an article by Val Moir (illustrations by June Drew)
On April 30th 1683 the Helmdon parish records show that ,"Betty Garland
the little pretty daughter of Nump Garland was then buried within
that territory of the dead the church-yard at Helmdon". Over 300 years
later, and with two or three additions to the original ground, this
area is still used and enjoyed as a peaceful place to walk, sit and
enjoy meeting the people who take such care to make it a tranquil
The churchyard is remarkable for two botanical features. The yew tree
is certified as 1,700 years old. It is amazing to think the Romans
were still ruling the country when this tree was young. In 312 the
Emperor Constantine, who is said to have been born at York, converted
to Christianity, which subsequently became the official religion of
the Romans. Helmdon also has an unusually large collection of lichen
growing on the gravestones, an indication of the unpolluted atmosphere.
In an endeavour to record the inscriptions on the gravestones a small
group of W. E. A. members has roughly mapped the graveyard and wherever
possible listed the memorials, checking with the parish burial register
the names and dates found. The registers have been most helpful as,
when on average only twelve people were buried each year, the date
which usually came at the bottom of the old stones remained decipherable
when the name was lost. We cannot say for certain that we have linked
all the inscriptions correctly but suggest it as a strong possibility.
A pair of sheep shears carved on one stone in a row of Gilks graves
indicated another of that family, as they were frequently recorded
as shepherds, but as no name or date was legible we could not record
No stones with amusing inscriptions were found but some did reveal
considerable information about the life of the deceased. George Parkin
of Helmdon Grange, who died in 1843, had the following inscription,
"Sacred to the memory of Geo. Parkin. In his early life he served
in the Regt. of Life Guards and subsequently in the Fencible Reg.
of his County during the Irish Rebellion in the Reign of King George
and died in his native village on the 2nd day of July 1843 aged 77
years". There are 8 impressive stones commemorating members of the
Parkin family from 1789 until 1886 when Mary Ann nee Parkin, widow
of Martin Humphrey, died. Two of George's sons died before him. George
aged 30 died in 1841 and John aged 27 in 1842.
Although the practice of erecting permanent memorials seems to have
been uncommon before 1700 Helmdon has at least five on which names
and dates are clear. The earliest marked the grave of members of the
Shortland family who were buried in 1678. Richard Shortland, an infant,
died on March the 8th, Ann Shortland daughter of Richard Shortland
died on May the 7th and Joyce Shortland died on July the 1st. As an
indication of mans mortality the stone is decorated with the skull
and crossbones. Another early memorial records the burial place of
Vincent Shortland who died in 1680. Carved at the top of this stone
is the head of a cherub or putto. This represents the messenger of
the Gods who accompanied a man through his life and protected his
soul and finally conducted it to the final resting place. The Shortland
family are mentioned in the papers of Earl Ferrers relating to property
at Astwell in the 14th century (Leicestershire Record Office).
There are also early headstones marking the graves of John Bown, Edward
Elkington, Barbara Stockley and two Edward Harriotts before 1700.
Two more Edward Harriotts have memorials on the exterior south wall
of the chancel, though they are now very difficult to read. We are
fortunate to have a record of these inscriptions and those inside
the church in Baker's History and Antiquities of Northampton published
in 1822. Baker transcribed the memorials of Edward Harriott, gent.
died 27th April 1729 aged 47; Ann his wife who died 8th August 1774
aged 85; and John their second son who died 6th March 1737 aged 11.
The other is to the Reverend Edward Harriott, Rector of the adjoining
parish of Syresham, died 7th April 1797 aged 72 and Mary his wife
who died on 22 January 1820 aged 75.
The most beautifully carved stone is appropriately dedicated to John
Stockley who died in 1714. He was one of a family of stone masons,
and one wonders if he spent his declining years carving his own memorial
or whether a grieving apprentice was pleased to repay past kindness.
Edward Parry mentions John in his article on Helmdon stone in Northants
Past and Present Vol.vii and says that in his will he left his three
children £40 each, a considerable sum at the time. Blenheim Palace
accounts held at the British Library show John Stockley being paid
for Helmdon stone and its carriage in 1706.
In addition to the burial register Helmdon is fortunate in having
a register of affidavits. To promote the declining wool trade, an
Act of Parliament was passed in 1666, and another in 1678, stating
that all bodies must be wrapped in wool only. Those who could afford
it would still have been in a wooden coffin, but the body had first
to be wrapped in wool and a certificate issued to that effect by a
Justice of the Peace or a neighbouring clergyman presented within
8 days of the burial. This Act was in place until 1814 but had been
disregarded for some years before this. The Helmdon record of affidavits
was kept from 1678 to 1785.
The language of these early years seems quaint to us now. It is written
in the register of affidavits in 1684 that "Elizabeth Bown, widow
of the Parish of Helmdon was then let down into her dormitory or (if
you please) was then buried in the churchyard of Helmdon". In 1683
"Edward Harriotts was then let down into the ground and buried in
a pit-hole made in the church-yard of Helmdon".
We found no stones to members of the Emily family who had lived in
the village for generations but the affidavit register shows that
some, if not all, were buried within the church.
In the older part of the churchyard with graves dating from earliest
times until about 1900 we were able to locate 263 stones. During this
period over 2000 bodies were buried, so, even accounting for some
stones being broken and some reportedly used to build the retaining
wall to the graveyard, it is clear that the vast majority of people
were buried with no lasting memorial.
We hope that when the list of inscriptions is put in good order and
typed for easy reference it will be of use to those in the future
with an interest in the past residents of Helmdon.
Article from Aspects of Helmdon 2 by Val Moir
Helmdon Parish Records
Baker History and Antiquities of Northampton Vol. 1
Edward Parry Helmdon Stone (Northants Past and Present Vol. vii)