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Three of the Charnwood slate gravestones in Barrowby churchyard.
Charnwood slate gravestones in Lincolnshirepreface
Please regard this as a provisional page. I have only just started doing the fieldwork needed to more fully understand how widely Charnwood slates were utilised in Lincolnshire. In due course this page will be revised.
A very brief history of Charnwood slate
Between Roman times and the late nineteenth century slate was quarried in various parts of the Charnwood Forest area of west Leicestershire. Although commonly referred to as 'Swithland Slate', in practice slate was extracted in at least three other parishes.
The Charnwood slate quarries went into decline when the railways made Welsh slate available. Canals seem to have had little influence on Charnwood slate distribution – presumably because there are no canals near Charnwood Forest and the nearest navigable river, the Soar, did not have connections with the national canal system until 1814.
Slate, whether from Charnwood or Wales, withstands the effects of weathering exceptionally well. One of the consequences is that inscriptions on gravestones made from slate remain clearly legible, whereas limestone gravestones often lose their inscriptions within a hundred years.
The oldest-known Charnwood slate gravestones commemorate people who died in the 1630s. Predictably these are found in churchyards close to Charnwood Forest. So far as I am aware, the oldest Charnwood Slate tombstones in Lincolnshire are from the 1730s – but more fieldwork is needed!
The heyday of Charnwood slate gravestones is from the 1730s until the 1830s, when Welsh slate begins to be available. By the 1880s the Charnwood quarries are in decline. From the late nineteenth century granite and marble begin to taking their place alongside Welsh slate and limestone.
How to recognise Charnwood slate
For about thirty years I lived about twelve miles from the main focus of Charnwood slate extraction. I became accustomed to distinguishing Charnwood slate gravestones from their Welsh counterparts when visiting East Midlands churchyards.
One of the main clues is the date – Welsh slate is not used for gravestones in the Midlands until the advent of the railways. But there are other clues too, as the Charnwood slate does not cleave as cleanly as the Welsh slate, so the backs of the Charnwood gravestones are not usually as flat and smooth as Welsh ones. Also, the colour of Charnwood slate is subtly different to Welsh slate – more varied and less uniformly purple.
The uneven backs of two of the Charnwood slate gravestones at Bassingthorpe.
Indeed some Charnwood slate is a pale green shade. This 'upmarket' variety was mostly quarried at Groby, approximately five miles south from the main cluster of quarries near the borders of the parishes of Swithland, Newton Linford and Woodhouse Eaves, although a similar green slate was also quarried – seemingly only rarely – at Swithland.
Because it is exceptionally difficult to say which gravestones were quarried from which parishes, the collective term 'Charnwood slate' is preferable, rather than 'Swithland slate' – although undoubtedly the output of the quarries within Swithland parish exceeded those elsewhere.
What was Charnwood slate used for?
Fragment of a cheese press made from Charnwood slate discovered between Wymeswold and Burton on the Wolds. At least four more examples are known from these north Leicestershire Wolds villages.
The Charnwood slate quarries provided a range of products. Building stone and roofing slates seemingly accounted for the largest part of the output. But slate cheese presses and dairy slabs have also survived. Undoubtedly other items were sometimes made from slate – for example, there was a set of urinals in a gent's toilet near Swithland Woods which were built (probably in the 1950s) from slate; sadly about 2006 these were replaced with stainless steel.
Early examples of Charnwood slate in Barrowby and Grantham
The oldest evidence for Charnwood slate in Barrowby is an inventory dated 10th July 1822 which states that the Rectory is covered with 'Swithland slates'. A date stone indicates this was built in 1558, although the roof may have been renewed between then and 1822. The roof was renewed after 1822 (probably in 1905) and is now plain tiles.
The nearest historic building (so far as I am currently aware – I've not yet looked very hard!) which retains a Charnwood slate roof is the Hurst Almshouses next to St Wulfram's church in Grantham. The Almshouses were built soon after Dr Thomas Hurst's death in 1674. If nothing else it indicates that in the 1670s substantial quantities of slate were transported about thirty miles from the Charnwood Forest to Grantham.
Evidence for early eighteenth century transport and trade
Before the canals and railways the cost of transporting slate would have been a major factor limiting the places where such stone gravestones could be afforded. Nevertheless Charnwood slate tombstones dating back to the eighteenth (and, less commonly, the second half of the seventeenth century) can be seen in most churchyards in north Leicestershire and south Nottinghamshire. However when I began exploring north Northamptonshire churches and churchyards early in 2009, I was most surprised to discover plenty of examples of Charnwood slate gravestones predating the canals and railways.
Discussions with David Ramsey, who has extensively researched the Charnwood slate quarries, led to him suggesting that the use of Charnwood slate in north Northamptonshire was an example of carters and stone dealers making additional profits from a return load.
The gist of his suggestion is that Leicestershire has no sources of freestone suitable for mullions, quoins and ashlar walls. In contrast north Northampstonshire has plentiful supplies of limestone (e.g. around Ketton and Kings Cliffe). This needed to be transported overland to Leicester. It would be comparatively straightforward for the carters to buy or even collect Charnwood slate to take to north Northamptonshire, thereby greatly increasing the profitability of the round trip. My guess is that the main use for the slate was in kitchens, pantries and dairies. But some was clearly sold for use as gravestones.
See the appendix to this article for the distribution of Charnwood slate gravestones in Northamptonshire
Charnwood slate gravestones in and around Barrowby
Yes, Barrowby churchyard has a good number of Charnwood slate tombstones, mostly close to the south porch. The oldest is from 1722 with another dated 1746.
So far I have discovered others nearby at Barrowby, Barkston, Bassingthorpe, Ingoldsby, Sapperton, Sedgebrook and Syston.
A Charnwood slate gravestones in Barrowby churchyard. The left-hand one is dated 1819. The right hand part of the gravestone was no doubt intended to commemorate his wife. But either (a) she moved away and died elsewhere; (b) her family didn't have the money to pay for adding an inscription; (c) she remarried and was buried with her later husband.
Note that by 1819 the formulae 'Here lieth interred... ' and 'Here lieth... ' has given way to 'In sacred memory of... ' or just 'In memory of... '.
Close up of the depiction of Faith. The scriptual reference is to Hebrew 11:1 ' Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.' There is a second Charnwood slate gravestone in Barrowby churchyard with a similar depiction of Faith.
This gravestone reveals how a double inscription to a husband and wife appears. John Lunn died (age 63) in 1761 while his wife, Elizabeth, died in 1777 (age 77) making her two years younger. Sublte differences in wording and calligraphy indicate that there was about sixteen years between John's inscription and Elizabeth's.
A Charnwood slate gravestone of circa 1749 with the name of the stonemason.
Unusually at the bottom of one of the Sapperton slates, erected in or soon after 1749, the name of the maker is visible:- 'Green, Denton.' Such inscriptions by stonemasons are often hidden by the soil and, generally, only begin to appear from the mid-nineteenth century onwards. If anyone has any information about Green's of Denton then please email me:– email@example.com.
I hope to visit more churchyards in Lincolnshire in the next year or so and will be keeping an eye out for Charnwood slates. And, just as important, noting where there are none surviving.
Evidence for a trade route
With luck the distribution of Charnwood slate gravestones will shed some light on eighteenth century trade routes. And whether, as with the Northamptonshire examples, the slate is a return load for a different type of stone. Or an entirely different product.
Taking ironstone from the Barrowby area to Leicester does not make much sense as there are plentiful deposits in north-east Leicestershire and into Rutland. More plausibly ironstone was worked into iron bars and such like in and around Grantham – but I have yet to discover any evidence for this before the mid-nineteenth century. Instead we need to look at the Barrowby-Grantham area as merely a 'stopping point' on journeys from Leicestershire to and from somewhere further east.
One clue as what that 'entirely different product' might be jumps out by looking at a map. The shortest route from the Charnwood quarries to Grantham follows the saltway from Barrow on Soar heading towards north-west Norfolk as Kings Lynn was once a major producer of salt from brine. Part of this saltway is now the A607 from just north-west of Waltham on the Wolds into Grantham, via Croxton Kerrial and Harlaxton. The origins of the route are prehistoric and the Romans used the stretch between Barrow and Eastwell/Goadby Marwood (presumably to transport iron products from their quarries at Goadby Marwood to the nearest river at Barrow).
There is every reason to think that salt would be transported in substantial quantities from evaporation pans at Kings Lynn to inland towns such as Leicester. Until the advent of the railways this would be by wagon or packhorse. To make the journey more profitable the waggoners would be looking for a return load. In the absence of more profitable options then slate could have been bought at Barrow and sold in Grantham.
The profits might have been used to buy pig iron (this is before Bessemer smelting had been invented) or even worked iron artefacts. I am assuming that there were a lot of small smithies in Grantham by the late seventeenth century (note this an assumption not an established fact!). The iron would be sold in Wisbech, Kings Lynn and such like which would have needed iron for the extensive agricultural activities – but there is no local source of iron ore.
This suggestion about salt-slate-iron is purely provisional. If anyone reading this has any knowledge of metalworking activtities in Grantham from the seventeenth century to the advent of the railways then please email me:– firstname.lastname@example.org.
So-called 'Belvoir angels' on a Charnwood slate gravestone dated 1728 in the churchyard at Old Dalby, Leicestershire.
A Charnwood slate gravestone dated 1729 with a 'Belvoir angel'.
This is in the churchyard at Nether Broughton, Leicestershire.
This a rare example of the letters being raised rather than incised – a difficult and time-consuming (and therefore expensive) method which soon went out of fashion. Before slate was used for churchyard memorials only timber grave markers were used. In all probability the lettering on some or all the wooden ones was raised. The raised lettering on this slate was therefore a skeuomorph.
The inscriptions, epigraphs, calligraphy and figurative carving on Charnwood slate gravestones reveal evidence of ever-changing fashions. This article is not the place to even summarise all these aspects of social history. However may I draw attention to the small number of the memorials decorated with a winged face.
This motif was first noticed in the Vale of Belvoir area of the Leicestershire-Notttinghamshire borders and so has been dubbed the 'Belvoir angel'. However the distribution extends well outside the Vale of Belvoir and they are not angels at all but a folk art version of the spiritus (intended to signify the spirit of the deceased) found nationally on high status memorials of the eighteenth century. I have yet to spot this spiritus motif on a Lincolnshire gravestone, but suspect that is because I have yet to visit many churchyards.
Although more commonly found on later Welsh slates, some gravestones include a few lines of poetry. Although often maudlin sometimes a little wit shines through.
There is an especially unusual epitaph on a gravestone in Barrowby churchyard. The opening line is slightly confusing:- 'No friend had J of mine upon ye earth'. I'll leave it to you to visit and try to make sense of this yourself!
The Charnwood slate gravestone of 1739 commemorating Michael Willcock. The confusing epitaph is partly concealed by vegetation. Note the hourglass and scythe in the corners.
Seek out Charnwood slates yourself
Few excuses are needed to stop off at the splendid medieval churches in Lincolnshire villages. Next time you do so, also spend some time in the churchyard. Start by looking at the backs of slate gravestones and 'get your eye in' for the ones which are not as smooth as others. The dates – usually seventeenth century or early nineteenth century – will confirm that this is from Charnwood not Wales. Then get used to recognising the subtle differences in colour between Leicestershire and Welsh slates.
Once you've got your eye in for the bumpy backs and differences in colour then Charnwood slates become fairly easy to spot.
Don't forget to admire the calligraphy, carvings and epitaphs that make these memorials such special survivors.
Detailed research on the Charnwood slate industry has been published by David Ramsey (e.g. Newtown Linford Notes and the Leicestershire Slate Industry, Bradgate Books 2002).
Professor Keith Snell at the Centre for English Local History at the University of Leicester is researching the social history of churchyards and memorials and provided helpful advice.
Distribution of Charnwood slate gravestones in Northamptonshire
Most churchyards in close proximity to the Leicester-Welford-Northampton and Leicester-Market Harborough-Northampton roads have examples of Charnwood slates, even though these places are up to thirty miles from the quarries as the proverbial crow flies.
My visits to churchyards along an approximately west-east transect just to the north of Northampton revealed few examples of Charnwood slate gravestones, with the exception of Long Buckby. However the comparatively late dates at Long Buckby (1789 to 1844) strongly suggest that Charnwood slate was reaching this village by canal. With the exception of Long Buckby there is no clear evidence that Charnwood slate was transported by the Leicester to Northampton canal and none that the River Nene was a transport route.
A corresponding survey of all churchyards along an approximately west-east transect just to the south of Northampton revealed only two examples of Charnwood slates (1802 and 1812). Curiously there is an almost complete absence of Welsh slate in these churchyards, suggesting that the masons there were happier using the easier-carved limestone (or simply that limestone was cheaper there than Welsh slate).
Parish-by-parish details in Trubshaw 2011; a copy can be emailed on request.
Leicestershire-Northamptonshire transport routes
The River Nene was made navigable in 1761. However Charnwood and Welsh slates are found only to the north of Nene so this seems unlikely to have offered an effective distribution for either source. Before the Grand Union was constructed Charnwood slate would have to travel down the rivers Soar, Trent and Humber, along the coast and back up the Nene.
The Act for the Leicestershire and Northamptonshire Canal (the original Grand Union, commonly referred to now as the 'Old Grand Union') was passed in 1793. Debdale was reached in 1797, Market Harborough in 1809 and the whole route finished in 1814. However the places nearest this canal were using Charnwood slate from the early part of the eighteenth century. Indeed use of Charnwood slate more or less drops off at the time the Old Grand Union is available; whether this is evidence for cheaper stone being brought in by canal or simply a change in fashion is unclear.
With the exception of Long Buckby (where the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century dates of the Charnwood slates correlate well with the opening of the canal there) there are no apparent links between the distribution of Charnwood slate and with waterborne transport. In contrast, the majority of Charnwood slates are to be found in close proximity to the Leicester-Welford-Northampton and Leicester-Market Harborough-Northampton roads. Presumably a number of carriers operated these routes during the eighteenth century (and later). They may have been accustomed to transporting other heavy Charnwood slate artefacts (e.g. dairy slabs; cheese presses, etc) which are not readily dateable and have not generally survived.
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Articles about BarrowbyBarrowby's location and geology
Seventeenth and eighteenth centuries
Articles and web links for nearby places
rare seventeenth fonts at Muston, Bottesford and Orston from Project Gargoyle Newsletter 2020
Ironstone quarries of Leicestershire
The Grantham Canal
Croxton Kerrial manor house excavations