SEE US IN A NEW LIGHT
Am I ‘bovvered’ – are you?
The Very Revd Geoff Miller, Dean of Newcastle, writes…
The Cathedral has loads (and loads) of old memorials (and to avoid any misunderstanding let me clearly state that I’m not being rude about our lovely congregants!). We have 178 memorials to be precise – and that doesn’t include the dedications of stained-glass windows, ledger stones and various pieces of furniture. Just imagine how many stories they could all tell. I’m sure you will be relieved to know that I don’t intend to share my deep (wise and humble) reflections on each one of them. It would however be miserable (and lax) of me not offer some cursory thoughts on this cluttering collection so unique to the Cathedral!!!!
Now of course these memorials come in so many different shapes and sizes. And the very fact that there are so many means that it is all too easy to become blazè, overlooking their beauty and craftmanship. [I recall a similar feeling years ago when visiting Rome and Florence doing Inter-Rail, ‘Not another Michelangelo’, I retorted nonchalantly to my travel mate!] As you may expect most of the Cathedral memorials commemorate great and good Novocastrians (usually men too) and they are suitably ornate and grand – come and see for yourself next year when we re-open. Attached is a photo of one of the most elaborate but most hidden. You can find it tucked in the north-west corner, just by the entrance onto Cathedral Square – though until a few weeks ago (and the big clear-out of 2020) it was hidden by the stack of go-pack tables and the full-size facsimile of the Thornton Brass that were stored there. It was recently restored (by ‘Debs’, of course!) when the woman’s protruding arm was put back on, what a relief for the poor girl! The sculpture by E.H.Bailey was commissioned in memory of Calverly Bewicke esq. It comprises of a seated figure of the deceased supported by a female figure kneeling to the left and another figure standing to the right holding an anchor. It is white marble set in a grey stone surround with low arches and carries, to me, a sad final sentence which perhaps explains the tone of the sculpture:
‘MARGARET BEWICKE HIS WIDOW…….. RAISED THIS MONUMENT AS A TRIBUTE TO HIS VIRTUES, AND A MEMORIAL OF HER AFFLICTION.’ [My underling and italics]
Apparently, a part of this memorial was exhibited in the Royal Academy, Somerset House in 1819. It was, on the whole, well received – though not completely. See the entry in The Examiner Newspaper:
‘It is of a female, sunk on the shoulder, and holding the hand of her husband, who is looking up as if, in a ‘silent soft address,’ he was invoking a blessing upon the disconsolate mourner. The performance touches the heart to its centre. It has much of the rhetoric of actual life, when the bitterness of parting in death occurs between friends, the souls anguish rejects all wonted enjoyments, the garden of the world appears as a gloomy wilderness, and the days of peace to be departed.’
A touching assessment but then the sting in the tail:
‘…but certainly the angel might, with great propriety, have been omitted. It is in very bad taste, and injures the effect of the whole. Everyone must regret that this fine monument should be covered and disfigured, with a black veil of soot, imbibed by the moisture to which it is exposed.’
Or hidden behind a pile of go-pack tables we might add.
Of course, there are so many other grand and wonderful examples – not least the Maddison and Hall memorials, the fantastic fifteenth Century Flemish Thornton Brass (spot the dog!), and of course the three Collingwood memorials (Cuthbert, Edward and ‘wor’ Bruce). But I have to be honest and say that when it comes to favourites, I prefer some of the more modest, unremarkable and uncelebrated examples. Usually, I must add, not because of their craftmanship or beauty (in some cases quite the opposite) but because of the people stories they tell or at least tantalisingly hint at. Inevitably there are some personal favourites.
For example, it would be easy to miss John Bover’s memorial which is on the wall just outside St Margaret’s chapel. Indeed, to be honest, it isn’t much to look at. The memorial was erected by his son to a ‘beloved parent’ and praises Captain Bover for filling the ‘arduous situation of regulating officer at this port.
But others had quite a different view of him! He was after all the feared press gang captain for Newcastle. He really was feared – there are folk songs to that tell the story of how he was held in dread. There’s a lovely version available today sung today by the great Katherine Tickell.
One modern commentator, Corrina Hewitt, writes:
‘Press Gangs were greatly feared on Tyneside, as they used cruelly harsh and oppressive measures to recruit seamen, inevitably meeting with resistance and resulting in riots and bloodshed. Even the keelmen of Sandgate, Newcastle, highly skilled and sought-after boatmen who handled the movement of coal from the riverside to ships on the River Tyne, were not safe and lived in constant fear of the ‘Regulation Officer’ Captain Bover and his Press Gang who operated on the Newcastle quayside. Captain Bover died in 1792 and was commander of the Press Gang on the Tyne for many years. Evidence suggests that he did his best to carry out a harsh job as leniently as he could, but this was probably of little comfort to those affected.’
For me, with my winsome reflections, I am desperately disappointed that Captain John’s surname has only one ‘v’ – sadly we can’t claim him as the role model for ‘Lauren’ (of Katherine Tate fame, ‘Am I bovvered?’) or at the very least as Patron Saint of ‘Bovver’ boys.
Now, as you would probably expect, I’m not an angler, never have been (though I have constantly been ribbed by friends who are, that the only good use of a ‘priest’ is as the metal rod designed to hit the fish head and kill the catch – there’s a parable and sermon on Mission in there somewhere!). However, Christians have long since had a romantic affinity with fishermen especially on the shores of Galilee. So on stumbling on it, I was immediately attracted to the memorial to one Robert Roxby (1767-1846), a Redesdale wordsmith, who is often referred to as the ‘Fishermen’s poet’. He was born near Morpeth orphaned at a young age, his inheritance was placed in the hands of a local farmer who would act as his guardian, sadly it was all lost as the business failed. He found work at two local banks as a clerk, managing to make a reasonable living. He also made a great (and much younger) friend, Thomas Doubleday. Indeed, it is said that they became inseparable, enjoying the beauty of the Northumbrian rivers and hours of fishing. And he wrote lovely songs, most especially ‘The Fisher’s Garland’. What attracts me most is his friend’s simple but affectionate epitaph: ‘He was a warm friend, a trusty servant, an enlightened thinker and an honest man.’
I hope some friends will be able say such kind things of me when I’m gone – well one can live in hope. Most of all it is heart-warming that those who are remembered in this Cathedral are not only rich businessmen, distinguished scholars and clergy, honourable politicians and professionals – though it is good to mark their presence among us. But looking through the many epitaphs that cover the walls it’s also possible to find merchant adventurers, pharmacists, fishmongers, linguists to the ‘Mohammedans’, haberdashers, surgeons among the heart-wrenched parents grieving their children, partners, benefactors and loved ones. There are young soldiers as well as distinguished officers, choral scholars, faithful church folk and others who, if we were honest, probably never had much time for religion and church. They paint a rich tapestry of Newcastle life, life in every age. And I breathe a sigh of relief that not all were rich or great or even good, though all were loved at least a little.
The first few weeks of our refurbishment programme could equally be called the ‘great cover’ up. By this I mean that the work in hand is to carefully protect the memorials so that when the floor is finally lifted the inevitable disruption and dust will not leave them even more chipped, unreadable or damaged. I promise you that the grand and the not so grand will be treated alike, i.e. carefully wrapped, lovingly cared for, and even the marvellous ‘Debs’ will be on hand to help us get it right. Strange irony that the ‘cover up’ programme we embark on is all part of our desire to make sure the very opposite happens, that these memorials are revealed in all their glory to more and more people. The uncovering and revealing will be a physical and an interpretation task to undertake further down the line… and a vital one too. We have people working on it right now. I’ll tell you more another day. Of course, we will not be able to tell all the stories …. neither should we: Some deserve their privacy they have not sought too much limelight, and it’s good to leave more to explore.
We have our stories too, some of them are great and grand and others are more mundane, but they all count. This morning Tony, one of our masons came to me in great excitement. As they had lifted the first pew and some of the floor planks below he had found wedged below the dais (I guess like happy childhood days searching down the sides of the old settee) left overs from previous users. Packets of ‘Haribo’, bits of chewing gum, odd notes, cigarette ends and an old pen. Not much of any significance but signs of previous lives lived here, in this place we now call home. However, his prize find was an old shiny penny barely left with any imprint save a bit of a Victoria’s head and a date that was just possible to make out: 1883 – just three years after the pews were installed. ‘Fancy’ he said, ‘this belonged to someone from one of the very first congregation of the church after it became a Cathedral.’
We all leave our mark and sometimes in quite ordinary ways.
What mark will you and I leave – on this Cathedral perhaps, but more importantly in our places, in our networks and among our loved ones? What will we leave intentionally, and what by accident will we drop for further generations to find? To whom might it matter in years to come and ‘are we bovvered!’