Unusual Epitaphs in Cornwall

I seem to have spent a lot of time in churches and graveyards. Not because I am particularly religious or morbid but because these places are a truly wonderful historical resource. A priceless repository of our collective heritage. And there is always something interesting to discover including some rather strange and unusual epitaphs.

We have been marking the burial places of our loved ones forever. From the earliest burial mounds to the extravagant tombs of the death-obsessed Victorian era. But having a written memorial carved in stone was an expensive luxury that until the 17th century very few could afford. If you wanted your name set in stone you had to be prepared to pay and the more you wanted to say the more it cost. As inscribed headstones became more popular and affordable it was usually the village stonemason that took on the role of producing them for grieving family and friends. Design, materials and craftmanship varied enormously but these pieces of local stone are invaluable records that help us chronicle our past.

St Winnow Graveyard

Many years ago I started looking out for unusual graves and quirky epitaphs, with the idea of collecting them all together somehow. And this October, in honour perhaps of Halloween, I decided to share a few with you.

My wife is dead & here she lies

No man laughs & no man cries

Where she’s gone or how she fares,

Nobody knows & nobody cares

Attributed to Cornwall, graveyard unknown.

Of course there are so many to chose from, from the longest grave in the UK in Veryan to pirate graves, elaborately craved Cornish crosses and the VC headstones that hide in quiet corners amongst the other typical markers. But here I have chosen a few graves belonging to quite ordinary people that are either amusing, bizarre or poignant in some way. Most you can still visit today (if that’s your thing) but a few because of their age have been lost, although their various out-of-the-ordinary inscriptions live on and are worth recording here. (Such as the one above.)

Joseph Crapp, Mylor

“Alas friend Joseph

His end was all most sudden

As though the mandate came

Express from Heaven.

His foot, it slip & he did fall,

Help, help, he cries & that is all.”

unusual epitaphs

Joseph Crapp (let’s just ignore his surname for now . . .) was a shipwright at Mylor harbour who was buried on 26th November 1770 at the age of 43. I can find no record of anyone of that name being born in Cornwall in 1727 or thereabouts, although there are a number of Crapps living in the St Austell area at that time. It is also important to remember that church records are much less reliable or available the further back you go and perhaps this Joseph had arrived at Mylor harbour by boat and was from a different area of the country.

Whatever the case he seems to have met a sticky end that so shocked the people around him they saw fit to have the information added to the marker for his grave. Joseph’s slate headstone stands just east of Mylor’s parish church and became a listed monument in 1982. It is pretty crudely carved but I think that that just adds to its charm. I always find myself stopping to read it each time I walk through this fascinating graveyard. Besides Joseph’s grave visitors to this churchyard can also see the memorial for the boys of HMS Ganges and the touching tribute to the so-called warriors from the Napoleonic Queen Transport ship which sank in 1814.

The stern of a boat, St Mawgan

This is one of the most unusual and unexpected memorials that I have come across in a Cornish graveyard, and one that unfortunately has a very sad tale connected to it.

Here lie the bodies of Jacob Williams, David Roberts, Owen Hughs, Thomas Collins, Charles Cawley, Richard Cutler, William Loyd, William Elliott, Thomas Brown & Jemmy, who drifted ashore in a boat, frozen to death at Tregurrian Beach in this Parish on Sunday 13th December MDCCCXLVI

unusual epitaphs
Unfortunately for obvious reasons the wooden stern that we see in St Mawgan graveyard today is not the original, it had to be replaced.

The story of this tragedy starts off the coast of Ireland during an exceptionally cold spell of winter weather. Ten men had been shipwrecked and then drifted for some days because their oars were either broken or lost. By the time their boat reached the Cornish coast they had frozen to death. The coroner’s official verdict was that the deceased died from ‘the effects of starvation and the intense cold’. Local people laid them to rest at St Mawgan and for some reason decided to use the stern of their boat as the marker for their collective grave.

St Mawgan Church

The writer Wilkie Collins visited St Mawgan in 1861 and wrote about this strange monument then. He mistakenly believed the sailors were from the area:

“Within the churchyard, the bright colour of the turf and the quiet grey hues of the mouldering tombstones are picturesquely intermingled all over the uneven surface of the ground. Save in one remote corner, where the graves are few and the grass grows rank and high. Here the eye is abruptly attracted by the stern of a boat, painted white and fixed upright in the earth. This strange memorial, little suited though it be to the old monuments around, has a significance of its own which gives it a peculiar name to consideration. Inscribed on it appear the names of 10 fishermen of the parish who went out to sea to pursue their calling one wintery night in 1846”

The full list of shipwreck victims was recorded as: Jacob Williams, Sweden: aged 28, David Roberts, Liverpool: aged 16, Owen Hughes, Caernarvon: aged 27, Thomas Collins, American: aged 27, Charles Camley, Hull: aged 24, Richard Cutler, Plymouth: aged 32, William Loyd, Caernarvon: aged 28, William Eliot, Plymouth: aged 21, Thomas Brown, Isle of Bute: aged 22, Jemmy – Death Registered as Unknown Male, aged 21.

Evaristo Muchovela, Wendron

“Here lie the master & slave

Side by side within one grave

Distinctions lost & caste is o’er

The slave is now the slave no more.”

In Wendron cemetery a slave and his former master share a grave. Evaristo Muchovela was born in Mozambique in around 1830. He was trafficked to Brazil and, aged just seven years, bought by Thomas Johns, a copper and tin miner from Porkellis. Johns had moved to South America for work and become a relatively wealthy man.

unusual epitaphs

Just over 20 years later in 1860 the pair returned to Cornwall together because of Johns’ declining health. Before leaving Brazil he offered Muchovela a choice. He could remain in Brazil as a freeman or accompany him back Cornwall. Muchovela chose to stay with Johns. Thomas Johns died in January 1861, a few weeks after their arrival here and after this Evaristo, now presumably a freeman, began work as an apprentice to a local cabinet maker called William Wales. He was very well thought of in the local community, Wales apparently considered his work ‘first rate’ and he lived for several years with a farmer, Joseph Gundrey in Porkellis. There is a photograph of Muchovela taken in a studio in Redruth which shows him smartly dressed in a suit and shiny black shoes leaning, hand on hip, against a decorative cabinet. The scene is staged of course by the photographic studio but appears to capture a confident and relatively prosperous man.

Sadly it wasn’t to last, Muchovela died at the home of William Wales at Fore Street, Redruth in February 1868. A notice of his passing was placed in the Royal Cornwall Gazette newspaper presumably by his friends. The cause of Evaristo’s death was thought to have been consumption. He was in buried with his former master in Wendron.

William & Elizabeth Cotton, Minster

“Forty-nine years they lived man & wife

And what’s more rare, this many without strife.

Shee first departing, hee a few weeks tryed

To live without her, could not & so dyed.”

The sentiments of this memorial are not only poignant but also wonderfully heart-warming. The tomb which hangs on the wall inside Minster Church of St. Merteriana near Boscastle is a fine example of the decorative 17th century style, complete with chubby cherubs and typically loose spelling!

The memorial dates to 1656 and was placed in the church to commemorate the lives of William Cotton, eldest son of the Bishop of Exeter and once Mayor of Tintagel, and his wife Elizabeth. She had been born Elizabeth Hender and was an heiress in her own right. Her parents were John and Jane Hender, direct descendants of the ancient family who built Botreaux Castle from which Boscastle takes its name. The marriage may have been one of convenience, the joining to two prominent families, but from the carefully worded inscription it appears to have been one of love too.

The Figurehead, Morwenstow

She stands facing the sea, the shield in her hand raised in defiance or perhaps celebrating a past victory. I think it would be fair to say that the figurehead in the graveyard of Morwenstow church is as striking as it is incongruous. An inscription close by reads:

“To the Glory of God

And in memory of shipwrecked sailors

Buried in the graveyard

Unknown and yet well known.

He sent from on high,

He took me,

He drew me out of great waters.”

The Scottish ship Caledonia was wrecked in a gale at Sharpnose Point near Morwenstow in September 1843. She was on her way to Odessa with a cargo of wheat. The story goes, though I’m not sure how they know it, as the brig hit the rocks the captain ordered the men to climb the rigging to escape the churning sea but tragically within moments the mask had collapsed. Her entire crew including the Captain Peter Stevenson, were lost.

unusual epitaphs

The wooden figurehead from the wreck was pulled from the waves and used to mark the mass grave dug for the sailors. Every bit the Scottish lady, she is dressed in a tam-o’-shanter cap and a sporran. She has a cutlass and a round shield with a thistle carved on it. There are what appears to be beads at her ankles and a sash across her chest covers what looks like chainmail. For more than 160 years she stood guard over her men but recently was moved into the safety of the church and a replica took over her silent vigil.

Thomas James, Mylor

“We Have Not a Moment We Can Call our Own

In Memory of

Thomas James

Aged 35

Who on the Evening of the 7th Dec 1814 on his return to Flushing

from St Mawes in a Boat was shot by a custom

house officer & expired in a few hours after.

Officious zeal in luckless hour laid wait

And wilful sent the murderous ball of fate

James to his home, which late in health he left

Wounded returned – of life is soon bereft.”

This headstone always makes me ponder who is really responsible of the poetic sentiments of epitaphs like this, a grieving parent, an angry friend or was it the stone mason himself? The circumstances of what actually befell Thomas James on that evening in December were, fortunately for us, widely reported at the time.

That day in 1814 three men, Richard Kempe and his son, also called Richard, and Thomas James were in a small boat near Trefusis Point, the headland which marks the entrance to the Carrick Roads. According to Richard Kempe they had nothing on board but a few pilchards and were heading for home when they spotted the revenue boat approaching. He later told the court that they had only heard the customs men hail them once before they began shooting at them without provocation or further warning. After searching their boat and coming up empty handed the officials apparently berating the fishermen, saying that they were customs officers and could fire on whomever they liked, whenever they liked. They then rowed away, despite Kempe apparently calling after them that Thomas James had been wounded.

unusual epitaphs

However, in court in July 1815 the customs officers, now known to be Edward Cornish, Henry Odger and Richard Painter, related a rather different chain of events. They claimed that they repeatedly hailed the small boat as they rowed towards it but were ignored and heard the men on board swearing. It was Painter who fired on them, though he claimed he only did so to intimidate the fishermen into stopping. When the officers searched the boat they found nothing suspicious and weren’t aware that anyone had been hurt. Although Richard Painter was charged with murder the day after the incident at the trial his colleagues and superiors all came to give evidence in his defence. The Falmouth jury returned a verdict of manslaughter.

Reading the words on this headstone now, so many years later, I think it is still possible to detect the restrained feelings of anger towards Painter but there is regret and resentfulness there too, towards the capricious hand of fate which saw a bullet, supposedly fired into the air as warning, find its fatal mark.

Daniel Gumb, Linkinhorne

“Here I lie by the churchyard door

Here I lie because I am poor

The further in the more you pay

Yet here lie I as warm as they.”

Mr Daniel Gumb is one of my favourite Cornish characters. He is a man most famous for his extraordinary stone house out on Bodmin Moor not far from the Cheesewring and the strange astronomical and mathematical carvings he made on nearby rocks. But Gumb was also a stone mason whose works can be found in Linkinhorne graveyard. A decorative headstone now hanging on the church wall commemorating two women, Katherine Nicols and Joan Mullis, is signed – Cut by Daniel Gumb.

When Gumb died in 1776 his own headstone was said to have been inscribed with the words above. Sadly it has since disappeared but I wanted to record the lines here.

Mary & Ann Moore, St Clement

Those of you that read my posts frequently will know that there is nothing that I like better than setting something straight that the passage of history has somehow muddled up. Unfortunately this is true for the grave of two small children which can be found at St Clement near Truro.

” Here lie two little ones

Whose dayes were tender as their bones.

Pray dout not their felicity

That with out actuall sins do dye

The body of Ann Moore lyeth here that dyed

June the 26th 1725. And the body of Mary Moore that

dyed September the 5th 1725,”

Their headstone is a wonderful example of the fickleness of spelling in the 18th century but that doesn’t really explain the error. Unfortunately, and for no logical reason, their inscription has been recorded in numerous places as being unusual and comical because it supposedly reads: ‘Whose ears were tender as their bones’. I can only imagine the inscription was mis-remembered as ‘years’ and that that somehow became ‘ears’ . . . ?

unusual epitaphs

In any case the headstone marks the resting place of two sisters. Ann was just one year old when she died and Mary was three. Their parents John Moore who was from Redruth and Mary Tresahar from St Clement had married in the village in 1717. They had no more children after Ann and Mary. It is worth noting that the gravestone is unusually large for the period, possibly denoting the father’s wealth or perhaps the depth of their affection for their girls, and set horizonal instead of upright which is also strange.

Final Thoughts

I hope you have enjoyed the stories above as much as I have enjoyed putting them together. There are many more that I would have liked to have added such as Joseph Emidy in Kenwyn, the Sise tomb in St Ives and Mary Arundell’s tomb at Duloe. Perhaps I will return to this theme in the future, if you have any similar inscriptions you would like to share with me, to add to my collection, please do get in touch.

Further Reading

William Tresidder’s Grave

The Longest Grave in the UK – Veryan, Cornwall

Who was Pirate John ‘Eyebrows’ Thomas?

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10 thoughts on “Unusual Epitaphs in Cornwall

  1. Hi! I’m a descendant of Daniel Gumb and have a picture of the inscription on his grave stone from another descendant of his. It reads slightly differently to what you have written. I can send it to you if you like?

  2. Your narratives are so poignant and nuanced. Too often the headstones or footstones are unkempt and illegible-at les there in the US-particularly in New England where there are many graves of those who were immigrants. The lines shared have so much to tell us who tarry there, listening to the voices of the long dead.

  3. I recently came across the war graves in St. Piran’s churchyard, Perranzabuloe. 19 of the headstones have the same dates (7th or 8th July 1940) – I’ve found the following explanation on the internet…
    “On 7th July 1940 a lone Luftwaffe bomber flying at low altitude dropped its bombs on the nearby Penhale Army Camp at Perranporth, killing twenty two men, nineteen of whom are buried here. To add to the tragedy, all had survived the evacuation at Dunkirk just a month earlier”.
    Sometimes the simplest inscriptions can tell a sad story.

    1. Thank you so much for this, I actually went to take a look at the graves today. Very moving, I think I might look into it a bit with the isea of perhaps writing something for remembrance sunday . . . Thanks again x

      1. Many thanks for your comments – I’m pleased you found it interesting. I’ll look forward to reading your Remembrance Sunday post (no pressure!)

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