Curious Tombstones of the Yorkshire Dales
“Dearly Departed of the Dales” – Memorable ‘In Memoria’
Author Summer Strevens describes some of our region’s more peculiar final inscriptions…
Affirming the presence of the past, and indeed the continuance of the lives of untold generations, the churchyards and graveyards throughout the Yorkshire Dales can lay claim to the resting place of a diversification of personages lying beneath listing ivy clad tombstones. The inscriptions upon which often hint of the personalities of those at eternal repose beneath. Some are sombre reminders, some frivolous, while others are just plain quirky. Here then, a look at a notable collection of regionally dearly departed souls laid to rest in God’s Acre.
We begin with a grave that piques a calendar related curiosity. The ‘False February Tombstone’ found in Fewston Churchyard, in the Harrogate district of North Yorkshire is not far from the reservoir which also bears this name. Fewston’s church, with its dual dedication to St Michael & St Lawrence, is one of the very few 17th Century churches in Yorkshire. The old medieval church having been rebuilt in 1696 after a devastating fire.
Amongst the weather worn monuments in the sloping churchyard, which in springtime is a riot of vibrant bluebells, is the grave of one Joseph Ridsdale and his son William. On first inspection the stone seems unremarkable. But on closer scrutiny the curiosity is revealed. According to the carved inscription Joseph Ridsdale died on the 29th of February 1823, however this was not a leap year. But even more curious is the inscription for his son William. He apparently predeceased his father on the 30th of February 1802. To this day no-one knows the reason for the dating discrepancies. The only instance of a 30th February was that recorded in Sweden in 1712 due to a Gregorian calendar malfunction. This is certainly not applicable to a village on the fringe of the Dales…
Fewston can however also lay claim to the grave of a literary inspiration. After the publication of ‘The Sad Fortunes of the Reverend Amos Barton’ in 1857, author George Eliot (the masculine pen name adopted by Mary Ann Evans) was forced to make an apology to the Reverend John Gwyther whose personal traits she had been less than complimentarily woven into her literary creation of Barton.
Gwyther had been the local curate in the Warwickshire parish of Chilvers Coton, Eliot’s childhood home, and had memorably officiated at the wedding of Eliot’s sister in 1832, and the episode in Chapter one where Amos Barton rudely interrupts the wedding psalm was an incident drawn from life.
An advocate of Evangelical reform, after spells of incumbency in Birmingham, Warwickshire and Sheffield, Gwyther became Vicar of St Michael & St Lawrence in Fewston, the position he occupied until his death in 1873. What Fewston’s parishioners thought of the ‘real life’ Amos Barton is not on record, although the congregation shows no reserve in their opinion of Gwyther’s successor, the Reverend John Marks Ashley. A classical scholar, he is said to have been able ‘to talk well but that is not what is wanted here.’
The Reverend Gwyther’s tomb stands beside the church porch, and shares the lofty graveyard with the ‘False February Tombstone’ mentioned above.
Exercising a taste for humorous epitaphs, the tongue-in-cheek wording on one of the the headstones in the graveyard of Ripon Cathedral attests to the demise of one Bryan Tunstall, who was clearly an enthusiastic fisherman in life:
Here lies poor,
but honest Bryan Tunstall,
he was a most expert angler,
until Death, envious of his Merit,
threw out his line,
hooked him, and
landed him here
the 21st day of April 1790.
A rather more cheerless yet poetically detailed epithet is found on the gravestone of John Moore. He lies in the churchyard of St Agatha in Gilling West, the peaceful Dales village a few miles to the north of Richmond. A victim of highway robbery, Moore is shot from his horse when returning from Richmond on the 10th of December, 1758.
Unto the mournful fate of young John Moore,
Who fell a victim to some villain’s power,
In Richmond Lane, near to Ask Hall, ’tis said, –
There was his life most cruelly betrayed.
Shot with a gun by some abandoned rake,
Then knock’d o’th’ head with a hedging stake,
His soul, I trust, is with the blest above,
There to enjoy eternal rest and love;
Then let us pray his murderer to discover,
That he to justice soon may be brought over.
Unfortunately the entreaties of the last two lines never came to pass as the highwayman ‘escaped the hand of justice’.
Moving on to the graves of the pseudo famous, we find Julius Caesar buried in the shadow of a ubiquitous yew tree. It is in the churchyard of St Mary’s, Masham. Though the lower reaches of Wensleydale seem an improbable resting place for the renowned Roman Imperial Emperor, it is actually the 18th Century landscape and watercolour painter Julius Caesar Ibbetson who rests here. His imperious forenames are given as a direct result of his caesarean delivery. His mother going into premature labour as a result of a fatal fall on ice. Prolific in portraying charming local scenes, Ibbetson, who died on 13th October 1817, was buried in the graveyard of St Mary’s. An evocative view of which he had painted from across the River Ure.
The charming town of Masham also boasts a ‘lost cemetery’. Discovered during the seemingly innocuous installation of new public lavatories in 1988, leading to the discovery of a long forgotten Saxon cemetery thought to extend beneath the cobbles of Masham’s pair of market squares.
In an earlier less extensive discovery, in the 1930s two skeletons were unearthed when a cobbled drainage channel was sunk around the main Market Square. With accounts of further skeletal remains found when footings for the flag pole were dug. Children were reportedly seen playing football with a skull! As a precursor to the 1988 discovery, in 1985 work carried out to extend the cellars of The Bruce Arms public house (overlooking Masham’s Little Market Place) revealed a portion of what turned out to be significant burial site.
However the real discovery came when water pipes are laid in the vicinity of the Little Market Place. North Yorkshire County Council’s Archaeological unit are called in to recover the disturbed human remains. Ultimately totalling 58 individuals, radiocarbon dating to a burial period from 679AD to 1011AD, and indicating a cemetery in use for over 300 years. With the odd bone turning up in the flower beds of neighbouring houses. Investigations by ‘Dowsers’ hint at further graves beneath the shops facing onto the main Market Square. It is a safe assumption that much of the Saxon cemetery is still undisturbed.
As for the remains, because the original orientation of the graves suggest Christian committal, the bones are reburied in the churchyard of St Mary’s in 2009, with the Lord’s Prayer read in Anglo-Saxon, Latin and “Prayer Book English”, just to cover all the bases!
Another mass monument can be found in All Saints churchyard, Otley. Known as the ‘Navvies Monument’, this evocative memorial is a stone replica of the northern portal of the Bramhope Tunnel. Set up in 1913 to commemorate the 23 miners and excavators (navvies) killed during the tunnel’s construction.
Proposals for a rail route from Leeds to the north and on to Scotland is first made in 1843. After Royal Assent is given on 21st July 1845, construction commences that year. However, contractor James Bray is faced with considerable technical problems in negotiating the hills and valleys along the route. The greatest challenge is to cut the Bramhope Tunnel.
At a height of 25 feet, cut through just over two-miles of rock, the navvies were working at depths of up to 290 feet. The 2,300 men and 400 horses involved in this work were all subject to the ever present risk of sudden rock falls, subsidence, flooding and collapse which could result in accidental death. One such victim commemorated on the Navvies Monument was James Myers. He is buried in the Methodist Cemetery at Yeadon, a married man just 22 years old who ‘died by an accident in the Bramhope Tunnel on the 14th day of April, 1848‘. The following is inscribed on his gravestone:
What dangers do surround
Poor miners everywhere,
And they that labour underground,
They should be men of prayer.
The Navvies Monument is a poignant reminder of the human costs incurred with the advent of the glorious age of steam.
Next we turn to two graves with a distinctly naval connection. In the church of The Holy Trinity in the village of Wensley, a stone’s throw from the river Ure wending it way through Wensleydale, is the monument to a naval surgeon. He was at the side of the dying national hero Horatio Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21st October 1805. High up on the wall of the south aisle the white marble monument commemorates Peter Goldsmith MD. The man lived in what is now The Secret Garden House on Grove Square in the nearby town of Leyburn.
Coincidentally, Dr Goldsmith is buried in the churchyard at Wensley next to another naval surgeon, Thomas Maude. Though celebrated as a poet and essayist, in 1755 Maude is appointed surgeon on board the Barfleur.
It is commanded by Lord Harry Powlett. Maude’s favourable evidence given at a court-martial before which Lord Harry is tried at Portsmouth in October 1755 is so highly valued by his commander that upon Powlett’s succession as sixth and last Duke of Bolton in 1765, he appoints Maude steward of his Yorkshire estates. The heart of which is Bolton Hall in Wensley.
Turning to the aptly named ‘Watery Grave’, this is found in the northwest part of the churchyard of the austerely beautiful 15th century St Michael’s, Kirkby Malham. The church’s bells are incidentally those heard by ‘Tom’ in Charles Kingsley’s Water Babies. The unusual resting place of Colonel and Mrs Harrison, Colonel Harrison is often unavoidably separated from his wife Helen for extended periods while serving overseas. It is she who vowed ‘as water parted us in life, so it shall in death.’
As a literal interpretation, Mrs Harrison makes arrangements that a small stream is routed to flow through their grave plot. However the local geology conspires to prevent her final wishes being. On her death in in 1890 Mrs Harrison is buried in the plot to the south side of the stream. But on the death of Colonel Harrison ten years later it is found, on digging his grave, that the north side of the burial plot is rendered impenetrable by solid rock. Though the couple are ultimately interred together in the same grave, their memorial nonetheless does straddle the small stream.
Another poignant memorial, this time to a viscountess buried at sea, can be found in the church of St Cuthbert & St Oswald, Winksley, near Ripon. A beautiful marble monument honours the memory of Daisy, wife of Marmaduke Viscount Furness of Grantley. She was buried at sea on 25th February 1921 off the coast of Portugal.
Ada ‘Daisy’ Hogg had married the Rt Hon Marmaduke Furness in 1904. She became Lady Furness when her husband inherited his father’s title in 1912. Lady Daisy, who had been active as a Red Cross nurse during the First World War, was en route by sea with her husband to join her children and her mother-in-law in the South of France. Following a serious operation at the end of 1920, she suffers a sudden relapse and dies, aged 40. She is onboard the Viscount’s steam-powered yacht, the ‘Sapphire’. Buried at sea off Cadiz, Daisy’s memorial is placed in Winksley church, close to the family seat at Grantley Hall. This is amongst the monuments and resting places of other members of the Furness family.
In keeping with the sometime supernatural associations with cemeteries, mention must be made of the ‘Vampire of Dent’. There is a legend that the folk of Dent are fond of telling, of a resident vampire. It is said he is still buried beneath a stone slab in front of the porch of St Andrew’s Church. The ‘vampire’, George Hodgson, was a man well into his nineties when he died in 1715. Although he was noted for a remarkable sprightliness in one so old. The townsfolk attribute this to a pact that George was said to have made with the Devil.
His active longevity, coupled with his enjoyment of a daily glass of sheep’s blood as a tonic and the curious shape of his teeth was enough to convince his neighbours that George was in fact a vampire. Their suppositions further reinforce when George’s corpse is seen in Dent long after his burial. Those claiming to have seen the resurrected George suffered a swift demise.
By popular demand an exhumation is ordered. When the coffin is opened it is observed that George’s pallor is still pink and healthy. Also that his hair and nails have continued to grow. Hastily re-buried beneath a stone slab in front of the church door, as a final precaution a hole is made in the tombstone through which a brass stake is driven into the heart of George’s corpse. You can still see the hole and the top of the shorn stake today. Although the sceptical maintain that the burial slab is merely a gatepost…
An unusual last bequest is honoured with the burial of Robert Willance. He is the man for whom the name ‘Willance’s Leap’ is attributed. His dying wish is that his body be reunited with his amputated leg, removed a decade prior to his demise, and previously accorded separate burial in the churchyard of St Mary’s, Richmond. Robert Willance was a prosperous tradesman in Richmond. He enjoyed riding out alone up dale, whatever the weather. On an inclement November day in 1606, approaching Deepdale, Willance and his mount became enveloped in thick mist. In the severely restricted visibility he ended up making an unplanned leap over the edge of Whitecliff Scar.
While his horse is killed instantly, Willance miraculously escapes the fall with a broken leg. Although the medical fraternity of the day deems amputation necessary. Before his death, Willance expresses in his will a strong desire to be reunited with his limb after death. His wishes respected, the leg was duly exhumed and reunited with the remainder of Willance’s body, and buried in its ‘second’ grave..
Of course, no litany of the loved and lost would be complete without reference to ‘Pet Cemeteries’. Evidence of ritualistic canine burials date back to the Paleolithic period. Then pet dogs sometimes were interred in the tombs of their owners. It was Queen Victoria who was responsible for starting the ‘fashion’ for dog cemeteries. It was prevalent in the grounds of stately homes in the 19th century. A great animal lover, many of the Queen’s four legged companions are buried in the grounds of her beloved Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. A number of her favourite animals are also interred in the pet cemetery at Windsor Castle. This included many dogs immortalised with life-size bronze statues. However, examples from the Dales are somewhat more low-key, yet nonetheless lovingly sentimental.
The Thorp Perrow estate, just to the north of the village of Snape boasts a fine arboretum. Here beneath the spreading canopy alongside one of the lovely woodland walks are a touching collection of miniature graves. They mark the burial spots of various beloved dogs.
A further collection of tiny headstones are in the grounds of Swinton Park. Close to the riverside market town of Masham, the ancestral home of the Danbys and later the Cunliffe-Lister family, these fond memorials are still a touching sight. Testament to the enduring affection for ‘man’s best friend’.
Summer Strevens is author of ‘The A-Z of Curiosities of the Yorkshire Dales’, available from Amazon