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Tombstones

"The proximity of Swithland and its beautiful slate and the genius of native craftsmen have made Wymeswold churchyard one of the finest in England."
Of Graves and Epitaphs K. Lindley (Hutchinson 1965)

Around the end of the 17th century the village masons of this area produced many boldly sculpted memorials Swithland (and later Welsh) slate and the churchyard of Wymeswold contains some of the finest examples. The virtuosity of style, which can verge on extravagant 'rococo' designs, at its best rivals elaborate metal-chasing in its skill of execution. Simply because slate withstands weathering so well this craftsmanship is still to be seen, often in near-perfect detail.

An hourglass and orobus from a Wymeswold gravestone
Rubbing by Isobel Foster.

It is generally agreed that the work of William Charles of Wymeswold is especially good. He was working between 1700 and 1730 and used an hourglass ringed with an orobus as his trademark. In common with other exponents of this craft, Charles was apparently self-taught from the writing manuals of time. His style changed with fashion and it is interesting to see, for instance, how the first word of the memorial change from a copperplate 'Here' to a centred, more typographical 'HERE'.

Other members of Charles' family produced memorials; it is particular rewarding to find memorials by William Charles to his wife, and the memorial to him, done by his son (also called William). As with most of the older memorials, these are all to the south of the church. Other sculptors are Bass, Brown, Ferriman, Hickling, Hull, Roworth and Winfield.

The addition admiring the skill of the carver, some considerable time can be spent reading the many poetical epitaphs. The best are usually of the eighteenth century and include:

This monumental Stone when you have read
Consider well the slippery Path you tread.
In Life's short span, or Time's more spacious round,
Nothing of certainty there's to be found.
Some chance unseen, some stroke unthought by thee,
May end thy life and lay thee low as me.
(John Shepherd; died 1758. The memorial is an example of William Charles junior's work.)

The Days of Man are but as Grass
Or Flowers in the Field;
As suddenly cut down I was,
And like them made to yield:
Repent in Time, do watch and pray,
That you may ready be;
Lest suddenly Death you dismay,
And lay you low as me.
(Daniel Hickling; died 1770.)

In brief to speak her praise let this suffice.
She was a Wife both frugal, good and wise;
Of Children careful, to her Husband kind,
All certain Symptoms of virtuous mind.
(Ann Wheeler; died 1779.)

I've paid the debt of nature, and thro' grace
My soul has safely reached the wealthy place;
Let not a fruitless tear for me be shed,
I live, though friends beneath account me dead.
If you one moment saw, what I now see,
How gladly would you change your state with me.
(Joseph Hardy; died 1826.)

Afflictions sore, long time I bore,
Physicians were in vain;
Till God did please, to give me call
And did me of my Pain.
(William Thomas Baker; died 1785.)

In Death's uncertainty thy danger lies.
Is Death uncertain? therefore though be fixed;
Fix'd as a sentinel, all eye, all ear,
All expectation of the coming foe.
Rouse, stand in arms, nor lean against thy spear;
Lest Slumber Steal one moment o'er thy soul,
And Fate surprise the nodding.
(William Fox; died 1835 and Elizabeth Fox; died 1814.)

Like Leaves on Trees the Race of Man is found,
Now green in Youth, now with'ring on the Ground;
The following Spring another Race supplies,
They fall successive, and successive rise:
So Generations in the Course decay,
So flourish these when those are past away.
(John Fox; died 1769 Elizabeth Fox; died 1788.)

With Serious Thoughts
Spectator view my state,
Reflect – as sudden
This may be thy fate;
Strive for the solomn
Change to be prepared
And endless Glory
Shall be thy reward.
(John Fox "who suddenly left this transient world on the 22nd of September 1804").

A verse which occurs again and again begins "Afflictions sore long time I bore", others referred to "a pale consumption" and "wasting pain". The Incidence of deaths of males and females in their late teens and early twenties perhaps points to tuberculosis. In some families the children died within months each other, suggesting an epidemic of some kind.

Update:

In the 18th century there was a more matter-of-fact attitude to death, both in the imagery depicted – skulls, crossed bones, hourglasses, scythes and winged heads (for example) – and in the wording cut into the headstones:

    Here lieth the body of…

    Here lies the body of…

    Reader as thou passeth by…

    In memory of…

By the middle of the 19th century the wording was more likely to be:

    In affectionate remembrance of…

    In loving memory of…

    At peace

    At rest

The imagery is more likely to be flowers, descending doves, mourners at a grave side, crosses and (by the late 19th century) angels.

Changes in the wordings of epitaphs clearly reveal underlying cultural changes. The sentiments of the 18th century were no longer acceptable by the mid-19th century.

Belvoir angel

A 'Belvoir angel' from a Wymeswold gravestone
Rubbing by Isobel Foster.

Winged faces are known locally as 'Belvoir Angels' and were intended to depict the soul of the deceased ascending to heaven. About 14 gravestones in St Mary's churchyard have such images; one tombstone has no less than six such faces.

(Update based on Rex C. Russell's From Cock Fighting to Chapel Building: Changes in popular culture in 18th and 19th century Lincolnshire, Heritage Trust of Lincolnshire, 2002.)

Originally published in A Portrait of Wymeswold 1991.

Copyright Wolds Historical Organisation.

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