FACT SHEET 13
Pented timber crosses and cast iron crosses
Graves of Cowley Fathers, now replaced
by a stone celtic Cross
A characteristic feature of the gravemarkers in the churchyard is the pented (roofed) timber crosses, dating from the 1890s to the 1930s. They are constructed of oak, each has a roof (cap), originally covered with lead, which extends beyond the arms, and some have an inscription such as Jesu Mercy carved on the cross bar. Two have a small moulded metal crucifix and there is evidence that others did also. Many are badly decayed and some have collapsed completely.
A number of explanations for their relatively high number have been put forward:
- Timber was less expensive than the stone used for many of the memorials.
- There was a simplicity about a timber cross that made it the preferred gravemarker for the graves of members of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist (see fact sheet 6 Religious Orders). Maybe this encouraged the association of pented timber crosses with the Anglo-Catholic tradition within the Church of England.
- Wood decays at a similar rate to the human body, making it a suitable material for marking a grave.
Despite the third suggestion, since the crosses have clearly been a feature of the Ss Mary & John churchyard but are now in a very dilapidated state, it was decided to commission a series of repairs and replacements that would preserve a representative sample of the timber cross types. This has been undertaken by Paul Simons of McCurdy & Co., historic timber consultants and conservators, who began the restoration work by surveying the existing timber crosses and the surviving plinth stones where the cross itself has disappeared. He also removed two of the broken crosses to their workshops in order to study them in detail.
These broken crosses represented the two most prevalent designs, one referred to as 'Complex' due to the nature of the mouldings on the two sloping capping pieces and on the plinth of the upright post. The other is referred to as 'Simple' because it has plain mouldings and detail. Some, but not all, of both types carry a carved inscription. Two McCurdy trainees, David Fortey and Peter Surrey, produced measured survey drawings showing the condition of each and also workshop drawings that would assist the repair and replication work (see timber cross drawings)
The restoration work has resulted in one completely new cross of each type, three repaired complex crosses, two new 'markers' (upright posts only) of each type to mark graves where the plinth stone still survives but where the timber is very decayed or missing, and two repaired crosses from the 1930s which were rotting badly having been fixed directly into the ground. One grave had the remains of a complete timber surround and this has been replaced in new timber. A number of minor repairs have been carried out to wedge decaying bases or provide sacrificial cappings. This is well illustrated in the 'before' and 'after' photos, but what is even more important is the impact on the overall character of the churchyard and its power to convey something of the history of east Oxford and its people.
Albert Yates memorial
There are also a few gravemarkers in cast iron, of the circle cross type (a collection of photos of cast iron gravemarkers is on the Churchmouse Website, now kept as a memorial to its founder, Peter Fairweather, who died in 2006). Peter Fairweather reckoned that the significance of the cast iron crosses was:
- They were cheap.
- They could be ordered by mail order and delivered by Rail.
- The churchwarden could order one for you.
- They could be ordered complete with inscription or plain for painting details on.
- They have lasted the ravages of time.
The last is not wholly true: the ones in Ss Mary & John churchyard are very rusty.
One that is definitely not covered by the generalisations, and that has been expertly restored, is a memorial (B155) to Albert Yates, who died in1899. It is set at the foot of the family grave in which he is buried, and includes the inscription 'erected as a mark of respect by his fellow workmen'. This suggests that he was himself a blacksmith, probably working in the neighbourhood.