Timber Crosses

Conservation in the Churchyard of St Mary & St John, Oxford

Paul Simons

Drawings showing front and left hand side elevations of a timber cross

Headstones and churchyard memorials are predominantly made of stone, often local, and in a town renowned for its stone architecture it is quite surprising to find a large number of timber memorials in one of its city-centre churchyards.

The Parish Church of St Mary & St John is on the busy Cowley Road in the heart of Oxford in a culturally diverse and vibrant urban community. The church was consecrated in 1878 and the churchyard laid out over the following decades on the principles of the Victorian landscaped cemetery.

  Surviving ‘pented’ (or roofed) timber cross in situ
  Pented timber cross and Portland stone plinth
  Surviving timber crosses in the churchyard of St Mary & St John: one reason for choosing oak is that it is believed to decay at a similar rate to the human body, creating a poignant memorial and a dilemma for any conservationist.
(Photos: Oxfordshire Family History Society)

By 2000, however, the churchyard had fallen into serious disuse, being totally overgrown and closed for burials. A restoration project was launched and a management plan produced aimed at creating a green welcoming space in the busy urban environment of Oxford. Volunteer working parties took on the task of removing accumulated litter, including hundreds of discarded syringe needles, and of cutting back high shrubs and rampant brambles and ivy so that there would be visibility throughout. Hedges were planted around the boundary to replace some of the bird habitat lost in the clearance.

At the same time, a small group worked with the Oxford Family History Society to create a map of the grave plots and to transcribe the inscriptions on all the gravestones. A great boost was given to the project in 2003 when the churchyard was designated a Jubilee Wildlife Space, one of ten new ‘spaces for nature’ in the county created as a tribute to the Queen for her golden jubilee. This was followed by a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund which, from the summer of 2005, supported the development of educational material to encourage exploration of both the wildlife and the local social history. Crucially, the grant covered the restoration of selected memorials by expert conservators and the repairs required to make the churchyard safe, which is much appreciated by those who were formerly too fearful to visit their family graves.

A characteristic feature of the graveyard is the ‘pented’ (or roofed) timber crosses dating from 1890 to 1930. They are constructed of oak and in some cases the roof sections were covered in lead. The base of each cross was fixed with an iron bolt or pin into a Portland stone plinth, usually pyramidal in shape. Some of the crosses have inscriptions in the timber or on the stone plinth but many had become illegible. Most of them had badly decayed timberwork, some had collapsed or were broken and many had disappeared altogether.

There are several possible explanations for the presence of such a large number of timber crosses at the site:

  • a timber memorial is cheaper than stone
  • the simplicity of the crosses was in keeping with the ethos of the Society of St John the Evangelist, based at the church
  • oak is considered by some to be a suitable marker for a grave because it decays at a similar rate to the human body, creating
    a poignant juxtaposition. This manner of marking a burial plot contrasts with the more widely held ethos of marking a grave
    in perpetuity.

Despite the third issue above, it was decided to commission McCurdy & Co, a company which specialises in the repair and conservation of historic timberwork and buildings, to research a series of repairs and replacement proposals that would preserve a representative sample of these unusual crosses.

This very small scale project highlights a number of complex conservation issues rarely encountered together on major repair schemes. It led to a range of solutions being adopted and tried based on sound pragmatism: practical application with a degree of experimentation. The client was closely involved in all decisions concerning the appropriateness of repair solutions when dealing with the sensitivities surrounding monuments to the deceased and relationships with some of the surviving family members.

  Range of crosses, markers and stone plinths in workshop
  Timber crosses in the workshop of McCurdy & Co show the variety of solutions adopted for the repair of surviving crosses and a simplified grave marker where the original timber had been completely lost.
  Craftsman working on repairs
  Repairs underway at McCurdy & Co’s workshops

Following a survey of the existing crosses and surviving plinth stones where the timber crosses themselves had disappeared, a repair philosophy was developed for this project based on the following objectives:

  • to replicate new examples of the two predominant types of timber cross, named ‘simple’ and ‘complex’ due to the nature of the mouldings on the cross shafts and pented roof pieces
  • to devise a simplified grave marker for both cross types where the original timber had been completely lost
  • to repair the best examples of the two types with minimal yet structurally sound interventions
  • to repair the individual earthbound timber cross designs and give protective weathering to the inscriptions wherever possible
  • to replace the only surviving timber grave surround in the churchyard
  • to use a simple in situ solution of hidden timber wedges and fillet pieces to secure a number of surviving but loose crosses.

McCurdy & Co’s craftsmen were sensitive to the cost constraints of the project and helped to keep the costs down by using the experience as a training project for the company’s apprentices. They produced measured drawings showing the condition of each type of cross and then developed scaled workshop drawings for the fabrication of the new crosses. The project was undertaken by the trainees in the company workshops at Manor Farm in Stanford Dingley, Berkshire. All the work was overseen by the experienced workshop foreman.

The practical conservation work was carried out following a simple set of rules:

  • the minimum of repair work was to be carried out in order to conserve as much as possible of the original fabric of the surviving crosses
  • construction of the new crosses and the repairs were to be faithful to the original designs, timber sections and jointing techniques
  • the client required that the crosses should last for another 30-40 years before further conservation work is likely to be needed.
  Visible repair to cross shaft
  Modern repairs designed to protect partially-eroded inscription
  Typical repair techniques used to conserve surviving timber crosses and their inscriptions

These principles framed the scope and approach of the work which generally included the following:

  • the weathering aspects of repaired crosses were improved to ensure better protection and shedding of rainwater from softened and eroded surfaces
  • the mouldings were matched by hand using traditional wooden moulding planes
  • the non-ferrous screw fixings were pelleted with oak plugs taken from the same piece of wood
  • whenever an inscription was still legible but likely to be lost to further erosion in the next 5–10 years, the carved or inscribed name was renewed by one of the McCurdy & Co craftsmen
  • all timber used was air-dried British oak except for two of the original crosses which were of teak, to which minor capping was added in a matching material to stop further deterioration
  • some of the repaired crosses that are earthbound only and do not have a stone plinth were raised out of the damp soil by utilising hidden, yet sacrificial, new lower sections, scarfed or recessed into the back face of the posts or shaft. These can be easily replaced in 50 years time when they have rotted without any serious further erosion or cutting away taking place to the original cross
  • re-connecting the stone plinths to the timber crosses with specially fabricated stainless steel anchor fixings, left ‘dry’ and not resin bonded, in order to allow air circulation within any cavities and drainage of any rainwater penetration
  • the types of repairs included full scarfs, face scarfs and various types of face patch.

In all, the completed project consisted of 13 repaired or replaced crosses, one new grave surround and in situ repairs to a further nine crosses. The budget of £5,000 was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Further information may be found by visiting the websites www.ssmjchurchyard. org.uk and www.mccurdyco.com.

The project has since been nominated for a number of national and local conservation and environmental awards, winning a special award from the Oxford Preservation Trust in 2007.

 

 

 

This article is reproduced from Historic Churches, 2007

Author

PAUL SIMONS is a timber conservator with McCurdy & Co and was responsible for the project to conserve and repair the timber crosses of St Mary & St John.

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