The Butts Gravedigger


Go to it, then.

Who builds stronger than a mason, a shipwright or a carpenter?

Why, then, a grave-maker. For the houses that he makes last till Domesday.

The business of digging a grave is more complex than, perhaps, one might think. Traditional gravediggers used a template, made out of wood, to mark the grave ; and would remove the ‘sod’ (always an unfortunate word) -the turf on the top, before digging using shovels, and sometimes picks and mattocks.

It is a sign of the times that these tools of the grave digger’s trade have been superseded, in many developed countries, by the objective pragmatism of the back hoe loader .

I heaved a wistful sigh as I walked past a  portrait in Reading Museum. It was their gallery of Reading faces, people who had played their part in the Berkshire county town in their time.

Like George Tappin. George had a career as the gravedigger at one of the most ancient churches in the county: St Mary’s The Virgin was the place where the town was born, looking as it did over the archery butts provided by Edward IV to practice their archery skills in the Middle Ages. It is often known as St Mary’s Butts, prompting chortling from the indiscreet.

George came along much later. He began digging graves for St Mary’s Butts in 1785 and continued for 30 years before dying himself in 1842, and availing himself of a place in the churchyard.

He was known as ‘George Wheelbarow’ and latterly ‘Old George’.

He was painted much, much later, in 1891, by a local portrait, E. Butler, who had studios overlooking the Butts. I can only surmise the portrait is the result of some considerable measure of late 19th century romantic fancy, and wonder if it looked anything like George at all.

He must have made many friends, for they were well known to have wanted a lengthy epitaph carved on his gravestone. They were not successful, but the epitaph has made its way into the hands of Reading Museum along with the portrait.

“Poor George, a trusty brother of the spade

Hath now done that for him which he had done

For thousands. Thirty Summer’s suns had shone upon him as he mingled dust with dust

And many a passer by, in health, had passed to view his work who had but little thought

How soon he would to George be indebted

For his sad offices. But George is gone –

His wearied frame with lengthened toil overcome,

His labour done he laid him down and died

And added to those mouldering heaps, his own.”

I suppose it was unsurprising that the Vicar objected to this being carved upon his gravestone. For who wants to be known as a mouldering heap between now and Domesday?




10 thoughts on “The Butts Gravedigger

  1. Back in the late 1960’s I was working in Perth, Western Australia and an old bloke (well he was an old bloke to my way of thinking back then) came to work for the same mob that I was working for. He was an ex-gravedigger, and had been so for more than 30 years and he had the unusual gift, for want of a better word; at any given moment if you asked him the time of day he would tell you and be accurate to within a few seconds.

    And he never had a watch, pocket wrist or any type of timepiece whatsoever. He always new the time. When I asked him why and how he kind of shrugged and said it was something he picked up digging graves over the years working outdoors in the sun every day (and believe me in Perth that’s possible, when I fist went to live there I was longing to see some rain, when it did rain it was usually at night), instead of working to and by the clock he worked by the position of the sun. He worked alone and relied on the sun to tell him the time.

    It was quite amazing and as you see I’ve never forgotten him.

    1. What a fabulous story, Brian. I suppose gravedigging requires that its practitioners are close to nature and play the elements well. What an incredible skill to have.

      1. Yes Kate but I imagine that he is long dead now and the gift, art call it what you will probably died with him, the machine/backhoes don’t need to tell the time for ‘smoko’ or tucker time or even knock off time.

  2. “Trusty brother of the spade…” He was definitely loved and remembered for his skill. Grave digging is a humble profession and I think a portrait and memorial inscription is indeed quite unexpected! The use of a back hoe is so impersonal that I don’t foresee future poetry to grave diggers!

    1. No. No more reflections if you’re operating heavy machinery, Debra: and the silence and proximity to the elements is replaced by noise and detachment. Oh well: things change, I suppose.

  3. Firstly, let me tell you how I love your writing. I so look forward to your stories. I recently interviewed 3 gravediggers of the “backhoe” brotherhood. They talked of dynamiting rock out of the way, depths regulated by safety,and challenges inspired by the terrain and soil conditions. But I was mostly surprised by the respect for the remains, AND…. the respect for the living who were in the area while the men worked. I’m sure not every employee works with decorum, but I was surprised there were policies and expectations for a job done with homage. It was a step into a different world. Thanks for sharing. Who knew there were templates? Thanks.

    1. Thank you for that first comment, Barbara, and for the words which broaden our perspective on the backhoe brotherhood – great term. It is good to know that the manner may have changed, but the respect and reverence have stayed the same.

  4. I knew a gravedigger when I was a lad in Stockport. If I remember correctly, he go £10 per plot in this days, the 50’s. Hard work but good pay I think.

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