WITH their grey stone slabs and fading inscriptions, they hardly look like the stuff of cultural treasure. Yet, behind their weathered facades, South Yorkshire’s countless headstones are battered monuments which reveal more about local history than meets the eye.
All Saints churchyard in Darfield, Barnsley, is the eternal resting place of some of the area’s most interesting headstones - not for their stone-masonry, but for the extraordinary stories they tell. It’s because of this remarkable history, trapped within the churchyard’s iron gates and softly sloping grounds, that the Friends of Darfield Churchyard are trying to restore some of the most fascinating headstones.
One of the most unusual is that of Robert Millthorp - a teenage apprentice stonemason crushed to death by his own headstone.
His epitaph is immortalised in the fine Victorian inscription on his grave, which explains that here lie ‘the mortal remains of Robert Millthorp who died September 13 1826 aged 19 years. He lost his life by inadvertently throwing this stone upon himself whilst in the service of James Raywood or Ardsley, who erected it in his memory.’
Such was the terrible quirkiness of the young man’s fate that it has made it into a list of the top 20 headstones in the UK.
John Kendall, aged 73, from Darfield, who helps run the Friends of Darfield Churchyard, said: “The lad was supposedly working on this church when he dropped the stone on himself and died. If you look at the size of it, how he lifted it up in the first place beggars belief.”
That’s not the only memorial gem in Darfield’s little cemetery.
Around the corner is the tomb of the Ebeneezer Elliot, whose politically-fuelled poetry helped repeal the Corn Laws which, between 1813 and 1846, kept the price of UK corn at extremely high prices. The Corn Laws were designed to protect UK corn prices against competition from cheaper foreign corn. In reality the laws exacerbated poverty while enhancing the political power and profits of land owners. In 1792 grain was priced at 43 shillings a quarter and in 1812 the price had shot up to 126 shillings per quarter. For the poor, this meant bread was too expensive to buy.
Ebeneezer took to the cause to his heart. He set up the Anti Corn League in Sheffield and became known as the ‘Corn Law Rhymer’ - his poems were witty, biting attacks on the wealthy land owners - many of whom were in politics as well - who, reaped the benefits of the Corn Laws.
“You coop us up, and tax our bread, and wonder why we pine,” he penned. “But ye are fat, and round and red. And filled with tax-bought wine. Why are ye call’d ‘My lord’ and ‘Squire’ while fed by mine and me? And wringing food, and clothes, and fire, from bread-taxed misery.”
Ebeneezer’s grave is a popular tourist attraction - attracting visitors from across the globe.
His poems were published internationally and were particularly popular in France.
The Friends of Darfield Churchyard have even launched a campaign to restore the grave and its iron railings to their Victorian splendour.
And already, Ebeneezer’s grave has stood the test of time - when all the other railings in the churchyard were sawn down to be melted and re-used as munitions for the war, Ebeneezer’s were left respectfully untouched.
Ebeneezer is not the only immortal Darfield resident to see his resting place restored.
Adjacent to Ebeneezer’s grave is the Houghton Memorial, which marks the pit disaster of 1886 when 10 miners were killed in a cage leaving the pit at Houghton Main. The cage was overwound, smashing into the headgear and roof of the engine house. As a result, the rope dropped the entire distance of the shaft - 535 yards - and with it the cage and its occupants. It is estimated the cage, complete with the 10 men, would have dropped at a speed of 200 miles per hour and taken less than 12 seconds to reach the bottom of the shaft.
Among the men killed was Joseph Walker, aged 48, and his two sons Samuel and Charles, 20 and 19. Father and son Joseph Pearson, 47, and Joseph Pearson Junior, 20, along with James Hardcastle, 49, Alvin Hardcastle, 18, Edward Baxter, 20, William Mannion, 42 and William Barton, 17, made up the dead - together they belonged to just three Barnsley families.
The Friends have raised money to restore the monument and aim to be finished by this summer.
“It’s a hobby working in the churchyard,” says John. “It’s beautiful. It’s covered in snowdrops now, then it will be daffodils, and then bluebells.”
His is a personal link, too. Three generations of John’s family are also buried in the churchyard... will he be buried there too?
“Yes, I will,” he says with confidence.