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.

61206092_624093148072117_3923592026649526272_n

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.’

60925956_602108186961192_9101351620838424576_n

 

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.

61010584_367367257238669_7979016240498737152_n

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.]

60945249_482990675773563_2087216636837756928_n

 

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.

60969007_1295726647245725_4018553770743955456_n

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.

61156350_1206100539560916_844243721166782464_n

 

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.

Screen Shot 2019-06-01 at 21.44.05

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/

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/

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.

IMG_4612
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.

Screen Shot 2019-03-21 at 20.44.03

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?

 

Introducing Immortelles

When considering grave decorations, we in western cultures generally think of framed photographs, plastic flowers and weather-worn teddy bears. Our ideas of remembrance and sentimentality are generally personalised and frequently mimic the gifts we’d leave the individual in life.

Passing through any contemporary burial site will bring you to piles of ribbons, laminated poems and unsmoked cigarettes. Alongside these personal effects nestle ornaments of cherubs, resin angels and plastic flowers. These mass-produced indicators of loss and grief are only a small step away from our forebears mourning efforts – while rising costs and health and safety may forbid the erection of a four-foot angel statue, a high street florist can sell you a small cherub and still leave you with change from £10.

While stone cherubs and angels last indefinitely, flowers are the most common decoration in mourning, retaining their place by the graveside for centuries. Flowers may well be a traditional necessity of sorts, but they have a limited lifespan. Plastic flowers may last longer, but discolour and weather over time and similarly must be replaced. However, Victorian ‘Immortelles’ (from the French word for ‘everlasting’) offered a more lasting floral graveside option.

The term ‘Immortelles’ generally refers to the huge beaded wreaths left at gravesides predominantly in western Europe, particularly France. These wire-wrapped, beaded creations could reach up to four feet in diameter and were generally displayed above a mausoleum or tomb. While not directly personalised for the interred person, these wreaths incorporated flower motifs, words, crosses and even preserved flowers in domes.

Over time, the fine wire securing the beads would weather and disintegrate, leaving the immortelle as a pile of black beads, ready to be reused for another project or simply lost and scattered to time.

‘Immortelle’ is also applied to ceramic and glass-domed wreaths that were particularly popular in 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.

Bristol’s Arnos Vale Cemetery has a beautiful Immortelle on display beneath their Spielman centre which was uncovered several years ago while clearing a grave site. Arnos employee and academic Janine Marriott reported that ‘The plaster wreath got covered in dirt and leaf debris during the years Arnos Vale was neglected which actually protected this delicate item from animals, vandalism and weather.  Once it was lifted from the grave, it was then cleaned and repaired before being returned to the archives in the cemetery.’

The wreath now sits pride of place in their cemetery where it may be enjoyed for generations to come. Similarly, Market Lavington museum in Devizes has two beautiful immortelles in their possession which were in situ until the 1930s. These differ from the Arnos wreath as they were protected from the elements by both glass domes and external cages.

il_1140xN.1303580458_jnb1

While wreaths are most common, much like contemporary mourners, many Victorian and Edwardian mourners chose to decorate graves with plaster motifs such as clasped hands, bibles, singular flowers and birds. These are far more commonplace in historical cemeteries as they generally lay lower and flatter to the grave, meaning that if vegetation takes hold, they are protected from the elements far better than a glass dome or brittle petal. It is these simplistic monuments that most mimic our modern cherubs and sentimental carved stones.

Are there any immortelles in cemeteries or museums near you?

 

 

https://kaionegal.typepad.com/the_art_of_nothing/2012/08/french-generals-chateau-getaway-day-1st-antonins-cemetery.html

 

https://arnosvale.org.uk/life-death-and-the-rest-logo/

 

https://marketlavingtonmuseum.wordpress.com/2011/11/12/an-immortelle/

 

https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/545865954/memento-mori-grave-funeral-victorian

 

https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/658389548/rare-victorian-cemetary-grave-immortelle?ref=landingpage_similar_listing_top-1

 

https://time4us2retire.wordpress.com/2015/01/30/our-treasures-immortelle/

The World of Victorian Grave Dolls

After experiencing the death of a loved one, especially those who pass away in the midst of infancy or youth, our mourning practises may include collecting mementos, old photographs, writing diaries. And of course, you might make a full-sized effigy of the deceased to place in their room.

 

In the 19thcentury, death played far a greater role in everyday life. Children and adults were frequently and openly exposed to death and deceased loved ones. As we know through examples of hair jewellery, post-mortem photography and death masks, methods of remembrance and memorialisation could be far more direct and graphic. Hair bracelets and wax heads aside, Victorian mourning dolls are one of the more overlooked element of the Victorian grief process.

1860s Wax Mourning Doll
1860s Wax Mourning Doll

By the tail end of the 19thcentury, it was customary for the family of a deceased child to leave a doll at the gravesite. Of course, leaving toys at the grave of a child remains familiar sight, but ‘mourning dolls’ were no shop-bought playthings.

 

The life of the Mourning Doll began at the funeral/wake of the infant, where a wax likeness was made and presented in the child’s own clothes. Often, the doll’s realism was enhanced by wearing cuttings of the child’s own hair. Frequently pictured lying with the deceased on their deathbed, they were also displayed in miniature coffins as an idealised image of peaceful death. Considering that many infant mortalities were caused by disfiguring and draining illnesses such as smallpox, scarlet fever, tuberculosis and diphtheria, the doll offered an idealised reality of their loss. While their child may have departed gaunt and bloody, the wax effigy would look as though it had simply closed its eyes and gone to sleep.

 

Subsequently, these peaceful dolls were often sculpted with flat backs and heads to ease placement in frames, coffins and at the graveside. As the years passed, tastes changes and weather and vandalism played their part, many of these dolls were left and scattered with the years.

7383327046f696376c0630b43212643b

Grave decoration, aside from the obvious towering monuments, was commonplace in the Victorian era. Ceramic hands, books, flowers and wreaths were often placed on graves from the 19thcentury and beyond. These, like most Victorian methods of memorialisation, were rich with symbolism. Many French cemeteries popularised beaded ‘Immortelles’, which were beautifully beaded wreaths which slowly disintegrated into piles of glistening beads over time.

 

However, those that survive today had very different treatments; they were not left open to the elements, but were often kept at home, displayed in the bed of the deceased and cared for and re-dressed as though they were the deceased. To mimic the feel of a real child, these dolls were weighted with sand and heavy cloth. In some ways, these wax infants seem not unlike the popular ‘re-born’ dolls of today, where hyper-realistic silicon babies are collected by doll enthusiasts and grieving parents alike.

 

Those that remain today were preserved in large glass boxes and, typically, depict a child between 0-3 years. Older children tend to have been depicted merely from the shoulders up – Which is understandable from a cost and size perspective! A wax baby might be comforting; a six foot wax teenager is the stuff of nightmares.

little-girls-would-practice-mourning-with-funeral-dolls-photo-u1

Wax likenesses weren’t the only death-related dolls associated with Victorian children. In life, many little girls were presented with so-called ‘Death Kits’, which included a doll and miniature coffin. In play, the child would then ‘practice dressing the doll, laying it out for visitation, placing it in the coffin, and facilitating a funeral. She might also be expected to practise attending to the grief of the doll’s mourners.’ So says The Order of the Good Death’s Louise Hung.

 

These dolls were ideal primers for young women who, should they survive to adulthood, would almost certainly be called upon to care for their own dead.

 

As mortality rates decreased, tastes changed and wartime reduced the popularity of excessive or overly-materialistic mourning, wax dolls lost their popularity. Today, many of us find realistic likenesses unnerving or macabre, but feel compelled to decorate graves with cherubs and photographic likenesses. The days of the wax child may be over, but I’d keep an eye on the ceramic toddler…

 

 

 

Sources

https://victoriantraditions.blogspot.com/2016/04/wax-dolls-montanari-and-pierotti-dolls.html

 

http://www.orderofthegooddeath.com/cabinet-curiosities-victorian-death-dolls

 

http://www.inherited-values.com/2016/10/the-lovely-disturbing-the-history-of-wax-dolls/

 

https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/4814519.kirsty_stonell_walker/blog?page=13

 

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

The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall

The photo of The Brown Lady of Raynham hall is not just one of Britain’s most famous spectral photographs, but is world-renowned. Since its development in 1936, the ghostly image of the Brown Lady descending the stairs of the Norfolk country house has been widely circulated irrefutable proof of ghosts’ existence.

Now, with Halloween just behind us and dark winter nights drawing ever-closer, this famous photo is doing its rounds online, nestled amongst other famous compatriots as one of ‘ten frightening photos’.

But I think our Brown lady is worth a little more explanation than internet lists permit.

image
The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall

 

The legend of the Brown Lady was not a product of the infamous photograph, but has been part of Norfolk lore for centuries; the ghost captured on film has supposedly been a constant presence at Raynham Hall, Norfolk since the 19thcentury.

The haunting figure is frequently referred to by two names online, namely Lady Dorothy Walpole (1686-1726) or ‘Lady Townsend’. Nonetheless, the women are one and the same. The Lady suffered an unfortunate existence in life – her husband was cruel and ill-tempered and, when learning of her adultery, punished her disloyalty by locking her in her chambers, refusing to let her leave Raynham hall (even to visit her children) until her death in old age from smallpox. Since her death, she is said to roam the Hall in a brown satin dress, carrying a lantern.

 

There are numerous reported sightings of the brown lady, including one from King George IV who saw the lady standing beside his bed at night.

However, one of the more elaborate claims originates in 1835 and was recorded at a Christmas gathering by Lucia C Stone. Visiting guests Colonel Loftus and Hawkins claimed to have seen a spectral woman in a brown dress as they retired to their bedrooms for the night. The next day, Colonel Loftus saw the lady again, but this time, closer. He reported that the woman had empty eye sockets that stood out darkly against her ghostly glowing face.

The next year in 1836, Captain Frederick Marryat (Navy officer and father of Florence Marryat, author of the classic Spiritualist work ‘There is no Death) specifically asked to spend the night in the supposed haunted room. Apparently, he aimed to prove that any such hauntings were in fact the work of local smugglers who aimed to frighten people away from the area. In fact, Captain Marryat’s experience was anything but mundane. His daughter, Florence recounted his experience in 1891;

 

…he took possession of the room in which the portrait of the apparition hung, and in which she had been often seen, and slept each night with a loaded revolver under his pillow. For two days, however, he saw nothing, and the third was to be the limit of his stay. On the third night, however, two young men (nephews of the baronet), knocked at his door as he was undressing to go to bed, and asked him to step over to their room (which was at the other end of the corridor), and give them his opinion on a new gun just arrived from London. 

…The corridor was long and dark, for the lights had been extinguished, but as they reached the middle of it, they saw the glimmer of a lamp coming towards them from the other end. “One of the ladies going to visit the nurseries,” whispered the young Townshends to my father.

…I have heard him describe how he watched her approaching nearer and nearer, through the chink of the door, until, as she was close enough for him to distinguish the colors and style of her costume, he recognised the figure as the facsimile of the portrait of “The Brown Lady”. He had his finger on the trigger of his revolver, and was about to demand it to stop and give the reason for its presence there, when the figure halted of its own accord before the door behind which he stood, and holding the lighted lamp she carried to her features, grinned in a malicious and diabolical manner at him. This act so infuriated my father, who was anything but lamb-like in disposition, that he sprang into the corridor with a bound, and discharged the revolver right in her face. The figure instantly disappeared – the figure at which for several minutes three men had been looking together – and the bullet passed through the outer door of the room on the opposite side of the corridor, and lodged in the panel of the inner one. My father never attempted again to interfere with “The Brown Lady of Raynham”.

 

Firstly, late-night gun comparisons with visiting youths doesn’t seem to be an idea way to spend ones time. Secondly, Captain Marryat shot a ghost in the FACE. There’s being sceptical, then there’s trying to execute the undead.

 

There have been several other reported sightings since Marryat’s gun-toting days, but none are as dramatic or violent.

raynham-hall-main
Raynham Hall

The photograph that gives us the lasting image of the Brown Lady was not taken by an investigator hunting for the woman’s apparition, but was the work of Captain Hubert C Provand, a photographer working for Country Life magazine. He and his assistant, Indre Shira were photographing the Hall for a general article and seemingly had no intent to cover the spectral legend.

After taking an initial photography of the Halls grand staircase, they were making preparations for a second when Shira saw the gradual formation of a “vapoury form gradually assuming the appearance of a woman”.

Upon Shira’s instruction, Provand quickly took another photograph and, upon development, the infamous image of the ‘Brown Lady’ was revealed.

Instead of the supposed planned article on Raynham Hall, Provand and Shira’s experience, complete with photographs, was printed in Country Life on December 26th1936.

brownlady_001
Country Life Magazine, 1936

Since the Country Life photograph, sightings of Raynham Hall’s ghost have been sparse to say the least. Many believe she now haunts Houghton Hall and Sandringham House in a more youthful form of herself. Therefore, our lasting image of the Raynham haunting remains frozen in time. This spectre is a busy one.

 

Ever since publication, the image has been used as proof of ghost existence and visitation and has been subject to investigation by several high-profile paranormal sceptics. Generally, accounts of the images’ legitimacy are far more prolific in print, as they grab our imaginations far stronger than explanations by sceptics.

 

Nonetheless, there are many available explanations for the ghostly image; many cite a double exposure or smear of grease on the lens. Generally, consensus between critics is that the image is not of a spectre, but of either a living figure concealed beneath a sheet, or a simple superimposition of a draped Madonna statue. Many critics have said that the image of the ghost appears to have its hands raised in prayer and the square stand or mount beneath it is more than visible when one examines the shadows! In short, the 1936 image is generally regarded to be little more than a composite of two images.

 

Real ghost, planned hoax, or spur of the moment mischief, the ghostly image certainly afforded Provand and Shira their infamy in the paranormal history books. And a ghostly article in a country living magazine is certainly a pleasant break from the day-to-day photography of the wealthy and well-to-do.

And, most importantly, at least they weren’t armed. Marryat, you’re on your own with that one.

 

 

Sources:

 

http://hoaxes.org/raynham.html

 

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

 

http://home.worldonline.co.za/~townshend/dorothywalpole.htm

 

https://fern-flower.org/en/articles/ghost-rayham-hall

 

A Short History of British Screaming Skulls

 

While sounding like a high-school punk band, screaming skulls are a not-uncommon element woven through the rich British tapestry of haunted body parts.

Screaming, or more specifically, haunted skulls make their home in several towns throughout England.

These skulls need not necessarily be attached to a body, but rather exist independently from their corporeal form. Rather than aimless haunting, or haunting in more attractive surroundings, it is said that these skulls are emotionally linked to the houses in which they wish to continue to live.

 

Screaming Skulls are most commonly attributed to those who suffered religious persecution during the Henry VIII’s 16thCentury Reformation, or under Oliver Cromwell’s Roundheads during the English Civil war in the 17thCentury. Immediately prior to their death/undoubtedly violent murder, all owners of future haunted skulls professed that they wished to be buried within the walls of the house in which they lay. When these wishes were ignored and the persecuted individual was laid to rest in a grave, vault or in undesired grounds, the spirit fought back.

Inhabitants of these houses reported strange noises; bangs, crashes and moans and various ‘unexplained happenings’. Once the houses’ occupants made the connection between the noises and the deceased, they frequently disinterred the skull, returning it to the homestead. While the skull rests in the home, undisturbed (on its shelf, stoop or within its case) all is well, yet once one attempts to remove said skull, supernatural chaos ensues.

 

Should one try to dispose of such a ‘screaming skull’ by any means – via physical destruction, throwing into a river, or even by burial – the skull will always return to its house intact. More often than not, the skull delights in its revenge by not only terrifying the perpetrator, but cursing them with bad luck, a poor harvest or illness.

 

While the UK has several such skulls, below are three of our greatest hitters.

Because if you can’t have a top of the pops style countdown on severed heads, what can you truly enjoy in life?

 

The Bettiscombe Skull

Bettiscombe SkullThe Bettiscombe skull is attributed to an unnamed slave from the West Indies whose unfortunate path led him to Lyme Regis, Dorset. The slave was originally thought to have been brought to Dorset to serve Azariah Pinney, a plantation owner and dealer in the Slave Trade.

As with most apocryphal stories of slaves at this time, it is unclear whether the unnamed slave was a victim of, or perpetrator of, a murder. Nonetheless, the deceased’s wishes were to be buried back in his homeland. These were ignored and this supposed ‘faithful black servant’ was interred at Bettiscombe churchyard, in response to which, his haunting began. Supposedly screams were heard from the churchyard, and bizarre noises emanated from the farmhouse. The disturbances only ceased when the body was disinterred.

In 1872, it was published in Dorset “Notes and Queries” that:

 

The peculiar superstition attaching to it is that if it be brought out of the house the house itself would rock to its foundations, whilst the person by whom such an act of desecration was committed would certainly die within the year.”

 

Many attempts were made to re-bury the body, but with little success. Such attempts were so frequent and ill-managed, that after time, only the skull remained. The skull eventually found its resting place back at the farmhouse, in the nook of a staircase.

Or so the legend goes…

In more recent years, the skull was examined by Professor Gilbert Causey of the Royal College of Surgeons. He deemed the skull as not only female, but pre-historic in origin, most probably a sacrificial victim from an earlier settlement. Yet the legend had laid roots and is well known, and well-minded to this day.

The skull’s – and the Pinney family’s – journey is well documented throughout the years and is well-researched by the Dorset County Museum, whose links I have provided at the bottom of this article.

 

The Tunstead Farm Skull

Tunstead Farm, known locally as ‘Skull Farm’, sits in a quiet hamlet in Derbyshire that dates back to the 13thCentury.dicky2

According to local legend, there are many options as to the owner and ‘haunter’ of the head:

Firstly, a (as ever) unnamed young woman was murdered in the same room as the skull is kept. Secondly, a man named ‘Ned Dixon’, a spurned ancestor of the farm’s owners or thirdly, and most dramatically, a murdered sister.

The most gripping of these potential haunting sources originates with two sisters, both enamoured with the same man. In jealousy, one murdered the other. On her deathbed, the murdered sister proclaimed that her bones would never rest.

As referenced in the blog ‘Ludchurch’ (linked below), the 1895 work ‘Household Tales and other Traditional Remains’ went on to say that:

 

‘Her bones are kept in a cheese vat in the farmhouse which stands in a staircase window. If the bones are removed from the vat trouble comes upon the house, strange noises are heard at night, the cattle die or are seized with illness.’

 

The skull, nicknamed “Dickie” was also said to be a supernatural guardian of the farmhouse and forces knocking noises to herald the approach of strangers. Supposedly, Dickie’s rappings have also heralded deaths in the family and further issues with livestock.

 

As with most other haunted skulls, all is well unless Dickie is removed, in which case auditory chaos reigns. Superstitions concerning Dickie’s power over the farmland, that in 1870, following issues with a railway company and unsuccessful (on account of Dickie’s intervention) building work, a Lancashire poet wrote:

 

Neaw, Dickie, be quiet wi’ thee,lad,

An ‘let navvies an’ railways a ‘be;

Mon tha shouldn’t do soa, its to bad,

What harm are they doin’ to thee?

Deed folk shouldn’t meddle at o’

But leov o’ these matters to th’wick;

They’ll see they’re done gradely, aw know-

Dos’t’ yer what aw say to thee, Dick?

 

After several instances of theft and frenzied return, Dickie remains at the homestead where she occupies her usual spot by the kitchen window.

 

The Wardley Skull

The Wardley Skull has two potential roots – one fanciful, one probable.

Wardley SkullThe less-likely legend surrounds the skull- that it is the cranium of Roger Downes, a shamed member of the family owning Wardley hall who, after escaping a murder trial, drunkenly attacked a watchman who swiftly beheaded Downes with a swipe of his rapier.

(This would be improbable, nigh impossible – hence the unlikely legend.)

The Wardley Skull follows the tradition of persecuted clergy, reportedly belonging to a Catholic priest, Father Ambrose Barlow who was hung, drawn and quartered in 1641. His severed head was subsequently put on display at Lancaster Castle, later being stolen by a Catholic sympathiser and secreted within the walls of Wardley Hall.

The skull lay undiscovered until the 18thCentury where the legends surrounding its power begun to take hold.

It is said that, believing it to be an animal skull, a servant of Matthew Moreton (the then owner

 

of Wardley) hurled the skull into the Hall’s moat. That night, a particularly strong storm broke out. Both the skull and the Hall’s owner were displeased with this turn of events, with the owner demanding the draining of the moat and the safe return of the skull.

Although not open to the public, the Wardley skull remains protected in a niche beside the main staircase, preserved behind glass.

 

While Morris Dancing, Cheese-Rolling and the burning of treacherous effigies atop bonfires have maintained their twee popularity over the years, I put my vote in for the return of a greater British tradition. A good, haunted skull. If anyone needs me, I’ll be disinterring some clergy…

 

Sources/Further Reading:

https://dorsetcountymuseum.wordpress.com/tag/pinney-family/

https://ludchurchmyblog.wordpress.com/places-of-interest-in-cheshire/the-cursed-skull-of-tunstead-farm/

https://www.paranormaldatabase.com/reports/skulls.php?pageNum_paradata=1&totalRows_paradata=28

http://www.real-british-ghosts.com/screaming-skull.html

http://www.landcas.org.uk/wardleyhall.html

https://hauntedpalaceblog.wordpress.com/2016/08/13/screaming-skulls-folklore-fact-and-fiction/

Haunted England – Christina Hole (1940)

The Guinness Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits – Rosemary Ellen Guiley (1992)

 

 

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)