During the 19th century inscriptions were used both within the grave and on above ground memorials. Guest-blogger Sarah Hoile, PhD candidate at UCL Institute of Archaeology, is examining the ways these different media were used.
On June 18th 1828, John Cotton died in Devonshire Place in Marylebone, London, near Regent’s Park . His body was placed in a coffin with at least two layers, with an inner layer made of lead with a nameplate fixed to it with stamped lettering. This large, expensive coffin was probably covered in fabric and was ornamented with metal handles and other decorative metal items. The largest item of this ‘coffin furniture’ was the large brass coffin breastplate attached to the outer coffin, inscribed with his coat of arms and expertly engraved lettering in two different styles: “JOHN COTTON ESQR Died 18th June 1828. Aged 63 Years”. He was interred in the vaults beneath St Marylebone Church. The plates for three other people named Cotton suggest that he may have been laid to rest alongside family members.
A small lead nameplate attached to one end would have made it easier to locate individual coffins in the vaults. Later, a monument was fixed to the wall of the church, perhaps near the pew where he had sat. This also includes his coat of arms and has a few more details carved in upper case lettering, and a statement that indicates the kind of man his relatives wanted to commemorate him as, and the loss they felt: “Beloved respected and deeply lamented by his family friends and all who knew him.”
The plates attached to the coffin, and the monument are clearly very different items, despite relating to the same individual and being created at a similar time. Coffin plates and church monuments are unlike each other in many ways; in their materials, visibility and use, for example. They were produced by different manufacturers or craftspeople and used at different stages of bereavement – monuments take time to commission and create, whereas coffin plates were held in undertakers’ stores and inscribed at short notice for the funeral. Importantly, their costs and availability were very different. Many early 19th century coffins would have had a coffin plate, a funeral cost which was prioritised by all those who could afford it and, by this period, widely available in cheap materials, whereas even simple headstones were out of reach for many bereaved families, and church monuments prohibitively expensive to all but a very few. Despite this, there are similarities that make it interesting to look at both above- and below-ground funerary material of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Both include lettering, some include the use of Latin words, and some include motifs that we may or may not consider to be ‘funerary’, such as winged cherub heads.
I’m interested in these comparisons to explore changing styles and rates of change, and what this might say about attitudes to, and the increasing commercialisation of, death and burial. As part of my PhD research I have had the opportunity to directly compare the coffin plates and church monuments of one community and, in some cases, the same individuals, which has enabled me to start to unpick the relationships between stylistic choices of these objects and the social status of those they commemorated. The vaults of St Marylebone Church were closed for burials in 1853 and were cleared in the early 1980s, and the coffin plates of just under 700 people are now preserved in the collections of the Department of Typography and Graphic Communication at the University of Reading, where I have been fortunate enough to record and study them.
The words chosen for John Cotton’s monument are indicative of a development in the conventions of commemoration in the early 19th century. Sarah Tarlow’s ground-breaking work on commemoration  found that, in Orkney, emotional language became increasingly common on gravestones in the 19th century. At St Marylebone, of the monuments which commemorate a person who died between 1801 and 1853, half included emotional language, as John Cotton’s monument does. His coffin plate, though, is typical in recording only the bare facts, although in beautiful lettering. In this community, the lettering of these plates is notably different from the lettering on the church monuments, suggesting that different conventions applied to articles for burial and those for ongoing commemoration – something I will be exploring further as I look at more sites.
Sarah Hoile is a PhD candidate at UCL Institute of Archaeology. Her research investigates changes in coffin furniture in the 18th and early 19th centuries, mainly focusing on material from London. You can follow Sarah on Twitter: @SarahHoile
- The Gentleman’s Magazine, 1828. Deaths, The Gentleman’s Magazine June 1828, 646
- Tarlow, S., 1999. Bereavement and Commemoration: An Archaeology of Mortality. Oxford: Blackwell
All photos by the author.
Many thanks to staff at the Department of Typography and Graphic Communication, University of Reading and at St Marylebone Church.