A medieval churchyard restoration project on the Isles of Scilly is illuminating the lives of those interred there, including victims of shipwrecks.

The main churchyard accommodates 858 graves, with the possibility of up to three individuals buried in each.

The Project

Lindsay Sandford and her husband Brian embarked on this project after encountering difficulties locating a specific grave in St Mary’s Old Town Churchyard.

The initiative began over two years ago when a friend of Lindsay’s acquired an old photo album.

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Recognising a boat shed in one of the pictures that her family had rented, Lindsay discovered the names of the people associated with it. Motivated by this revelation, she visited the churchyard to find one of their graves. However, she found the area in a state of neglect, practically derelict and heavily overgrown.

The overgrown graveyard held surprises for the volunteers.
Credit: Above & Below Imagery

Undeterred, the couple obtained permission to renovate the site. They drew on their previous experiences that prepared them well for the task at hand.

Task Ahead

Lindsay, a former museum researcher, had spent 30 years working in the old museum. Her husband, Brian, who had worked for the diocese, had 40 years of experience in local church projects.

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The restoration work proved challenging, requiring 60 hours of their time each week to remove trees and overgrown plants.

The Anglican church of St Mary, dating back to the 12th century, was originally situated in Old Town, Isles of Scilly.

St Mary’s Church on the Isles of Scilly where the graveyard lies.

However, in the 1880s, the churchyard was terraced to accommodate additional graves, resulting in many previous resting places being buried over. With limited resources, many families couldn’t afford grave stones. Marker stones, some dating back to the 1700s, were unearthed during the restoration process.

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Mrs. Sandford has since authored books that document the history and stories of the individuals buried in the churchyard.

Youngsters Lend a Hand

The local community actively participated in the renovation efforts, offering assistance with gardening work and updating graves. Students undertaking community work for their bronze and silver Duke of Edinburgh Awards also contributed to the restoration, even helping to revive the graves of their own family members.

When asked about a memorable story she encountered during the project, Mrs. Sandford mentioned her fondness for Captain Peter Lambton’s narrative. Lambton was aboard a ship captured by pirates at Dunkirk and subsequently held for ransom, resulting in his tragic demise. She likened the story to something out of Treasure Island.

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Regarding family memorials, Mrs. Sandford noted an intriguing pattern. In many instances, the graves contained both the first and second wives, with the former often receiving a more elaborate tribute.

This stain glass window in St.Marys shows how dangerous the sea can be.

Through the dedicated efforts of Lindsay Sandford, Brian, and the local community, the medieval churchyard on the Isles of Scilly is being restored, providing insight into the lives and stories of those interred there.

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The project not only honours the past but also fosters a sense of community engagement and preservation of local maritime history. This helps for future generations to appreciate.