Friday 18 March 2016

The Place of Skulls; St John the Baptist, Hillingdon

Thomas Smith, late of this parish
Like many other churchyards which had for 500 years or more been plenty big enough to contain the bodies of all its deceased parishioners, St John’s was forced to expand its burial ground in the early nineteenth century. In still rural Uxbridge the church was able to acquire land adjacent to the exiting churchyard, something generally not possible in more crowded central London. Population growth perhaps played some part in increasing demand for burial space but the main reason the extra space was needed were the unexpected 18th century fads for coffins and gravestones. Up to the 17th century most Englishmen (and women) had been buried in shrouds directly into the ground, coffins being a relative rarity. A body in a coffin takes considerably longer to decompose than a body in a shroud and therefore prevents further burials in the same ground.  Once relatives knew that their dead would remain undisturbed they began wanting to mark the spot of the interment and the fashion for grave markers developed. Within a few decades coffins, gravestones and altar tombs gradually occupied all of the available space in churchyards forcing vestries to acquire land for burials.  

St John’s purchased a plot adjacent to the church for new burials in 1819. The existing churchyard remained largely untouched and so is a fascinating example of an eighteenth century burial ground with barely a Victorian intrusion to be found. It has many headstones dating from the early 1700’s almost of which are decorated with memento mori, though there are a few with cherubs. Most of these early gravestones are made from sandstone and have weathered badly, though some are still in relatively good condition. There are also an unusually large number of chest or altar tombs the most famous of which belongs to the one time owner of the Covent Garden Theatre John Rich (died 1761). 

Here lyes the body of Bertram  Hanington who departed this life June ye 22 1705
A more sophisticated execution of the motif from 1745
Elizabeth, wife of Richard Edmands
Edward Taylor, 1725

18th century altar tombs at Uxbridge

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