3]

In short, Karnice-Karnicks invention is an elaborate jack-in-a-box system. However bizarre the mechanisms sound, the coffin system was tested and proven to be a great success when tested on the living. Yet while the dead do not breathe, they decompose. While the glass ball was supposed to be activated by breathing, it was equally as efficient at detecting the bloating and rotting of the dead. To avoid a run of unnecessary exhumations and cemetery flag-flying, the invention was not a success.

C. H. Eseinbrandt coffin

Before complicated coffin systems, earlier methods of prevention consisted of a simple cord attached to a bell, or similar method used to attract outside attention. Flags, ladders and minor explosions were all popularised, but most had foregone the inclusion of a breathing tube, making them all rather redundant.

In the 1820s, so-called ‘portable death chambers’ were popularised in Germany. These chambers were constructed over open graves and were furnished with a bell and viewing window. If the bell was rung, the body could be immediately exhumed, meanwhile ‘watchmen’ could peer into the chamber to search for signs of decomposition.

In 1829, fellow German Dr. Johann Gottfried Taberger invented a system of strings and bells attached to the body’s extremities. Yet, as with Karnice-Karnick’s later invention, natural decomposition and shifting of the body could frequently cause false positive results, rendering the bells, once again, inconsequential.

safety-coffin-29

Several other inventions, including one in 1995 that required an intercom system, were patented, but ultimately proved pointless. There appear to be no official records of anyone being saved from a safety coffin and the western popularisation of embalming rendered any chance of post- ‘death’ survival ultimately impossible.

However, the fear remains. Despite modern medicine and developments in burial reform, the terror of waking up in a coffin is perpetually repeated in popular culture. Most recently, the horror film ‘The Nun’ featured coffin bells as a questionable plot point, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer herself had to fight her way out of a coffin in the 2000s. As long as we fear the grave, our dead will never truly stay buried.

 

 

Sources:

http://www.weirdhistorian.com/proper-care-for-the-not-quite-dead-yet-the-london-association-for-the-prevention-of-premature-burial/

https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2016/01/06/im-not-dead-yet/

http://blog.wellcomelibrary.org/2013/02/item-of-the-month-february-2012-premature-burial/

https://www.amusingplanet.com/2017/02/the-grave-with-window.html

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

Footnotes:

[1]http://www.weirdhistorian.com/proper-care-for-the-not-quite-dead-yet-the-london-association-for-the-prevention-of-premature-burial/

[2]https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2016/01/06/im-not-dead-yet/

[3]Premature Burial, 1905, pp321-322)

 

In Praise of Death Stationery

In western cultures, after a death, we are often informed by social media or through a text or phone call. For the common man, there’s no need for printed invites and those attending the service often know of time and place from similar means. As far as printed ephemera goes, most organised funerals present attendees with an order of service; hymns, poems, prayers and the like, alongside the name and photograph of the deceased. If you’re particularly unlucky, they might include a questionable poem written by a family member in dodgy rhyming couplets. But how many of us have retained these pamphlets throughout our grief?

Printed invites are for weddings and birthdays. They’re obtained in bulk from private printing companies that print twee family canvas pictures and promotional booklets alongside your booklet of grief. We use images and choose words carefully; most are desperately personal. And they end up left behind or in the bin.

But for our ancestors, funeral invitations and memorial cards were a keepsake in themselves. They were retained after the funeral, kept in books, boxes and between the pages of family bibles. However, to the contemporary death-historian or morbidly-minded hoarder, they’re a staple piece of a collection that snowballs.

The funeral itself is historically the most important part of western death rituals, and invitations and memorial keepsakes have been an extension of this.  While memorial or so-called ‘funeral cards’ are most associated with the 19thand early 20thcentury, there are beautifully elaborate examples dating back to the 17thand 18thcenturies. These cards were most commonly used as funeral invitations and are among the rarer and most attractive of death-associated collectables.

Many early examples were engraved in wood with a surround incorporating traditional reminders of mortality; skeletons, crossed bones, hour-glasses etc. Families with even greater wealth could choose to commission far larger invitations from copper.

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19th Century Memorial Card [Personal Collection]
By the Victorian age, fashions had changed from direct invitations to a funeral to small memorial cards which provided basic details as to the name of the deceased and the date of forthcoming funeral.

From the 1840s to approximately the 1870s, cards became hugely elaborate works of art in pierced paper and (still!) sometimes wood. In the world of Victorian death ephemera, it is through these that the Victorian obsession with funerary symbolism is easiest to recognise.

Memorial cards were often one of the first indicators of grief and one of the last reminders, subsequently, there were innumerable design options on offer. In early, costly cards, some might feature a plethora of symbols; broken columns, urns, weeping angels, and broken flowers – all of which carry their own symbolic meaning relating to death, grief and the afterlife.

By the turn of the century, and the advent of the industrial revolution (and subsequent development in printing methods), the public began to favour a smaller folding card that was lithographed with a singular simple image, such as lilies, crosses or a short bible verse, often with glimpses of silver and grey.

chapter-7-memorial-card-for-martha-bedfords-mother-1877-2
19th Century Memorial Card with Undertaker’s Details [via The Cowkeeper’s Wish]
These more basic cards were easily obtained from several sources. Set designs could be ordered from a book, much like an Avon catalogue of misery. They could also be bought from the funeral directors themselves. In obtaining them from this source, they could be supplied for cut price or free, if the funeral director was able to advertise his services at the bottom of the card.

Funeral invitations for prominent and wealthy individuals often operated as tickets, as though the funeral was some exclusive concert. These often stated the requirement to ‘bring the ticket’ to the funeral to avoid overcrowding.

Public funerals of royalty or statesmen were obviously different affairs; funeral cards were specifically designed as keepsakes and backed for framing, but were also produced in several class tiers. For example, the Duke of Wellington’s funeral in 1852 had twelve levels of admission; officials, important statesmen and family had engraved tickets sealed in black wax, whereas, at the other end of the scale, the public – at least those who were able to afford a ticket to the event – found their card to be a plain printed affair.

Funeral ephemera relating to such big deaths was also mass produced as public souvenirs. Alongside official invitations to the event, handkerchiefs, pins and facsimile postcards were widely circulated as accessible keepsakes.

While decoration began to simplify towards the end of the century, the common thread in mourning stationery continued to be the feature of a black border framing a white background. This black border was carried throughout all mourning stationery, and is frequently used today.

While mourning cards and stationery may not appear to be the most exciting of mourning practises, it shows how much of an enormous business grieving was.

 

In sending a death notice through the post, the black edging would be prominent, meaning the nature of the letter that landed on your mat was very clear. Similarly, when writing any letters within the period of mourning, your situation was immediately visible through your usage of such a simplistic border. These borders, much like wider Victorian mourning regulations, changed in size and density depending on the immediacy of the death. In a letter to the Royal Academy from the son of pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais, a thick border is visible, showing that the death affecting him has been recent. Over time, these correspondences would sport a smaller border, until eventually, the family could return to their previous letterheads.

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As the 20thcentury thundered into the 21st, these smaller cards retained a sense of simplicity, but grew somewhat, leaving us with the pamphlets we’re so used to in contemporary grief. It could be tempting to assume that pamphlets will soon go the way of the mourning card, being replaced by some technological alternative. However, considering we live in an increasingly ‘emotionally open’ society, perhaps the draw of a delicate keepsake will return us to a world of pierced paper urns and black borders. Besides, who doesn’t love a bit of new stationery?