Where you are: Local History - Snippets - Stories in Stone
  Stories in Stone by Roseanne Lawton


Last year I completed a placement with The Churches Conservation Trust based on the churchyard of the Wentworth Old Church, a site they have cared for since 1974. My placement would extend the Trust's knowledge and understanding of the graveyard and help this historic site remain open and cared for. This is a brief taste of `some things I discovered and how I found the "Stories in Stone".

I felt I had to understand the history of Wentworth Old Churchyard before I could begin to understand what is there today. I decided to start my placement looking through the records in the Sheffield, Rotherham and Doncaster Archives.

It became clear that the graveyard was established because Wentworth lies roughly in the middle of a linear shaped parish. Carrying a body from the western edge perhaps beyond Hoyland to be buried at Wath would have been a major undertaking, especially in the 12th Century when the area had few roads. A chapel-of-ease was needed in the centre of the parish. The church authorities were reluctant to fund the chapel. The solution to the problem was to build at Wentworth; it had a family, the Wentworths, that were becoming increasingly wealthy and were anxious to demonstrate how important they were. They largely paid for the church and its graveyard and the family continued to maintain and fund it.       

I next made a plan of the site and then began to plot the location of the graves within it. I noticed that many of the graves were not dug on the traditional east-west line. This graveyard however was always controlled by the Wentworth/ Fitzwilliam family who had other considerations. Also most of the village worked for the family and they would want to be remembered by them when they died, so along the pathway leading to the chancel door, which before 1877 was the private entrance way for the Fitzwilliams, gravestones were set facing onto the path so that they could be read and hopefully remembered by the family as they walked to church.

Standing beside the church doorway is a gravestone commemorating "Mrs Hannah Jennet, the Housekeeper of Wentworth House" ("Mrs" was a courtesy title, she never married). She stands at the door, as she always had at Wentworth, head of the female servants, ready to welcome the family back home from London.

Using a variety of sources I began to understand who was buried in which grave and how the graves where connected not only to the Wentworth/Fitzwilliam family but also how they connected to each other. The Birams are a good example of this. Joshua and his son Benjamin share a family tomb, a table model, then very fashionable, beside the entrance to the church.  As I researched the family I discovered that Joshua had served as the Steward of the Household and also managed the Estate’s industrial and mining interests. On his retirement his son took over his duties. Father and son steered the Estate into becoming an extremely wealthy one. The Earl Fitzwilliam thought so much of Ben Biram, one of the 19th Century’s greatest mining engineers, that he began his letters to him with "My dear Ben". If the Birams were so important on the Estate I wondered why were they not buried within the church? I began to look at other graves around them. Did they choose to be buried outside the church because they wanted to be close to John Kedman and his family, their relatives-by-marriage? I realised that if the church was a sepulchre for the Fitzwilliam family, the graveyard was a sepulchre for its retainers.

The oldest gravestone is that of Ralph Cutt of Harley, who died in 1670. The church certainly existed in and almost certainly well before 1235, so for over 400 years all the burials outside of the church were unmarked and never had gravestones. After the 17th Century, when graves began to be marked, it is impossible to say what proportion of those stones that were there have survived.

I decided to see if the poorer villagers were ever able to mark their graves, so I looked at the family names in receipt of parish relief in the 18th Century; these family names do not occur on any of the remaining gravestones at Wentworth, they probably never did. However some poor families did make a tremendous effort to erect a gravestone, a good example, near the gateway, is to the memory of George Hobson who died in 1892 leaving a widow with eight children under the age of 14.

Despite being in very straightened circumstances his widow had a substantial and expensive grave stone erected. However, over time her investment proved to be a good one, as it was also used to mark her burial in 1938, commemorates her second husband  William Rouse (buried across the road), Joseph Wm. Wright, who died 1980 aged 91 and Mabel and Winnie Booth, her granddaughters.

As you see from the few examples I have used here, I have collated many "Stories in Stone" but I do not feel the records are mine, I merely take care of them until I can pass them on. Through Wentworth Village Talk I have made contact with some family historians researching their Wentworth ancestors. They have all shared their family information with me, giving me leads I have to follow. I cannot see when this work will be completed or my interest in Wentworth churchyard lost.

[After her retirement from Tickhill Post Office, Roseanne studied for a BA (Hons) in Heritage Studies at Lincoln, her placement with the CCT being part of her course work. Roseanne was awarded her BA at Lincoln Cathedral in 2011.]        

Sharing Our Heritage