The 1858 Barnston Memorial, incorporating more than a hint of ancient Egypt

There is a lot of information about the Barnston Memorial, both in print and online, and writing about it here might have been redundant given that every historical fact has already been squeezed out of it, but I haven’t yet seen anything that tackles the ancient Egyptian component that defines the memorial.

Before exploring the ancient Egyptian aspect, I should mention that I have a long-standing affection for the memorial, and would consider the blog incomplete without giving it a post to itself.   I first saw it a couple of decades ago.  I was living in London, but my parents lived not far away and we must have passed it on the way to somewhere else.  That first sight remains with me.  I was struck then, and still am whenever I pass it, by the sense of grief and loss that this soaring, lonely monument imparts in its isolated position on the edge of the empty field that stretches behind it.

The monument was erected in 1858 as a memorial to Lieutenant Colonel Roger Barnston Esq (1826-1857) who was just 31 He was one of Roger Harry Barnston’s seven children, three of of whom went into the army.  He was brought up at Crewe Hall in Crewe-by-Farndon.  He served in the 90th Light Infantry and was fatally  injured in one of the sieges of Lucknow during the Indian Mutiny in 1857, a horror story, and he died of his injuries at the garrison town of Cawnpore (Kanpur).  Kanpur, on the River Ganges, was a major crossing point on which a number of important roads converged.  It was defended by sepoys (Indian soldiers employed by the army to reinforce garrisons) but in June 1857 the sepoys rebelled and attacked the British garrison. It was carnage.  By then, Roger Barnston had already survived the Crimean War, seeing action at Sebastapol.  He must have seen some appalling horrors during his short life.  He was recognized as a Knight of the Legion of Honour and was awarded the Order of Medjidie.  He was buried at Kanpur.

The memorial stands just outside Farndon on the Churton Road, overlooking the Welsh foothills to the west.  It is on the edge of a field that still belongs to the Barnston Estate.  A competition was organized to attract design ideas, and the memorial was paid for by public subscription, a common way of securing public monuments and buildings.  The competiton was won by Edward Arthur Heffer (1836-1914) at a cost of £400.  This equates to around  £32,074 today according to the National Archive currency convertor, a sum that could also buy you 26 horses, 74 heads of cattle or 2000 days of wages for a skilled tradesman. 

The memorial consists of an obelisk (tall tapering four-sided column terminating in a pyramid-shaped top called a pyramidion) that stands on a plinth, surrounded by four recumbent lions.  A plaque on the south face of the obelisk commemorates Roger Barnston. The corresponding panel on the east, facing the road, consists of an ornamental swag and blank medallions.  The other two faces are plain.  The wall once had iron railings, which have since been removed, set into a short kerb that surrounds the base.   The memorial is made of yellow sandstone, which Latham says was from Cefn, presumably Cefn Mawr.  Although usually vulnerable to erosion, the Cefn Mawr sandstone is fine-grained and well cemented and has proved to be very resilient.  Much of the monumental architecture in Wrexham and its environs are built of yellow sandstone quarried from Cefn Mawr, including Wrexham’s Catholic cathedral.  The Barnston Memorial is still in excellent condition as a result, its edges still clearly defined.  It is rather greyed due to traffic emissions, but would have been a clean and attractive pale yellow when first erected.  

Front page of Description de l’Egypte. Source: Wikimedia

A few years ago I visited the memorial to take photographs when writing an article for an Egyptology magazine about the use of ancient Egyptian themes in Victorian monuments and buildings.  Following Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798, 19th Century Britain became obelisk-obsessed.  Driving past Toxteth Park Cemetery in Liverpool not long ago, hopelessly lost as it happens, I was absolutely staggered at the number of obelisks that dotted the place, rising well above the level of the other memorials.  They combine to provide something of a memorial to the British Egyptian Revival, which manifested itself in a variety of interesting ways, some more successful than others, but became dominant in cemeteries and as memorials.   

Any wealthy traveller and his mentors undertaking the Grand Tour in the 18th Century might have seen the obelisks imported into Rome and elsewhere by Roman emoerirs following their invasion of Egypt, but Egypt first fully imprinted itself on western European imagination following the publication of  Baron Dominique Vivant-Denon’s 1802 “Voyage dans la Basse et Haute-Egypte” (Travels in Lower and Upper Egypt), translated into English in 1803, and Napoleon Bonaparte’s infinitely more remarkable “Description de l’Egypte” of 1809-1829. Universally referred to today as “Description“, it was published in several volumes.  One has to hand it to Napoleon for having had such a classy attitude to war.  When he took an invasion force to Egypt, he also equipped it with 178 scholars, scientists, engineers and artists and  called “savants,” who were given the job of capturing every aspect of Egypt in word and illustration.  

“Vue de Obélisque dite de Cléopatre à Alexandrie,” by Vivant-Denon 1798. The upright obelisk is now in New York’s Central Park.  The fallen obelisk at its feet was transported to England and now stands on the Thames Embankment, where it was installed in 1878. Generally known as Cleopatra’s Needle, it was actually erected by Thutmose III.  Source:  V&A Museum.

Vivant-Denon was one of those savants sent by Napoleon to Egypt, employed as an artist for the expedition, and pipped Napoleon to the post with a much shorter, punchier and very popular book of his own story about the campaign and his experiences in Egypt, published seven years before Napoleon’s first volume, first in French in 1802 and then translated into English in 1803.  Between them, these two publications spread widely, and found a particular following in Britain, where numerous Egyptian motifs found their way into art and architecture.  

European scholars began to arrive in Egypt as soon as Napoleon departed in 1801, but it was not until 1922 in the reign of King George V that archaeologist Howard Carter found the tomb of Tutankhamun, 65 years after the erection of the Barnston Memorial.

Of course, Napoleon’s savants and troops also ransacked the art works of the countries occupied by Napoleon for French museums and universities.  In 1803, the Louvre in Paris, the main recipient of this policy, was renamed the Napoleon Museum.  Britain was not innocent of this practice either, as a trip around the British Museum would confirm.  The British Museum was perfectly happy to purchase objects from men who were very little better than legitimized tomb robbers, such as former circus strongman Giovanni Belzoni.  One of the British Museum’s prizes, the Rosetta Stone, was transferred from Napoleon’s cache of Egyptian heritage to British possession when Nelson triumphed at the Battle of the Nile.  This transfer of big chunks of Egypt’s heritage was formalized in articles of the Treaty of Alexandria, 1801.  Amongst the confiscated pieces now at the British Museum were also two obelisks dating to the reign of Nectanebo II.

Obelisks at the New Kingdom temple of Karnak in Luxor, Egypt.

Certain motifs seemed to resonate with Victorian sentiments, and obelisks became particularly popular, especially in cemeteries.  This is perhaps because they were so easy to replicate, but I suspect that it also had a lot to do with the sense that obelisks reached for the heavens, something to which the ancient Egyptians also aspired.  Although the term “obelisk” derives from Greek and unimaginatively means “pointed implement or pillar,” the ancient Egyptian word was “tekhen,” meaning “sunbeam.”  In ancient Egypt, the whole thing was quarried out of fine southern Egyptian granite as a single piece .  The tip of the obelisk, the pyramidion, was often encased in gold or the gold-silver alloy “electrum” to capture and reflect the early morning sunrays.  Each face was carved with hieroglyphic inscriptions giving the name and titles of the king who had erected it within a temple precinct, and was often dedicated to a particular deity, usually the state deity Amen (or Amun).  None of these characteristics were translated into the Victorian version of the obelisk, which was usually made of soft stone, in this case yellow sandstone, and was unadorned with either hieroglyphs or gold.  Larger obelisks like the Barnston Memorial were composed of blocks, not made of a single piece, and the pyramidion was unadorned with any form of metal casing.

Very few Victorians were able to resist the impulse to provide decorative settings for obelisks, even original ones imported from Egypt, because they are otherwise rather plain.  The Barnston Memorial is no exception.  The result is a cornucopia of different cultural motifs.  The lions that surround the base of the Barnston Memorial are nothing to do with Egypt.  Lions, as a traditional symbol of England first adopted by royalty in the Middle Ages, became associated with ideals of courage, strength, loyalty, military domination, patriotism and justice.  It is a powerful emblem.  In the setting of this and other funerary memorials, the lion also suggests protection.

The Victorians were enthusiastic appropriators of other motifs from other periods.  Other themes, mainly derived from Classical contexts that had become standard features of English architecture, are the oak leaf swag with decorative ribbons and the oval motif on the east side.  A  simplified version of egg-and-dart moulding and a twisted rope effect (with acanthus leaves at each corner) circle the base of the obelisk Oak has much in common with lions as a symbol, incorporating ideas of strength, and endurance.  Acanthus was a dominant and powerful theme in Classical architecture, symbolizing healing, long life and long life, immortality and rebirth.  It was popular for Victorian tomb decoration, where it is directly associated with mourning.  Each lion rests on a false chest-type tomb that was particularly in vogue in cemeteries during the Victorian period.  The memorial is a characteristic Victorian combination of motifs from ancient cultures with traditional British themes.

There is something inevitably colonial about the memorial.  It is a grandiose statement, a chaotic mix of poorly understood imagery from different cultures all plonked with considerable ceremony into a rural context for which it is really rather ill-suited, and carried out with the solidly unassailable self-confidence and sense of entitlement of the era.  It carries with it echoes of the chutzpah that drove the East India Company’s systematic annexation of India.  But it still pulls firmly at the heart strings, and those lions are absolutely wonderful.

The inscription of the memorial reads:

Erected in memory of
of Crewe Hill, Major and Brevet Lieut. Colonel
of Her Majesty’s 90th Light Infantry C.D.
and Knight of the Legion of Honor and of the Order of the Medjidie:
by his tenants and friends.

He served in the Crimean War from the 5th December 1854,
and was present at the siege and fall of Sebastopol,
and also in the Indian Mutiny Campaign in 1857
in which he received a severe wound whilst gallantly leading an assault
at the relief of Lucknow on the 16th November 1857
from the effects of which he died at Cawnpore on the 23rd December 1857

aged 31 years.
and was interred in the military cemetery at that station.

In ancient Egypt, commemorative inscriptions were important because it was believed that as long as the name of the dead continued to be spoken by the living, they would live on in eternity.  Memorials serve a similar function, preserving the memory of the dead amongst the living.  The memorial to Roger Barnston has secured him a place in the communal heritage of the area.

Latham gives its vital statistics as follows: “Greatest diameter, 23 ft.; length of needle, 40 ft.; width at top, 2 ft. 3 ins.; at bottom next pedestal, 3 ft. 9 ins. The width of the base for pedestal is 9 ft. The lions are 6 ft. long, and the total height of the memorial from the ground is 55 ft.”  It has been Grade II listed since 1984, list number 1279425.  It bears a bears an Ordnance Survey bench-mark, 96 ft above sea level, and a white lightning conductor runs up the west face.  The view over the Welsh foothills to the west was probably uninterrupted when the memorial was built.

Work has now begun on a “natural burial ground” on the land immediately to the south of the memorial, Monument Meadow, which belongs to the Barnston Estate:

Design of the natural burial ground by Land Studio. Source: Chester Standard

“Monument Meadow Natural Burial Ground, which will be built on one of the estate’s fields, will replace the burial ground at St Chad’s in Farndon village. It will also be made available for residents of surrounding villages. Designed by Chester-based Land Studio, a specialist landscape architect, the Barnston Estate says the environment will be kept as natural as possible with a wildflower meadow and ornamental trees. With its timber framed pavilion, circular layout and views stretching across the Clwydian Range, it has been designed to be a peaceful and beautiful place to visit, they add. . . . the burial ground is intended to be a natural one with caskets made of natural materials with no formal markers.” (Chester Standard).

It seems a very suitable use for a field that might, otherwise, have been used for housing development.  The timber pavilion has been erected and the car park laid out, surrounded by saplings, at the time of writing.

Details of the lion stonework



Curl, J.S. 1982. The Egyptian Revival. George, Allen and Unwin.

Elliott, C. 2012. Egypt in England. English Heritage

Latham, F.A.  1981. Farndon. The History of a Cheshire Village. Local History Group

Morris, E. and  Roberts, E. 2012, Public Sculpture of Cheshire and Merseyside (excluding Liverpool). Public Sculpture of Britain. Liverpool University Press, p.112–113

Taylor, R.2004.  How to Read a Church.  Random House.

Churchyard chest tombs by John Taylor

Chester Standard
Barnston Estate near Farndon to build burial ground

Historic England
Barnston Memorial

Landed Families of Britain and Ireland
Barnston of Churton Hall and Crewe Hill

National Army Museum
‘The Chamber of Blood’, Cawnpore, 1857

Royden History
Farndon Local History

Vivant-Denon, D. 1803 (in translation and without the illustrations from the French editions)
Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt: During the Campaigns of General Bonaparte in that Country; and Published Under His Immediate Patronage
Volume 1
Volume 2 

Wrexham County Borough Council
Cefn Mawr

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