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Mystery grave restored and resurrected by University staff

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Published on 08 September 2021

Revd Chris Howson and Ceramics Technician Mary Watson
Revd Chris Howson and Ceramics Technician Mary Watson

A special gravestone with links to the country’s socialist past has been restored to its rightful position at a Sunderland cemetery after careful restoration by a National Glass Centre ceramics technician.   

The grave of ‘Mary’ has been laying down for decades, but its unique mosaic was returned to its original condition by experts, and a service to place it back upright at Mere Knolls Cemetery, Fulwell, was held by our University Chaplain, Reverend Chris Howson, and the Friends of Sunderland Cemeteries.

 “Thanks to the contributions of members of Friends of Sunderland Cemeteries, Mary’s burial place will now be honoured for many more years to come,” says Revd Howson, who runs the Facebook page ‘Friends of Sunderland cemeteries’ alongside his wife Catriona.

The pair organise weekly litter-picks around Bishopwearmouth, Mere Knolls and Sunderland (Grangetown) cemeteries and it was during one of their visits that Catriona noticed a grave that was lying horizontally, but had an incredible mosaic, covered in mud and with some of its tiles missing. She instantly recognised it as the work of Edwin Smyth, Sunderland’s most famous monumental mason, who also worked on Durham and Liverpool Cathedral.

The origins of the person buried in the grave remain largely a mystery. The inscription reads ‘In loving memory of Mary, daughter of the late William Graham of Abbeytown Cumberland. Born 18th December 1866 Died 16th March 1919. “ Bold, Cautious, True And A Loving Comrade”.’

Revd Howson explains: “We know that she was born in Cumbria, was married under the name of Mary Robinson, and lived in Coventry for a while, her husband Charles Edward Robinson worked as a clerk at Daimler Motors during the 1911 census. She died whilst living at 3 Roker Terrace. Nothing else of her life has been remembered. Yet her gravestone shows that she may have had a radical side forgotten by history.”

The colours of the wreath are of the suffragettes - purple stood for loyalty, white for purity and green for hope. The line of poetry is taken from Walt Whitman’s ‘As toilsome I wandered’ and was used on the graves of radical socialists such as Leeds 19th century trade unionist Tom Maguire.

Revd Howson added: “There is something about Mary that shows she was quite a character, and we would love to know more about this amazing woman.

“She died during the Spanish Flu epidemic and the beauty and boldness of Mary's grave speaks volumes in itself. Thanks to the many members of Friends of Sunderland Cemeteries who have contributed to make sure that her burial place is honoured for another 100 years, perhaps a place to remember all the radical women who died without the recognition that they deserved.”

National Glass Centre Ceramics Technician Mary Watson, said: "It was a pleasure to be part of this restoration project. Chris brought me in to restore the mosaic element of the grave, which, was in reasonably good condition once cleaned up properly.

"There were a few missing pieces and many that had come loose and were found in the grass around the stone. After discussion we decided not to replicate these missing pieces, but instead, to work with what we had. Once thoroughly cleaned, I simply re-set the loose pieces and grouted the whole mosaic. Restoring it to its former beauty, with the strong suffragette colours singing against the dark granite stone. "




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