Interesting Facts about the Churchyard
Over the past few months, great interest has been shown in the maintenance of the churchyard - the churchyard provides the eye with a setting for the church. If weeds and nettles almost reach across pathways, and if the tops of the headstones appear just above a sea of grass, the whole area looks like an untidy mess and distracts the viewer from appreciating the church building itself. Many churchyards are overgrown and untended, some are cleared - perhaps twice a year - by some local group whilst others are kept generally tidy. In small villages, sheep can be seen around the church and they keep the grass short as part of their diet! The churchyard is one of the few places in a town where natural life can develop as it should. It is more than a garden around a church it is a natural setting where people can come for quiet reflection whilst tending the graves of their loved ones. On the other hand, old churchyards are cluttered with graves which have not been personally attended for many years because the last of the local line have themselves died or near relatives have left the area. For the researcher into family history a stone hidden by grass or an overgrown shrub might hide a large piece of genealogy.
A group of people “Friends of Prescot Cemetery and Churchyard” is an organisation formed in September 2013 to work with Knowsley Council and the church, plus other groups, to improve and maintain Prescot churchyard and cemetery. Thanks to them the place looks a lot tidier. The Friends picked up litter, pulled weeds, swept walkways and removed dead flowers. Recently they have planted spring bulbs along the footpaths and on 8th December 2013, a Christmas Tree of Remembrance was planted and dedicated and names of loved ones, to be remembered, were placed on the tree. Donations were given towards a children’s memorial for the many babies and stillborn infants buried in unmarked graves in the churchyard and cemetery.
The churchyard now has, at the south side, a new War Memorial commemorating BICC employees who gave their lives in the first and second World Wars. It was dedicated in October 2011. The Bronze memorial plaques had originally been mounted on a wall inside the main factory gates in Station Road. At the time of the Great War the company, then British Insulated & Helsby Cables, lost 116 employees who had fallen in the conflict. After WWII, another bronze panel memorial was dedicated to 73 employees who had perished. By then, the company was British Insulated Cables Limited. After the war it was renamed British Insulated Callender’s Cables Limited after merging with Callender’s Cables & Construction Company in 1945. The company vacated the Prescot site in the 1990’s. There are 21 servicemen’s graves from the Great War in the churchyard.
Over the last century, the appearance of the churchyard has changed greatly. Before 1900, there were few trees either side of the walkway, now lined with lovely lime trees. Most of the flat slab graves had small wire fencing bordering them – now all gone. Glass domes covered delicate porcelain flowers, mostly on infants’ graves, but they were never vandalised until recent years. In some cases, headstones have been removed to create a park like environment, and this is what happened on the south side of our Parish Church in the 1960’s. Numerous grave memorials – many being chest or table tombs were uprooted and the top slabs moved to provide a walkway around the church. The change also made a space for the re-siting of the Prescot War Memorial which was removed from Church Street. Lots of old trees, on the south side of the church especially hawthorns, were uprooted, and it was beneath these trees where stillborn babies, would have been buried. Some existing memorial stones are of the seventeenth century at the earliest and Georgian memorials, plus upright Victorian stones, are interesting to read.
A churchyard should not be confused with a graveyard or a cemetery. Whilst churchyards were historically often used as graveyards, they can also be any patch of land on church grounds. Graveyards were usually established at the same time as the building of the relevant place of worship which can date back to between the sixth and fourteenth centuries - Prescot was created a parish at the end of the seventh century. A churchyard would almost certainly have been consecrated at that time.
It is amazing to think that the churchyard cross was the only memorial in those days for some families who could not afford to be buried inside, or beneath, the place of worship itself. Up until the eighteenth century, unless a family was rich and influential, people could not buy plots as they can today, and the closest many got to interment in a coffin was a temporary residence in one which belonged to the parish. The corpse was wrapped in a shroud, tied at head and foot, and placed in a ‘mort coffin’. At the graveside it was lowered part way down and bolts were then withdrawn allowing the floor of the coffin to swing open and the body to fall into the grave. The ‘mort coffin’ was then lifted out ready for further use. The ground would often be reused for further burials and only affluent families could afford any memorials. It goes without saying that a charnel house near the church - i.e., a vault or building where human skeletal remains are stored, would have existed at Prescot, when considering the known burials which are recorded from 1524. Bones, unearthed whilst digging for new graves, would be removed and placed in a charnel house. Times have changed and nowadays, most families have a memorial stone for their loved ones, and it is so much nicer to see them in a well maintained environment.
By Betty Brown
Only recent material is now held at the church.
The registers held are:
C 1965 onwards
M 1974 onwards
B 2003 onwards