Churchyards and Tombstones: Reading Monumental Inscriptions

St Mary's Collegiate Church, Warwick, 1860s
Warwickshire County Record Office reference PH474/7/10

Tombstones are not a permanent record; they become worn with the weather and pollution, vandalised and removed for the landscaping of the churchyards and for ease of maintenance. Time, therefore, is not on our side. We have lost a great deal of our heritage already.

Whilst many of the churchyards in Warwickshire and surrounding counties are very old, only the wealthy and illustrious had memorials inside the Church; everyone else was buried outside, the bodies being buried on top of one another with the result that the level of the ground became considerably raised. This was perhaps a greater problem in towns like Birmingham where the population was increasing rapidly.

Changing fashions

By the 17th century, people wanted their own individual grave with a memorial. These early stones were often made by stone-masons more akin to builders and therefore the stones were rather crude, short and thick, the letters cut with no thought of spacing. There are number of these particularly in the south of Warwickshire. As time passed the stone-mason’s art developed and from the 18th century up until about 1850 one finds some of the prettiest and most ornate of the stones. Unfortunately, much of the stone tended to be rather soft, with the result that many of the little cherub faces have become worn and flattened with age.

The calligraphy, too, became very much more flourishing, which certainly makes reading them a problem as numbers such as 1, 4 and 7 can look very similar when worn, as can 3, 5 and 8. A mirror can be very useful when reading a stone which appears to be quite illegible. The stone needs to be in shade in order to make a sharp contrast whilst one glints the sunlight across it.

Later, footstones became more fashionable, with initials and dates carved on them. These do give a second chance to verify the information. Ledger stones, which are laid flat on the ground, can be a problem: not only are they very heavy and prone to sink into the ground, but there is no contrast in the light. Chalk can be a help, but dry sandy soil scuffed into the letters and gently brushed aside is often better. Many sided tombs and kerbs can give problems in knowing where to start; it is all too easy to marry the wife of the above to her father in law or son!

Tools and titbits

A variety of tools can be useful in reading these inscriptions. Besides water, sponge, chalk, mirror and a brush, a trowel is useful for the stone that has sunk, with the essential date or name below ground. Secateurs are essential to tackle ivy; the tiny suckers burrow into the stone and cause a lot of damage. Shears are required for nettles and brambles.

Over the years I have done a great deal of indexing and so it is always a joy when one can link other information. At Ashow we found the grave of Sara Dormer who had been murdered by her maid Ann Heytray. By coincidence, we found another grave at Alveston, that of William Hiron murdered by Ann’s brother, Thomas Heytray.

By Pauline Page, coordinator for the Monumental Inscriptions Project, part of the Birmingham and Midland Society for Genealogy & Helraldry (BMSGH). The  project covered Warwickshire, Staffordshire and Worcestershire. Memorial Inscriptions for some parishes are available at Warwickshire County Record Office.

This is an abridged and edited version of an article originally published in the Friends of the Warwickshire County Record Office Newsletter, May 1993, and is reproduced with their permission.

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