The floating coffin of Pinner – showboating or legal one-upmanship?

A small and unassuming church, at the top of Pinner’s quaint medieval high street is host to an unusual ‘in your face’ memorial. 

The Grade II listed monument to William and Agnes Loudon dominates the churchyard of St John’s the Baptist in Pinner, in the London Borough of Harrow. Erected in 1809, the wedge-shaped Gothic construction is tricky to describe, it has to be seen to be fully appreciated. 

Imagine a gigantic chunk of Toblerone six meters high, with the head and foot of a stone coffin jutting out at each side – giving the (unconvincing) impression that the coffin passes through the centre of the monument. To add to its mystery, cryptic wording cast into the structure’s ornamental ironwork states ‘I byde my time’

I ambled across this curiosity whilst attempting to walk-off the Sunday lunch I’d just eaten at a nearby restaurant. A single word came to mind … ‘why?’

One theory is that William Loudon’s son, John Claudius Loudon, a budding cemetery designer, found an ingenious way around a punitive tenancy clause which threatened to leave him homeless in the event of his father’s death. An account by Charles Harper dated 1902, suggests that the coffin appears to be suspended in mid-air because descendants of William Loudon would retain a property bequeathed to him so long as he remained ‘above ground’

There are other unsubstantiated theories along a similar theme so maybe there’s a grain of truth in there somewhere.

How should you memorialise someone?

John Claudius successfully challenged popular beliefs on how Victorian ornamental cemeteries should be laid out and styled. He felt graveyards should offer a combination of moods, in both architecture and landscape. He went on to design cemeteries in Bath, Cambridge and Southampton. He influenced London’s great squares and was widely employed throughout the City of London cemeteries.

How does that explain the floating coffin? Perhaps John Claudius was just showboating. It’s not the most handsome monument you’ll ever see, but it certainly has impact. It towers above all the other gravestones in the cemetery – placing William and Agnes Loudon closer to God than the rest of St John’s dearly departed congregation.

Shameless social climbing? Maybe. Or just an ingenious attempt to outsmart the legal system? Who cares, frankly. It’s a unique monument and part of the cultural heritage of Pinner. It’s well worth a visit if you happen to be ‘biding your time’ in the area.

Words by Tanya Brittain | Photograph © Tanya Brittain