Pioneering Victorian alumna's grave restored and unveiled in Birmingham

On 11 May 2019, following a successful fundraising campaign, a rededication ceremony was held to mark the installation of Constance Naden’s new gravestone.

Grave rededication ceremony

[(left to right) David Rees, Dr Clare Stainthorp, and Margaret-Mary Hall (Constance Naden was David and Margaret-Mary’s great aunt)]

The well-attended event was a celebration of the life, works, and legacy of a Birmingham woman at the forefront of female intellectual endeavour at the end of the nineteenth century: a poet, philosopher, and student of science at Mason Science College (precursor to the University of Birmingham).

The gravestone before repairNaden’s gravestone in Key Hill Cemetery (Birmingham) was reduced to rubble and buried in the mid-twentieth century. Although excavated by the Friends of the Cemetery in 2010, it remained illegible. In 2017, Dr Clare Stainthorp (former doctoral student at the University of Birmingham and the leading expert on Naden) and two of Naden’s descendants, Julian Rees and Margaret-Mary Hall, established the Constance Naden Trust to restore the gravesite as a more fitting memorial to this pioneering Victorian woman.

Having raised £3240 from public donations, including a generous £500 from the University of Birmingham (College of Arts and Law), a new gravestone was commissioned that replicated the original text memorialising Naden, her mother, and her grandparents. The replacement stone draws additional attention to Naden’s achievements with the words ‘Poet, Philosopher, Artist, Scientist’ newly inscribed near the top of the stone along with a line from her 1881 poem ‘The Pantheist’s Song of Immortality’: ‘For earth is not as though thou ne’er hadst been’. The unveiling was followed by a reflection by the trustees on Naden’s life and the campaign that led to her grave being restored, as well as readings from her diverse works. Attendees included Birmingham City Councillors Chaman Lal, Sybil Spence, and Brigid Jones. 

Julian Rees says, ‘When we started this campaign, we had little idea how many people we would reach or how the idea would resonate. Now that we have raised the funds required and the memorial to this inspiring daughter of Birmingham has been completed, I feel a sense of having achieved something really worthwhile.’ 

Dr Stainthorp adds, ‘It has been so gratifying to see the public support for restoring Constance Naden’s grave – the rededication ceremony was a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the importance of excavating, recognising, and celebrating women’s history.’

Constance Naden (1858-1889) pursued a diverse career before her untimely death aged 31. Her insightful and witty poems and polemical prose drew upon her wide-ranging scientific education at Mason College where she was honoured as the first female Associate. One of Birmingham’s most illustrious daughters, in 1890 she was memorialised by a marble bust installed in the Mason College library and now housed in the Cadbury Research Library reading room. For most of the twentieth century, Naden was all but forgotten but in recent years, her importance has been increasingly recognised. A blue plaque was installed outside her Edgbaston home in 2009 and the first book about her life and works – Dr Stainthorp’s Constance Naden: Scientist, Philosopher, Poet (Peter Lang) – will be published in summer 2019.