Skulls, astrologers and the sands of time: a Georgian graveyard in South West London

One of the best things about living in London is the great potential for discovering wonderful places completely by accident. In this instance, I was required to go to Mortlake to pick up a parcel from the sorting office that had been too big to fit through my letterbox.  Whilst walking up Mortlake High Street my eye was caught by some worn old gravestones peeping out through bushes and shrubs.

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This graveyard belongs to the Anglican church of St Mary the Virgin, pictured below.

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The St Mary’s we see today was built in 1543, replacing an earlier church that had been situated nearby.  Only the tower survives from the 16th Century, and major alterations were made to the church in the 19th and 20th Centuries.  The church interior, pictured below, dates from the early 20th Century.

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Some of these memorials look as though they were once situated inside the church, before it was renovated in the early 20th Century.
Some of these memorials look as though they were once situated inside the church, before it was renovated in the early 20th Century.

The churchyard, however, mostly contains gravestones from the Georgian period, from about 1715, with the most recent graves dating from the early Victorian period.  The Burials Act of 1853 closed London’s ancient churchyards – by that time full to overflowing, and desperately unhealthy and undignified spaces – and from then onwards the residents of Mortlake had to be buried elsewhere.  A new cemetery, now referred to as Old Mortlake Burial Ground, was opened in 1854 a few hundred yards away from St Mary the Virgin, and the parish vestry was responsible for the purchase of the land there.

A lot of the major cemeteries in London date from the 19th Century, and the funerary symbolism used in this period often invoked Roman urns, clasped hands, broken pillars and extinguished torches.  Many of these symbols had their origins in the Classical period.  Earlier gravestones, however, use some quite different images and probably the most distinctive of these is the skull, or death’s head, an obvious signifier of death.  To our modern sensibilities the skull seems an incredibly stark, rather morbid symbol to put on a headstone, but its purpose was to remind those who saw it that they, too, were mortal and would one day face death.

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The monument pictured above also depicts what appears to be a book, which may signify knowledge, or perhaps the Bible.

Time waits for no man.
Time waits for no man.

The gravestone pictured above shows another symbol of mortality – the hourglass, showing the sands of time slipping away.

So why are the symbols on 18th Century graves so different to those on Victorian graves?  In the Victorian period death became a money-spinning industry, with grand memorials, specially laid out cemeteries and ostentatious funeral processions becoming popular amongst the moneyed.  Death was dressed up and became an event – look at the way that black mourning clothes and black-edged writing paper became important and very visual parts of mourning.  At the same time, the symbols used to represent death became more distant – no more scary signifiers of mortality such as skulls, bones or ominous signs of time passing.  This in part reflected differing fashions and tastes in the Victorian period, with grand Gothic and Classical images becoming common in the new burial grounds that opened after inner city churchyards were shut.

This headstone from 1752 has both the death head and hourglass symbols on it.
This headstone from 1752 has both the death head and hourglass symbols on it.

The poor, of course, continued to be buried in common graves with no memorial or perhaps a small, simple stone.  Dotted around old graveyards are little headstones adorned only with a set of initials and dates of birth and death.  The graves of non-conformist believers have also traditionally been more austere.

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The earliest known tombstone in the graveyard at St Mary’s is that of the astrologer John Partridge.  Partridge was born in East Sheen, not far from Mortlake, and after initially starting a career as a shoemaker he studied in Holland and became an astrologer, having learned Latin, Greek and Hebrew.  He wished to see the Arabic influences on astrology – which had become widespread in Europe during the Renaissance – removed and sought a return to Ptolemy’s principles of astrology.

Although Partridge wrote a number of books of his own, he is best known through the words of his enemies.  A committed Whig and sceptical of the Church, Partridge was known to predict the deaths of those whose opinions on religion and politics he disagreed with.  This made him unpopular, and his astrology was suspected of being quackery.  In 1708 this came to the attention of Jonathan Swift, the Irish cleric best known for writing Gulliver’s Travels, and writing under the pseudonym Isaac Bickerstaff Swift mockingly predicted that Partridge would die on 29th March 1708.  On this date, he wrote another letter claiming that Partridge had died.  Partridge, very much alive, angrily refuted the claims but continued to be ridiculed, with Swift commenting that “they were sure no man alive ever to writ such damned stuff as this.”  Swift even penned a eulogy for Partridge:

Here five foot deep lyes on his back
A cobbler, starmonger, and quack…
Who to the stars in pure good-will,
Does to his best look upward still.
Weep all you customers that use
His pills, his almanacks or shoes.

Partridge died in 1714 or 1715, and little is known about his final years.  He is buried beneath the tomb pictured below, very close to the church building.

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The picture below shows close-up of the cherubs on Partridge’s tomb.  A skull is also visible at the bottom of the plaque – it is quite worn and covered in lichen, and its most distinctive features are the eye sockets and nasal cavity.  The large and relatively ornate nature of Partridge’s tomb suggests that he either died quite wealthy, or had friends who were able to pay for a grand memorial.

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St Mary’s also has a connection with the more famous John Dee, the Elizabethan mathematician and magician who had a home in Mortlake close to St Mary’s.  During Dee’s time the boundaries between mathematics, science and magic were blurred, and – as this was the time before the frenzied witch hunts of the 17th Century – Dee enjoyed the patronage of a number of eminent Elizabethans, and even acted as adviser to Queen Elizabeth herself.   Dee travelled widely during his lifetime and kept his extensive library at his Mortlake home, a library which at the time was reckoned to be one of the greatest in the world.

Image from Wikimedia Commons
Image from Wikimedia Commons

A history on the church’s own website claims that Dee was buried at St Mary’s after his death in 1608 or early 1609.  Dee died in poverty and relative obscurity, as James I’s regime was – to say the least – unfriendly towards magic, and unfortunately no parish records of his death and burial survive, and there is no known gravestone.

A former Prime Minister also rests in this graveyard.  Henry Addington, 1st Viscount Sidmouth, was a Tory MP for Devizes and became Prime Minister in 1801 after William Pitt the Younger resigned.  By all accounts Addington was not an effective Prime Minister and he was ousted in 1804.  He did, however, live to the grand old age of 86, dying at the comfortable White Lodge in Richmond.

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Probably the most distinctive feature of the churchyard is the picturesque archway in the middle.  This archway was originally part of the structure of the church, but was removed during rebuilding work in the 19th century and rebuilt in the churchyard, allegedly at the insistence of a parishoner.

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Part of the churchyard is fenced off and designated as a “wild area”, allowing plants and habitats for birds and insects to flourish. The whole churchyards is beautifully cared for by the Friends of Mortlake Churchyard, who have lovingly restored the graveyard after it became derelict.  More details about the Friends can be found under the “Churchyard” section of St Mary’s website.

There is also a labyrinth on the side of the churchyard closest to Mortlake High Street.  The labyrinth, simply laid out with natural materials, is intended to be a space for quiet reflection.

The labyrinth consists of winding paths laid out around the gravestones
The labyrinth consists of winding paths laid out around the gravestones

I may have discovered this churchyard quite by accident, but it was a real treat being able to spend time walking among its headstones.  The designs and symbols that I found there encouraged me to learn more about the way people in the eighteenth century marked and commemorated death, and how this differed from more recent fashions in funerary symbolism.

The churchyard at St Mary the Virgin is located just off Mortlake High Street, and is usually open during daylight hours.

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References and further reading

St Mary the Virgin, Mortlake: An Historical Guide http://stmarymortlake.org.uk/history/

Death Head Stones – Peterborough Churchwalker http://www.robschurches.moonfruit.com/death-head-stones/4533727830

8 thoughts on “Skulls, astrologers and the sands of time: a Georgian graveyard in South West London

  1. Icy Sedgwick September 21, 2014 / 10:22 am

    This was a fascinating post! I think London’s cemeteries are sometimes overshadowed by the Magnificent Seven but the local graveyards are just as interesting. Fab read!

    Like

    • Caroline September 21, 2014 / 11:14 am

      Thank you very much! The Magnificent Seven are all wonderful cemeteries but there are so many more half-forgotten places in London that are just as beautiful & fascinating. I’m trying to explore as many of them as possible.

      Like

  2. Cambridge Library Collection February 6, 2015 / 4:58 pm

    Thanks for this! About the closing of cemeteries, I’ve just be looking at the biography of Joseph Rogers, who campaigned for the closure of ancient London burial grounds after the ooze from St Anne’s, Soho, started creeping into his medical practice next door! He was also instrumental in improving medical services to the workhouses of mid-Victorian Britain. We will be reissuing the book in the Cambridge Library Collection(https://cambridgelibrarycollection.wordpress.com/about/) shortly.

    Like

    • Caroline February 7, 2015 / 7:51 pm

      Some of the stories you hear about the overcrowded churchyards of London are truly horrifying. I will definitely look out for Joseph Rogers’ biography – he’s not someone I’d heard of before but I’m interested to read about his life now!

      Like

    • Caroline March 31, 2015 / 1:54 pm

      You could be on to something there!

      Like

  3. shadowsflyaway August 8, 2017 / 6:26 am

    Much as I love London’s Magnificent 7 there are often gems to be discovered in smaller churchyards as you’ve proved. Some lovely tombstone and I’ve always been a sucker for a labyrinth.

    Like

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