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.

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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.’

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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)

 

Gravedigging 101

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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