This epitaph for “Nestor, a black, 22 years a servant to James Ramsay”, is one of a kind. Epitaphs for servants are rare enough – so far the collection contains only 4 out of 532 – and epitaphs for black servants are presumably much rarer. Fortuitously, we have one other, from the crypt of St. Martin in the Fields. But Nestor’s epitaph is exceptionally long and detailed.
Nestor is described as being of “neat dress”, “chaste, sober life”, “honest” and “diligent in Duty”, and “hating idle visiting” – all virtues which might well have endeared a servant to his master. “Chastity” is rarely mentioned on tombstones. We have only three other entries so far, from 1645, 1672 and 1730, all women. Nestor’s being praised for chastity suggests on the one hand that it was required of him and on the other that it was not taken entirely for granted. “Sobriety” is another rarely mentioned virtue. There are four other entries, from the seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries, where the word carries its older sense of decorum and restraint. Here, perhaps, it means simply that Nestor didn’t drink.
Nestor’s master, the Rev. James Ramsay, was an early opponent of the slave trade, having seen at first hand the treatment of slaves in the Caribbean. He was one of an influential group of abolitionists based in Teston, Kent, where he and Nestor are both buried – the “Testonites”, as they were called. The plaque photographed here is not an original, but an exact copy made by a stone-carver friend of mine.
, Good parent
, Good sense
This epitaph, from St. James’s, Westminster, illustrates many of the qualities which a grand lady of the early eighteenth century was expected to possess. Lady Mary is said to have behaved with dignity to both superiors and inferiors; she was “easy to ye meanest, not abject to ye greatest”, which made her “esteem’d by persons of ye first rank, valu’d by her equals, honour’d by her inferiors, & belov’d of all.” Kindness to social inferiors – or “condescension“, as it is sometimes called – is praised on five epitaphs, the last of them carved in 1835, after which more democratic attitudes prevail.
Lady Mary is also said to have possessed a “firmness of mind”, supporting her in all extremities so that “no cause of grief, no pain or sickness, could extort a complaint from her”. The virtues of patience, fortitude and resignation in the face of illness and death are frequently praised on Georgian and Victorian epitaphs, particularly in connection with women, to whom no other form of courage was available. A search of “virtues of endurance“, as I have called them, brings up 55 out of 527 epitaphs. 29 of these are of women, which given that men in general outnumber women by more than two to one means that women were much more likely than men to be praised for these particular excellences.
This epitaph for George Routleigh, watchmaker, is one of the main attractions of the little Dartmoor church of St. Petrock’s. The stone is eroded (it has only recently been moved inside the church, to preserve it) so here is the text in full:
Here lies in the horizontal position
The outside case of
George Routleigh, Watchmaker,
Whose abilities in that line were an honour
To his profession:
Integrity was the main-spring,
And prudence the regulator
Of all the actions of his life:
Humane, generous and liberal,
His hand never stopped
Till he had relieved distress;
So nicely regulated were all his movements
That he never went wrong
Except when set-a-going
Who did not know his key;
Even then, he was easily
Set right again:
He had the art of disposing of his time
That his hours glided away
In one continual round
Of pleasure and delight,
Till an unlucky moment put a period to
He departed this life
November 14, 1802
in hopes of being taken in hand
By his Maker,
And of being
Thoroughly cleaned, repaired and set-a-going
In the World to come.
It seems that George Routleigh was not the first watchmaker to be memorialised in this way. The same epitaph was printed in the Derby Mercury in 1786, and then again in the 1797 almanac of a black American astronomer from Maryland called Benjamin Banneker. So the joke had been “going the rounds”. I have one other example in my collection of the same kind of humour, this one concerning a shorthand clerk called William Laurence, who died in 1621:
Short hand he wrot, his flowre in prime did fade,
And hasty death short hand of him hath made.
Well couth he numbers, and well mesur'd land,
Thus doth he now that ground wheron you stand
Wherin he lyes so geometricall.
Art maketh some but thus will nature all.
Perhaps there are other examples, but I haven’t found them. To us, these elaborate conceits upon the deceased’s trade seem in rather dubious taste, but they clearly didn’t strike people that way at the time. Death (or at least the death of clerks and artisans) was once a suitable occasion for wit, in a way it isn’t for us.
Hannah Twynnoy, a barmaid at the White Lion Inn, Malmesbury, has the curious distinction of being the first person in England to be killed by a tiger. A local historian later recorded the incident as follows:
To the memory of Hannah Twynnoy. She was a servant of the White Lion Inn where there was an exhibition of wild beasts, and amongst the rest a very fierce tiger which she imprudently took pleasure in teasing, not withstanding the repeated remonstrance of its keeper. One day whilst amusing herself with this dangerous diversion the enraged animal by an extraordinary effort drew out the staple, sprang towards the unhappy girl, caught hold of her gown and tore her to pieces.
Hannah’s tombstone stands in the cemetery of Malmesbury Abbey. The poem on it reads:
In bloom of life
She’s snatch’d from hence
She had not room
To make defence;
For Tyger fierce
took life away.
And here she lies
In a bed of Clay
Until the Resurrection Day.
The doctrine set forth so artlessly here is that of the “resurrection of the body” mentioned in the Creed, according to which the soul will be reunited with the body on the last day. The same doctrine features on a few other early tombstones too. “Her soul resteth with God till the general resurrection when she shall rise again” runs the epitaph of Elihonor Sadler (d. 1622). “Here lyeth deposited his mortal part untill it shall bee raised up unto immortal life and glory”, proclaims the inscription on the tomb of Sir Nicholas Martyn (d. 1653). This ancient faith seems to have faded away during the Age of Reason. On late eighteenth-century tombstones, bodies no longer “rise up” out of “beds of clay”; rather souls are “translated” or “wafted” to their divine abode, to be received by the “angelic quire”. Heaven has become a matter of poetry, not fact.
The Quickes have farmed an estate in Newton St Cyres, Devon, since the 16th century. The current incumbent, Mary Quicke, still makes cheddar there today. John Quicke lies buried alongside many of his relatives in the local parish church. His plaque is simple and classical, topped with a relief of an obelisk and urn in the Adams’ manner. Its inscription is written in those balanced Ciceronian periods which seem to convey an ethical as well as an aesthetic ideal:
In his Character were united the politeness of a Gentleman and the Sincerity of a Christian.
Religion, in other words, is but one aspect of life, to be held in harmony with others. It is not all-embracing ideal which it had been in the 17th century.
Notice, too, that John Quicke’s “benevolence to mankind” is said to have been “universal”. “Universal benevolence” is a virtue that begins to crop up on tombstones at around this time. To date, I have collected six examples ranging from 1776 to 1825; run a search for details. Perhaps we can see in this fashion for universal benevolence a remote echo of the republican spirit abroad in America and France. Edmund Burke, in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, condemned the “new-invented virtue” of “universal benevolence” for weakening all particular affections. But we may doubt that John Quicke’s benevolence had any such radical tendencies!
This memorial to Horatio the third Earl Nelson, grandson of his illustrious namesake, is typical of its period in many ways. “Good works” start to be commended in the late-nineteenth century; so far I have found two examples apart from this, from 1877 and 1879. Notice also the Earl’s “unwearied … service of God and man” and his “whole-hearted devotion to duty”. This arduous and self-abnegating ideal is typically late-imperial. “Duty” – in the singular, and unqualified – appears seven times between 1857 and 1913, five times in connection with death in the course of military or public service. Clearly, the word had something of a sacrificial flavour.
If we go back to the century running from 1750 – 1850, we find many mention of “duties”, but far fewer of “duty”. And these duties tend to be attached to some concrete social role – father, mother, husband, wife, vicar, etc. “Having discharged the more important duties of husband, father, brother, friend, with the greatest integrity, he died” runs the epitaph of James Nares, obit. 1783. Similarly, Robert and Susanna Welland, who died in 1841 and 1811, are remembered with gratitude by their children for “the tender and assiduous care with which they fulfilled towards them all the duties of a parent”. Epitaphs such as this reflect the old Anglican principle of “my station and its duties”, and behind it, the Ciceronian notion of the officii – the forms of conduct proper to a particular situation. It was only later in the nineteenth century that the term “duty” started to function as a synonym for moral obligation in general, and to carry connotations of strenuousness and sacrifice.