Sunday, 6 January 2013

The lonesome grave of a travelling labourer

As a native of Lancashire, I returned to my hometown of Preston to visit my family at Christmas, and on a bright Sunday morning I visited the nearby village of Ribchester, probably best known as an old Roman fort.  I often visited this place as a child, as there was (and still is) an excellent children's playground there.  We would also inevitably visit the ruins of the Roman bath house, which were not fenced off and to a small child presented an exciting labyrinth of tumbled stones and low walls to clamber over.  In Roman times, Ribchester was called Bremetenacum Veteranorum - a possible translation of this is "the hilltop settlement of the veterans."  Some ruins of the fort, including the bath house and granaries, can still be seen today, and many buildings in the village have reused Roman stones and columns.

Ruins of Ribchester's Roman granaries, close to the church of St Wilfrid
Ribchester is home to the church of St Wilfrid, an ancient church believed to have been founded by St Wilfrid himself in the 7th Century.  St Wilfrid, Bishop of Ripon and Archbishop of York, travelled extensively across the north of England, founding churches and monasteries.  It is possible that a church already existed when St Wilfrid came to Ribchester, but it is thought that St Wilfrid founded the first stone church on the site.  This building was subsquently improved and enlarged between the 11th and 16th centuries.

St Wilfrid's is surrounded by a large churchyard, which contains a number of gravestones surviving from pre-Victorian times.  It was while exploring and photographing this churchyard, making the most of the beautiful winter sunlight, that I came across an old headstone standing apart from the others.

At first glimpse, it's a fairly ordinary 18th Century headstone.  However, when I crouched down to dechiper the inscription, I found that it told rather a sad and poignant story.

Here lieth the body of
Thos. Greenwod who
died May 24 1776
In ye 52 year of his age
Honest, industrious
seeming still content
Nor did repine(?) at what
he underwent
His transient life was 
with hard labour fill'd
And working in a
makle(?)pit was kill'd.

So, who was this man?  Parish records show that a "Thos. Greenwood" of Dilworth (a nearby township, now part of the village of Longridge) was buried at St Wilfrid's on 26th May 1776.  Parish records show a Thomas Greenwood, son of another Thomas Greenwood, was baptised in Colne - close to Pendle Hill on the other side of the Ribble Valley - on 13th September 1724.  There is no way of telling if this is the same Thomas Greenwood as the one buried at Ribchester but the dates of the records seem to match up fairly well, if we assume that "in ye 52 year of his age" means that Thomas was 51 when he died.

Records show that Greenwood was a common name in the Ribchester area at the time of Thomas' death, so it is possible that Thomas had relatives in the parish of St Wilfrid's.  As an itinerant worker it is unlikely that Thomas was a wealthy man, so it is likely that his headstone was paid for by others, perhaps relatives or friends from Ribchester.  Certainly the little rhyme on his headstone suggests that he was held in some regard, the eulogy painting him as a noble, tragic figure.

The nature of Thomas' death seems clear - he died in what we'd now call a workplace accident.  But where was he working?  The word on the bottom line of the gravestone is unfamiliar - M-A(?)-T/K-L-E pit.  "Pit" is a good place to start.  There is a long history of quarrying in the Ribble Valley and East Lancashire - in the nineteenth century stone was quarried in large amounts at Longridge Fell, with Longridge stone being used to build - amongst others - the docks at Liverpool and town halls in Preston and Lancaster.  Quarrying also took place in Clitheroe and Rossendale, and at other sites further afield in Lancashire.  Perhaps the mysterious pit where Thomas met his death was some kind of quarry.  If he lived at Dilworth at the time of his death he may have been working on nearby Longridge Fell.

The "transient life with hard labour fill'd" that Thomas led is another pointer that could suggest that some of his work at least involved quarrying.  Before the Industrial Revolution quarrying in Lancashire was carried out on a relatively small scale, with most stone being quarried to meet local demand.  This "on-demand" feature of quarrying would probably have created a situation where quarry workers would travel around the area, moving to where the work was and moving on when a job was finished.  Was this how Thomas lived his life, moving between quarrying jobs in rural Lancashire?

Another possiblilty is that Thomas was a miner - another tough, physical occupation.  The ambiguous word on the gravestone may be an old spelling of metal.  Lead mining took place in East Lancashire in the 18th Century, on a small scale (source).  It was never particularly succcessful.  Perhaps Thomas was involved in one of those ventures, and died in a mining accident.

All of this is speculation, of course. How much can we really know about a person, when scant records only tell us when they were baptised and when they were buried?  It is possible that no other written records of Thomas Greenwood exist or survive.  The only thing we know definite is the record of his burial at St Wilfrid's.  The Thomas Greenwood baptised in Colne in 1724 may have been someone else altogether - we just don't know.

Interestingly this is one of the few older gravestones that remains in the churchyard.  If at some point  old gravestones were removed (this is likely, as old graves were often reused), it's possible that Thomas' gravestone was kept because of its poignant, rhyming eulogy.  The older part of the churchyard, seen behind Thomas' grave in the photograph above, has few gravestones compared to the Victorian and later sections.

It's humbling to think that if this headstone with its rhyming eulogy had never been created, or had been disposed of, Thomas Greenwood would be completely forgotten, anonymous bones in an unmarked grave.  Research and speculation paints a vague but poignant story of a hard life and a sad death.  The presence of the gravestone points to the likelihood that someone cared enough about Thomas to erect a memorial and write a eulogy.  The continued existence of the gravestone suggests that at some stage, someone might have been moved enough by the story it told to leave it in place.

An ordinary gravestone: the stories it can tell, or inspire.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

"The largest and oldest museum in Reykjavik" - Hólavallagarður cemetery

A number of posts I've written for this blog so far have focused on graveyards, particularly the grand Victorian graveyards of London (at the time of writing, I have photographs of Highgate, Brompton and Kensal Green cemeteries waiting to have blog posts written around them).  However, the graveyard featured in this post lies 1,000 miles from London, on a quiet hillside in Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland.

Unlike Britain, Iceland has no long history of cities as we would recognise them.  Settled by the Vikings in the late 9th Century, Iceland has always had a small population (today it is around 300,000) and settlements tended to be small.  Reykjavik has long been settled - today, one can visit the remains of a 10th Century longhouse discovered during demolition works in the 20th Century - but it only began life as a town in the mid-18th Century.  The oldest buildings in the city are on Aðalstræti ("main street"), close to where the Viking longhouse is situated. 

It was close to Aðalstræti that Reykjavik's main graveyard was situated for around 800 years.  Now a slightly gloomy paved square surrounded by hotels, museums and coffee shops, this ancient burial ground was called Víkurgarður.  It is thought that a church was situated in this area since around the year 1000, when the Icelandic people converted to Christianity.

In 1838, however, the tiny burial ground at Víkurgarður was closed and a new, larger burial ground at nearby Suðurgata was consecrated, called Hólavallagarður. The Icelandic people had an interesting tradition around burial grounds - there was a folk belief that the first person to be buried in a graveyard would not rot, but would become the graveyard's "guardian", watching over the people subsequently buried there.  At Hólavallagarður this "guardian" is Guðrún Oddsdóttir, wife of a local magistrate.

The view from Hólavallagarður - the grey spire is that of Hallgrimskirkja

The name "Hólavallagarður" simply means "garden on a hill" - the photograph above shows the view over the city from the cemetery.  The first time I came across this cemetery was on my first full day in Reykjavik, whilst walking out of the city centre towards the National Museum of Iceland.  It was a damp, gloomy November day and there was no-one else around.  I visited again a few days later, after the snow had fallen, on an equally quiet and peaceful day (although it was a great deal colder!).

There are many trees in Hólavallagarður

My initial impression of Hólavallagarður was of a rather dark, heavily forested space.  The many trees in the graveyard, mostly birch and rowan, were planted in the early 20th Century.  They give the graveyard a natural - if slightly claustrophobic - feel, and I imagine that on a sunny day in spring or summer Hólavallagarður looks and smells completely alive despite the condition of its residents.  The trees also make Hólavallagarður rather distinctive, as trees are not a particularly commonn sight in Iceland, particularly outside of Reykjavik.  Iceland was once heavily forested, but deforestation and soil erosion caused by human activity after settlement in the 9th Century means that only a tiny percentage of the country is now forested.

Hólavallagarður's plots had all been bought by 1932, although many graves date from much later than this.  It struck me whilst exploring the cemetery how untouched by war and vandalism it is - in London's big cemeteries one sees signs everywhere of decay, vandalism, and the scars of Second World War air raids and ill thought out "modernisation" schemes by councils after the original cemetery companies sold up.  In contrast, Hólavallagarður was well-kept and clean.  The metal railings surrounding gravestones had not been stolen for scrap metal or for making weapons during wartime.  It looked as though it has never been neglected.  Dozens of redwings hopped and flew between the headstones and trees, shy birds that took off every time I pointed my camera in their direction.

Having spent a great deal of time exploring and photographing Victorian cemeteries and graves in London, I spotted some symbols and fashions similar to those popular in Victorian Britain.  The grave pictured below shows an upturned, extinguished torch, a common signifier of death in 19th Century funerary imagery.  This particular grave could also be a "broken column" grave, signifying that the man buried there was the head of the family.

The graves at Hólavallagarður are less grand, less ostenatious than some of those from the same period in Britain.  This may partly be down to the fact that until relatively recently, Iceland was a poor country, only gaining its high standard of living after indpendence from Denmark in 1944.  The modest, simple graves have a quiet dignity about them.  Some of them, such as the one pictured below, reflect the green, organic nature of their surroundings.

As well as being home to many trees, Hólavallagarður is full of mosses and lichens.  The air in Reykjavik is incredibly clean, providing ideal conditions for lichens to grow.  Many of the graves are "fenced off" by stone walls or metal railings, leaving narrow, winding walkways covered in leaves and moss.  Even before the snow came I had to watch my footing as I walked between graves, mindful of how slippery it was under foot.

The livid green of the moss and the brightly coloured lichens lifted some of the gloom from this otherwise very grey, wintery space.

Uphill from the cemetery's main entrance stands an elegant little structure, a beautiful red and white bell tower.

As well as the numerous living birds flitting around the cemetery, Hólavallagarður also has many birds on its memorials.  On gravestones, birds can be interpreted as symbols of peace, or (particularly if they are doves) messengers from God.

Hólavallagarður is unique among cemeteries of a similar age - unlike other large urban cemeteries in Europe it has been untouched by war, vandalism and neglect, giving it a feel of peace and continuity not found in other 19th Century cemeteries.  Art historian Björn Th. Björnsson has described it as "the largest and oldest museum in Reykjavik", a place where "a living exhibition and history opens itself to anyone who can read the hand of the sculptor and discern from symbols and types of font the thoughts and deeds of the dead."  Reykjavik is a wonderful place to visit, and Hólavallagarður is a lovely, peaceful spot to while away a couple of hours wandering around the old graves.

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