Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Roof Bosses of Atherington

St Mary's, Atherington, Devon

The North Devon parish of Atherington is one of five parishes that I collect information about in my role as a Online Parish Clerk (OPC). An OPC is a volunteer with an interest in the genealogy and history of a parish, and collects copies of original records, indexes or transcripts relating to that parish. The OPC undertakes to make such information available to enquirers for their own personal use. For more details about the OPC project click here, or visit my website to see what I have collected about Atherington, High Bickington, Tawstock, St Giles in the Wood, and Yarnscombe.

Atherington is one of my neglected parishes. Much of the information I typically provide (lookups of baptisms, marriages, burials) is available elsewhere, either through FamilySearch or Devon Heritage. As well, despite two visits to Devon in the last four years, I have not been able to get inside the church. The first time the church was locked and there was no indication as to where a key could be found. The second time the roof was being replaced, so even the churchyard was inaccessible. This is unfortunate, since everything I've read and seen about St Mary's, Atherington suggests that the inside is definitely worth seeing.

St Mary's contains a number of effigy monuments and chest tombs. A few photographs of these (including the one to the left) were recently uploaded to Wikipedia. The effigies and chest tombs were moved to St Mary's from nearby Umberleigh when the Chapel of the Holy Trinity was demolished about 1800.

St Mary's also contains unusual crocketed bench ends, a 15th century font, as well as some medieval glass. Also noteworthy is the rood screen and loft. The elaborately carved screen and loft date from the mid 16th century and were the work of two local craftsmen. The loft also has the distinction of being the only surviving rood loft in Devon.

One of St Mary's interesting features is the large number of late medieval oak roof bosses that adorn the wagon roofs in the nave, chancel and north aisle. The carvings depict fruit, foliage, animals and men, as well as mythological creatures, including several imps. A few years ago, I was sent a collection of photographs. Here are four of the best, beginning with an imp:

This roof boss features a dragon suckling its young. The boss may be a reference to a verse from the Book of Lamentations: “Even the sea monsters draw out the breast, they give suck to their young ones."

The foliate head or "green man" is a common roof boss motif in Devon churches. The green man is undoubtably of pagan origin and is commonly thought to represent fertility. Another interpretation, more in line with Christian teaching, is that the green man is a symbol of rebirth or resurrection.

Titivillus was the demon responsible for recording the idle chatter of the laity in church, to be later used as evidence for damnation. Titivillus is also the patron demon of scribes and is said to have entered the scriptoria of monasteries and caused errors in manuscripts as they were copied.

I'll be visiting North Devon again next summer, and hope that this time I'll finally have the opportunity to photograph the inside of St Mary's Atherington.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Homer Cemetery: Historical and Neglected

Gravestones obscured by fallen tree

Homer Cemetery is an inactive cemetery located in the shadow of the Garden City Skyway across the Welland Canal from St. Catharines. The cemetery is sometimes referred to as the Ten Mile Creek Burying Ground, although the actual creek was obliterated by the construction of the fourth Welland Canal in 1926.

From a historical standpoint, Homer is one of the most interesting cemeteries in the Niagara Peninsula. It is an old graveyard, and is the burial place of several of the first settlers west of the Niagara River. In the graveyard can be found several members of Butler's Rangers — Loyalists who fought for Great Britain against the Americans during the Revolutionary War. Also buried at Homer are numerous veterans of the War of 1812.

Despite its historical significance, Homer is a badly neglected cemetery. Most of the gravestones lie horizontally on the ground. Grass and earth have encroached on the stones to the point that many have almost disappeared. In the process of photographing the gravestones this past summer, I often had to carefully remove the grass and soil. Due to a lack of rain this summer, this was relatively easy, but it was still dusty and time-consuming work.

Two large trees have fallen at the back of the cemetery, obscuring a number of the gravestones, including that Mary Read (1764-1839), wife of George Read (1763-1834), a private in Butler’s Rangers. The trees apparently fell many years ago. Why no one has brought in a chainsaw and removed them is a mystery.

Homer Cemetery is located on land that was granted to George Read’s brother, William Read (1759-1831). In his 1795 petition requesting land on behalf on his wife and five children, William writes that he, “with the assistance of his neighbours has erected a church on his premises in which Divine Service had been performed by the Rev’d Mr. Addison. The log church stood until 1832 when it was destroyed by fire. A church of brick was built to replace it, but this was torn down in 1939 when the four-lane Queen Elizabeth Way was built.

By the 1930s the cemetery had become so overgrown that a fire was set to clear out the undergrowth. This had the unfortunate effect of cracking or descaling a number of the older stones. A stone cairn and commemorative plaque was also installed about this time.

The cemetery has been transcribed on a number of occasions, beginning with a partial transcription by Janet Carnochan in 1898. In 1928, W.G. Reive recorded most of the gravestones, and also noted that the cemetery was overgrown and poorly maintained. In 1984 and 1985, the Niagara Peninsula Branch of the Ontario Genealogical Society undertook a systematic transcription. A quarter century later this transcription is invaluable for locating individual stones and discerning faded inscriptions.

George Grass
In her 1898 transcription, Carnochan notes the gravestone of George Grass (1789-1813) who was killed on May 1813 during the Battle of Fort George. Grass is one of few “Canadian” soldiers who died during the War of 1812 whose graves are marked. Also mentioned are the gravestones of Solomon Secord (1756-1799), a Lieutenant in Butler’s Rangers; Jacob Ball (1777-1820) and his wife Elizabeth (1790-1892); Margaret Hare (1764-1851), whose first husband was Solomon Secord, and whose second was Peter Hare, who also was a Lieutenant in Butler’s Rangers. Finally Carnochan records the epitaph for the double stone to Francis Goring Parnall and Elizabeth Secord.

William Havens
Conspicuously absent from Carnochan’s account is the oldest gravestone in the cemetery, that of William Havens (1738-1800). The stone is incorporated into a much larger monument that documents the history of the Havens family, beginning with their emigration from Wales to Rhode Island in 1638. Unfortunately, the original stone for William’s wife, Lydia Masters (1742-1817) which was also incorporated into the monument, no longer exists.

It is unfortunate that Homer Cemetery is not better maintained. The Town of Niagara-on-the-Lake lists Homer Cemetery on its website as one of ten inactive cemeteries “that are cared for by our staff.” The care of cemeteries, however, must go beyond just cutting the grass. It must include preventing gravestones from disappearing altogether.