*Since publishing this post I have been advised by the very knowledgeable volunteer/local historian who runs the project that some of the facts in this article regarding Sir Thomas Gerard and the Civil War are incorrect despite using reliable sources to gain this information. I’ll endeavour to correct them in a future post*
My mother has always been a social history enthusiast, tracing the lives, stories, and deaths of people from within our local area, and also from further afield. I’ve inherited her enthusiasm, and we share a love of digging through old records and exploring old cemeteries for information on people, places, architecture, and historical and religious movements. During my time working in the Special Collections department of Liverpool Hope University’s Sheppard-Worlock library, I found plenty of side projects to pursue in addition to my main tasks, and plenty of histories to unearth. You can read about it here.
My mother’s interest in our local history in North West England led her to a post on social media seeking volunteers to adopt a grave in order to preserve an historic local graveyard which surrounds one of the oldest structures in the area. Windleshaw Chantry in St. Helens was built in 1415 by Sir Thomas Gerard, a local lord of the manor and landowner. A chantry is a building in which to celebrate mass, and Windleshaw Chantry was built for the Gerard family to do so.
The chantry suffered greatly in 1644 when lead was stripped from its roof to make musket balls and cannon shot by parliamentary troops on their way to the siege of Lathom House in Ormskirk during the First English Civil War. More recently, both the chantry and the surrounding graveyard have suffered from mindless acts of vandalism. However, the regular presence of a small team of local volunteers working to preserve the graves seems to have deterred potential vandals for now.
If these graves are not protected, then they will be lost to history, just like the people laid to rest there; their lives and stories, and our local culture and heritage will be gone forever. In adopting a grave, we hope to save our heritage, and preserve the stories of those buried there for future generations. The graveyard dates back to the 17th century, and has few late 20th or 21st century graves, hence the primary reason for its neglect despite it lying in the shadow of one of the oldest buildings in the area and it being the final resting place of Jean-Baptiste Francois Graux de la Bruyere, a Frenchman who brought glass making to the town. We’re pretty famous for our glass; look it up. Perhaps this is why I’m drawn to the Brontës’ Glass Town Saga (seriously though, it’s not). The site also has some beautiful monuments and the remains of the old town cross, which was partially destroyed in the seventeenth century by Puritans and subsequently moved to its current location by Catholic landowners.
This weekend, my mother and I went to the site in order to meet the other volunteers, to find out some more about its history and occupants, and of course, to adopt a grave. Due to my mother’s interest in genealogy we know a lot about our family history, including the fact that we have family members buried in the graveyard surrounding Windleshaw Chantry. It was this grave she wanted to adopt although she knew that it lies in a part of the site that has had quite a lot of work done by the volunteers.
After chatting with other volunteers, we located the grave of John and Patrick Flanagan (see below), the formerly sunken headstone of which has been raised back up out of the ground by other hard-working volunteers. Seeing that our family grave didn’t require much immediate attention, she then made the decision to adopt another grave nearby that desperately needs some T.L.C. So next week, we will begin the maintenance of the Beesley family grave. After this, we walked around the graveyard in order to view the damage and the repairs to the monuments, and the remains of the chantry building. As we were inspecting the site, my mother stumbled upon the neglected grave of a five week old child, and promptly decided to adopt that grave too.
So next week we will return and begin our maintenance of the graves. There are similar schemes across the country regarding the preservation of historical graveyards and sites, and if you have the opportunity to contribute to the preservation of your local, religious, and/or family heritage, then do so. Below you can see the graves in their current states. I hope to post some more photographs once we have begun our maintenance. And as my mother is currently researching the lives of the occupants of these graves, hopefully I can provide this information in a future post.
Right next to our newly adopted grave was a rather curious headstone which read “NOT TO BE REOPENED.” We can only guess that one of the occupants died of something contagious which is why this warning was added to the headstone. I’ve never seen anything quite like it before. Have you?
I’ll leave you with some more photographs so you can see how much work has been done in certain respects, but how much more there is still to do.
By Nicola F.
Thanks for reading. Find me on twitter @BronteBabeBlog where I tweet about books, the Brontës, and animal rights. A lot.
Please do not copy, share, or use the images from this post without seeking permission first. Please also remember to credit me for my original photographs.