The Hidden History of Shrunken Heads (Tsantsas)



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The hidden history of shrunken heads 

Across Europe and America, if you visit a museum with an Ethnography section, you may come across a display of shrunken heads, or Tsantsas, from South America. The heads are no larger than a man’s fist, with lips and eyes stitched up, threads hanging from them, and framed by long black hair. If you haven’t seen one in a museum, then you’ve likely seen one depicted in popular culture, the movies Beetlejuice and more recently Harry Potter both feature shrunken heads in a horror/comedy setting. 

But how did shrunken heads from the Amazon basin find their way into the museums and collections of Britain, Europe and the USA and how did interaction with western societies influence and change this indigenous tradition? 

Who made them? 

Tsantsas were created by the Shuar, Achuar, Awajun/Aguaruna, Wampis/Huambisa, Candoshi-Shampra, who are now collectively known as SAAWC. Europeans historically referred to this group of peoples as Jivaro, however, this became synonymous with being uncivilized or savage, so is considered offensive in Ecuador [1].  

These groups lived in the Amazon, in small villages often based on family groups. They subsisted primarily from hunting, fishing, raising pigs and gardening. They also traded with other indigenous groups, and later with European settlers.  

The Shuar’s primary claim to fame is that they successfully thew off the yoke of the Spanish Conquistadors in 1599, earning themselves a legendary reputation for fierceness and independence. This love of independence is reflected in the structure of their society, which was based on family groups and existed without any centralised authority [2]. 

Family group c1901. Smithsonian Institution. Bureau of American Ethnology, No restrictions, via Wikimedia Commons

More than just a war trophy 

It is fair to say that even now the popular view in the West is that all headhunting cultures took heads as war trophies. And while some did, this is a reductive view, for the SAAWC peoples the head of an enemy killed in combat was much more than simply a brutal material symbol of victory. The power of Tsantsas came from harnessing the power imbued in them from the dead man’s soul for the benefit of the warrior’s family. The process of obtaining and preparing a Tsantsa was complex, time consuming and resource intensive, it was also fraught with danger. This meant that the practice of headhunting was not taken lightly, nor one practiced frequently by SAAWC peoples.  

SAAWC peoples believed that the soul of a man was made up of separate components the Arutam and the Muisak. The Arutam was the soul-power, the spirit, power, and knowledge of the man. A man became Kakaram through killing and this strengthened his Arutam, this power was obtained through raids on other tribes to obtain Tsantsas. So, the best Tsantsas, the most powerful, came from a man who had killed a lot of people and therefore had strong Arutam. However, taking the head of such a man (and it invariably was a man, as a woman was not thought to be possessed of a strong Arutam), a powerful enemy warrior, possessed of such power, required careful rituals, or else his Muisak, his avenging soul which came into being at the point of death, could wreak havoc on his killer [3] [4].

Objets dAmazonie (réserves visitables du musée national dethnologie).  Dalbera from Paris, France, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

How were they made? 

The skills involved would be passed down from father to son [5]. The process was both practical and ritual. To ensure the head could be transported away from the enemy village quickly, the skull, brains, muscle were removed, making it lighter to carry. This skin ‘bag’ was then filled with hot sand and pebbles repeatedly until it shrunk to the size of a man’s fist [6]. Shrinking the head was the beginning of the ritual process of trapping power in the artefact.  

A series of rituals and feasts were held, the first of which was a binding ritual. It was crucial to trap the Muisak in the head before it could escape and seek revenge. The Muisak would try and escape through the mouth, so it was vital to sew up the lips of the decapitated head quickly. Similarly, eyes were sewn shut to prevent it from seeing, and the skin was blackened with charcoal [7] [8]. Once the Muisak was trapped, the owner could begin to use the soul- power of the Tsantsa, and transfer it to others, through a series of ritual feasts.  

The feasts could take place over several years, this allowed the owner and his family to grow enough food to feed the many guests that would be expected to attend. The purpose of the feasts was to harness the power of the individual warrior’s Arutam (his skills and knowledge} and pass them on to the women of the owner’s family, so that they would be more productive. The final ritual would expel the Muisak from the head, rendering the physical head less valuable to the village. Sometimes the warrior would keep the head, but more often than not the head, once divested of its spiritual power, would be discarded, or traded away [9]. As the whole ritual process associated with creating and utilising a Tsantsa was a lengthy one, and required extensive resources, it was not done often. 

The Shuar themselves have emphasised that it is not the head per se that interests them [10], it was the soul-power of the warrior, which was contained in the decapitated head, that was their object in creating Tsantsas. However, by the end of the nineteenth and early twentieth century the production of tsantsas escalated rapidly. Now women, even children might find themselves targets of head-hunting raids.  

So, how, and why did this tradition change? 

Guns for heads 

In the late nineteenth century, Europeans began to encroach on Shuar lands in search of rubber and cinchona bark, which was used to make Quinine, and this led to more interactions between the Shuar and neighbouring tribes and westerners. Quickly trade began between the groups, the Shuar providing settlers with much needed pigs, deer, salt and occasional Tsantsas, in return for cloth, machetes and guns. The dynamic changed when the settlers began raising their own livestock, the Shuar still wished to trade for goods such as machetes and guns, which made their lives easier, (they did not make their own metal) but the only thing the settlers wanted now was Tsantsas [11][12]. 

Webley & Scott Mk VI. Caliber .455 Collection Paul Regnier, Lausanne, Switzerland. Photograph by Rama, Wikimedia Commons, Cc-by-sa-2.0-fr, CC BY-SA 2.0 fr,

A trade had rapidly grown up around Tsantsas with North American and European Museums, collectors, and souvenir hunters all eager to snap up these curious tribal artefacts. Because the numbers of Tsantsas produced for ritual purposes was so limited, demand soon outstripped supply.  

To meet this demand for Tsantsas, the Shuar and other tribes, massively increase in head-hunting raids, often using the guns they so keenly traded for. Raids involved hundreds of people, and now encompassed the murder of women and even children, who would not have previously been victims as their soul-power was considered lesser than a man’s. Frances Larson notes that the going rate for one gun was one Tsantsa, and commented that the Tsantsas on display in museums show more of the history of “white man’s gun” as an economic incentive for the Shuar to kill [13]. Tsantsas produced for trade would not be ritual Tsantsas, they were produced specifically for the open market.  

This trade in tribal curios led to many fake shrunken heads being created, with some reports of the bodies of the poor-dead in morgues being used to create Tstantsas, along with the heads of countless monkeys and sloths [14]. Some of these fakes even ended up in distinguished museums in North America and Europe.  Charlie Morgan of the Wellcome Collection, estimates that up to 80% of Tsantsas on display could in fact be fakes [15].

The Holy Grail of Ethnography 

From the enlightenment onwards western society has been obsessed with cataloguing everything, from plants and animals to humans. However, in the nineteenth century this drive to understand the world soon became a tool for justifying an ethnocentric world view. The gap created by the end of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in the early nineteenth century, was filled the European Imperial Project. Imperialism often wore a paternalistic face, civilised western nations claimed to be improving the lives of less advanced races who were unable to govern themselves.  

Wellcome Historical Medical Museum, shrunken heads (pre-1946). Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

This Imperialist project was quick to co-opt science to support colonialist expansion. In a similar way that the pseudo-science of phrenology began as a genuine endeavour to understand how the brain worked but ended up being used to justify eugenics and racism, so ethnographic hierarchies of people (with white Europeans at top of the evolutionary tree, and brown and black races at the bottom) were used to promote a race theory which justified the ‘superior’ races colonising less civilised races. The fall-out from this is still being felt today. 

The position of Shuar peoples, never having been colonised meant they fell into that Holy Grail of Victorian Ethnography: the untouched tribe. A tribe in need of being studied and civilised.  

Education, entertainment, exploitation 

In the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, Human Zoos or ‘ethnological expositions were extremely popular. These exhibits would have people from traditional societies displayed in a ‘natural setting,’ ostensibly for the education of Western spectators, but in reality, as a way contrasting ‘primitive’ peoples and societies unfavourably to the more advanced nations of the West [16].  

By Henri Sicard and Farradesche Lithographers – Jardin zoologique d’acclimatation, Public Domain,

People are still drawn to the exotic and the ‘other.’  Museum visitors today, when faced with Tsantsas, often experience a sense of horror and an underlying feeling of cultural superiority, in that the viewer, is perhaps grateful that they do not belong to a culture that could produce such unnerving artefacts, that they themselves live in a ‘civilized’ culture where these things do not happen [17].  

A review by Peter Gordon in 2003, reinforced this view as he found that visitors to the Pitt Rivers Museum often viewed the Shrunken heads for entertainment purposes, using words like ‘gruesome’ ‘barbaric’ and evoked ‘a freakshow element’ [18]. This led the museum to re-evaluate their display and whether it was achieving its intended aims to teach visitors about how other cultures treated their dead enemies. 

This is in part because Tsantsas have come to represent an entire culture, this is all many people will ever know of the SAAWC peoples. Head-hunters have become synonymous with primitive and savage practices that the march of human progress has suppressed. However, this is a distortion of the rich symbolic meaning behind these sacred ritual objects. 

Should the Tsantsas head home? 

At a time when museums are being challenged to de-colonise their collections and address their imperial past, the history of the trade in shrunken heads is a timely reminder of the impact European colonisation had on the indigenous cultures they encountered.  

Greater involvement and dialogue with indigenous cultures whose artefacts, particularly those that constitute human remains, are in western museums has changed the landscape of many museums. Museums, such as the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, have now removed their displays of Tsantsas, and have reconsidered how they present information about indigenous cultures.  This moved has been a polarising one, with some people welcoming the change and others against it.

The debate over the role of Western museums in curating artefacts from the colonial past, especially human remains, is a highly fraught area, with excellent arguments on both sides. There is a vocal lobby for the for the role of museums as conservators of our shared past, and educators, and equally strong lobby against that, and that the views of other cultures and their struggle to regain control over their own identities and heritage should take precedence.  And of course there is also the problem of identifying real Tsantsas from the many historic fakes on display.

The issues of repatriation of cultural objects is a very controversial area, with genuine fears of great museum collections being broken up and lost forever. Use of modern technologies, such as digitised collections, contextualisation of collections and most importantly, involvement from colonised cultures could be one way to build a bridge between the rights of those cultures that were colonised alongside the valuable role of museums to protect and educate using artefacts from our shared past. I suspect this is an argument that will continue for many years to come, and may never have an outcome that will please everyone.

The last word 

But what of the people whose ancestors made these artefacts, what are their views? Currently SAAWC peoples are engaged in a political and cultural fight for survival against the pressures of mining and the oil industry, sacred objects created by their ancestors, are potent symbol of cultural unity, and many now want them returned.  Federación Interprovincial de Centros Shuar-Achuar now represent the interests of the SAAWC peoples.

The last word should go to Shuar themselves, Indigenous leaders Miguel Puwainchir and Felipe Tsenkush:

“Our ancestors handed over these sacred objects without full realising the implications” [19]

“We don’t want to be thought of as dead people to be exhibited in a museum, described in a book, or recorded on film.” [20]

I would love to hear your views on this topic.  

Modern Shuar dance in Logroño, Ecuador. IJlh249, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons


My primary inspiration for writing this article was the chapter on Tsantsas in Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Found, by Frances Larson, a fabulously witty, erudite, and thought provoking book.

Byron, C.D., Kiefer, A.M., Thomas, J. et al. The authentication and repatriation of a ceremonial tsantsa to its country of origin (Ecuador). Herit Sci 9, 50 (2021).

Harner, J, The Jivaro: People of the Sacred Waterfalls, 1984

Houlton,Tobias M.R.and Wilkinson, Caroline M., Recently identified features that help to distinguish ceremonial tsantsa from commercial shrunken heads – ScienceDirect

Larson, Frances, Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found, 2015

McGreevy, Nora, Oxford Museum Permanently Removes Controversial Display of Shrunken Heads | Smart News | Smithsonian Magazine

Morgan, Charlie, Shrunken Heads Real and Fake, Wellcome Collection Blog, 27 June 2014

Peers, Laura, Shrunken Heads, (Pitt Rivers Museum publication)

Rubenstein, Steven Lee, Circulation, Accumulation, and the Power of Shuar Shrunken Heads in Cultural Anthropology Vol. 22, No. 3 (Aug., 2007), pp. 357-399 (43 pages)

shrunken « Bizzarro Bazar

Shrunken heads | Pitt Rivers Museum (

The Pitt Rivers Museum and its Shrunken Heads – Sang Bleu

Wikipedia, Shuar

Wikipedia, Human Zoo


[1] Shuar

[2] The Jivaro: People of the Sacred Waterfalls

[3] ibid

[4] ibid

[5] Oxford Museum Permanently Removes Controversial Display of Shrunken Heads

[6] Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found

[7] Shrunken Heads

[8] Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found

[9] ibid

[10] Shuar, Wikipedia

[11] Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found

[12] Shrunken Heads

[13] Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found

[14] ibid

[15] Shrunken heads real and fake

[16] Human Zoo

[17] Shrunken Heads

[18] ibid

[19] Oxford Museum Permanently Removes Controversial Display of Shrunken Heads

[20] The authentication and repatriation of a ceremonial tsantsa to its country of origin (Ecuador)

Spooky Christmas Collaboration with Voices from the North East podcast


Wishing all of the readers of the Haunted Palace Blog a happy holidays, however you celebrate them. If you’re taking it easy this Boxing Day, following a day of over-indulging in festive cheer, why not relax to a spooky tale for Christmas. I’ve been collaborating with Paul from the excellent Voices from the North East podcast again. This time I’m talking about the Legend of the Alnwick Vampire, vampire lore and medieval revenants. And for anyone who listened in to The Wallsend Witches, you’ll be glad to hear I’ve invested in a better mic for this episode!!

Voices from the North East podcast is available free on , spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.


Wood-Wives, the Quarry of the Wild Huntsman



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Wood-wives, Protectors of the Forest

The Dryad By Evelyn De Morgan - 
Public Domain
The Dryad By Evelyn De Morgan –
Public Domain

The wood-wives of folklore are known by many different names depending on the popular local tradition; green woman, skoggra, skogsfru – wood-wife, wish wife, wood maid and wood women. They were believed to fall into the same fairy folk class as elves, dwarves and spirits and to dwell deep in the heart of the ancient forests[1]. They seem to have had a similar role to the dryads of ancient Greek myths, in that their lives were intertwined with the health of the forest. It was said that if the stem of a young tree was twisted until the bark was ripped off a wood-wife would die[2].

As with their name their appearance can change according to which tradition you are reading. In German folklore, the wood-wives are described as beautiful tiny creatures, with pale skin and long flowing gowns of green, red and blue. The appearance of the wood-wife bears close semblance to descriptions given of a female spirit which was believed to haunt the woods and forests of Sweden; the Skogsra. The Skogsra was also of a diminutive stature, beautiful dressed and friendly except towards hunters who regarded a meeting with the Skogsra as bad luck[3]. This is probably down to the fact that in place of fingernails she had claws and disliked hunters in her forest. The only way to placate her was to give her a portion of their catch or kill.

The wood-wives were mainly associated with Southern Germany and it was believed that prior to the introduction of Christianity, they were attendees at the court of the old gods, whose thrones were held between the branches of the trees.

It was said that wood-wives would often be attracted to the smell of baking coming from the houses in and around the forest. They would approach and ask for a cake to be baked for them. Sometimes they would appear with a tiny broken wheelbarrow which they would ask to be fixed. On other occasions, a wood-wife would emerge from deep within the dense forest to eat from the woodcutters’ cooking pot[4]. If met with welcome, she would leave wood chips in payment which would eventually turn into gold coins. These coins would stay in their gold form as long as their source was never revealed[5].

Moss People

There is another group of fairy folk which are often confused with wood-wives: these are the moss people. In many ways their behaviour is very similar to the wood-wives, especially in regards to their connection to the forest. The major difference, as you can imagine from their name, is their appearance, in which they more resemble dwarves. They are also known as wild-folk or forest-folk or in reference to the young females of their race, wood-maidens. In some stories they are portrayed as small, about the size of young child and as “grey and old-looking, with their bodies hideously overgrown with moss, giving them a hairy appearance“[8] and in others as tiny moss-covered creatures, with small wings on their backs. The females are said to wear cocked hats and dresses of green, faced with red[9].

A vivid description can be found in the poem or song The Moss Woman and the Widow in The Fairy Family[10], a collection of German folkloric ballads.

‘A moss-woman I’ the hay-makers cry.
And over the fields in terror they fly.
She is loosely clad from neck to foot.
In a mantle of Moss from the Maple’s root
And like Lichen grey on its stem that grows
Is the hair that over her mantle flows.
Her skin, like the Maple-rind, is hard,
Brown and ridgy, and furrowed and scarred;
And each feature flat, like the bark we see,
Where a bough has been lopped from the bole of a tree,
When the newer bark has crept healingly round,
And laps o’er the edge of the open wound;
Her knotty, root-like feet are bare,
And her height is an ell from heel to hair.

Gnome By Carl Spitzweg 
Public Domain
Gnome By Carl Spitzweg
Public Domain

As with their wood-wife cousins, the moss people would often approach humans for assistance. They might ask for human breast milk for their young or to borrow items but would always leave generous gifts or impart helpful advice in return, getting extremely angry if their gift is refused[11]. They seem to have developed a reputation as healers, tending to sick animals and were also known for helping humans with their tasks for which they were given some form of payment in the shape of a bowl of porridge or bread, but only plain bread. They seem to have had a particular loathing for caraway bread. The leaving of caraway bread would infuriate the moss people who would complain bitterly, “caraway bread, our death” [12]. Confusingly enough they were seen as being responsible for causing plagues whilst also helping people find medicinal herbs to heal the sick during times of extreme suffering.

Their fickleness of behaviour is common to most tales of fairy folk. This duality can be compared to the power of nature, which is sometimes benevolent and sometimes destructive.

Germanic folklore also refers to a certain type of wood-wife known as a Dirne-weibl who lived in the forests of Bavaria. She was usually dressed in white but in one forest was said to wear a red gown and walk the forest carrying a basket of apples which she happily gives away and which if taken, turns to gold. She will often ask that person to accompany her and if she is refused, she returns to the wood weeping. It seems that wood-wives spend a good part of their lives crying, so much so that the phrase ‘you cry like a wood-wife’ became a common saying in Germany. Often used as a rebuke to a anyone who became upset over nothing[6]. Jacob Grim wrote a great deal about fairy folk and included a story about how when he had lost his way, he was helped by a wood-wife who he had discovered wailing beside a stream. [7].


Unfortunately, the lives of both the wood-wives and the moss people could be far from pleasant. There is a German superstition that on Ash Wednesday the Devil hunts wood-wives for sport[13] but it is the Wild Huntsman who is their true enemy. For some reason they seem to have incurred his wrath. The wood-wives could save themselves from the Wild Huntsman if they could find a tree with a cross cut into it. They would then be able to dive into the centre of the tree and sit there secure and safe until the hunt was over. There is evidence that woodcutters in Germany at one time, would also cut three crosses into the bark of felled trees in order to aid the little wood-wives of whom they were fond of. There is one rather gruesome tale of a man who had joined the Wild Hunt and as a reward had found a quarter of a wood-wife hanging on his stable door. [14].

Another story very similar to that of the Wild Huntsman relates to a different spectral hunter known as the Grönjette. He hunted in the wood of Grünewald on the island of Möen and also specialised in tracking and killing wood-wives. A story is told of him having been seen with a dead wood-wife hanging over his horse, to which enquiring look he replied, “Seven years I had chased her, now in Falster, I have slain her” [15].

The Wild Hunt by Peter Nicolai Arbo - Nasjonalmuseet
Public Domain
The Wild Hunt by Peter Nicolai Arbo – Nasjonalmuseet
Public Domain

The Fury of the Wild Hunt

The question then arises, who is this Wild Huntsman who brims with hatred and desires the blood of little fairy folk. The Wild Hunt was first written about by the German folklorist Jacob Grim. In Germany the Wild Hunt is also called the Wild Army or Furious Army. Grim wrote that Wodan, the god of the wind and the dead had originally been credited as the leader of the Wild Hunt. He believed that under the ancient gods the hunt had been viewed by mortals as an act of benevolence on the part of their deities seeking to reward their devotions and accepting their offerings. It was only with the rise of Christianity which aimed to overthrow and disparage any pagan practices which obstructed the control of the Church that the hunt changed from that of a “solemn march of the gods” to being “a pack of horrid spectres dashed with dark and devilish ingredients” [16] and with it Wodan, “lost his sociable character, his near familiar features and assumed the aspect of a dark and dreadful power…a spectre and a devil.” [17].

The association of the hunt with ancient gods survived longer in the Scandinavian countries where the Viking traditions were deeply rooted in its people’s consciousness, here Odin is given the title of Wild Huntsman.

In Germany where the legend of the Wild Hunt was popularised, there are many variations in the folkloric tale of the Hunt and its origins. Here the Wild Huntsman was sometimes referred to as either Wodan; as entities based on the Germanic goddess Freya or Frigg or as undead nobles[18] whose irreligious deeds in life together with their fanatical love of hunting condemned them to hunt forever as souls transformed into demonic spectres.

Cursed By Heaven

In Southern Germany, the main realm of the wood-wives, one of the most popular tales tells of how in 1521, the Chief Master of the Hounds to the Duke of Brunswick, Hans von Hackelnberg lying on his death bed refused to listen to the parson’s speech regarding his entry to heaven. Hackelnberg scoffed and replied “The Lord may keep His Heaven, so he leave me my hunting”. To which the frustrated parson answered “Hunt then to the day of judgement”. Doomed to lead a never-ending hunt in the forests of Lower Saxony, he is accompanied by a night owl which locals called Tutosel. Tutosel was believed to have been a nun who after her death for some reason decided to join Hackelnberg on his infernal rampage. His approach is heralded by the baying of hounds and the sounds of carriages and horses[19].

The Owls by Hannes Bok, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The Owls by Hannes Bok, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Another Huntsman’s legend from Saxony concerns a rich and powerful prince who loved hunting beyond all things and punished severely anyone who broke his forest rules. A boy who had taken a piece of bark from one of the trees to make a whistle was on the prince’s orders killed and his entrails wrapped around the tree. On another occasion he had a peasant fastened to a stag that the man had shot at. This cruel prince was finally killed when he broke his neck riding into a beech tree. Now cursed, he can never stop hunting. He has been seen wearing armour, riding a white horse, cracking his whip and followed by a swarm of hounds. His war cry of “Wod, wod, hoho, hallo I” strikes fear into the hearts of all who hear him. He is said to hunt all manner of beasts and humans including witches, thieves, robbers and murderers[20].

Sometimes the Wild Huntsman would stop and speak with passers-by. In one tale, Eberhart, the Count of Wurtenberg heard the sound of the ghastly hunt approach. He then meets the demonic Wild Huntsman who tells him how he came to be damned. He hears how the Huntsman when alive could never satiate his lust for hunting and prayed that when he died, he would be allowed to hunt until the Day of Judgement. His prayer was granted but as with all such wishes that go against the natural order of things, it came at a price and for nearly 500 years, he has been hunting a stag that he can never overtake. Eberhart said that the Huntsman’s face was as “wrinkled as a sponge” [21].

Wood-wives versus The Huntsman

Fairy by Sophie Gengembre Anderson - Art Renewal Center, Public Domain
Fairy by Sophie Gengembre Anderson – Art Renewal Center, Public Domain

There are many such tales about the Huntsman and his Hunt, his origins and the people that crossed his path. Sometimes the encounter ended well and on occasion through either luck or shrewdness they would be rewarded with gold and silver. Sadly, in many cases, they were not so fortunate[22]. The same can be said for the unlucky wood-wives that were unable to reach the safety of a cross engraved tree. Maybe the reason for this antagonism was that they stood for polar opposites beliefs. The wood-wives protected the forest; the animals and the trees. There are even stories of huntsmen found with their throats cut, a gruesome act which was attributed to the anger of the wood-wives towards those who threatened the balance of nature[23]. At the other extreme the Wild Huntsman epitomised the power and the unremitting fury of the hunt and the bloodthirsty need to destroy.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Encyclopaedia of giants and humanoids in myth, legend and folklore, Theresa Bane, 2016

Beware the Vengeful Wood-wives,

Moss People,

The Forest in Folklore and Mythology, Alexander Porteous, 2002 (originally published in 1928)

Teutonic Mythology, Jacob Grim, 2010 (originally published in 1835)

Wild Huntsman Legends, ed. D.L. Ashliman,

The Wild Hunt,

Spirits of the Forest: The Moss People,

Wild Hunt,

Dreamtime: Concerning the Boundary between Wilderness and Civilisation, Hans Peter Duerr, 1985

The Wild Hunt and the Witches’ Sabbath, R.E. Hutton, 2014,


[1] The Forest in Folklore and Mythology
[2] Encyclopaedia of giants and humanoids in myth, legend and folklore
[3] The Forest in Folklore and Mythology
[4] ibid
[5] Encyclopaedia of giants and humanoids in myth, legend and folklore
[6] The Forest in Folklore and Mythology
[7] Teutonic Mythology
[8] The Forest in Folklore and Mythology
[9] Encyclopaedia of giants and humanoids in myth, legend and folklore
[10] The Forest in Folklore and Mythology
[11] Spirits of the Forest: The Moss People
[12] Moss People
[13] The Forest in Folklore and Mythology
[14] The Forest in Folklore and Mythology
[15] ibid
[16] Wild Hunt
[17] ibid
[18] ibid
[19] The Forest in Folklore and Mythology
[20] Ibid
[21] ibid
[22] Wild Huntsman Legends
[23] Beware the Vengeful Wood-wives

Halloween news from the Haunted Palace Blog



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Out Now: The Haunted Mirror – Volume 2

Here at the Haunted Palace Blog we’ve been busily preparing for our favourite time of year, Halloween!

The second volume of our Haunted Palace Blog Collection, The Haunted Mirror -Volume 2 is out and is available in paperback and Kindle on Amazon, we’ve also dropped the price of Volume 1, just in case you fancy treating yourself to both volumes.

Cover of The Haunted Mirror volume 2 book

Join us for more dark history and folklore from the Haunted Palace Blog. Discover the tales of rogues and vagabonds, from the romantic to the ruthless, and the downright incompetent. Meet inventors and eccentrics, from the Elizabethan scientist killed by a chicken to the quack doctor who electrified Georgian society with his theories about sex.

Come face to face with vampires, mermaids and pixies and find out what grisly secrets are hidden away in farms and manor houses across England’s green and pleasant land. Rediscover some of history’s forgotten stories, such as the female sheriff of Lincoln who successfully defended a castle against an unrelenting opponent and the mysterious dancing manias that gripped medieval Northern Europe and threw whole communities into turmoil and chaos.

Join us as we explore a past populated by highwaymen, murderers, ghosts and rediscover some of history’s lost souls.

With original art by @igamagination and @chknstyn.

The Haunted Palace Blog Collection available on Amazon now, in paperback and kindle!

A spooky collaboration for Halloween

Voices from the North East Podcast Logo

The Haunted Palace Blog recently had an opportunity to collaborate with the excellent Voices from the North East podcast for one of their two Halloween Specials.

Voices from the North East is a fascinating podcast celebrating and preserving oral social histories from the North East of England. Lenora joined them to chat about the curious tale of the Wallsend Witches and its possible origins and links to the history of witch trials in the North East.

You can find Voices from the North East on or wherever you get your podcasts, and I’ve linked to both episodes pf the Halloween Specials below:

The Wallsend Witches

The mist on Rimside Moor

Halloween pumpkins
Happy Halloween from the Haunted Palace Blog!

The Curious Incident of the Ghost Bear in the Night



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The Tower of London. Photo by Bernard Gagnon, 2007. GNU licence.

The Tower of London is known to be one of the most haunted sites in London. With its grisly past, it is not really surprising that many people have claimed to have seen the traumatized spirits of those who have gasped their last breath behind its grim and imposing walls. Anne Boleyn (with head, not necessarily on her shoulders and without), Margaret Pole, Arabella Stuart, Guy Fawkes, Lady Jane Grey, Sir Walter Raleigh and the two Princes have all been seen at one time or another taking their ghostly constitutionals. There is even a suit of armour, once belonging to Henry VIII, which is believed to be possessed by a malevolent spirit who takes particular pleasure in choking night guards [1]. However, terrifying these experiences would be; crushed by an invisible enemy or watching the figures from your history books come to life (well figuratively at least), nothing would have compared with coming face to face with a ghostly fiend in the shape of an extremely large bear.

A Terrifying Manifestation

On one strange night in 1816, at the same time as Mr George Offer claimed to hear strange noises coming from the Martin Tower, one of the guards on night duty there was alarmed to witness the “figure of a huge bear issuing from underneath the Jewel Room door” [2]. Raising his bayonet to strike the creature, he was horrified to find his weapon went straight through it and lodged in the doorway behind. Scared out of his wits, he collapsed in a fit. On being discovered, all sign of the ghostly grey bear having evaporated, he was carried mumbling to the guard room. On enquiring about the man’s mental state before the incident, Edmund Lenthal Swifte, Keeper of the Crown Jewels was assured that the guard had been perfectly fine and in good spirits. The doctor who had been sent for, dismissed any concerns that the sick man had been drinking on duty, unequivocally stating that he could discern no signs of intoxication. Swifte checking on his guard was shocked to find him “changed almost beyond recognition [3]”. He never fully recovered, only managing to feebly and repeatedly recount what he had seen. He sadly died shortly afterwards. Whatever he had seen had shaken him to the core. It seems very much like he died of fright.

Six bears in an underground cave. Etching by J.E. Ridinger.
Wellcome Collection.

Taking on face value the truth of what happened and ignoring any suspicions of inebriation, what was it that the guard saw? A number of theories have been put forward over the years.

The ‘White Bear’ of the Tower

The Tower of London as well as being a prison for some of the most high-profile prisoners in the country and a safe for the most precious royal jewels, also had for over 600 years another unique function. It was the site of the Royal Menagerie.

Over the years the Royal Menagerie housed a remarkable number of diverse animals, most of which had been gifted to the English Royalty as a token of friendship, loyalty or esteem such as the three leopards and an African Elephant given to Henry III (the first by Frederick II on the occasion of Henry’s wedding to Frederick’s sister, Eleanor of Provence and the second by Louis IX). In the sixteenth century, the menagerie was opened to the eager public. From this period onwards, visitors could gaze in wonder at  lions, tigers, lynxes, porcupines, eagles, tigers, camels, ostriches and even a flying squirrel.

It doesn’t take a lot to imagine that the lives of these animals were dire and many died a miserable and agonising death, such as the ostrich fed iron nails and the Indian elephant given wine instead of water to drink. It was believed water was bad for elephants! How they thought that elephants managed to access alcohol in the jungles of India is anyone’s guess. It is not that they necessarily meant to be cruel but animal welfare was hardly an important topic in a time when human lives mattered so little.

So, back to the bear. In 1251, Henry III was also the recipient of a most unusual prize, a polar bear or ‘white bear’ as it was known then. The bear was a gift from the King of Norway, Haakon the Young. Could it be that this incredible creature had returned from the grave to exact revenge for its poor treatment during its life? Maybe it was angry at the treatment of another bear, Old Martin, which was residing at the Tower at the time. Old Martin had been given to George III by the Hudson’s Bay Company. A present George III was not exactly thrilled with, as he was heard to have commented that he would have much preferred a new tie or socks! [4] Old Martin was believed at the time to be a grizzly bear (later testing revealed he was, in fact, a black bear) and was known for his not so gentle temper “his ferocity; in spite of the length of time during which he has been a prisoner still continues undiminished”. It does seem unlikely that this was the reason behind the apparition as Old Martin was perfectly capable of fighting his own corner without a phantom champion, although, it may explain why the sentry tried to bayonet it, maybe in his confusion he somehow thought Old Martin had escaped.

The Royal Menagerie. Image from University of York.

Animal ghosts are not an unusual occurrence in Britain. Even in the Tower people have attested to hearing the ghostly roar of lions and the sound of hooves pounding the cobbles. There are even other accounts of ghostly bears. For instance, in a house in Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, there were regular reports of a phantom bear stumbling around in a frenzy. This haunting could have its seed in the stories of bears savaged to death in the cruel sport of bear-baiting, popular in the seventeenth century (a bear baiting ring was in operation very near Cheyne Walk). Another theory is that it was the spirit of a black bear belonging to Dante Gabriel Rossetti who lived at number 16 in the 1860s (this bear forming part of his collection of exotic pets) [5].

There is also another spooky tale from Nantwich in Cheshire which tells of how the landlord John Seckerton of the Bear Inn kept four bears as a marketing strategy. Unfortunately, in 1583, the inn caught fire and Seckerton released the bears, in order to save them. Those trying to put out the fire must have had a hell of a time trying to avoid these four frightened animals. I don’t know if they were killed soon after but people have claimed to have seen their spectral forms wandering the streets of Nantwich in a confused and distressed state [6].

So, was it the ghost of a mistreated medieval bear, or was it the manifestation of an even earlier incarnation and one which he had even more reason to harbour resentment against its human nemesis?

A Prehistoric Haunting

Elliott O’Donnell, a well-known expert in hauntings and compiler of ghost sightings refers to the incident at the Tower of London in his book Animal Ghosts: Animal Hauntings and the Hereafter. In it, he puts forward a number of theories including his favourite, that the bear was

“…the phantasm of some prehistoric creature whose bones lie interred beneath the Tower; for we know the valley of Thames was infested with giant reptiles and quadrupeds of all kinds”

Cave Bear skeleton. Photo by Benutzer Ra’Ike. View attribution.

This is just as probable a theory as any other. Before the onset of the Ice Age, brown bears were commonly found throughout Britain including London. These herbivorous, prehistoric cave bears (Ursus Spelaeus) were huge, larger than any bear alive today being five feet tall at the shoulder, nearly 10ft long and weighing 400kg [7]. Their population dwindled during the Stone Age, falling to very low numbers in the Iron Age until they were finally hunted to extinction [8].

Whether or not you believe that it was a primeval creature angry about the demise of its race or the revenge of a former captive making a one-off performance for old times’ sake, the odd feature of this haunting was that it did only happen once, all these other ghostly bear appearances have had more than one encore. Could there be a more sinister reason behind the creature’s manifestation and was it really a bear or simply a spirit in the form of a bear?

The Manifestation of a Vice-Elemental

Another theory put forward by O’Donnell was that the manifestation was that of a vice-elemental. According to him there exists in our world a number of ‘elementals’. They can be helpful and benevolent to humans but in general, most are not. O’Donnell believed that these vice-elementals (often used in occult practices) are always with us, whispering in our ear, trying to persuade us to harm ourselves; mentally, morally and physically.

These sinister supernatural entities can take many shapes including beautiful women and manipulative men as well as the “most terrifying creatures of both man and beast” [9]. Other examples given by O’Donnell are the Gwyllgi of Wales, a Welsh version of Old Shuck (see Hell-hounds, hyter-sprites and god-fearing mermaids) and the Mauthe Dog of Peel Castle, Isle of Man.

Peele Castle, Isle of Man. Public domain.

The legend of the Mauthe Dog although diverging in many ways from the Tower’s ghost-bear definitely had the same fatal outcome for one unlucky soul. The tale goes that in the time of Charles II when the castle was garrisoned, a large black dog appeared suddenly one night. Every evening it would make its way to the guard room and sit down at the hearth, where it would remain until morning when it would vanish. The guards initially frightened by its presence gradually became used to it, although they would always remain sober and were careful never to speak bad words in its hearing. One of the routine duties of the soldiers involved taking the keys to the Captain of the Guard Room after the castle was locked up for the night. The captain’s quarters lay at the end of a dark narrow passage. Ever since the dog’s arrival the guards had preferred to do this walk in pairs, that is until one night when one of them, brave due to drink, bragged that he was unafraid and would go alone. He refused to be dissuaded, challenging the beast with the words “Let him come, I’ll see if he is dog or devil”. As he left, the dog stood up and followed. Five minutes later, the men heard soul-wrenching screams and unnatural howls coming from the passage. Terrified, they found the guard unconscious. Three days later he was dead. He was never able to reveal what he had witnessed. The hound was never seen again [10].

In both the cases of the Mauthe Dog and the Tower Bear, the men saw something that frightened them to death. What it was we will never know. Was it an evil spirit or was it the Devil itself?

The Devil as a Bear

The Devil was believed to have the ability to transform into any creature, his favourite forms seem to have been cats, dogs, wolves and goats. He was also known to on occasion take the form of a bear.

Medieval image, source unknown.

In a pamphlet produced by the Rev. John Davenport in 1646, he includes a morality tale set twenty-four years earlier concerning the ‘witch’ John Winnick. Winnick was angry, he had lost seven shillings and was convinced that a member of his family had stolen his money. In a moment of rage, he declared that he would accept help from anyone even a ‘wizzard’ [sic]. Just then the spirit of a black, shaggy creature appeared before him with the paws of a big bear. The bear-like spirit agreed to help Winnick, if he would in return worship him. Winnick, his greed taking over, assented to this condition and as promised his money was returned. Unfortunately, Winnick had made a terrible mistake. The bear revealed itself to also be Satan in disguise, so not only did Winnick have to bow down to a bear spirit but he had forfeited his soul to the Devil, all for a few coins [11].

So, perhaps the guard in the tower saw the face of the Devil or perhaps not. There is one last theory which if you believe in ghosts might seem the most likely and would link itself to the history of the Tower. This is the idea that the ghost was the spirit of a man or woman who had taken the form of a bear.

 A Phantasm of a Human Being

The history of the Tower is a gruesome one, to put it mildly. Countless numbers of people were imprisoned there. Their suffering would have been immense. Most of them would have been interrogated and many tortured. In a way, worse than the physical abuse would have been the mental agony; not knowing what was happening or if they would ever be released. Often this anguish would last for years. If you believe that ghosts are echoes of the past and that walls of buildings can absorb negative energy than it is perfectly possible to accept that maybe the ghost bear was either a manifestation of this pain or the anger of one particular soul whose nature in life was already hardened and violent or became so during their incarceration. Maybe in death, they associated themselves with the ferocity of the bear and so for one night only, manifested as such.

Hallucination, Demonic Entity or Spirit?

No-one will ever know what the guard really saw if in fact, he saw anything at all. In the end, it doesn’t really matter. The legend of the Tower of London’s ghost-bear will continue to fascinate visitors and locals for years to come, as does the grim beauty of the Tower itself.

A word of warning, if you happen to see a bear-like form start to manifest itself in front of you whilst taking a tour of the Tower…run!

Scooby doo and Shaggy by Scooby Cool at DeviantArt


McCann. Erin, These are the all the ghosts haunting the Tower of London,

Redfern. Nick, The Ghostly Bear-Monster of London, 2017

Underwood. Peter, Haunted London, 2013

Old Martin,

O’Donnell, Elliott, Animal Ghosts: Animal Hauntings and the Hereafter (1913), Reprinted 2012

Briggs. Helen, Lost History of brown bears in Britain revealed,, 2018

Henriques, Martha, The lost beasts that roamed Britain during the Ice Age,, 2015

O’Donnell. Elliott, The Elliott O’Donnell Supernatural Megapack: 8 classic books of the supernatural, E-book Series, 2016

The Myth of the Moddey Dhoo,

Rennison. Nick, The Book of Lists, 2006

Gater. Paul, The Secret Lives of Ghosts, 2013

Miller. Charlotte-Rose, Witchcraft, the Devil and Emotions in Early Modern Britain, 2017

The Tower of London Ghosts: Headless Haunts, Suffocating Sensations and Wandering White Women,

Stuart. Julia, The polar bear who lived at the Tower… along with a grumpy lion and a baboon who threw cannon balls: Britain’s first (and most bizarre) zoo,–grumpy-lion-baboon-threw-cannon-balls-Britains-bizarre-zoo.html, 2010

[1] These are all the ghosts and ghouls haunting the Tower of London
[2] The Ghostly Bear-Monster of London
[3] Ibid
[4] Old Martin
[5] The Book of Lists
[6] The Secret Lives of Ghosts
[7] The lost beasts that roamed Britain during the Ice Age
[8] Lost history of brown bears in Britain revealed
[9] The Elliott O’Donnell Supernatural Megapack: 8 classic books of the supernatural
[10] The Myth of the Moddey Dhoo
[11] Witchcraft, the Devil and Emotions in Early Modern Britain

The Art of the Pickpocket and Cutpurse: Thief-trainers – Part 2


Child criminals. Image courtesy of Dorset History Centre.

Although many children were arrested again and again for stealing, a few were never caught, moving silently amongst crowds like ghosts and melting away into thin air. Those that were trained by a thief trainer possibly had a better chance of survival than those working alone or in small groups, but not by much. Even though the names of fences of goods such as Ikey Solomon and child thieves have come down to us through the public criminal records not many of the thief trainers were ever caught, maybe due to lack or proof or because many members of the gangs were too afraid to rat out their bosses.

Despite the fact that there were lots of thief-trainers both male and female in all the big cities in England most are shadowy nameless figures. Even those that are known such as Thomas Duggin of St Giles and Jemima Matthews of Upper Keate Street in the Flower and Dean Street rookery, who sent eight children out daily to steal in 1820[1], little is known of their background.

Cabbage Ann of Angel Meadow

There are some exceptions for example Cabbage Ann (real name Ann Powell) who lived in the infamous slum of Angel Meadow in Manchester. A widow aged 42, she ran a grocery shop and lodging house and was acquainted with criminals from across England. She was also well-known for regularly giving shelter to thieves. Despite her obvious fishy and underground activities she seems to have been a slippery character. The police to their frustration never seemed to have enough evidence to arrest her.

Angel Meadows slums. Courtesy of Manchester Libraries.

Finally in 1867, she was arrested after a stolen coat belonging to a milkman was found in her cellar. She denied all knowledge and accused 13 year old Michael Crane. Crane admitted to the theft and having left it without permission – whether he was truly responsible or taking the fall for Ann we will never know. To the authorities dismay she was let go but not before the Judge, Mr Fowler issued a damning statement “you are a regular trainer of young thieves – one of the worst women in Manchester – and I will take care to help the police in every possible way to get you transported as soon as possible[2].

Grassing up the Boss

Although as said before most young thieves refused to dob in their leaders, some did – maybe hoping for a reduced sentence. One such case was reported in the Manchester Guardian on 28 May 1821, when a boy arrested on the charge of petty felony led the beadles to the lair of a 50 year old thief-trainer or fence who was with three other boys trying to melt down and disfigure a brass cock. The group was arrested and the man condemned to 14 years transportation[3].

Transportation to Australia. Courtesy of Hall of Names website.

Another famous story of a young thief turning against his master was the case of John Reeves and Charles King.

The Fall of Charles King

Charles King is for me a fascinating character because he managed to successfully work both sides of the law and reap awards – both as a thief-trainer and as a policeman remaining undetected for years.

During the heyday of his shady activities King was employed as a Metropolitan police detective and was considered a worthy man and who regularly received praise from his superiors for his “extraordinary vigilance”. In his other life he visited daily, the Prig’s Haunt in Tyndal’s Building, Gray’s Inn Lane where he would train ‘outcast’ boys to become efficient burglars. He demonstrated how to use various instruments and tools which would help them in their work and taught them how to pickpocket without being noticed. He would swing a coat on a line and get the boys to practice their skills both singly or in twos and threes. Possibly if the boys got out of hand King could punish them by arranging their arrest and conviction as he knew where and when they would be.[4].

Eventually King’s luck ran out when one of his most successful boys, 13 year old John Reeves turned against him. Reeves had been in and out of prison for years. He had started thieving from a young age. His first arrest had been for stealing bread from Newport market for which he was imprisoned for seven days; his other charges included stealing a bunch of cigars and pinching bacon from shops. According to Reeves he started on his career as a pickpocket after his 6th arrest (maybe it was around this time he first met King). Despite being caught numerous times he was considered a successful thief and must have brought King a tidy sum, for instance one week he managed to steal £100 worth of goods. It was even reported that he could afford “to keep a pony and to ride in the parks”[5].

It seems strange that all of a sudden Reeves agreed to testify against King since by his own admission King always watched over and protected him; trying to get him off charges and never giving evidence against him. Maybe Reeves was threatened or promised a lighter sentence (he was at the time serving a two year sentence for theft at Bridewell) or maybe he was just fed up with being controlled by King.

Image Courtesy of

King was arrested and tried on the charge of ‘larceny from a person’ on the 9 April 1855[6]. The account of the proceedings can be read on the Old Bailey online records. The crime had taken place on the 31 December 1853, at the Serpentine where crowds of people had gathered to skate on the frozen lake. He was accused of having planned and orchestrated the theft. Reeves stated that he had known King for three years having first met him in Soho. Their association was confirmed by other witnesses seeing them together at other locations.

Reeves described what happened that day; how he met King at a public house in Pulteney Street, Soho, how they met up with other thieves many of whom he recognised at Hyde Park, how he was instructed to steal from a lady watching the skaters from a bridge, how King removed the money and placed the empty purse in the hollow of a tree and how the money was divided up. He also stated that King tried to obstruct another boy from being arrested by tripping a man up. Unluckily for King, Benjamin Sims, a Park Keeper had noticed King and his group acting shifty around the tree. After the party had moved on he found and handed the purse into the police. Other police on duty also recognised King including Police Sergeant Hubbersley who spoke to him and noticed some boys close by who seemed to be following King’s instructions[7].

At the time of the trial King was 32 and married with four children. He had left the police and was running a coffee shop possibly in Soho where he also lodged. He was arrested on the 3 January 1855, and was taken to Bow Street Station. Based on the evidence he was found guilty and sentenced to 14 years transportation to be served in Western Australia.

So the incredible criminal career of corrupt policeman-cum-thief trainer King came to a sudden end. When the full extent of his crimes was revealed it must have been a shock to many who had worked with him. Their feelings were summed up by a fellow policeman who said that he “had never heard a whisper against his character up to the time this charge was made against him[8].

Concluding Thoughts

Society changed as more people began to campaign to eradicate poverty. The rise of orphanages and free schools together with the razing of slums and their replacement with housing associations such as the Peabody Trust ended much of the need for schools of thievery. Unfortunately, even though the image of a man wearing a long coat with a handkerchief in his pocket teaching urchins to remove it silently is no longer relevant, criminals taking advantage of neglected children and leading them into a life of crime will never disappear completely.

Victorian children. Image courtesy of


Thomson, J & Smith, Adolphe: Victorian London – Publications – Social Investigation/Journalism – Street Life in London, 1877,

Garwood, John: Victorian London – Publications – Social Investigation/Journalism – The Million-Peopled City, 1853,

White, Jerry: London in the Nineteenth Century: ‘a Human Awful Wonder of God’, Bodley Head, 2016

Hindley, Charles (ed.): Curiosities of Street Literature: Comprising ‘Cocks,’ Or ‘Catchpennies’, 2012 (digital version)

Old Bailey Online Records: Charles King,

Mayhew, Henry: The London Underworld in the Victorian Period: Authentic First-person accounts by beggars, thieves and prostitutes, Dover Publications, 2005

Gilfillan, Ross: Crime and Punishment in Victorian London: A Street-Level of the City’s Underworld, 2014

Kirby, Dean: Angel Meadow: Victorian Britain’s Most Savage Slum, Pen & Sword History, 2016

Day, Samuel Phillips: Juvenile Crime: Its Causes, Character, and Cure, (original published in 1858), Sagwan Press, 2018

The Cornhill Magazine, Volume 2; Volume 6, October 1862

Vaughan, Robert: The British Quarterly Review, Volume 35, January and April 1862

Duckworth, Jeannie: Fagin’s Children: Criminal Children in Victorian England, Bloomsbury Academic, 2003


[1] London in the Nineteenth Century: ‘a Human Awful Wonder of God’

[2] Angel Meadow

[3] Fagin’s Children

[4] Curiosities of Street Literature: Comprising ‘Cocks,’ Or ‘Catchpennies’

[5] London in the Nineteenth Century: ‘a Human Awful Wonder of God’

[6] Old Bailey Online Records – full account of the proceedings

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibi

Reading a headstone – popular graveyard symbols and their meanings


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Popular graveyard images explained

This is the companion piece to my stroll through a graveyard post, which covered a very brief history of British cemeteries and headstones. In this post, I’ll be looking at the meaning of some of the common images and symbols that can be found on historic headstones up and down the UK. It’s important to be aware that because the topic of graveyard iconography is so vast, and can vary widely depending upon locality and beliefs, this article is not intended to be comprehensive. Instead I will focus on some popular eighteenth and nineteenth century memorial styles, many of which I have come across during coronavirus inspired rambles around my local area.


Anchors have Christian symbolism as well as a more prosaic meaning denoting sailors or the Royal Navy. In Christian tradition they go back to the catacombs of the early Christians, and were secrete symbols of Christianity, like the fish. Anchors symbolise hope[1]. The example below is from a war grave and denotes a member of the Royal Navy, the other from an earlier grave, possibly of a mariner.


Cemeteries are often filled with sculpted angels casting their benign gaze over the graves of the Victorian departed. There are several popular types of angel with different meanings. Grieving angels drape themselves in mourning over the dismantled altar of life, angels clutching flowers rue the fleeting nature of life, praying angels emphasise religious faith. Other angels are more judgemental – the recording angel with their book and the angel Gabriel with his horn, a sentinel waiting to call the Christian dead to rise of the day of the last judgement. and some angel images are unique, such as in the monument to Mary Nichols in Highgate Cemetery, which depicts an angel sleeping on a bed of clouds.


Arches symbolise victory of life or victory in death [2] or the gateway to heaven [3]. This would send a reassuring message to the mourners as they passed under the grand arched entrance to All Saints Cemetery in Jesmond.

All Saints Cemetery entrance, Jesmond, Newcastle.


Arrows are memento mori, symbolising the dart of death piercing life, and can sometimes be found wielded by skeletons, to drive home the link to mortality. The arrow below is linked with a pick, symbolising mortality, and a knot which was often used to symbolise eternal life.


Books can appear in a variety of forms, open, closed, piled up. They can represent the Bible or word of God, the book of life, learning. A closed book might symbolise a long life, an open or draped book can symbolise a life cut short (4). The example below acts as a Memento Mori, reminding the living that they too will die, and is augmented with a skull and bones rising up through the earth.

Chest tombs

Chest tombs were popular from the seventeenth century, the leger stone on top, with details of the deceased, was raised up on a chest-like structure. The body is not buried in the chest, but beneath the structure. The example below is from St Lawrence’s church, Eyam, Derbyshire, and incorporates the skull and crossbones iconography (the essential remains that Christians believed were required in order to rise on Judgement Day).


Cherubs often symbolise innocence and are popular on the tombs of children. The cherub below left is from Grey Friars Kirkyard, Edinburgh, and rests its elbow on a skull, an obvious symbol of death and mortality. The example on the right, from Jesmond Old Cemetery, Newcastle, the cherub holds arose and flower bud, the rose can symbolise heavenly perfection or mother, while the broken bud could represent the fleeting nature of the young lives commemorated by the monument [5].


Clouds represent the heavens, below, an angel peeks out from behind the clouds, which are pierced by the rays of the sun.

Columns/broken columns

Columns again hark back to a classical tradition. A broken column represents a life cut short, often the head of the family. The example on the left is from Jesmond Old Cemtetery, Newcastle, while the one on the right, with the addition of a wreath for remembrance is from Highgate Cemetery, London.

Coats of arms

Usually designates a family or individual or location. The example below seems to be from a proud Novocastrian, as it was erected in St Andrew’s church in Newcastle and the crest bears some similarity to the coast of arms of Newcastle (three towers), rather than to the family name of the deceased. It also shows a mason’s compass and set square.


The kingdom of heaven.


Doves can be seen flying downwards and upwards, with broken wings and carrying olive branches. Broadly speaking a dove flying up is the soul flying up to heaven, flying down, the holy spirit coming from heaven.

Flying faces

As discussed in my previous post A stroll through a graveyard a flying faces developed out of the Memento Mori image of the flying skull, reminding the living that they too would die. Winged skulls gradually morphed into flying faces during the eighteenth century, representing the soul flying up to heaven. Later the face became cherubic and represented innocence. The Three examples below are, from left to right, from All Saints Churchyard, Newcastle and Holy Trinity, Washington Tyne & Wear.


See world, below.


Hands are popular motifs on headstones and can have a variety of meanings, from the hand of god coming out of the clouds, to the offering of prayers in blessings. Hands can also indicate that the deceased is going to heaven (pointing upwards) or may have died suddenly (pointing downwards). The example below left shows a handshake, which can be between a married couple or fraternal, alternatively, if one hand appears limp, it can indicate God taking the hand of the departed [6]. The example on the right shows a hand with a heart, this can indicate charity and generosity, but it can also indicate the deceased was a member of the Oddfellows fraternity [7].


Hourglasses are memento mori, reminders of mortality and that life on earth passes quickly. They can appear with wings, to symbolise how ‘time flies’ and on their side, to demonstrate how time has stopped for the deceased. Below left, from an eighteenth century headstone from St Andrews, Newcastle, on the right, a more pointed link between the hour glass and mortality, from Holy Trinity, Washington, Tyne and Wear.

Ledger stones

Ledger stones are flat against the ground and often cover family plots, the stones filling up as the graves receive more burials.

Memento Mori Scenes

Many early headstones from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries combine a variety of memento mori images into scenes designed to remind the living of their own mortality and the importance of living a good life in order to go to heaven. The examples below are from various graveyards around Newcastle and show that some masons had seemed to have a particular flair for the macabre!


Obelisks are an ancient Egyptian symbol that represented life and health, and/or a ray of the sun. When Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, Europe was gripped by a passion for all things Egyptian. Obelisks became popular as funerary monuments, particularly in the Victorian era. On the left, obelisks in an overgrown patch of St Peters, Wallsend, and on the right, from Jesmond Old Cemetery, Newcastle.


Many headstones list the occupation of the deceased, but some go further, below left is an example of an artist’s paint palette and to the right, a classical scene depicting a physician, naturally enough, on the side of the monument to a doctor.


Funerary portraiture can be found on monuments and tombs from ancient times and isn’t always restricted to those of historical importance or aristocratic lineage. In the Victorian period, photography became more widespread and trends such as post mortem photography were embraced, photographs can even found on some headstones from the period. Preston Cemetery in North Shields has a rare surviving example, I viewed it once many years ago, but I’ve not been able to locate it since.

The example below left, is that of Dr James Milne at St Peter’s churchyard Wallsend (the above classical scene is also from his monument) a man well respected locally, the monument was erected by his friends. The other example shows renowned renaissance humanist scholar, and one-time tutor to Mary Queen of Scots, George Buchanan, and can be found in Grey Friars Kirkyard, Edinburgh.


Memento mori symbols, carried by Death or the grim reaper, symbolising the cutting off of life. The example below, from Grey Friars Kirkyard incorporates the hourglass to emphasise the fleetingness of time.

Sexton’s tools

Sexton’s are the church officials who look after the churchyard and dig graves. Their tools can appear on gravestones as an indication of their occupation, or more generally as a symbol of mortality. This example is from the Covenanters Prison, in Grey Friars Kirkyard, Edinburgh.


Shells can be used as a decorative motif, but also have a Christian origin, in particular scallop shells are associated with pilgrimages (still popular today on the Camino Trail). After the Jacobite rebellions in the eighteenth century, they could also be a political gesture, indicating allegiance with the king over the water. The example below is from the seventeenth century mausoleum of the infamous Bloody Mackenzie in Grey Friars Kirkyard.


Whether winged or floating above cross bones, skulls represent mortality and act as Memento Mori. Trevor Yorke notes that from the medieval period onwards, it was believed that the skull and crossbones were the bare minimum bodily parts required to ensure resurrection on the day of judgement.


Originally an ancient Egyptian symbol for health that entered the western tradition via the Greek Ouroboros, a snake swallowing it’s own tail, symbolises eternal life. This example is from All Saints Cemetery, Jesmond, Newcastle.

Here the Ouroboros symbol for eternal life is coupled with the scythe symbolic of death.

Square and compass (Masonic/Freemasons)

The square and compass is a found on the funerary monuments of members of the Freemasons, often accompanied by a ‘G’ representing God and Geometry. The Square and compass are a reminder to Freemasons to keep their actions within the tenets of Freemasonry [8].

Table tombs

Table tombs have the ledger stone on top, supported by legs and forming a table structure. The burial is beneath. The examples below are from Tynemouth Priory in Tyne and Wear.


Torches represent human life, death, and eternal life. If they are pointing down and have no flame they represent a life extinguished, whereas if they are pointing down but still alight the represent the eternal life of the soul. The example below symbolises bodily death but the eternal life of the soul.


Urns hark back to the funerary urns of ancient Greece, in which cremated remains would be interred. They became popular from the eighteenth century and endured into the Victorian period, possibly because they denote the body being cast off in preparation for the souls journey to heaven [9]. They could also appear with flames atop – symbolising the eternal flame of friendship or religious fervour. Other urns appear are covered with drapery, which can symbolised the curtain between life and death or the casting off of worldly garments[10] and often denoted the death of an older person [11] (and when coupled with a weeper, became a popular classical image).


Wheatsheaves are most often associated with a long life, although where only few stalks are found, this can indicate that the deceased was young. The example below, from Grey Friars Kirkyard, is combined with a skull and crossbones.

Women in mourning (weepers)

The image of a woman, with loose flowing hair, mourning over a tomb or an urn, was very popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. In this example from Jesmond, the weeper holds a wreath (see below for meaning).

World (globe)

The world or globe image represents worldly pleasure and is often coupled with death in order to emphasis the wages of worldly pleasure (and sin) are death, as shown in these examples from Grey Friars Kirkyard, Edinburgh.


Wreaths are classical in origin, being awarded to athletes in the ancient Olympic games. In funerary art their circular shape represents eternal memory. Wreaths of bay leaves represent triumph over death, while wreaths of roses, like the example below, from Highgate Cemetery, London, can represent virtue and heavenly bliss (12).

This list represents only a snippet of the cemetery symbols that can be found. I hope this encourages you to go out and explore your local historic cemeteries and graveyards and to be able to read some of the richly symbolic funerary language used by our ancestors. Please remember to be quiet and respectful when you visit your local historic cemeteries, some may still be in use, and many monuments may be fragile.

Happy headstone hunting!


BBC – London – History – Victorian Memorial Symbols

Snider, Tui, 2017, Understanding Cemetery Symbols

Symbolism Meaning: Animals – Art of Mourning

Symbols –

The Symbolism of Victorian Funerary Art – Undercliffe Cemetery

Yorke, Trevor, 2017, Gravestones, Tombs & Memorials


  1. The Cemetery Club, Symbols
  2. ibid
  3. BBC, Victorian Memorial Symbols
  4. Tui Snider, Understanding Cemetery Symbols
  5. ibid
  6. ibid
  7. ibid
  8. ibid
  9. ibid
  10. ibid
  11. The Cemetery Club, Symbols

Available now on Amazon! The Haunted Mirror: History, Folklore and the Supernatural, from the Haunted Palace Blog


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Published 16 May 2021, 230 pages

Paperback £8.99

Kindle £3.99

Buy now on Amazon, click here: The Haunted Mirror: History, Folklore and the Supernatural from the Haunted Palace Blog (The Haunted Palace Blog Collection): ., Lenora, Jessel, Miss: 9798505220504: Books


A compendium of dark history, strange folklore and mysterious hauntings culled from the Haunted Palace Blog. Lenora and Miss Jessel have selected and re-worked some of their favourite posts for your enjoyment.

Did you know that a prodigious palace once stood in the London Borough of Wanstead and Woodford but a dissolute Earl threw it all away, leaving his heart-broken wife to haunt its ruins forever? Or that Victorian tourists flocked to the grim spectacle provided by the Paris Morgue – the best free theatre in town? Or that a murderous jester is reputed to have lured people to their deaths at a castle in Cumbria? Join us as we explore a past populated by highwaymen, murderers, eccentrics, and lost souls.

Lavishly illustrated with specially commissioned art, engravings and photographs from the Haunted Palace Collection, and national collections.


The Art of the Pickpocket and Cutpurse: Schools of Fobology – Part 1


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Training with Fagin

When the breakfast was cleared away, the merry old gentleman and the two boys played at a very curious and uncommon game…The merry old gentleman, placing a snuff-box in one pocket of his trousers, a note-case in the other, and a watch in his waistcoat pocket, with a guard chain round his neck, and sticking a mock diamond pin his shirt, buttoned his coat right round him, and putting his spectacle-case and handkerchief in his pockets, trotted up and down the room with a stick…All this time the two boys followed him closely about; getting out of his sight so nimbly, every time he turned round…If the old gentleman felt a hand in any one of his pockets he cried out where it was; and then the game began all over again. [1]

This passage from Oliver Twist is the most famous description of the training of young thieves in literature. Although it is a fictional account, as with all Dickens’ books it was taken from real life stories and events he had witnessed, read about or heard of from the people involved. The details of how pickpockets learnt their trade are corroborated by numerous factual accounts and Saffron Hill where Dickens placed The Three Cripples, Bill Sikes favourite alehouse was actually a lodging house in the Victorian period. Next to the lodging house was a pub called The One Tun which Dickens patronised. This public house was established in 1759, and is one of only two pubs of this name still in existence and trading in London today[2].

The One Tun of Old Pye Street

Incredibly there was another One Tun public house during the same period which also boasted a connection to Dickens. Although both pubs were located in slums, the pub in Old Pye Street managed to reach new lows even in a city noted for areas of abject poverty. The name of this infamous area of London paints a vivid picture – The Devil’s Acre. The Devil’s Acre was only a few yards from Westminster Abbey and the prestigious houses which surrounded it. The irony of its location was not missed by Dickens who wrote “The most lordly streets are frequently but a mask for the squalid districts which lie behind them, whilst spots consecrated to the most hallowed of purposes are begirt by scenes of indescribably infamy and pollution; the blackest tide of moral turpitude that flows in the capital rolls its filthy wavelets up to the very walls of Westminster Abbey”[3]. This notorious rookery (a popular slang word for slum in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) with its narrow streets, gloomy alleyways, overcrowded and dilapidated buildings was home to thousands of destitute and poor inhabitants, many of whom eked out a meagre living through criminal activities and prostitution.

Dorset Street 1902. Jack London, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The pub in Old Pye Street was known to be a hideout for a thief-trainer and his boys, orphans who had been taken off the streets. On a visit, Andrew Walker, a member of The City of London Mission, was horrified to find the children living in such a place. He nicknamed it ‘The School of Fobology’[4] and witnessed first-hand, children being taught the art of pickpocketing. His report so shocked the Mission that the wealthy philanthropist, Adeline Cooper in 1853, bought the pub and along with the famous social reformer, the Earl of Shaftesbury, founded the first Ragged School which gave free basic education for poor children. Interestingly the landlord left without paying his rent and stripped the pub of all its furnishings and fittings. By 1871, the school had around 133 pupils[5].

The Billigsgate Cutpurses

One of the earliest known schools of theft was found at an alehouse at Smarts Key near Billingsgate in 1585. It was run by Wotton, a gentleman who had fallen on hard times. The Recorder, Fleetwood, wrote that somehow Wotton convinced all the cutpurses in the area to come to his house. He set up a school to train thieves and devised some ingenious methods to help them learn their trade. Two objects were hung from the roof, one a pocket and the other a purse. The pocket contained counters and was hung up with hawk’s bells and a little scaring bell. The purse held silver. The boys would try to remove a counter and the silver without disturbing the bells. Those that managed to get the counter became a “public foyster”(pick-pocket) and those that took out the silver was “adjudged a judicial nypper” (cutpurse or pick-purse)[6].

Life on the Streets

Amongst the filth and poverty and largely ignored were the street children. Neglected and abandoned both by their parents who were often in prison, absent or dead and society to whom they were either invisible or treated like vermin, they stole to survive. The large number of children in prison or in Houses of Correction is heart-breaking. In 1849, in England and Wales 10,460 children under 17 had been arrested and convicted[7]. Living on the streets, preferable to the brutal workhouse, was dangerous and so many preferred to band together into child gangs as there was safety in numbers.

See page for author, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

It is therefore no wonder that the professional thief-trainers had their pick of candidates. For street children suffering malnutrition and living in filth this represented a step up as they would gain a roof over their head and food in their belly. Thief-trainers would look out for boys and girls who were quick, sharp and steady. Sometimes they would notice a child stealing and approach them. If the child was good-looking this would be another point in their favour.

As well as teaching them the tools of their trade they would also instruct them on how to behave and dress in fashionable places such as railway stations and race-courses so they could blend in with the crowd. As for the thief-trainers they gained a source of income and knew that if the child got caught it was nearly impossible to trace the crime back to them and so they could “concoct crimes with a readiness and a recklessness arising only from impunity”.[8]

How to be a Thief

Nearly two hundred years later the Annual Register of the 5 March 1756, records another school which had managed to achieve notoriety[9]. The school was sited in a public house near Fleet Market where a club of boys were instructed on pickpocketing. Taken from the evidence given by the four boys who were arrested, an idea emerges of the techniques and skills which the boys were taught at this school.

Stage One: The ability to remove a handkerchief out of the thief trainer’s pocket and then a watch. They were taught to go for small light objects such as scarf pins which were easy to remove and hide; how to bump into and distract their prey; and where they could find the best pickings such as at crowded fairs and firework displays. Practice made perfect and eventually the trainee thief could remove the items without the owner being aware that their property had gone.

Image courtesy of

Stage Two: The next stage was how to pilfer from a shop. The first important step was to choose a shop with a hatch. One boy would distract the owner or manager by gaining entry whilst the other would lie on his belly close to the hatch. The hatch would be left slightly ajar when the first boy left. Once the owner had disappeared from the shop floor the second boy would crawl in on all fours and take whatever items they could, including money from the till. They would then escape the same way.

Stage Three: This stage saw the pickpocket move on to breaking and entering. Here they were instructed to work in pairs. The boys would be sent to a potentially lucrative target and pretend to be beggars. They would then lie down under the shop’s window and feign sleep whenever someone passed them. During the intervals when they were unobserved they would scrape out the mortar from around the bricks in the wall (which were usually thin and poorly constructed). Once they had a hole big enough, one of them would crawl in and steal anything they could carry and the other would hide the gap with his body, pretending to be asleep[10].

Lodging Houses and Flash Houses

Lodging houses also gained a bad reputation and as with public houses sometimes functioned as schools for thieves. These schools flourished during the Victorian era largely due to the end of apprenticeships and the march of industrialisation which worsened conditions in the slums.

Generally the training techniques did not vary that much wherever the children received their education. An unidentified lodging house trained both boys and girls (girls were often used as decoys and could be more successful as thieves since they could get closer to wealthy ladies without arousing suspicion). In this school a doll was hung up and dressed in the image of a gentleman or lady and a purse placed in its pocket. The purse contained 6 old pence and a bell. Again the children had to remove the money without ringing the bell[11].

Pubs because they sold alcohol were seen as places of vice and disrepute and so it is not surprising that they often became centres “for thieves and other evil-doers”[12]. Those pubs which had a particularly bad reputation became known as ‘flash-houses’ and were labelled “nurseries of crime”[13]. It was believed that in the first half of the 1800s, at least 200 flash-houses functioned in London. Here the police and crooks would drink side by side. Often the police ignored any dubious goings on within their walls such as the fencing of stolen goods since they provided such a rich source of information for any more serious criminal activities in the area. The infamous Mrs Jennings of the Red Lion in White Cross Street ran a very profitable flash-house where she acted as a fence, hiding goods behind cupboards and at the same time controlled a number of boys and girls who reported to her and lived with her [14].

Final Thoughts

In my mind the image of the Victorian thief and their training will always bring to mind Ron Moody from the musical Oliver dressed in a tatty green coat with handkerchiefs hanging out of his pockets dancing and singing You’ve got to pick a pocket or two to a group of cheerful urchins. Although, I know that in reality life for these children was far from jovial, I do find it fascinating that the musical does in its own way show the reality of how juvenile pickpockets and cutpurses were trained.

So who were the thief-trainers? That is another post…

Ron Moody as Fagin in Carol Reed’s 1968 musical drama film, Oliver!


Thomson, J. & Smith, Adolphe: Victorian London – Publications – Social Investigation/Journalism – Street Life in London, 1877,

Garwood, John: Victorian London – Publications – Social Investigation/Journalism – The Million-Peopled City, 1853,

Rookeries, flash houses and academies of vice,

Slum Living: London’s Rookeries-,

Cholera and the Thames: The Devil’s Acre,

White, Jerry: London in the Nineteenth Century: ‘a Human Awful Wonder of God’,  Bodley Head , 2016

Hindley, Charles (ed.): Curiosities of Street Literature: Comprising ‘Cocks,’ Or ‘Catchpennies’, Palala Press, 2012

Lower Thames Street,

Saffron Hill,

Day, Samuel Philips: Juvenile Crime: Its Causes, Character, and Cure, Samuel Phillips Day, (originally published 1858), 2014

Rookery (slum),

Dickens, Charles: Oliver Twist

Plaque: One Tun pub – Saffron Hill,

The One Tun Ragged School, Perkins Rents, c.1870,

Rookeries, flash houses and academies of vice,

One Tun, 3 Perkins Rents, St John, Westminster,


[1] Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens

[2] Plaque: One Tun pub – Saffron Hill

[3] The Devil’s Acre

[4] Cholera and the Thames – The Devil’s Acre

[5] The One Tun Ragged School, Perkins Rents, c.1870

[6] Thames Street

[7] Victorian London – Publications – Social Investigation/Journalism – The Million-Peopled City

[8] Juvenile Crime: Its Causes, Character, and Cure

[9] Victorian London – Publications – Social Investigation/Journalism – The Million-Peopled City

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

[12] One Tun, 3 Perkins Rents, St John, Westminster

[13] Juvenile Crime: Its Causes, Character, and Cure

[14] Rookeries, flash houses and academies of vice

A Stroll through a graveyard: a very brief history of British cemeteries


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With the Coronavirus lockdowns of 2020/2021 many of us have had to find our pleasures closer to home than usual.  One of my favourite past-times has been visiting some of my local graveyards and taking a leisurely stroll amongst the tombstones and monuments.

Overgrown urban cemeteries and churchyards provide a haven for nature, an escape from the bustle of the modern world, and respite from the claustrophobia of a national lockdown. Often protected from traffic and pollution, and hidden from sight behind high walls, they can easily be overlooked by passers by. Yet within those high walls you can find butterflies dancing on delicate wildflowers, squirrels sheltering in the branches of ancient trees and foxes hiding amongst the tangled brambles.  Cemeteries are also steeped in cultural history and rich in public art, with elaborate memorials and tombs, describing a rich and varied iconography of death and remembrance. I have done a separate post on some of the common cemetery symbols found on headstones.

As the subject of burial and funeral monuments is a vast one, this article will be by nature selective, focusing mainly on traditional Christian burial practices found in mainly English cemeteries and churchyards. However, it is important to note that there are also many examples of different regional styles and practices as well as those of other faiths, all of which can also be found in our historic graveyards.

Bluebells at Jesmond Old Cemetery, Newcastle upon Tyne

A very brief history of traditional British cemeteries and their monuments

Romans, Saxons and Medieval burial

Many British churchyards sit on much older pre-Christian burial grounds, and may contain remnants of those earlier times, occasionally these remnants can be seen today. It has been suggested that the Romans may have invented (or at least developed the idea of) the headstone as we know it [1]. The Roman tombstone below (L) can be found in Holy Trinity Churchyard, Washington, Tyne and Wear, and does look remarkably similar to later headstones.

Medieval churchyards did not contain many stone grave markers, so were ideal places for community activities such as fairs and village games (until the puritans put a stop to jollity, that is). Often the only stone monument was a large cross, although many of these were destroyed during the Reformation of the sixteenth century [2]. The example below (M) is the Mercian Cross, a Saxon cross from the eighth-tenth centuries, which can be found in St Lawrence’s church, Eyam, Derbyshire. In this period, only those of very high status would merit an individual burial and memorial, many people would expect to end up in a charnel house. Initially ‘wet’ bodies (i.e. fresh, fleshy bodies) were stored in stone coffins until they decomposed and became ‘dry’ (i.e. bones). The bones would then be stacked in the charnel house. The stone coffins below (R) can be seen at Tynemouth Priory, Tyne and Wear. If you were wondering where the corpse liquor went, some stone coffins also contained a hole to let it drain out [3].

From pomp and purgatory to the resurrection men

Richard Flemings Tomb at Lincoln Cathedral
Richard Fleming’s tomb and chantry chapel, Lincoln Cathedral.

Our relationship with the dead has changed over time. Purgatory as an actual place was introduced as a concept from the late twelfth/early thirteenth centuries. This lead to a drive to encourage the living to ease the passage of the deceased through purgatory with prayer. Gruesome monuments, such as Cadaver Tombs, (which depicted the deceased as rotting corpses) were often linked to chantry chapels to elicit prayers for the dead. This provided the living a sense of moral and religious satisfaction while assisting the dead towards  salvation [4, 5]. Other, less macabre tomb monuments, called gisants, emphasised the earthly status of the deceased, showed them in fine regalia, as if in prayer or sleeping.

Gisant monument for Sir Ralph Grey and his wife, 1443, St Peter's church, Chillingham, Northumberland
The Gisant style monument for Sir Ralph Grey (d1443) and his wife, Elizabeth. St Peter’s church, Chillingham, Northumberland.

While most people in the medieval period were buried in unmarked graves, tombs or memorials of the great and (often not so) good were sighted inside churches and the higher the status of the deceased, the closer to the altar (and God) they would be placed. In later times this also protected the dead from body snatchers. This resulted in some very dubious practices, such as at Enon Chapel in London, where cut price burials resulted in the dead being piled up to the rafters in a tiny crypt, in order to line the pockets of the rapacious minister.   In the past, these intramural burials in churches were notorious for causing a bit of a stink (and worse in the case of Enon chapel), but such burials can result in problems even today. Recently, the floor of Bath Abbey, which is paved with ledger stones, flat grave markers, was restored to stop the floor sinking into the cavities caused by the decayed bodies beneath. (Somerset Live).

The Reformation of the church in the sixteenth century, which made the concept of purgatory redundant for many, the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 that ousted the party-pooping puritans, combined with a rising class of wealthier farmers and merchants, created a sea-change in funeral monuments. From the end of the seventeenth century churchyards begin to fill up with tombstones, recording personal status, family ties, occupation and epitaphs, as well as some very macabre iconography [6].

As with burials inside the church, burials outside had their pecking order. Burial on the east side of a churchyard was preferred, with the body facing east in order to rise on the day of judgement. Burial on the north side was reserved for the illegitimate, criminals, suicides and strangers, and was therefore a less favourable location [7]. There is a wonderful description of this in MR James’s The Ash Tree, the executed witch, Mrs Mothersole, is said to have been buried on ‘that unhallowed side of the building‘. In some areas these ‘undesirable’ burials would take place outside the church yard itself or the corpse would have to be unceremoniously bundled over the wall of the churchyard, after being refused the usual welcome by the vicar at the lych-gate [8].

While post mortem social status was a pressing issue for some, from the late eighteenth century, body snatchers were a real fear for many. This was the case right up until the passing of the Anatomy Act in 1832 (which solved the problem of supply of cadavers for the anatomists table by co-opting the corpses of the poor and destitute). To protect the dearly departed from such ‘resurrection men’ elaborate precautions were put in place and they can still be found in some graveyards today.

Image by Collection gallery (2018-03-24): CC-BY-4.0, CC BY 4.0,

Famous examples of post mortem protection can be found in Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh which boasts a very fine mortsafe.  While the infamous Burke and Hare may have preferred to obtain their bodies by seeking out ‘future corpses'[9] in the drinking dens of the old Town, many others were stealing corpses from graveyards to supply Edinburgh’s famous medical schools. 

Mort safes in Greyfriars Kirkyard, Edinburgh, Scotland

Tombstone trends

As more people were able to afford permanent grave markers, churchyards began to fill up and certain styles of headstone became popular. Headstones began short and stout, gradually becoming taller and less chunky as the centuries progressed – although this could depend on the quality of the local stone. More elaborate ornamentation and inscriptions became popular, however, the execution of the design could depend on the skill of the mason, many of whom may have been illiterate, as is seen below.

The examples above, from St Andrew’s, Newcastle, and Tynemouth Priory, Tynemouth, show eighteenth century grave stones with the text cramped together, of uneven size, and occasionally with words broken over lines. The example on the right also shows some naïve attempts at decoration.

The size difference between the early 18th Century gravestone on the left, and the nineteenth century one on the right. St Peter’s Church, Chillingham.

These headstones were often in three parts – decoration at the top, details about the deceased (names, dates, occupation, family ties) then an epitaph or scriptural quote at the bottom. Some stones also have the mason’s name as well.

These earlier grave stones had their inscriptions facing away from the actual burial plot, and some had a ‘body stone’ covering the burial, or a small ‘footstone’ indicating the length of the grave. In some cases the direction of the headstone was reoriented by the Victorians. The Victorians often marked the limits of a grave or family plot using kerbstones or railings [10].

As the times changed, so did decorative motifs, one of the most notable metamorphosis being that of the infamous grinning skull and crossbones. This first evolved into a flying head before morphing into a chubby cheeked cherub (a more sentimental, but no less disquieting images, to my mind).

Seventeenth and early eighteenth century skull and crossbones motifs, usually found in the top section of decoration, acted as a memento mori, reminding the living that they too would soon be dust (so they should behave themselves and lead good lives). This tradition evolved into flying faces, which symbolised the soul flying up to heaven, and later still, in the late Georgian and Victorian period, morphed into flying angels/cherubs, symbolising innocence (they were often used on the graves of children [11].

The taste for the macabre in graveyard symbols lingered well into the eighteenth century, but by the closing decades, tombstones could be found with tranquil classical iconography, in keeping with Georgian taste for all things ancient Roman and Greek. 

Late eighteenth century tombstone with classical motifs, St Andrew’s, Newcastle.

By the nineteenth century, it was the rising urban middle classes who drove the developments of tombstone designs.  Huge gothic follies, classical urns and columns sprouted up across the land. Crosses and Angels as grave markers even made a come-back, shunned after the Reformation and centuries of anti-Catholic feeling in England, they underwent a renaissance in the nineteenth century and can be found in abundance in many Victorian cemeteries. 

Victorian Gothic, the funerary monument of the Reed family, at Jesmond Old Cemetery, Newcastle.

The Civic minded Victorians also came up with the concept of the Garden Cemetery, situated in the suburbs, laid out like parks and dotted with attractive grave monuments, these cemeteries not only addressed the problems of overfull and unsanitary urban burial grounds, but made a visit to the grave of a loved one into a pleasurable day out [12]. 

The Victorians also helped to democratise death, through their more industrialised production techniques, machine cutting inscriptions, standardised patterns, and a budget range of guinea graves, and community burial clubs. As the nineteenth century progressed more and more people could have a permanent marker to meet their budget. The downside of this was that the idiosyncratic and personal memorials of earlier times were often replaced with standard shapes, such as the ubiquitous lancet gravestone,  and more generic  religious or moral sentiments. Of course, this doesn’t meant that the families and friends of the departed grieved any less, only that the outward language of death and the business of burial had become more of an industry [13, 14].

The ubiquitous lancet headstones found in Victorian cemeteries across Britain.

New materials also played their part, with machine cut inscriptions, lead lettering and occasional iron headstones (very appropriate for such an industrial age).

This unusual but appropriate iron headstone was chosen for William Crawford, an Iron Founder, and can be found in Jesmond Old Cemetery, Newcastle. Unfortunately, it has weathered badly.

The twentieth century saw the mass death of the First World War, with Cenotaphs, empty tombs, for recording the deaths of millions, and many soldiers buried on foreign shores.  You can find the occasional pristine war grave, striking in its simple poignancy, amongst the unruly ivy clad headstones of a previous era. However, it was inevitable that death on such an industrial scale, with so many families left grieving without a body to bury, would cause a fundamental change in how the dead were commemorated, World War I was the beginning of the end of the lavish Victorian way of death. 

Today, in Britain, cremation far outstrips burial, nevertheless, you can still find some unique and personal grave monuments on occasion. A particularly poignant example can be found in Westgate Crematorium in Newcastle, where a huge black marble edifice stands for a young man, dead before his time, and which includes a marble motorbike. While this may not be to every ones taste, it is a unique and very personal memorial.

St Peter's church, Wallsend.
There has been a church on this site since the 12th Century, St Peter’s church was rebuilt in 1809 and remodelled in 1892. Wallsend, North Tyneside.

Who lies beneath

Cemeteries are filled with the famous and not so famous, all with their individual tales that remind us that these mossy and ivy cloaked monuments hid the bones of people just like us, who lived and loved and sometimes suffered.

Dame Mary Page, 1729, Bunhilll, London

Grave monuments could be very personal in the eighteenth century, one could say, too personal, as this famous monument to Dame Mary Page at Bunhill cemetery in London demonstrates. The unfortunate Dame Mary died in 1729, the inscription describes her final years “In 67 months she was tap’d [tapped] 66 times, Had taken away 240 gallons of water without ever repining at her case or ever fearing the operation.”

The Keenleyside Monument, 1841/2, Jesmond Old Cemetery, Newcastle

This canopied monument featuring a reclining cherub rests beneath mature trees in Jesmond Old Cemetery and hides a terrible family tragedy. The monument was erected by Thomas William and Louisa Keenleyside in memory of their children, Eleanor, 2 years old, Charles, 12 years old, and James who was 10 years old. The children died in quick succession between December 1841 to January 1842, victims of the Cholera epidemic that raged through the city. Epidemics and other diseases such as scarlet fever were common in the Victorian period, and could rip through a family taking siblings one after another. It is hard to comprehend how Thomas and Louisa came to terms with this heart wrenching loss, although this monument may have been part of that process.

Tom Sayers, 1865, Highgate Cemetery, London

You would be forgiven for thinking this monument in London’s Highgate Cemetery was the grave of a large dog, but in fact is commemorates Tom Sayers, Victorian superstar prize-fighting bare-knuckle boxer, who died in 1865. Sayers had a turbulent personal life, so the chief mourner at his funeral was his mastiff, Lion, who rode alone in a pony cart behind the hearse. Sayers kept the hound next to him even in death, and Lion was immortalised by sculptor Morton Edwards and forms the most prominent feature of Sayers monument [15].


For me, the apogee of cemetery design came in the nineteenth century, when over-crowded, unsanitary urban cemeteries, such as Bunhill Fields, were replaced with leafy suburban garden cemeteries.  Highgate cemetery, Abney Park and Kensal Green were intended as pleasure grounds as much as for memorialising the dead.  Recently, I have spent many hours exploring my local cemeteries and churchyards, discovering fascinating facts about my area – the pastoral poet buried in the centre of Newcastle, the Georgian composer, organist and music critic buried in St Andrews, as well as countless ordinary people, whose lives flicker before us briefly in their epitaphs.

Ledger stone for eighteenth century Newcastle composer and organist Charles Avison. Avison died in 1770, but the ledger stone was replaced in the nineteenth century.

The Coronavirus pandemic has claimed so many lives, however, once the pandemic itself has entered into the pages of history, I hope that we will not forget the quite pleasures of walking in these public gardens of the past and experiencing that fleeting connection with those who have gone before us.

All Saints, Newcastle.

Part 2 will look at the meaning behind some of the symbols found on headstones.


Cohen, Kathleen, 1973, Metamorphosis of a death symbol

King, Pamela, 1987, Contexts of the cadaver tomb in fifteenth century England

Morgan, Alan, 2004, Beyond the Grave, Exploring Newcastle’s Burial Grounds

Ross, Peter, 2020, A Tomb With a View, The Stories and Glories of Graveyards

Rutherford, Sarah, 2008, The Victorian Cemetery

Snider, Tui, 2017, Understanding Cemetery Symbols

Victorian Web, Funerary monument to Thomas Sayers (1826-1865), Western Cemetery, Highgate, London N.6. (

Yorke, Trevor, 2017, Gravestones, Tombs & Memorials


  1. Alan Morgan, Beyond the Grave, Exploring Newcastle’s Burial Grounds
  2. Trevor Yorke, Understanding Gravestones, Tombs & Memorials
  3. ibid
  4. Pamela King, Contexts of the cadaver tomb in fifteenth century England
  5. Kathleen Cohen, Metamorphosis of a death symbol
  6. Trevor Yorke, Understanding Gravestones, Tombs & Memorials
  7. Tui Snider, Understanding Cemetery Symbols
  8. Peter Ross, A Tomb with a View, The Stories and Glories of Graveyards
  9. The Order of the Good Death (death positive movement)
  10. Trevor Yorke, Understanding Gravestones, Tombs & Memorials
  11. Tui Snider, Understanding Cemetery Symbols
  12. Sarah Rutherford, The Victorian Cemetery
  13. Tui Snider, Understanding Cemetery Symbols
  14. Trevor Yorke, Understanding Gravestones, Tombs & Memorials
  15. Victorian Web, Funerary monument to Thomas Sayers

Which Mortality Remindin’ Shirt is for You? | The Order of the Good Death