Sunday, 22 January 2017

Swithland slate gravestones

So, 2016 now seems a long time ago, but it was in early December that I wrote about the use of Swithland slate for a variety of purposes - roofing tiles, hearths, milestones, plinths, window sills - but did not have time to elaborate on the use of such slate for gravestones (by which I mean, tombstones, headstones or memorial stones).

At the December meeting of the Loughborough Archaeological and Historical Society (LAHS) Roger Willson came along and talked to us about gravestones that are found in Leicestershire, many of which, from the period up until about 1880, were made from Swithland slate. The heyday was around 1853, and the last quarry closed around 1887, competition from cheaper Welsh slate probably being one reason for the demise of the local material.

There are so many variations in Swithland slate gravestones that it is possible to outline chronological developments in its use. This ranges from the early, small, square headstones, through headstones with no margin and varying sized inscription, through double-paneled headstones used usually for husband and wife, through more elaborate lettering, to headstones quoting verses from the Bible, those including the occupation of the deceased, and those with the sculptor's name and the apprentice's practice alphabets. 

Swithland slate headstones often include much symbolism: urns, skulls, hourglasses, anchors, doves, olive branches, angels, crowns, and cherubs. Another unique feature of Swithland slate headstones is what's known as the Belvoir angels, so a highly stylised depiction of an angel with its face in the middle and wings coming out of either side. I believe these Belvoir angels appeared on the earlier headstones from about the 1690s to 1750s.

One of the other distinctive features of Swithland slate gravestones is that the front of the stone is completely smoothed, whilst, unlike Welsh slate, the reverse is left rough. This may have something to do with the way Swithland slate was split with a hand saw. 

There are many examples of Swithland slate headstones in our local churches, and I do here a few pictures of ones I've been lucky enough to see over the years. Unfortunately, although I can picture some of the churches I can't for the life of me remember what the names of all the villages were. Also, as I have a new pc I can't find a way to reduce the resolution of them, so they will take forever to load, so I will post these another week.
If you would like to read more about Belvoir angels here are a few interesting websites:

A report of a talk at Keyworth & District Local History Society in 2008
An article on tombstones on the Wolds Historical Organisation website
A report in the Nottingham Evening Post 
The website of St Mary's at Bottesford

You are welcome to quote passages from any of my posts, with appropriate credit. The correct citation for this looks as follow:

Dyer, Lynne (2017). Swithland slate gravestones. [Online] Available from: [Accessed 22 January 2017]

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