Churchyard Memorials and Plaques

Our March meeting saw us welcome Dr Trevor James to tackle the wide ranging subject of churchyard memorials. To many of us, churchyard memorials trigger thoughts of tumbling tombstones with fading inscriptions. What we should appreciate, however, is that tombstones, plaques and other memorials are very valuable records of our past. Anyone who has paused to read some of the inscriptions, especially on those inside our churches, will appreciate how they often set out comprehensively family histories. As Trevor put it, they are an important element of our oral history. Trevor started by taking us back in time. Walk through a churchyard and if you are fortunate, you may spot a few panels of wood, often sadly decaying. Many think they could be the remains of the old village stocks. No, they are the last vestiges of our earliest grave markers; wooden "tombstones", often painted white and lettered in black. Sadly, very few now survive, as they often date from the seventeenth century, or possibly earlier, and time has taken its toll. It should also be stressed that wooden grave markers should not be associated with the poor. Before the coming of the railways, grave markers were manufactured from local materials. Stone, even that quarried locally was expensive and reserved for the rich. Most people had to make do with wood, or nothing at all. That is, until the advent of the railways, when stone could be sourced from further afield and had fallen in price. Nevertheless, southern England with its paucity of local stone, still made do with wood and that is where you will have the best opportunity to track down a wooden grave marker.

Trevor then took us on a tour of churchyard memorials. Close to home, we should not forget St Michael's churchyard. We were reminded that there are four listed memorials there. Chancellor Law's Mausoleum is very imposing, though in a state of decay. Few people realise that at one time it could be viewed from the road and displayed a clock and gas light, as an assistance to foot travellers to and from Lichfield Trent Valley station, our first railway station. An important dignitary, Chancellor Law held the position of judicial head of the Diocese of Lichfield. Conversely, many people are aware that the poet, Phillip Larkin's parents are buried in the churchyard. Futher afield, if you go to Drayton Bassett Churchyard, you will find the grave of Sir Robert Peel; or if you're near Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, you will find Winston Churchill's grave in Blaydon Churchyard, for Churchill wished to be interred close to his parents. In fact, a stroll through any churchyard, or a visit to many churches will lead to the discovery of fascinating life histories encapsulated in stone.

If this talk excited your interest, Trevor recommended two books for you to read; "English Churchyard Memorials", by Frederick Burgess; and "Who's Buried Where in England" by Douglas Greenwood. Happy Hunting!

Roger Hockney
March 2017