Written in stone

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This one of the earliest photographs of Manchester Cathedral in its archives, taken c. 1890. The building is captured at a significant moment in its architectural history, shortly before the Basil Champneys south porch (1891) and south extension (1901) were added, dramatically altering its exterior aspect.

The less obvious intervention, but at least as dramatic, was in the subsequent transformation of the Cathedral’s immediate setting from churchyard to garden.

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In the earliest photograph, what at first glance appear to be paving slabs are actually hundreds of ledgerstones. From the website of the Ledgerstone Survey of England & Wales on the nature and value of the stones:

‘Ledgerstones are the flat stones placed over a grave inside a church, usually incised with the name and dates of the deceased. They are often decorated with heraldry and many include interesting inscriptions about the person, their family and their life in the local community. Over 250,000 survive, mainly in parish churches, and most date from the late seventeenth to the late eighteenth centuries. The stones used are often from a local or regional source and the carving of the letters and any decoration is of high quality and a readily visible demonstration of the letter cutter’s art. A family group of ledgerstones may well be their only visible memorial, if their house has disappeared.’

In the years of re-development after the 1890 photograph was taken, over 900 ledgerstones, mostly from the 17th-18th centuries, were destroyed and/or ‘re-purposed’. The 17th-century tomb pictured in the centre of the photograph is long gone. Commonly, ledgerstones would be broken up and used as hardcore for new building work or could be upturned (inscription side down) and used as paving.

(The tomb with railings belongs to eccentric former canon, Cecil Wray (d. 1866), in whose name the Cathedral runs its annual sock appeal. Although less visible now – enveloped by the extension that houses the main cathedral offices – the tomb survives in situ, the only monument to have come through the 19th-century works unscathed).

Since so little of pre-industrial Manchester’s tangible heritage remains in the city centre (the Cathedral and Chetham’s Library being the major exceptions) and because so many of the monuments that do survive (here and elsewhere) tend to memorialise the great and good (and the sometimes-not-so-good), it seems a shame to have lost these memorials to relatively ordinary 17th– and 18th-century Mancunians.

Yet even had the ledgerstones been left, their exposure to centuries of Mancunian rainfall and footfall would probably have obliterated their inscriptions by now; even words written in stone will naturally fade away.

Interior stones have survived, and some were uncovered inside the Cathedral during the excavations for the installation of new underfloor heating in 2013. Others remained at floor level and are thus very well preserved; these can be seen in the Jesus Chapel, typically with kneelers plonked on top, as pictured.

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A few can still be found outside, in the relative shelter of the grassy north bank opposite Chetham’s Library.

But you can also spot some of the broken fragments in the paving around the area, where they have been laid inscription-side up:

On Victoria Street, closer to Chetham’s, one of the ledgerstone fragments is embedded in the paving, with the barely legible words, ‘Here lyeth the body […]’. (The right-hand photo – you might have to take my word for it). Outside the Cathedral’s south wall, opposite the Cathedral Visitor Centre, there is another fragment which reads ‘[…]ppleton 1771’. Eventually these tiny bits of local history, almost-already gone, will also disappear; either as the paving is taken up in future redevelopments or as the stone changes with time.

The fortuitous twist in the tale is the presence of a slim, hardbound book in the Cathedral’s archives, and an accompanying plan, describing exactly where each of the external ledgerstones was originally laid, with their inscriptions.

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(All of the images from the archives are my own. In case you’re wondering, my job doesn’t usually involve spending time in the muniments room except on special occasions -and then I make the most of it! I was searching for evidence of Canon Cecil Wray’s tomb having been moved in the past, on behalf of one of our project teams. As above, I decided that it hasn’t).

Although the details of typeface and scale are not preserved, the copyist mimics the layout of the inscriptions and occasionally includes very neat depictions of the modest decorations featured on some of the stones, or their form.

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The heart design, with the initials of the person buried, was presumably much like the decoration here:

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The ledgerstones sometimes mention professions, as well as the usual details of age and place, making the record another illuminating resource for the social history of the city, as depicted in the Cathedral’s parish records (possibly the largest in the UK for a single parish, running continuously from 1573 to the present day and encompassing the population boom of the Industrial Revolution – and the Cathedral’s era of ‘mass weddings’).

One of the inscriptions is for Mary, wife of John Beard ‘Parish Clerk’, with the wonderful parting line, ‘Reader – Prepare to meet thy God’. A rather gratuitous memento mori for a gravestone, but not an uncommon choice.

The record was made the City Surveyor in 1895, just five years after the early photograph above was taken, during the Champneys phase of re-development and when the dismantling of the churchyard was imminent. The meticulous written record seems an odd contrast with the destruction of the objects themselves, but indicates the degree of importance attributed to the ledgerstones at the time. What is also clear is that the physical items were not considered as significant as the words they contained – the words are the memorial. They do need a medium, though, and as it turned out, the ink-and-parchment was to outlive what had been set in stone.

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Author: gtimperley

PhD University of Manchester researching disinheritance and heirs (unknown heirs / illegitimacy) in Middle English romance. Working for Chetham's Library & Dimensions. Personal site.

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