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.

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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.

The Spectre of Newby Church

Britain has its fair share of famous 20th century ghost images; from national landmarks to tiny hamlets, no square inch is spared from spectral display.

Newby Hall, an 18thcentury house near Ripon in Yorkshire, is both a family tourist attraction and the scene of one of the most captivating (supposed) paranormal images of the 1960s.

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The ‘Newby Monk’ (otherwise known as the ‘Spectre of Newby Church’) is the name given to the ghostly apparition developed in a photograph taken on the grounds of Newby Hall’s own Church of Christ the Consoler. The Reverend Kenneth F Lord took the image in 1963 and remarked that the infamous ‘monk’-like shape was not present at the time of taking the photograph.

When the image was developed and circulated, speculation began as to what or who the murky humanoid shape may be. As with all good British hauntings, the first port of call was mysterious clergy, with many suggesting that the figure bears a similarity to a 16thcentury monk. The white blur concealing his face is generally referred to as a shroud, possibly concealing leprosy or a similar facial disfigurement.

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Naturally, there’s a school of thought that the monk is little more than an accomplice taffled in bedsheets (Or similar. I happen to like the bedsheet image.) While many believe the figure to stand at 9 feet tall, considering the monk’s feet are not visible, sceptics argue that the accomplice is simply standing on a box.

Nonetheless, the blurred scream-mask of the monk permeated public imagination and was adopted by tabloids and paranormal groups alike. There are multiple reports of photographic experts examining the image and finding no evidence of tampering. However, many other investigators cite it as having all the hallmarks of a double exposure image. (Double exposure being where two or more images are superimposed to give the appearance of being one singular image.) To date, there has been no clear explanation as to the reason and method of production of the Newby Monk, which only adds to its enduring quality!

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c) Graham White

Newby Church itself is not a place of ghost hunts or repeated clams of paranormal events – indeed, the 1960s spectre has the monopoly on spirit activity. Comparatively speaking, the church is a young one, founded in 1876.

Its reason for construction is similarly unique; in the April of 1870, Frederick Vyner (of noble heritage) and several other titled British and Italian tourists were ambushed and kidnapped during their travels through Greece.

A few days later, a ransom was demanded for the release of the party. While a large portion of the funds were gathered for the groups’ release, a failed rescue attempt saw three of the tourists murdered, including Frederick.

Frederick’s mother was understandably heartbroken, and saw to it that the remainder of the accumulated ransom money was used in the construction of two churches in memory of her murdered son. The first, Christ the Consoler, was built on her own land in Newby, the other at his sister’s land at Studley Royal.

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While I am not theologically qualified, I would argue that a church founded in the 19thcentury would have little reason for 16thcentury monks to have taken up residence.

Has this stopped the spectral monk in his tracks? Not at all. The Reverend’s questionable image has its own autonomy and continues to captivate and unnerve to this day.

 

 

 

 

Sources / Further Reading:

 

http://www.theparanormalguide.com/blog/the-ghost-monk-of-newby-church

 

https://forums.overclockers.co.uk/threads/newby-ghost-photo-ever-proved-a-fake.17930883/

 

http://www.daffadillies.co.uk/trigger/b720031

 

The Tomb of Sir Christopher Wray at Glentworth

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Like many counties, Lincolnshire celebrates an annual open churches festival, in which numerous small villages open their church doors to visitors with a cup of tea and a frightening array of cakes and jams.

One of the churches involved in celebrations was the unassuming-looking parish church of St Michael in the tiny village of Glentworth. Glentworth, a village and civil parish, boasted a population of only 323 in 2011.

 

Surrounded by immaculately maintained grounds, St Michaels, like most small parish churches, is a small, composite building, with multiple additions made over several centuries.  The oldest part of St Michael’s is the Anglo Saxon tower, with later additions made in the Elizabethan, Victorian and Georgian periods. The structure, being predominantly rebuilt in the Victorian and Georgian periods, is beautifully maintained and simplistic in design.

 

Aside from their annual scarecrow event, the sleepy village of Glentworth seems to be renowned for little else. Which, once you cross the threshold of St Michael’s, is a truly baffling fact.

 

The interior of the church is plainly decorated, with simple plastered walls, gothic windows and attractive Victorian red floor tiles. The stained-glass windows are understandably more elaborate, with the east wall featuring bright depictions of the crucifixion and last supper.

However, the window itself was built for another purpose; to cast more light upon the tombs beneath it. These tombs, are – without a doubt – the jewel in Glentworth’s crown.

 

To the left of the window stands the imposing tomb of Sir Christopher Wray and his family. Wray was Chief Justice during the reign of Elizabeth I, and a hardened, controversial Judge. A quick scan across any history book will reveal Wray’s name next to a whole manner of high profile trials including that of John Somerville and William Parry, who conspired to assassinate the queen. However, my personal favourite, with a decidedly grizzly ending is that of the pamphleteer John Stubbs who – after publishing disparaging materials about the English monarchy’s relationship with France – was condemned to have his right hand cut off by ‘means of a cleaver driven through the wrist by a mallet’. Although not especially relevant to Wray himself, I must repeat Stubbs’ morbidly wonderful final words before his hand was removed were ‘Pray for me not my calamity is at hand.

Most importantly, in historical terms, is that Wray, acting as an assessor, took part in passing the death sentence on Mary Queen of Scots in 1587.

 

It may seem strange for such an eminent politician to have found his final resting place within sleepy Glentworth, yet one must remember that during the 16th Century, Lincolnshire – Lincoln in particular – was an important political centre. Wray was also Lord of numerous manors across the county

 

Wray’s tomb is an imposing structure; a marble and alabaster monolith stretching to the very top of the chancel wall. Effigies of Wray and his wife Anne are set back into a niche, with four smaller figures beneath them. These small figures of women, stand around a foot in height and represent Wray’s daughters, two of whom died in infancy.

Above the figures of Wray and his wife, lies a whole host of stunning carved imagery. Acanthus leaves (a popular Greek symbol of immortality) lie at each corner of the inscription, nestled alongside skulls, torches and ribbons. The tomb is remarkably well preserved and maintained, with many of the painted details remaining vivid.

 

Opposite the tomb, rather overshadowed by Wray and his family, is another beautiful alabaster memorial. Although far smaller, the memorial to Elizabeth Saunderson is similarly filled with well-preserved carvings and striking figures of cherubs, acanthus leaves, crossed bones and hourglasses (see pictures).

Considering the enormous and unusual nature of Wray’s tomb, it is surprising to say that a remarkably similar tomb of full-size effigies lies a stones’ throw away at the village of Snarford. But I’ll leave that jaunt for another time.

 

Wray’s tomb is a true gem in Lincolnshire’s historical and ‘deathy’ fabric, and I would urge you to pass by if you ever find yourself in the county. The church is open during the daytime and relatively easy to access. Although I can’t guarantee they’ll have cake.

 

 

 

 

 

Further Reading:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Stubbs#Trial,_punishment,_and_further_writing

 

http://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1558-1603/member/wray-christopher-1522-92

St Botolph’s, Skidbrooke

When beginning a new project or blog, its all too easy to overthink. Will my content be too niche? Will readers find me boring? So, with feelings of gentle accessibility in mind, let’s kick things off with a trip to a charming local landmark…

 

Exploring the ‘DEMON CHURCH’

St Botolph’s, Skidbrooke

 

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As a Lincolnshire native, I’d heard tales of Skidbrooke’s paranormal happenings since childhood. My sister had run from its grounds screaming after interrupting a candlelit ceremony, my mother refused to visit, my friends…well, they simply didn’t trust my driving.

 

Lincolnshire has more than its fair share of isolated disused churches; with centuries of widespread arable farming, tiny, insular communities all required their own place of worship. As cities grew and machinery took over the role of workers, the inevitable happened and pockets of unused churches, chapels and shrines scatter the county.

 

Skidbrooke (sometimes referred to as Skidbrooke cum Saltfleet) is a small hamlet, last recorded as having a mere 521 inhabitants. St Botolph’s Church lies a little way out from the majority of the houses, with cows and a roadway as its closest neighbours. Yet, despite its isolation, visitors are a constant presence.

 

A quick search of ‘Skidbrooke’ on social media will bring up a mixed bag of images, from family-friendly paranormal investigations (complete with bobble hats and EMF detectors) to scantily clad young women, posing provocatively in the glassless windows. To most visitors, St Botolph’s stands as a local curiosity and for many decades stood relatively intact. However, as with many isolated sites, local legend and infamy took hold

 

St Botolph’s dates from the early 13th century, with later additions in the 14th, 15th and 19th centuries; The Victorian tiling remains as one of the few notable features to have remained relatively intact, seemingly uninteresting to vandals and ghost-hunters alike. While the church does retain some impressive architectural features, its decorative adornments are few and far between. Beside the east window (either side of the former altar) are two large, painted grotesques which have remained remarkably intact, with a smaller one lurking within the south aisle.  There are several fascinating gravestones and monuments within the church; Not all have survived particularly well, but those within the floor itself – mainly dating from the 18th Century – remain predominantly intact and legible (see pictures).

 

Sadly, the 13th century font and the central columns of many windows met their fate and the hands of some well-armed vandals some months prior to my visit, leaving piles of jagged masonry in their wake.

 

St Botolph’s has been abandoned since the 1970s and reports of ‘satanic rituals’, animal mutilation and paranormal activities have been rife ever since.

In the late 1990s, there were many instances of decapitated animal corpses discovered within the grounds of St Botolph’s; primarily chickens, but also an occasional sheep. The purpose of their mutilations are undoubtedly ritualistic in nature at least with visitors recounting bloody symbols smeared across the internal walls. Former church warden Mr R Benton recounted many tales of abuse and threats from visiting groups, and how their nocturnal activities were obvious – ‘Satan worshipping has gone on. They come from Grimsby in the evenings, light fires and write symbol on the walls.’

 

Throughout the multitude of articles within local newspapers, ‘Satanic’, ‘Witchcraft’ and ‘Black Magic’ are undoubted buzzwords. Not to rain on anyone’s parade or deprive locals of a juicy, shock-headline, but these labels are wildly applied with little basis. There are pages of ‘Satanists have claimed’, ‘witches have claimed’. These claims seems to have come from the ether, the netherworld, as in all my fervent searching, I have discovered  not one claim, not one local Satanist group with a website directly claiming to have worked there. That is not to say that nefarious and (incredibly) destructive activity has not taken place at St Botolph’s, but the problem lies with vandalism, not with Beelzebub.

 

There will continue to be periodical resurgences of interest in the occult and black magic, especially within generations of teenagers dipping their toes into horror films and rudimentary occult publications. Ritualistic magic, or rather the outward appearance of it, is one of our last great taboos. Such performances retain their substantial impact in small, rural communities, gaining foothold in local legend.  However, in my most recent visit, I found few serious examples of ritualistic activity, save for some scrawled biro graffiti and a smattering of discarded tea lights and the occasional charred feather.

 

Many paranormal groups continue to investigate St Botolph’s, with fewer accounts of other-worldly activity surfacing in recent years. Previously, in 2004, a group accompanied by Parapsychologist David Wharmby claimed to have encountered a plethora of mysterious happenings. Wharmby told the Louth Leader “We heard many strange unaccountable noises, saw flashes in the sky when the weather was calm and experienced weird feelings. We saw small babies among the gravestones and grass.”. Wharmby and his group purportedly also captured images of mysterious ‘rods’; cylindrical objects of around a foot in length that are invisible to the naked eye. There is a smattering of online accounts of paranormal seeing a hooded figure, such as a monk, roaming around the church and its grounds, which is hardly an uncommon apparition in such areas. It is well known that behind St Botolph’s lies the footings of an old abbey, although this is undiscernible to the casual visitor.

 

While many headstones are covered in a bright white lichen, several memorials within the churchyard are most unusual for the county, featuring well-preserved symbols and unusual fonts.  A headstone of particular interest is that belonging to Mary Lancaster (d.1845?) whose headstone features a carving of a flat hand with feminine cuff. While motifs of interlocking and pointing hands were popular in the 19th Century, to find an open hand such as this is most unusual in Lincolnshire. I initially thought that perhaps owing to the small damage in the palm, an item such as a key or arrow was defaced or removed at a previous date. However, I have learned that such ‘halting hands’ are commonplace in larger southern cemeteries such as Abney Park and symbolise the halting/end of life This stone and others, if you live locally, may merit a visit off their own bat (see pictures).

 

While I may seem disgruntled at the goings-on at Skidbrooke, my anger lies with the mindless and constant stream of vandalism that has blighted the structure. While I personally encountered no paranormal activity during my visit, St Botolph’s certainly possesses unusual acoustic properties. The lowing of cattle and shrieking of foxes from nearby fields travels in an unusual and powerful way. What originates hundreds of metres away in a far field, may suddenly seem close and oppressive. Such is the nature of flat, featureless landscapes.

 

It goes without saying, but if you plan a visit, do be respectful. While the churchyard itself is no longer actively used for burials, many of the graves are still visited by families and nearby is a small, modern graveyard, still actively used. Judging by the rate in severe vandalism in recent months, if you were planning a visit to Lincolnshire’s so-called ‘Demon Church’, I’d schedule it sooner rather than later.

 

Have you been to Skidbrooke? How was your experience?
 

 

 

 

 

 
Read more at:

 

https://www.louthleader.co.uk/news/experts-claim-church-is-paranormal-paradise-1-1015932

 

https://www.visitchurches.org.uk/visit/church-listing/st-botolph-skidbrooke.html#undefined1