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Churchyards of Greater London: Decay and Resurrection

Dr Roger Bowdler lectured to HADAS on 10 February 2004 on the subject of Churchyards of Greater London: Decay and Resurrection. This report of the lecture is by Liz Gapp.

Dr Bowdler, of English Heritage, introduced himself, explaining that he has the job title Designation Inspector with responsibility for London and the Southeast. He has a background in the study of tombs.

There is, he said, currently a crisis in the maintenance of churchyards, a crisis which dates back to the 1960s, as they do not have the status that buildings have in respect of the preservation priorities of English Heritage and others. However, the Hendon and Finchley churchyards, which were the subject of the evening’s talk, were well maintained. A history of churchyards has yet to be written.

The first churchyard talked about was St Mary’s, Hendon of which there exists a watercolour by Alan Sorrell showing it in former times.

A development to the church porch meant that the headstones in that area had been moved, so there is now a line of them either side of the path leading to the church door. These headstones form part of the best 18th century collection of headstones anywhere in London.

The audience were shown slides of several of the gravestones and monuments from the churchyard, juxtapositioned with some of those from cemeteries such as Kensal Green. Interesting details like the stone used for the structures, and some of the common ciphers used, with their meanings, were revealed. Before the 18th century, Portland stone was the most commonly used stone for graveyard monuments. After this, the emergence of canals facilitated the transport of stone such as York stone which then superseded Portland stone as the prime material. Granite was also used on some prestigious monuments. Some monuments also incorporated marble, such as Carreras marble, which unfortunately does not weather well.

With respect to ciphers, a very common one is the skull and crossbones. This does not mean there is a piratical connection. The skull and crossbones was only adopted as an emblem for pirates in the 19th century, and the majority of graves incorporating it date from well before then. This cipher was also used in Jewish churchyards. It really represents the decay of the body. Father Time is also used as an agent of decay, seen with the time-glass and scythe as the destroyer and devourer of time. An open book represents devotion; an hourglass represents time going by. Other ciphers are a tail-biting snake symbol known as an orobolus; putti which act as a consoling reminder; and palms which represent a symbol of Christian victory over death. A display of bones at the bottom of a gravestone shows the family as facing up stoically to what actually happens in death.

Very few of the stonemasons who created these gravestones and monuments are identifiable, as they did not generally sign their creations, although there are one or two exceptions to this – an interesting example is a monument in Kensal Green cemetery signed by Princess Louise, one of Queen Victoria's children.

People have been buried in the churchyard of St Mary’s, Hendon for 7-800 years. As a result, close examination of the soil shows fragments of bone. In any churchyard, the procession through the graveyard to the church is a reminder of the human end.

The early 18th century was a fascinating time for the development of monumental outdoor monuments, and a return to a Roman pattern of burial. With this came the problem of monumental decay. Monuments were frequently quite fiddly in their construction, often built with a core of brick and a facing of stone, held together with iron cramps. The problem is that unless they are built with the ability to throw off all the falling water, water creeps through every nook and cranny, ultimately corroding the iron, resulting in the collapse of the structure. Another cause of water creeping in is the build-up of leaves, such as pine needles, at the base of tombs.

Cemeteries were slow to grow, as people were uneasy about being buried outdoors, especially in a cemetery rather than a churchyard. This can partly be explained by the existence of body snatchers. One unfortunate example was that of a 7 foot 6 inches man, who was buried in Hendon in a grave 15 foot deep to deter such people. A guard was kept on his grave for a few weeks. Unfortunately as soon as this ceased, the body, despite the unusual depth of the grave, was stolen.

Part of the St Mary’s, Hendon churchyard is gravelled, instead of grassed, round the graves. This is unusual in Christian churchyards, although one section of Jewish graveyards, possibly that of the Sephardic Jews, favour a gravel base so that the graves are not interfered with by growing plants. Generally churchyards are maintained as controlled, nature-friendly environments. The best ones are like this, not too manicured, but not totally out of control, allowing for individual personality to be expressed, so producing the special atmosphere that the best graveyards contain. The true beauty of graveyards is created by their combination of architecture, history and nature.

An interesting connection of the St Mary’s, Hendon graveyard is with the Mint. Several graves are of people who worked there, epitomised by that of John Haley, a moneyer from the 17th century.

The rise of cemeteries, which started in 1833 with the Kensal Green cemetery, was brought about by the fact that in 1850 to 1860 a large majority of church graveyards were full. Currently, the graveyard at St Mary’s, Hendon is still open, but that at St Mary’s Finchley is closed.

The St Mary’s Finchley graveyard was then briefly touched on with, again, some illustrative slides. An interesting feature of this graveyard is the preservation of the iron railings round the grave plots. Many of the country’s graveyards were stripped of their railings in the Second World War, as indeed was that at Hendon, but here at Finchley the vicar considered the railings were too important for this to happen. In this graveyard, an obelisk monument erected in 1835 by public subscription to the memory of Major John Cartwright, the Father of Radicalism, who died in 1824, is being conserved. This monument has a carving of Major Cartwright which is badly decayed, with the result that the message is lost. The original drawing from which this carving was made still exists. This raises the issue of whether the conservator's mantra ‘To conserve as found, never restore’ is sometimes inappropriate, as here the information exists to faithfully restore this memorial. There is also an unusual outdoor sculpture showing a grieving woman on printed cottons and with mourning rings, which is on top of a tomb to Elizabeth Norris, who died in 1779.

To sum up, Dr Bowdler said that there is food for thought in the current consultation of the Home Office on what is to be done when, as will happen soon, cemeteries run out of burial space. This consultation lasts until June, and does not include churchyards in its brief.

As a final thought, who is responsible for maintaining the churchyards? Currently the Hendon one is still owned by the church, although the vicar has made approaches to the council to maintain the churchyard. The Finchley one is currently maintained by the council. The problem of course is a lack of money for maintenance, compounded by a skills shortage for conservators.

For anyone wishing to pursue an interest in churchyard graveyards and monuments further, a couple of books were mentioned as a starting point. They are: (1) English Churchyard Memorials by F. Burgess, published in 1963 by Lutterworth Press. (2) English Churchyard Memorials by H. Lees, published in 2000 by Tempus Publishing Limited.

Footnote: HADAS undertook the recording of all the tombstones in Hendon Churchyard in 1974, just before many of the more recent ones were moved to provide open space for the use of the pupils at St. Mary’s school. The Finchley Society recorded those in Finchley Churchyard in the 1980s.