Who cares for Annie Constable?

(written 2003, previously unpublished)

 

            One spring day in 1882, a group of children playing together decided to have a drink. They quenched their thirst with water freshly drawn from the well they had always used. This time, they all fell ill, fever grabbed a hold and after a few days Annie Constable died, of typhoid. The well which served the Constable, Moseley and other families closely grouped together near the Whitemoor brickworks was opened up and cleansed, and once more the families could drink safely. Annie was mourned and buried. Her gravestone was inscribed “In loving memory…The Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away.” Life went on.

            One hundred and two years later, the Kenilworth History and Archaeology Society published its work “Memorials in the Churchyard of St.Nicholas” and there, recorded as gravestone number 502 is Annie Constable, who died aged 11, May 10th 1882. It was made from sandstone, the inscription was clear but worn. Today, another nineteen years on, there is no sign of the stone. Her neighbour, number 501 John Dilworth, is there for all to see, but Annie’s is missing. Its absence will doubtless be blamed upon a hooligan, one of a gang, showing off or having kicks, and destroying the monument. But a hooligan would not carry the stone off, nor tidy up after himself; someone else has come along, collected up the debris and taken it away. Who cares that Annie’s final resting place is no longer marked? Vandals are not just modern day louts; even in Annie’s day the churchyard was described as a “children’s playground” and desecration lamented. Other stones were done for by irresponsible nineteenth century sheep leaning against them for shelter.

            Nor is the churchyard of St.Nicholas the only place of damage. At the Oaks Road cemetery, the authorities recently decided to send along a man to inspect the gravestones and note the degree of likely collapse, and then sent along another man, or more likely two, to lay down these stones; one supposes it was to prevent the possibility of a graveyard visitor becoming a resident, or at least suffering a severe or mild wound. I am sure that in an office somewhere, probably outside Kenilworth, someone sitting behind a desk with a computer will have calculated the cost incurred of having these men prevent potential accidents. I am equally certain that the same person using the same computer could have calculated how many pounds and pence it would have required to send a man or two with a bucket of cement to make the stones safe. It would be interesting to know the difference. Some will claim this is an over-simplification of a complex issue; nevertheless, had the authorities carried out repairs to the monuments they do not own, and without permission, it would have set a number of precedents, one of which would be that they are seen to care about the condition of Kenilworth’s grave stones and would then have to continue to do so.

            On Rosemary Hill, the one-time church yard is now a car park for theatre goers. Cars are parked six foot over the mortal remains of the buildings’ former congregation. The gravestones, once placed around the edges are now gone, save for a few mingling with bushes. One is for George Lampray who, in his role as registrar, recorded the birth of Annie Constable. On the corner of Albion Street and Spring Lane, the Baptist Church is being turned into flats called, if the graffiti is to be believed, Amen Corner. The gravestones here have been more conveniently arranged to provide an open space, yet these stones were moved whilst services were still being held. Who will look after them now, particularly as religion no longer plays a part at these sites? How long before they split and crumble, or become a nuisance, and are discarded?

            Kenilworth and memorials can seem to sit uncomfortably together. The war memorial is neither overstated nor intrusive, yet sits heroically in a most striking location. Just a little way down the road is the place where World War Two reached Kenilworth with a vengeance, yet it took fifty years for the act of erecting a simple memorial plaque to come about. Even then it did not rest in peace as within a few years it was dug out of its own flowerbed, and re-erected a few feet to the south on a stout column of sandstone as part of a re-development. It is now eminently suitable for use by a dog with a cocked leg. By way of a contrast, when a tree in High Street died not so many years back, it took just a few months for a plaque of similar size to be in place to record its passing and replacement. Yes it was a very nice tree, and a very elderly one, but it was still only a dead tree. I am sure that the new tree will be nurtured, and the plaque cared for so that future generations can gaze in wonderment at its words ringing down the decades which when paraphrased say “Here is a tree that replaced another tree.” The name of a Councillor gives added importance. The plaque is also constructed so as to be of less convenience to dogs.

            Vandals, hooligans, local authorities and sheep are not of course solely responsible for the poor condition of our cemeteries. Rain erodes the stones foundations, ice creates fissures, shrubs and trees injure the sturdiest of tombs. The years take their toll. However, if all of this ornate and elaborately carved stonework were part of a single decaying building there would be an outcry. “Save this structure”, “How could this happen?” Attempts would be made to obtain listing and preservation orders, letters would be written in a valiant attempt to grab lottery funding, people would ask “What does the state of this elderly building say about the town of Kenilworth?” And yet, because the stonework was paid for by individuals, and scattered over several acres and various sites, a chorus of disapproval cannot be heard despite any one of these stones being of more value than any one building. If we are not careful it could happen to us all. We may all too soon be just a line in a book with no marker of our final resting place.

            Today there are flowers where gravestone 502 should be. I care about Annie Constable, I think we all should.