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.

Sheffield_General_Cemetery_1830s
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.

sheff-gen

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.

60478921_418785748954368_5401859477181825024_n

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.

60130454_324793508187885_7239445459360546816_n

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.

60346608_2191534861158418_6423179262534090752_n

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.

IMG_6258

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.

1306738910

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.

birmingham-cathedral-306079655

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/

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)

 

Hidden Treasures of Arnos Vale – A Visitor’s Perspective

[NOTE: This post first appeared on arnosvale.org.uk as a guest article]

 

It is no secret that I love Arnos Vale. Since moving to Bristol, I have spent many days traipsing its winding paths, admiring the headstones and, of course, drinking its coffee. My social media is filled with images of mossy headstones and stone angels, and there are few events in the Spielman Centre that haven’t piqued my interest.

But, despite my frequent visits, each time I walk through the lanes, I am met with a new symbol, a new flower or a new artefact I had yet to notice. Arnos may well be a historical site, but it changes so drastically with the seasons, it would be foolish to think you knew the cemetery at all.

Arnos Vale is simultaneously a working cemetery, a heritage site, a habitat and a veritable art gallery of historical remembrance. To write a thorough guide to all that Arnos offers would probably take until my own death. So, before I dash to choose my own headstone, please enjoy a rather abridged guide to the hidden treasures of Bristol’s finest cemetery.

Many of us take shortcuts through cemeteries on our way to work or as a cut-through to the shops, which makes it so easy to skim over the sheer variety and beauty of headstones.

While Arnos has been accepting burials since its creation in 1837, many of its older interments are easy to spot, thanks to the elaborate memorial choices of the Victorian Era.

 

The Victorian interest in symbols and speaking without words particularly took root in the world of grave and monument ornamentation. Alongside names and dates, 19thcentury headstones are often topped by a carving – hands, flowers, birds etc., each possessing a hidden message of their own. There are hundreds to list, but a few popular symbols are –

  • Hands – These are one of the most varied carvings out there, each gesture symbolising something different about the deceased. A few variations are:
    • Shaking Hands represent a farewell to earthly life. Often these have distinguishable male and female (lacy/frilly) cuffs which may denote a spouse left behind.
    • Pointing upwards infers that the deceased has ascended to heaven.
    • Pointing down DOESN’T mean the opposite! This often represents a sudden death, the hand being that of God.
  • Ivy and/or Grapes – As ivy is evergreen and can continue to thrive on dead trees, it is a plant that has come to represent the immortal soul. Also, it was often used as a Victorian shorthand for friendship and remembrance.
  • Lilies – Much like hands, lilies have a plethora of meanings.
    • Lilies in general represent death and mourning.
    • Lily of the Valley, however, represents a return of happiness.
    • The Victorians loved using flowers as a means of expressing their emotions, (both positive and negative!) so lilies outside of the cemetery context can be tricky to decipher.
  • Butterflies – These delicate carvings, often accompanying a cut flower, represent resurrection. These are often found on memorials to the young and are particularly poignant.

 

It is such a thrill to walk through a cemetery or churchyard and feel as though you are privy to some secret insight into the past. I absolutely urge any visitors, especially those with families in tow, to take time to search for these symbols and decipher them along the way. Spotting pictures and imagining the stories behind the woodland burials is a healthy and creative way to engage with your surroundings and feel less detached from centuries of fascinating lives that are waiting to be rediscovered and reimagined.

Arnos has thousands of these symbols, intricately carved into headstones and tombs – however, larger Victorian monuments hold similar hidden meanings and are rather easier to spot from the paths!

There are some beautiful column memorials within Arnos Vale, a particularly clear example being visible just opposite the cloisters. This column, standing over 6 feet in height, looks as though a mason has cruelly chiselled it in two. However, a broken column represents a life cut short. Other columns closer to the Anglican Chapel feature broken columns with wreaths, which show victory over death.

Obelisks, huge tombs and angels often afforded the grieving family more space to memorialise the deceased and often feature whole paragraphs of achievements and addresses. These are often thought-provoking and, should you be inclined, easy to research further. As such huge monuments were incredibly costly in their day, the financial, political or historical status of the deceased means you are a mere click or two away from a wealth of information.

Should you not be feeling especially ‘outdoorsy’, Arnos’ buildings are filled with fascinating artefacts and exhibitions. The museum opposite the West Lodge is always worth a visit and the Anglican chapel is a beautifully serene structure that shines out as a love letter to conservation done right! However, it is in the depths of the Spielman Centre (accessible via the stairs in the Atrium) that a true hidden treasure is kept.

Arnos-Vale-Woodland-Burial-Hidden-Treasures

In a large glass-topped case lies Arnos Vale’s own ‘Immortelle’, a curious painted plaster wreath of flowers which was uncovered during conservation efforts in recent years. ‘Immortelles’, from the French word for ‘everlasting’, were popular grave decorations from the Victorian and Edwardian eras. These were mass-produced, brightly painted ceramic or plaster flowers that were left as a permanent memorial at the grave site and could survive far longer than their organic counterparts.

While not biodegradable, many of these ceramic wreaths have been lost to vandalism, theft and the rough hands of time. The few that survive in the UK have been taken into the care of museums and private collectors, so are difficult to track down. For a piece that spent around a century under a protective blanket of soil and moss, Arnos’ example is a stunning treat for the eyes.

Keeping our thoughts on subterranean treats, it would be foolish not to spend a little time on Arnos Vale’s famous nocturnal inhabitants, bats!

Bat walks throughout the year are fantastic experiences for all ages – they help nurture a love for nature and conservation, but also dispel any silly myths about one of Britain’s most endangered and beautiful native species.

To end on a lighter note, it is no surprise that Arnos Vale is incredibly popular as a unique wedding venue and forest school. Its peaceful woodland setting, wildflowers, birds and nocturnal creatures offer an idyllic moment of quiet clarity from the city’s roar.

Arnos has a wonderful variety of British trees, from high, swaying poplars to mighty pines, many housing tawny owls, buzzards and song birds whose calls carry across the cemeteries’ 45 acres!

While operating as a habitat for larger animals such as badgers, there are several examples of micro habitats within its grounds – a simple wall leading from the war graves by Soldiers’ Corner may at first seem little more than a structural or architectural feature. However, the bricks and foliage offer an ideal habitat for smaller animals, such as reptiles like slow worms and common lizards.

To walk the Victorian cobbled path (just down from the top lodge) while holding a handrail, crafted from Arnos’ own Ash saplings shows a considered approach to conservation that many heritage sites can only hope to mimic.

I won’t spoil any more of Arnos’ secrets for you, but be sure to find some of your own during your next visit. And if you spy me lurking between the graves, hunting for a butterfly or carved hand, don’t worry, you’ll be doing the same before you know it!

Gravedigging 101

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

This week on ‘Burials and Beyond’, how to dispose of a body.

As much as I’d delight in upholding such a click-bait-y introduction, clarification is – sadly – imminent. Unless you’re inclined to murder and subsequent concealment, any deceased individual will pass through a chain of death professionals before they meet their final resting place. In this journey from death to internment and decay, we can be inclined to consider only hospital staff and funeral directors as sole ‘handlers’. However, they are integral pieces in the wider death jigsaw puzzle. I’d like to give a quick overview of a much-overlooked piece in the death and burial chain, that of the gravedigger.

As a Brit, I live in a country of ever-increasing cremation. In 1960, cremation to burial rates were 34.70%, whereas in 2015, they had risen dramatically to 75.44%.  Understandably, there are cultural and religious concerns to take into account in any burial practise, but overall, cremation is firmly the preferred method of ‘burial’ for citizens of the United Kingdom.

For those of us who choose to have our deceased buried, whether for reasons of religion or tradition, our thoughts often only extend as far as the funeral director, and not beyond. Subsequently, many consider the journey of our dead less and less. We buy a package, perhaps view the body, attend the service and return home. However, should you choose to have your deceased buried, gravediggers are an integral piece of the journey we frequently overlook. To help with my post, Dan, a very patient former gravedigger, agreed to answer my barrage of questions.

We know gravediggers exist, but our mental images of the profession are often warped by Victorian grotesques, or folk-take depictions of hunched sextons, busying themselves in remote churchyards. As delightfully gothic as these images may be, they are far from the contemporary truth. Should you live in a city, you can be sure there is a team of full-time, fully trained gravediggers waiting to bury your dead.

Digging a grave is far more complex than ‘dig a hole, chuck Nanna in, fill it up, pub, golden.’ Funeral Directors are frequently seen as the main ‘body burier’, but in reality, they are far more of a middle-man, providing guidance and comfort. So, how does a gravedigger go about burying your corpse?

Firstly, there will be an allocated plot within the cemetery – this may be a pre-purchased plot in prime position (with a prime price tag), or a regular plot assigned by the cemetery. Once the gravedigger has seen the plot, they’ll be able to estimate the time needed to dig the hole. Typically, there is nothing simple or constant about digging a hole. The gravedigger will know the ground; soft clay will take less time than very rocky earth etc. Believe it or not, some graves may take half a day to dig by hand, whereas another plot 200 metres away may take three day’s solid work with a mechanical digger and hydraulic hammer.

So, with the plot known, you…still can’t begin digging. Before shovel meets earth, the gravedigger needs to know the exact size and shape of the coffin (coffins taking precedence over caskets in the UK) as such a wide variety of styles require a wide variety of holes. If the details passed on from the funeral director are incorrect or dramatically change, the gravedigger has no choice but to quickly take a shovel to the graveside and re-size the hole in front of the grieving funeral party themselves. As a very tolerant gravedigger recounted ‘a beetroot complexion and trying not to fall into a grave while trying to jam in a coffin is not a good look.’

Having painfully foregone all temptations to make poor jokes as to the importance of size, now we must consider the equal importance of depth. If a grave is for one person, the gravedigger will typically dig to a depth of 4 ft. Most commonly, graves are dug for two internments, which will be around 6 to 6.5 ft deep. As my patient gravedigger recalls ‘there is nothing more annoying than digging out a rock hard grave for two people, only to be told on the day it was only for one.’

Similarly, multiple internments or family plots have their perils ‘If you get a grave for four people, you’ve got to get your miners hat on and take the caged canary with you! Being twelve foot down in a narrow grave is really very scary, and a ladder is a must!’ 

In terms of practicality, before the coffin enters the ground the amount of earth leaving and returning to the hole must be considered – if none was removed from the pile of earth, there will be a large mound left once the grave is filled in. If too much is taken, you’ve got a trough-shaped problem on your hands.

While digging, all graves are supported by wooden boards to try to prevent the earth falling in on the gravedigger themselves, but sometimes a collapse is imminent (see picture). Normally, such a collapse is little more than an irritant as the gravedigger may be free from harm, but the entire collapse must be re-structured and made safe before digging can continue.

Another perpetual pain is that of water intrusion. If a grave reaches a natural spring and fills with water, or if there is a particularly heavy downpour, the grave can fill with water… fast. So, how to solve such a problem with the funeral party gnashing at your heels.

Gravedigger Dan says ‘…you keep a pump running right up until the hearse pulls up, chuck a bag of dry leaves or straw down in the grave and whisper in the director’s ear “hurry the fuck up!”…’.

He continues, ‘I have been standing there and watched a coffin seem to be rising from the grave. Again, you can’t help but turn beetroot-faced when people are looking at you in horror…’

Similarly, gravediggers are no strangers to workplace mishaps. The webs (the straps used to lower a coffin) may snap, should they be in poor condition (a rare, but embarrassing hazard), and the coffin may tumble into the hole before the funeral party. Should the webs snap from a great height, there’s a good chance the lid will pop off too, unveiling Nanna’s wizened face to the world. Further to this, it is a rare, but not unseen site to see one of the funeral party fall in to the grave and break a bone or two of their own.

Depending on cultural and personal demonstrations of grief, wilful flinging of oneself into the grave is slightly more common than such an unintended tumble.

Through talking to Dan, he particularly emphasised that the greatest hindrance in the smooth burial of the deceased was the carelessness of other visitors to the cemetery. He has seen impatient people beeping their car horns at hearses as they both slowly enter the cemetery gates and others loudly cleaning and tending graves beside an ongoing service. He has seen cars driven into headstones and has had a careers-worth of abuse thrown his way from grieving families.

So, the coffin is in, the funeral party has gone, time to bury the dead. This is done by hand and is usually straight forwards… providing no rubble is being used, which may smash through the coffin when thrown in. Then back-filling picks up at double-speed to hide the exposed deceased!

Once the grave is filled in, with a little mound on top to accommodate the earth sinking (when everything settles, this should give the grave a level ground), the gravediggers then arrange the flowers that had been put to one side, remove any sign of their presence and leave at last.

Finally, cultural differences. Most cemeteries will be aware of different burial and funeral traditions and will subsequently accommodate or have measures in place for such rituals. Some cultures like to back-fill the grave themselves (which is a nice little break for the gravediggers!), others enjoy a graveside picnic and others may require water beside the grave so they can wash their own feet and the deceased themselves.

Gravediggers may be a rather ‘unseen’ profession, but their importance cannot be over-stated. It also cannot be over-stated how much crap they must withstand from us, the grieving public, So, next time you’re in need of their services, why not tip them? Or simply say a few words of thanks. Chances are, we’ll all need their services eventually!

 

 

Further Reading:

http://www.cremation.org.uk/constitution-and-annual-reports

 

 

 

 

 

 

Warstone Lane – Birmingham’s Hidden Catacombs

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

When searching for cemeteries and memorials, ‘Catacombs’ and ‘Birmingham city centre’ aren’t the most obvious bedfellows. Take the time to stroll into the jewellery quarter and you’ll find a little death-y treat, slap bang in the middle of all your diamond shopping needs.

Indeed, alongside Lenny Henry, Industrialisation and Black Sabbath, Birmingham can boast of bearing catacombs. Small, but beautifully formed. Don’t get your hopes up by expecting some labyrinthine, beautifully preserved affair, complete with tour guides and postcards at the gift shop. Birmingham’s catacombs are small, blocked up, shielded from view and not for those of clumsy disposition. Or those of us with easily-triggered vertigo! Nonetheless, they’re well worth a visit if you find yourself in the black country.

Warstone Lane Cemetery (also known as Brookfields, C of E or Mint Cemetery) was established in 1848 by a private company to cope with the overcrowding of cemeteries that was commonplace throughout much of the 18th and early 19th centuries.  It was initially intended as a burial ground for Anglicans, but, as with most city burial grounds, this was not strictly enforced as time progressed. The last internments were made in 1982, meaning that little is done to the cemetery in terms of upkeep and preservation; that is not to say the place is going to rack and ruin, but it is evident how few graves are regularly visited by relatives. However, during our brief walk around the grounds, we saw a number of flat topped tombs used as informal dining tables for workers on their lunchbreak. It was nice to see engagement and an element of non-destructive activity within the cemetery ; the workers’ setups seemed rather ingenious and not at all disrespectful. Warstone Cemetery, clearly has changing usages and is ingrained into the fabric of the surrounding area.

A short internet search will furnish you with a list of notable burials, such as – Harry Gem (a 19th century sportsman with excellent sideburns), Clement Ingelby (Shakespearian Scholar – sideburn status, unknown) and John Postgate (Surgeon and food safety campaigner. Fluffy sideburns.)  In order to stay true to my ‘casual’ writing style, (and as my trip was unplanned), I sought out none of these. You’re welcome.

However, it takes little more than a short wander around the cemetery to find a number of interesting tombs, memorials and carvings that would keep the casual visitor interested for hours.

Personal favourites of mine included:-

 

 

  • The Tomb of William Hipkins, his wife Lavinia and sister Bertha. William himself was lost in the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, the stone reading ‘the sea shall give up its dead.’

Hipkins had been a successful engineer and the main initiator of the formation of the University of Birmingham’s Business School.

 

  • The traditional headstone of Mary Ann Broore (technically a lawn grave, but before such sections existed). While I know little of her life, her headstone contains a beautiful array of carved flowers, wheat, ferns and ivy.

 

  • The variety of veiled urns and headstones. There are a number of heavily veiled headstones (traditionally, a Victorian shorthand for displaying grief), predominantly on family plots containing heart-breaking numbers of young children. While deeply sad, they are towering, beautiful monuments to a very personal tragedy experienced by so many.

 

The upper section of the cemetery is filled with simplistic chest tombs, hence the propensity for passing workers to utilise their makeshift picnic spots. Several of the larger examples are family vaults, most with short histories recorded on the side.

In-between pockets of tombs and vaults, there are a number of beautifully sculpted urns, obelisks and a snaking line of ledgers above the catacomb recess, commemorating civilians who died during the war. There are broken columns galore and a lot of granite. So mind your step if its wet when you visit!

While headstones and tombs are the bread and butter of a taphophile’s day out, I found some of the most interesting features in Warstone Cemetery to be of relatively ‘natural’ formation. To reiterate; Warstone, although no longer a working cemetery, is not abandoned, but has suffered from neglect over the years. The first feature to capture my interest resembled rows and rows of uneven, fresh graves.

As I entered the cemetery, I was met with rows of tilted headstones, each looming over a deep trough of dead leaves. These brown recesses gave the contradictory appearance of being freshly dug, but, due to the weathered headstones, simultaneously old and abandoned. These jaunty rows appeared to be more noticeable in the upper, and subsequently older part of the cemetery. These graves that have not been backfilled since the initial coffin collapse (often hundreds of years prior) – leading to an interesting topography of deep ditches, particularly on the side of the cemetery closest to the station.

Naturally, the key attraction at Warstone Cemetery is its tiered catacombs. These were initially constructed as a means of absorbing the site’s existing sandpit into the environs. (Warstone and Key Hill Cemetery were built on hillsides that had been quarried for sand, later used in the metal casting process.)

While this added a few extra family vaults – creating a three-storey cemetery of sorts – it cannot be deemed to be a space-saving construction. However, is has been recorded that the unpleasant vapours exuding from said catacombs resulted in the instigation of the Birmingham Cemeteries Act, meaning that all coffins that were not directly interred should be sealed with pitch or lead.

Sadly, the catacombs themselves are no longer directly accessible to the public; you can stroll along the paths, read the inscriptions, but the tombs themselves are now fully sealed.  I am to understand they’d previously been open to the public, but have found no photographic or first hand evidence of this. Nonetheless, many of the entrances are now an attractive shade of concrete.

Upon approaching the catacombs, there is a circular plot, surrounding a central grouping of beech and pine trees. The burials within it are all pleasant enough, as are the ones flanking either side of the entrance and beside the ominously buttressed wall. There are easily accessible stairs to the side of the catacombs, so access is easy enough, HOWEVER, if you plan on visiting, there are no safety precautions once the stairs have been ascended. The structure is as it always was, which is utterly refreshing in today’s cemetery environments where headstones are regularly laid flat at the slightest sniff of a slant.  The catacombs are shown as they were intended to be; not to overstate it, but as a certain amphitheatre of death. Conversely, a stone surface, 9 feet up high, thick with moss, isn’t health and safety’s best friend. There is no railing on the top level, meaning that one wrong step close to the edge could result in your own internment if you’re not careful. So, enjoy the view, keep your eyes open and don’t be an idiot.

 

At the top of the catacombs sits the tomb of businessman John Baskervillle. While his name lends itself to the famous typeface, the story of his death, or rather the treatment of his corpse, is far more interesting. I’ll try to provide a short summary, however I urge you to follow the further reading links at the bottom of the post. When John Baskerville died in 1775, he was a very successful and wealthy man, but also a confirmed atheist. In his will, he provided strict instructions as to the treatment of his body. Baskerville was not only buried upright, but in an air-tight lead-lined coffin. Initially, these wishes were carried out and old Baskerville was interred in a small mausoleum in the grounds of his house Easy Hill, where he rested for many years. However, in 1821, workmen digging for gravel disinterred Baskerville’s coffin, where is subsequently laid unclaimed by relatives. As Baskerville was unwanted and an outspoken atheist, no cemetery would inter him and his decayed body created somewhat of a quandary. For several years, it rested in the warehouse of Thomas Gibson, the man whose business stood in the place of the old Baskerville House. Being an entrepreneurial sort, Gibson would occasionally open Baskerville’s coffin to curious visitors at the cost of 6d a peek. Oweing to Baskervilles method of burial, he was remarkably well preserved. A visitor, Thomas Underwood, sketched Baskerville’s body in August 1829 and recorded that –

his body was, after forty-six years underground, in a singular state of preservation. It was wrapped in a white linen shroud with a branch of laurel, faded but firm in texture. The skin on the face was dry but perfect. The eyes were gone, but eye brows, the eye lashes, lips and teeth remained. The skin on the abdomen and body generally was in the same state with the face. An unpleasant smell strongly resembling decayed cheese arose from the body, and rendered it necessary to close the coffin quickly.”

Visitors notwithstanding, being stored in a warehouse didn’t suit the fast-putrifying businessman and Baskerville soon changed hands. Plumber John Marston soon found himself the new guardian of Baskerville and was decidedly less conscientious about opening the coffin. Soon, visitors to his corpse (oh yes, there were still visitors) were overcome by the smell of putrefaction and Baskerville had to go. At this stage, Baskerville’s state was less than pretty, but still, no-one would bury his remains. After a series of underhand machinations on the part of Marston, Baskerville was buried in the catacombs beneath Christ Church. However, Baskerville was denied his rest once more when Christ Church was demolished in 1899 and he – along with 600 other internees – was finally laid to rest at Warstone. His one wish of rejecting burial on consecrated ground was not to be. Today his manhandled remains have the best view of the cemetery, which, although pleasant. No doubt would have provided no small comfort.

As I left Warstone via the gatehouse, I believed that no memorial could top the unexpected wonder of the catacombs. However, as I made my way towards the gates, I found myself drawn to a stunningly unique memorial to the Sutcliffe family – a literal family tree.

The monument is a perfect example of the late 19th century naturalism movement by taking the form of a tree stump. The stone trunk stands beautifully stark against the ‘standard’ headstones around it and is the most unusual ‘small’ memorial within the entirety of Warstone. The Sutcliffe tree lists the names of the deceased at irregular intervals, and at jaunty angles, as though they had been carved by young lovers. Sutcliffe’s work is not just a feat of cemetery masonry, but is a beautifully considered piece of sentimental art. Erected in 1888, it was designed and erected by LW Sutcliffe and seemed to  – initially – be conventional in its listing of deceased ‘kindred’.  However, the latest addition is the most emotionally charged, being a eulogy for his eldest son, Isherwood Edmonds Sutcliffe who had died as a result of wounds received in France in 1916.

While Warstone has its fair share of supposed hauntings (an obligatory ‘grey lady’ and a lost WW1 soldier), its appeal lies firmly in the stories left by the living and the remarkable ways by which nature shuffles its way through established structures.

 

 

Sites used in Research/Further Reading:

 

http://www.birminghamconservationtrust.org/2012/10/19/haunted-heritage-warstone-lane-cemetery/

 

https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/titanic-victim/william-edward-hipkins.html

 

https://www.birminghampost.co.uk/business/business-opinion/city-securing-sweet-melancholy-death-9810015

 

https://www.findagrave.com/cemetery/2425682/memorial-search?page=1#sr-111232711

 

https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1001545

 

http://houndofhecate.blogspot.co.uk/2015/11/john-baskervilles-peripatetic-corpse.html

(Sketch image courtesy of the above)