Not all gravestones are stone. Many were wood, though very few survive being set in the wet ground for long, and iron used to be a popular alternative.
Some of the very first iron gravestones are in Sussex, back in the days when the county was the centre of England’s iron industry. The church of West Hoathly, near East Grinstead, has a pair of large cast iron gravestones dating back to 1619 and 1624, commemorating ironmasters Richard Infield and his son, also Richard.
The plates were made by pouring molten iron into sand moulds impressed with the letters of the inscription. Unfortunately they don’t photograph well because they have lost all the paint and gold leaf that would have ornamented them when they were new.
The Infields may well have used iron to advertise their products from the grave, but the material did not come into its own until the railways made it possible to distribute them easily from the foundries of industrial Britain.
Scottish foundries in particular seemed to specialise in iron gravestones. The Etna foundry in Glasgow supplied a fancy cast iron gravestone in Bosham churchyard, adorned with typically Victorian symbols of death – an urn with a wreath, partly covered by a cloth. Unfortunately the inscription is eroded too badly to make it out properly, but the name is possibly Thomas Parrenden.
Most iron gravestones are much simpler, just a Celtic cross, a cross in a ring. William Loton’s grave in the empty churchyard at Treyford simply records his name, age and day of death in 1900, but on the back is the name of the maker, Hadden Edinburgh, and the warning “Registered” – even gravestones are copyright.
Laura Blunden’s attractive grave at Cocking, dated 1889, has nice Gothic detail, but many cast iron gravestones were obviously chosen for economy.
Plain crosses were held in stock at the undertakers and the inscriptions painted on as required. Almost inevitably the paint has disappeared over the years. At Didling, for example, there is a group of cast iron crosses in circles, absolutely without paint.
Tangmere church has a line of four iron memorials in the shape of a ring with a cross piece for the names, presumably of a family. Unfortunately the paint has gone and they look more like signs for a bizarre miniature Tube line.
Fishbourne church has an unusual variant in the memorial to the Strudwicks, dated 1907 and 1936, which is not cast iron but wrought. The inscriptions seem to have been stamped onto metal shields attached to the iron frame of the crosses, which has the advantage that people can be added to the memorial later, something that cannot be done with a cast iron gravestone.
The classiest type of iron grave marker was a chest tomb or sarchophagus. There is a fine example at Climping, to the memory of James and Sarah Gray. Her inscription is at one end and his at the other, possibly because inscriptions cannot be added to cast iron later, unlike stone. It seems as though Sarah died in 1868 aged 72, and James followed later. Curiously, despite cast iron's incredible hardness, James's inscription on the wind-swept west end of the tomb is weathered to the extent the date is almost impossible to make out (1875?) whereas Sarah's at the east end is still sharp and clear.