John Renie’s gravestone is odd. There is no other way to describe it. Unless you call it a “curiosity.” But I am sure you won’t have seen anything like it before. It is unique. A square of stone upon which a puzzle has been etched, as if it was a large piece of paper on which someone has tried to amuse themselves for an hour or two. It looks like something a boy would do at the back of a particularly boring Maths lesson.
What it says is nothing more than “Here lies John Renie.” A simple sentence, but repeated on the stone apparently 45,760 times. Find the H in the middle of the stone and then head in any direction you want and it will spell out the same thing. “Here lies John Renie.” In fact find any H and you can follow the words in any way you chose. Up, down across, round corners… There are 285 individual letters carved into the stone. 15 down, 19 across. Count them if you want.
Today a computer would design it for us. But John Renie carved it himself. A lasting memorial to an interesting and talented man.
You will find the stone very easily. Just head to the pleasant town of Monmouth and at the top of Monnow Street, above Agincourt Square, you will find St. Mary’s Church. If you enter the churchyard at the corner where Whitecross Street meets the corner of St. James Square and follow the path up towards the church, you will find John Renie’s grave in front of you on the edge of the path. Alternatively enter the grounds by the Church Street entrance and turn to the right. To be truthful, John Renie isn’t there, for the stone was relocated some time ago, but his memorial is at the back of the church. It stands alone, with a light-green tinge from the moss. Square and solid and completely peculiar.
John Renie was born in 1799 and became a house painter and glazier, taking over the family business they say at the age of 13 or 14 from their home in Monnow Street . He was an intelligent man, though he did not benefit from the level of education that his mind deserved. What is apparent is that he had a sense of duty both to his family and to his fellow man. He soon developed clearly expressed social principles. He became a founding member of the Oddfellows, one of the many friendly societies that began in the early nineteenth century. Such groups offered support to its members during sickness or injury and pre-dated trade unions and associations. Common humanity and a sense of justice started to bring people together. They were thoughtful men of belief and conviction.
This is from the Cambrian Newspaper of July 1829.
On Saturday morning last, the Members of the Oddfellows Lodge at Tredegar assembled at the Golden Lion Inn and at 11 o’clock, headed by an excellent band of music, proceeded in grand order to attend divine service. It being market day in Tredegar, the novelty of the exhibition attracted nearly the whole population to witness the sight and the decorum with which it was conducted, reflecting great credit on the members of the initiation.
In the evening they dined together at the above house where Mr. John Renie PO of the Waterloo Order of the Borough of Monmouth, delivered a most appropriate lecture and at an early hour the members separated, highly gratified with the proceedings of the day.
These were exciting days in Tredegar indeed.
In 1831 the Oddfellows paraded through Monmouth and the evening was’ devoted to the interchange of social and friendly feeling.’ They were pleased to report that they had contributed £126 to ‘the victims of disease and distress’ in the previous year.
He was a prodigious letter writer to the press on issues surrounding reform and education. He promoted the idea of skills and craft. In one letter in the Monmouth Merlin he writes
‘It is possible for a man who has received a classical education to submit to gain his bread by the labour of his hands.’ He goes on to object to the idea that ‘too much learning may be considered a dangerous thing for the middling and lower classes of society.’
At the time, some ascribed John Renie’s too-early death to exhaustion. He had worked tirelessly in support of a radical agenda, supporting the great Reform Act of 1832. He had travelled, speaking repeatedly at public meetings. As a result of his tireless campaigning, the Reform Candidate, “B. Hall Esq.” was elected in Monmouth. But this triumph didn’t bring about his death; sadly it was probably his work that did for him in the end. John Renie’s duties for the Oddfellows involved calculating risks connected with the different professions and thus producing actuarial tables. This work must have revealed to him the risks he was facing every day that he worked.
Like so many in our past, his choice of profession was also the cause of his death. He was poisoned slowly by toxic materials, by the lead in the paints and by the arsenic in the wallpapers. The poisoning even had a name. It was called “painter’s colic.” From its clutches there was no escape. Death was waiting.
John Renie was a craftsman. Accomplished and thoughtful. His obituary praised him as a man “of extraordinary natural abilities (who) was impressed with the highest and most romantic enthusiasm for rational liberty.”
And since death did not come upon him quickly, he had plenty of time to get himself ready. And so he chose an idiosyncratic epitaph, each one of the 285 letters chiselled out carefully and precisely. You wonder what thoughts passed through his mind as each letter was pulled painstakingly from the stone. Such a piece of work.
Some believe that it was designed in order to confuse the Devil. By the time he had worked out what it said, the deceased would have made it to the sanctuary of Heaven.
If this is the case, then we sinners have little to worry about. He might be Lucifer, the fallen angel, but apparently he can’t do a word search.
But this explanation suggests a level of superstition that to my mind is out of keeping with the other things we know about John Renie. As a social reformer and campaigner he would not perhaps have troubled himself too much with the fearful talk of eternal damnation. He might have seen such talk as a means to maintain the status quo. He probably designed his tombstone as he did because he could and because of what it meant to him. And he made his own small mark on history by doing so.
At the bottom of the stone, in letters that are partly obscured by the grass, there are recorded other members of the family. There is his son John who died aged 1 in 1823. It also records his wife Sarah Howells who died in 1879 and is buried in Fulham and his eldest son James, named after the grand father he never met, who died in 1903 in Clapham aged 83.
There are other Renies there too. Beneath your feet as you walk through the gate from Church Street. His father James Renie, who died in 1813 aged 39 and in so doing precipitated John into the family business. There is his sister Frances, who died in February1821 aged 19 and Robert his brother who died in April 1821 aged 20. It was the mother Ann who outlived them all, dying at 59 in 1835.
And for me, when you stop to think about all these premature deaths, you can possibly begin to see why it was that John Renie designed what he did.
It was a hard life and John’s immediate family, rather like himself, had a habit of dying young. His father, his younger brother and sister. Then his baby son. Perhaps this is why he sought some kind of lasting memorial. Too many of those around him departed far too quickly. Perhaps he sacrificed the little time he had left in order to create a satisfying pattern, something that he himself would have enjoyed. And in this way he could impose a sense of order in a disordered world in which those you loved died young, with so much unachieved. Who can say? But for me, there is a sadness behind the quirkiness of the design.
There is something else too, possibly the spookiest thing of all. He died on the 31 May 1832 at the age of 33. A coincidence? For a man clearly interested in puzzles? Was there some sinister design? Look again.
31, 32, 33.
Or was it possibly a deliberate choice? The final proof that life really could be rationally shaped and ordered?
Another unanswered question.
Certainly his family were left destitute and an appeal was launched to raise money for them. Eventually his business was taken over
But what he left behind marks his short life in such a remarkable and unique way.
This story will feature in my next book, Grave Tales from Wales, which will be published in September 2021, along with 29 other fascinating gravestones from across the whole of Wales. I shall be posting updates about it over the next couple of months.