Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Death on the Highway, 1914 - the Melesi Mausoleum, St Pancras & Islington Cemetery


Never completely trust anything you read on the internet, however unimpeachable the source might seem. The Mausolea & Monuments Trust website told me that this Mausoleum had been built by Gaetano Melesi in 1913 after his wife Letizia had been run over by a taxicab in “the first motor accident”. Other sources informed me that the accident had happened in Holborn. Unusually Gaetano decided that his wife’s funerary monument should memorialise the manner in which she had died. The artist responsible for the marble relief on the panel to the left of the door seems to have not had even a basic grasp of narrative sequence as it shows Letizia already prostrate on the floor behind her dropped handbag with the taxi that has presumably just knocked her down still approaching from the rear, its helmeted and goggled driver, open mouthed and hunched over the steering wheel,  waving his left  arm frantically in a futile attempt to ward off an accident that has already happened. A benign angel hovers over the scene waiting to accompany Letizia to heaven. We see her ascent to paradise in the panel on the right side of the door where Gaetano kneels in prayer in front  of a representation of the mausoleum itself (which must mean, that if you look at the right hand panel on the representation of the Mausoleum, you will see replicated in miniature, the same panel, with Gaetano kneeling in front of the mausoleum, in which the right hand panel will replicate, even more minutely, Gaetano kneeling in front of the mausoleum in which the right hand panel….. and so on, ad infinitum, in an infinite regression).     

The ur-motor accident should have been noteworthy enough to make the newspapers I thought. A quick search of an online archive soon dispelled the notion that there was anything original about Letizia Melesi’s accident. Road traffic accidents involving pedestrians were, as we shall see, a relatively common occurrence from the early years of the twentieth century. The first pedestrian killed in the UK by a petrol driven motor vehicle was 44 year old Bridget Driscoll, who was knocked down visiting the Crystal Palace in Sydenham in August 1896. Although there was some dispute concerning the speed at which the car which killed Bridget was travelling, the engine had been modified to stop it exceeding a top speed of 8mph. The driver claimed to have been travelling at half that. Just a few weeks before this first fatal accident the law had been changed allowing cars to travel at a maximum 14mph; previously the upper speed limit had been 4 mph in the country and 2mph in urban areas. The new speed limit ushered in the age of motorised carnage that we live in today.

The only fatal accident in Holborn in 1913 involving a pedestrian and a taxi that I could find in the newspapers occurred on Monday 14 July. According to the Pall Mall Gazette  ‘William Edward Minty, thirty-six, a taxi cab driver, of Camden-street, Islington, was charged at Bow-street with the manslaughter of an elderly woman named Fanny Braider, a barrister’s laundress, living at Theobalds -road, Holborn.’  The cab had been driven into a hand cart being pushed along the road by Alfred Waring, a porter of White Cross Place, Finsbury. Waring was sent flying and the handcart was knocked onto the pavement where it fell on Fanny Braider. According to Waring immediately before the collision Minty had been driving with his “head hanging over the steering wheel, as though he were asleep.” The cab driver took Waring and Fanny Braider to the London Homeopathic Hospital but the elderly woman later died of her injuries. My searches revealed no trace of an accident involving anyone called Melesi in 1913, or even 1914, which is actually the year, according to the inscription on the mausoleum, that Letizia died. The only reference I found to Letizia in the newspapers was a notice of her marriage to Gaetano in the Cork Examiner of Thursday 02 May 1901;

Melesi – Sessarego  April 27th, at St. Colman’s Cathedral, Queenstown, by the Rev M' Higgins, PP Castletownroche, Gaetano Melesi, of Ballabio, Lecco, Italy, to Letizia (Lettie), third daughter of Joseph  Sessarego,  Queenstown.

An article in the Winter 2013 edition of Mausolus (the Mausolea & Monuments Trust’s magazine) gives more accurate details of the mausoleum than the Trust’s main website. We learn for example that it was actually built in 1922, that Letizia died on 11 January 1914 and it makes no claim to her fatal accident being the first motor related death. While there are no contemporary accounts of Letizia’s accident the article gives a family version from Angela King, passed down from Helena Sessarego who was Letizia’s sister and Angela’s grandmother. Angela says the two sisters were very close and that Helena was the matchmaker responsible for Letizia’s marriage to Gaetano.  “A few days before Letizia's death they visited a fortune teller,” Angela writes, “the woman refused to tell Letizia's fortune and insisted on refunding her fee. Both my great aunt and my grandmother had thought this very amusing. Later that week, they both went to confession. As they came out of church, Letizia said goodbye to Helena, turned and fell and was run over by the taxi. My mother said Letizia had a magnificent funeral with black horses wearing white plumes and a black carriage with a mass of wreaths on top. I think looking at the mausoleum it was believed that she went straight to heaven. She appears to be borne aloft by angels. As she'd just been to confession she would be in a state of grace and free from sin.”

Depictions of motor accidents are unusual enough to have earned the Melesi Mausoleum Grade II listed status but fatal accidents involving pedestrians were already sickeningly common in 1914. On Saturday 24 October the Uxbridge and West Drayton Gazette opened an account of an accident on Bath Road; “the ugly dangers of motor traffic were again experienced near Colnbrook on Sunday afternoon. About 4.30 a gentleman and lady were walking on the side of the road near the 18th mile stone, where there is no footpath, when two motor cars came along behind them, and the hindermost, in attempting to pass the other, ran into the gentleman. The mudguard of the car appears to have twisted him round suddenly and his head was evidently struck violently by a portion of the car, whereby a gash of three inches was made across the forehead and a depressed fracture of the frontal bone. Fortunately, Silas Birch, of Pleasant Place, Langley, was near by and able to render first aid.”  The fortunate intervention of Silas Birch seems not to have been of any long term benefit to the the injured gentleman; he was taken to the King Edward VII Hospital in Windsor where he “passed away early on Tuesday morning”.  

It was the young and the elderly that seemed to have most trouble dealing with the dangers posed by the new fangled motor car as it roared around the streets of London at 10mph. As in Letizia’s case, taxis were often the culprit. On 06 February,  52 year old Emma Ellen Sayers, wife of Captain Robert Sayers of 91 Palewell Park, East Sheen, was killed changing omnibuses on Hammersmith Broadway when struck down by a passing lorry.  Ten days later 5 year old Richard Berry was knocked down and killed by a taxi cab as he crossed Tottenham High Road.  8 year old John Thomas Kempton of 16 Mardale Street, Shepherds Bush was killed on the afternoon of Saturday 28 March, by a car travelling at 9 or 10 miles an hour on Goldhawk Road as he raced across the street to spend a halfpenny his mother had given him to buy sweets.  On 09 April 9 year old Charles Thomas Deade of 3 Bennett Street, Chiswick was run over by a van belonging to Steinway Pianos in front of the Police Station on Chiswick High Road. According to witnesses the van ‘passed right over his head’.  A month later an unknown woman of around 70 was knocked down by a taxi cab on Chiswick Road fracturing her skull and later died of her injuries. 48 year old Martha Baker of 10 Woodlawn Road, Fulham, was knocked down by a taxicab on 10 September  at 11.15 at night in King Street Hammersmith. She was taken to hospital and treated for scalp injuries before being discharged home where she died the following Tuesday.  On 20 October 14 year old butchers boy Leonard Pryke was knocked off his bicycle and under the wheels of a LGO omnibus on the London Road, Norbury, by a car driven by an unnamed lady. He was taken to Croydon General Hospital  where he was found to have sustained a fractured left humerus, bruised chest, fractured ribs on the left side, and concussion of the brain. He died soon after five o'clock the same day.

The most unlikely accident of 1914 happened on 29 June on Holborn Viaduct. 23 year old Doris Emily Hawkes was hurrying across the viaduct when she found her way obstructed by a large crowd of concerned onlookers which had gathered around a small boy who had just been knocked down by a car. The boy’s injuries were thankfully not fatal. Doris quite naturally paused at the edge of the crowd to see what was happening and perhaps failed to notice that she was standing in the roadway.  As she craned to see over the heads in front of her she would not have been aware that Dr Langdon Brown of Welbeck Street was being driven at a reckless speed of 12 miles per hour by his chauffeur along the viaduct on his way to his job as a consultant in St Bartholomew’s Hospital. The chauffeur may well have been distracted by the sight of the crowd but he certainly did not see Doris;  surely he would not have run her over if he had? After driving over the hapless girl Dr Langdon Brown ordered his chauffeur to stop and put her in the back seat. They were already on their way to hospital after all. For some reason he refused to accept responsibility for the small boy mown down earlier by another vehicle Alas urgent medical attention failed to save her life and Doris died of her injuries the same day.    

Saturday, 27 October 2018

Madness in their Methodism; Robert Tilling (1737-1760) Bunhill Fields

Execution day at Tyburn - the Idle Apprentice by Hogarth

Researching the history of Bunhill Fields I came across an intriguing account of the funeral of 23 year old coachman Robert Tilling in the Oxford Journal of Saturday 03 May 1760. Executed criminals were not normally peacefully laid to rest in burial grounds or churchyards; they generally ended up in the hands of the anatomists of the Royal College of Surgeons.  And why was there a crowd of 20,000 in attendance? Striking too was the fact that the obsequies were conducted by no less a luminary than the reverend George Whitefield ,  who along with John Wesley, was one of the founders of Methodism and a hugely popular preacher at the time;  

Wednesday Evening, between Five and Six, the Body of Robert Tilling, the Coachman, who was executed on Monday last, for robbing his Master, was conveyed in a Hearse, attended by one Mourning Coach, to Tindall's Burying Ground in Bunhill Fields, and there interred. The Rev. Mr. Whitefield attended the Corpse, and made a long Oration upon the Occasion, amidst the greatest Concourse of People there ever was assembled in that Place; it is thought more than 20,000. The Corpse had been previously exposed in Mr. Whitefield's Tabernacle near the Burying Ground.

The cross eyed Mr Whitefield preaching to the converted

Robert Tilling had been a coachman in the employ of Mr Samuel Lloyd, a silk merchant of Devonshire Square on the outskirts of Spitalfields. Mr Lloyd was a very successful business man and a prominent Methodist, a friend and supporter of John Wesley. He was known for his good nature and patient disposition. His father Thomas had been a Spitalfields silk weaver with a huge family of 20 children. Samuel was the brightest and in 1724 he was apprenticed to a Mr Bullock, a mercer at the Wheatsheaf on Ludgate Hill. He became an extremely competent shopman and, according to a correspondent in the Lady’s Magazine, writing after his death, ‘a sharp little beau.’ Some young ladies ‘from the court end of town’ took it into their heads to ‘go and plague Lloyd’, the dapper shopkeeper with the impeccable manners.  The young man rushed to hand them out of their carriage when they arrived at Ludgate Hill and accompany them into the shop where the young ladies demanded to see the latest silks.  The Lady’s Magazine correspondent from Derby takes up the story: 
  
The newest and richest silks were requested with the greatest avidity and opened with agility and dispatch, some wanted novelty, others taste, these too tawdry, those too dull ,so that having filled his counters with the greatest variety that any house in town could produce to no end but his own fatigue and sweat, he said one rich piece had remained in petro, brought from the Fields just before they came in, the first that had been wove of the pattern.  On producing it they all owned it exceeding pretty and although it was several pounds a yard desired a shilling worth of it. He replied -Ladies you shall be welcome to that quantity I beg the favour of the shilling, which being given him, he laid it on the fagg end and with his scissors cut off a round bit the exact size, put the same up in two or three papers, presented it very courteously and conducted them into their vehicles politely with thanks for the honour done him. All the while he never changed countenance though doubtless not a little chagrined.

The following day the same ladies returned and bought £300 pounds worth of the silks they had professed to despise the day before, all the while marvelling at Mr Lloyd’s patience. Maybe this sort of teasing from his female customers put him off the fair sex. He never married. Consequently he was alone on the night of 18 February 1760 when the following disturbing events unfolded:

Tuesday Morning, between Four and Five, Mr. Lloyd, a Merchant in Devonsltire-Square, Bistopsgate-Street, thinking he heard some Body in his Room, on turning himself about saw a Man by his Bedside with a Dark Lantborn and a Pistol cocked, which he presented to Mr. Lloyd’s Head, demanding his Money. Mr. Lloyd desired he would give him Leave to reach his Breeches, and he would give it to him.  But the Villain told him it was not that he wanted, but the Keys of his Scrutore, which Mr. Lloyd gave him. He then told Mr. Lloyd, that if he moved while he was gone down Stairs, there was another in the Room that would dispatch him. When the Villain had taken the Money out of the Scrutore, he went Stairs again Mr. Lloyd, delivered the Keys, and then said, Sir, take Notice, that I have only taken your Money out of the Scrutore ; your Plate, Watch, or anything else I have not meddled with; as to the little Money in your Pocket I scorn to take; and then made the best of his Way.  (Oxford Journal 23 February 1760)

The thieves had taken Mr Lloyd’s iron escritoire key, a thirty-six shilling piece of gold, a moidore (a Portuguese coin, a corruption of moeda d'ouro, which literally means gold coin) and ten guineas. Mr Lloyd suspected an inside job and was convinced one of his manservants were involved, either one of the two footmen or his coachman. Within a few days he found proof of the involvement of his the latter, as explained by the Derby Mercury of Friday 29 February 1760;

Monday Evening last Robert Tilling, Servant to Mr. Lloyd, of Devonshire-Square, (who was robbed on the 18th Instant, as mentioned in our last) was taken up and sent to Wood-street Compter, on Suspicion of being concerned in the said Robbery. On his Examination before the Lord-Mayor, it appeared, that a printed Shop Bill, belonging to a Chymist and Druggist near Norton-Folgate, had been found in Mr. Lloyd's. Counting-House after the Robbery was com mitted,, and Mr Lloyd imagining that the Person who was in his Chamber was disguised by Sticking- Plaister being put on his Face, and that it was one of his Servants, went to the Person who kept the Shop, and desired to know whether any Li very- Servant, had lately bought Black Sticking-Plaister there; he was answered in the Affirmative, and that not having a Twelve penny Paper, he bought two Sixpenny ones ; and the Shopkeeper being desired to come to , Mr. Lloyd's the next Day, on his coming,  his Coachman and two Footmen were called, when the Coachman was fixed on by the Shopkeeper.



Things were not looking good for Robert Tilling. Wood Street Compter was a small prison just off Cheapside. From here Robert was taken to be examined by the Lord Mayor, Sir Thomas Chitty,  who ordered him to be detained at Newgate. Further suspicions fell on the hapless coachman’s head when there were further accusations of robbery, this time highway robbery at Blackheath on Saturday 12 January where it was said he had robbed Thomas Haywood and George Greenwood.  According to Thomas Haywood the two men had been riding in his post chaise when Tilling, mounted on a chestnut mare and without any neckerchief across his face to disguise himself,  had demanded they stand and deliver. He had told them “No trifling gentlemen, for I am in distress, having a wife and several children” and held out a long pistol towards them. They were alarmed to see the highwayman’s arm tremble and were worried that the pistol might go off simply because of the thief’s nerves. Haywood’s horse would not quieten down and seemed in danger of bolting. Still they managed to hand over 11 guineas and their watches before Tilling rode away. According to the Leeds Intelligencer of 11 March he confessed to the robbing of the two gentleman but denied robbing the mailcoach, a crime which had been added to the growing list of accusations against him. He told Sir Thomas Chitty:

The trowsers in which he robbed his Master, he bought on Tower -hill, and the dark-lanthorn in Fenchurch. street. The pistol he made use of in ail the robberies he committed was his Master's, but he said that it was never charged. He denied robbing the mail, and said that robbery of his Master was the last action which he intended to commit. He declared he had no accomplices. He said he broke open Mr. Lloyd's desk, and took out the money, before he went into his bedchamber; and that there was a bank vote of  £100, which he left there, as he knew not how to negotiate it.

The case was heard by Sir William Moreton, the Recorder of London in April. Tilling had confessed to his crimes but Sir William ordered his execution. Tilling was very repentant, as the Ordinary of Newgate, Stephen Roe, acknowledged in his traditional account of the last days of the doomed man.  He wrote out a confession addressed to the Ordinary which began:

Sir, I Wose born in the parish of Ashton Keynes in the county of Wilts of honest parents who acording to their abiliteys gave me a tolabral eadecation and wose corfull to instruct me in my duty towards god and my neighbour I wose brougth up a member of the church of England which from my youth I wose corfull to atend to and payd my constant worship there till within these few years I went in and out amongst the of people called methadis but wose neever joynd to any one of their sociatey should the queastion be askd why I atended those peoples praching I answer because I believd they prachd the peure gospel of Jesus Christ.... 

Highway robbery
It was not Methodism which was his downfall however, that can be laid at the door of love. He told the Ordinary that “what tempted him to so horrid a crime as he was charged with, for that as he had good wages in wealthy families, where plenty surrounded him, it was to me very amazing what could seduce him to think of such a course of wickedness. He readily answered, that it was done in order to gain the consent of a beloved woman to marry him; that he courted her, but she would not hear of him without a better foundation than that of a servant.”  To convince the girl, who was the same age as him, to marry him he lied that he had a fortune of £60 put away in savings from his ten years in service. He took up robbery as the method of supplying real money to replace the pure invention of this fortune, so desperate was he to marry the girl. He also confessed an additional crime, committed the previous December in Islington, where he had held up a man with a pistol and robbed him of £2 and some shillings. He told the Ordinary that the horse and pistol used in the robberies both belonged to his master. He begged the Ordinary to allow unrestricted visits by the girl he had planned to marry and to request a visit from Charles Wesley. Both requests were refused; he seemed to most upset by not being allowed an interview with the Methodist, perhaps he hoped Wesley would intercede on his behalf with his master? He remained unforgiven until the end.

28 April was set as the day of the execution. Tilling was to die in the company of three other men, William Beckwith condemned for stealing goods in the dwelling house of Mr John Moore and John Guest and Thomas Smith who had burgled a silversmith’s in Fleet Street.  On the morning of the execution Tilling received a visit just before 6am from 3 gentlemen, presumably fellow Methodists, one of whom were much distressed by his plight. At 7am the Ordinary found the four condemned men knelt in prayer together – he made them rise and join him in the Chapel where they joined in with prayers and the communion. Tilling had hopes of a reprieve and the Ordinary remarks that this affected his composure on the day of the execution. The other three men seemed perfectly at ease with their fates but Tilling had “less composure, calmness, patience and resignation, than was observable in the three other prisoners.” At the end of the service the prisoners had their irons knocked off and were instead bound with rope before being put into the carts that would take them to Tyburn.  On the scaffold Tilling turned toward the crowd and addressed them; “Beloved friends! O! now look and learn by one who has forgot his God. Temptations prevailed over me; I have fallen by my iniquities, and transgressed the law of my Maker. But thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift! O! that you would attend to one who is now within a hand's breadth of death.” He then spoke for twenty minutes, exhorting the crowd to put their faith in Jesus Christ and reminding his ‘fellow sufferers’, the other four prisoners, that “you are going out of a world of sorrow and sin, out of a howling wilderness, full of pits and snares; here is nothing but trouble here.” When at last he fell silent, the respectful hangman withdrew the carts and the four condemned twisted and writhed at the end of the rope in their final agonies, dancing the Tyburn jig as these were irreverently called.  

The end you already know. Apparently forgiven by his Methodist brethren Tilling’s body was retrieved and taken to George Whitefield’s tabernacle in Moorfields.  Did Samuel Lloyd suffer a twinge of conscience when he saw so many of his fellow co-religionists turn out for his coachman’s funeral. 20,000 people! He must have been astonished, perfectly well aware that he would be lucky  to gather even a hundredth of that number for his own funeral.  




Wednesday, 24 October 2018

From Here to Eternity: Travelling the World to Find the Good Death - Caitlin Doughty (Orion Books £8.99)



On her website Caitlin Doughty describes herself as a “mortician, activist, and funeral industry rabble-rouser”.  She runs her own non profit funeral business, Undertaking LA, and is the founder of the death acceptance collective The Order of the Good Death whose primary tenet is “hiding death and dying behind closed doors does more harm than good to our society.” Her YouTube series Ask a Mortician has clocked up 186 episodes and 57,000,000 views since 2011 and she has published two books, both of which cleverly recycle well known titles. The first, ‘Smoke Gets In Your Eyes (and other lessons from the Crematorium)’ (or Crematory if you read an American edition) was a breezy and highly entertaining account of her initiation into the Californian funeral business at Westwind Cremation & Burial in San Francisco. Her second book ‘From Here to Eternity; Travelling the World to Find the Good Death’ in which she investigates global funeral customs is as engaging as her debut. 


Caitlin is deeply disenchanted with the modern American funeral profession, its obsession with embalming and its capitalisation of death; “In America... death has been big business since the turn of the twentieth century. A century has proved the perfect amount of time for its citizens to forget what funerals once were: family- and community- run affairs. In the nineteenth century... no one would have questioned a wife washing and dressing the body of her husband or a father carrying his son to the grave in a homemade coffin. In an impressively short time, America’s funeral industry has become more expensive, more corporate, and more bureaucratic than any other funeral industry on earth. If we can be called best at anything, it would be at keeping our grieving families separated from their dead.” Caitlin’s particular mission, in the book, is to scour the world for meaningful funeral customs, to show Americans (and Europeans, arguably we aren’t far behind the States in our denial of mortality) how to reconnect with death. Whether any of the fascinating customs she uncovers could ever be coaxed into taking root in WASP America or skeptical Britain is debatable but as the spread of impromptu roadside memorials has shown in recent years, both countries are quite capable of suddenly adopting alien traditions when the fancy takes them.   

With a round the world airline ticket takes herself off to Mexico, Bolivia, Spain, Indonesia, and Japan before ending her trip where she started, at home in California, taking a 6 week corpse client out to its final resting place in the Joshua Tree Memorial Park in the Mojave desert. Her first stop on her world tour is also just a stone’s throw away from her LA base, in Crestone, Colorado witnessing a cremation on an  open air funeral pyre for a 75 year old lady called Laura who was found dead on her kitchen floor after spending the previous night dancing ‘with abandon  at a local music festival.’ Laura’s family decided at the last minute that her horse Bebe was not allowed to attend the ceremony.  For her trip to the Toraja region of Sulawesi in Indonesia Caitlin accompanies Dr Paul Koudounaris , the eccentric author of sumptuous coffee table books including  ‘The Empire of Death; A Cultural History of Ossuaries and Charnel Houses’, who dresses like a cross between Beau Brummel and Dr John the Night Tripper. The florid Koudounaris proves to be much less exotic to the locals than the pallid mortician with the Bettie Page hair cut. The Torajan’s famously keep their dead at home, for months, even years, before arranging a funeral. The corpses, preserved with liberal doses of formalin, are cared for as though they are sick, offered food, alcohol and cigarettes and are regularly washed and changed. In Japan she checks out a lastel, a last hotel where families spend their last night before funeral with the body of the deceased and witnesses the ritual of kotsuage;  relatives of the cremated are given white gloves and chopsticks to remove any remaining bones from the ash and put them in an urn (in the West unburnt bones are pulverised in a cremulator so that all that remains of the deceased is literally dust and ashes).  Naturally she visits Mexico for the Dia de los Muertos, the day of the dead and Bolivia for Fiesta de las Ñatitas, the festival of the skulls.


From Here to Eternity is thoroughly entertaining, and Caitlin Doughty an appealing guide to the worlds funereal mores. It is difficult to argue with any of her views about the necessity of accepting our mortality, of the importance of funeral customs, grieving and physical connection with the dead or her criticisms of modern funeral practice. For someone so obsessed with death she displays not a hint of morbidity and at times I find her vivacity, relative youth and sheer wholesomeness slightly disconcerting in someone dealing with such gothic subject matter.  Her quirky California girl persona is probably what lets her get away with openly discussing such recondite subject matter as decomposition and necrophilia on YouTube; the last thing anyone could describe her as is ‘creepy’.  From Here to Eternity is definitely recommended reading.


P.S. The book is also excellently illustrated by Blair Landis. I was particularly thrilled to see an illustration of Thomas Willson’s Metropolitan Sepulchre but deeply disappointed not to be able to find it on-line so that I could share it with you.    








Sunday, 21 October 2018

"Good old Bunhill! Almost every sod a song!"; Bunhill Fields, City Road EC1

The graves of Daniel Defoe and William Blake
Blake, Bunyan and Defoe are probably not names that mean much to today’s school children. If my own offspring are any indication neither will they have much, or possibly any, awareness of BBD’s contribution to the national culture. I was shocked when they looked blankly at me when I mentioned Robinson Crusoe. Every child in the Sixties and Seventies knew about the shipwrecked Yorkshire mariner if only from the 13 episodes of the black and white German made TV series that was a fixture on the summer holiday weekday morning programming from the BBC for the best part of 2 decades (astonishingly Crusoe’s desert island scenes were shot on the desolate shoreline of Playa del Ingles and Playa Maspalomas on Gran Canaria just before they were hemmed in by hotel and apartment blocks and invaded by package tourist hordes). Bunyan may not have been a name we were familiar with but most of us would have been exposed in school assembly to his only hymn, ‘To be a Pilgrim’, adapted from a poem in the Pilgrim’s Progress. None of us would have known or cared but we were singing a bowdlerised version of Bunyan’s words produced by the appropriately named Percy Dearmer, who sadly stripped out references to lions, hobgoblins and foul fiends. Thankfully he left in the giant. The hymn is sung to a rousing tune by Ralph Vaughn Thomas based on a traditional folk song called “Our Captain Cried All Hands”, but now generally known as Monks Gate after the Sussex hamlet in which Vaughan Thomas originally collected the song. It was my favourite hymn by far. I didn’t know what a pilgrim was but judging by the words, this person who stood strong in the face of all disasters, ignored all naysayers, vanquished all his foes and went into mortal combat with giants, sounded like a cross between the captain of a star ship and a Viking, and I wanted to be one. My introduction to Blake was a poem, one of the thousand in my sister’s copy of “The Book of a 1000 Poems”, an anthology originally published in 1942 and still, apparently, in print today. The poems were arranged in themed sections and in the one about animals I discovered Blake’s ferocious tiger burning bright in the forests of the night; words so startling that they immediately etched themselves indelibly into my memory. Blake, Bunyan and Defoe are all buried in Bunhill Fields the dissenter’s burial ground in City Road, just south of the Old Street roundabout and north of Moorgate.       

In any written account of Bunhill Fields it is obligatory to mention the following points:

·         It has been a burial site since Saxon times
·     It was the site of a Bone Hill formed from either waste from Smithfield Market or cast offs   from St Pauls charnel house (or both, take your pick)
·         It was the site of plague pits
·         It was opened as a burial ground in 1665
·         It was called the Campo Santo of dissenters by Robert Southey
·         Over 120,000 people are buried here, including....
·         John Bunyan, Daniel Defoe and William Blake

John Bunyan

Bunhill Fields was part of the Moorfields area just outside the walls of the medieval city. From the mid 16th century space was periodically made in the overflowing St Paul’s charnel house by bringing cart loads of bones out through Moorgate and burying them in shallow mass graves. The resulting artificial mound, the bonehill, grew high enough over the years to become an obvious site for placing three windmills. In 1665 the City of London Corporation decided to place common burial grounds for the victims of virulent epidemics (also known as plague pits)  on the site and built enclosing walls around it. In the event the site was never actually required for this purpose and instead the corporation leased it to a Mr Tindall. Most believe that the site was never consecrated and therefore Tindall’s Burial Ground could only be used for non-conformists, those whose religious beliefs were outside the Church of England, but others point out that Tindall hired Anglican clergy to do burial services when occasion demanded.  Management of the site was eventually taken over by the Corporation of London itself (in 1781) but it always remained a non conformist’s burial ground. It closed for interments in 1854, its ground so saturated with human remains that all non conformists requiring committal were advised to take themselves off to Abney Park Cemetery in Hackney instead where there were plenty of unused and unsold plots waiting for dead dissenters.   

Tindall's burying ground as seen on John Rocque's map of 1746

Every grave you look at in Bunhill seems to belong to a doctor of divinity, radical preacher, or celebrated composer of hymns. The author of an anonymous article in the Birmingham Daily Post of 08 July 1941 claims that to most people “the famous burial-ground in the City Road....is one of the dingiest God’s acres in the universe.” It goes on to quote from a letter featuring a “quaint combination of poetry and Puckish humour” by the then recently deceased biblical scholar James Rendell Harris published in The Congregational Quarterly.  The subject of Rendell Holmes sly teasing was the high concentration of pious remains in such a confined space.  At the last trump he said “there will have to be a special archangel told off to collect saints in Bunhill Fields, and if the dead in Christ first rise, the place will be as full of holes as a medieval missal...... it will have to be a musical archangel, too, for when the clods begin to stir and the stones to wobble, the saints will begin to warble. Isaac Watts will be moving the Church again with ‘There a land of pure delight,’ and old Shrubsall at the far end will ask whether the time is come to sing ‘Crown Him Lord of all’ to the tune of Miles Lane, which is on his tombstone; while Master Hart from his adjacency..... will console himself on the resurrection morn by singing soft and low, and ever so sweet, that ‘Not the righteous-- Sinners Jesus came to call’.” Rendell Holmes' conclusion was that at Bunhill one found  in “almost every sod a song!”


In stark contrast to the reverent piety of its dead the behaviour of the living often left much to be desired.  In August 1877 Henry Willson of City Road was writing to the Editor of the Hackney Express and Shoreditch Observer about the appalling deportment of the local roughs: 


Sir,— While deprecating as every English heart does the “atrocities abroad," we must not ignore the “atrocities at home," which are almost daily committed in Bunhill-fields by half grown men and boys of the “rough” genus. I myself saw one miscreant writing detestable words on a grave stone, and in consequence was almost immediately assaulted with large stones, not thrown directly me, but almost perpendicularly into the air, so that they dropped around me, and on one coming nearer than the rest, I was forced shift my quarters, which was the signal for coarse laughter and coarser expressions. The language used by them is of the vilest description, and that in place of that kind where a quiet demeanour at least ought to be observed. That the ears of tender infants and children, mostly girls, should be constantly assailed and made familiar with the loathsome expressions and oaths, their ordinary language, is much to be deplored. I must add that it is now a constant rendezvous for gambling. I am sorry that little children are prevented entering the place, while the roughs are nearly always there in force. With many apologies for taking up some of your valuable space, —I am, yours most respectfully, Henry Willson. City-road, August 20th, 1877.


It may well have been the same roughs who were responsible for the humiliation of a ‘distinguished American ecclesiastic’ who found himself the subject of ridicule visiting Bunhill Fields when he expressed concern about the grave of the famous philosopher John Locke.  According to the Examiner of 18 August 1877:


The stranger happened to be in Bunhill Fields burying-ground, and observed that rough boys were sporting on the grave of John Locke. He felt naturally pained and shocked, and he wrote an indignant letter to the Times. It appeared, however, that the grave in question does not cover the awful dust of the author of the 'Essay Concerning Human Understanding,' who is buried in the tomb of the Masham family in High Laver Church in Essex. The John Locke whose grave was used as part of the playground of the rough lads in Bunhill Fields was doubtless an honest man, worthy of better treatment than to have his bones disturbed by vulgar horseplay; but he is not exactly the Locke on whose last resting-place the good American bishop fancied himself to be gazing. The inscription on the tomb in Bunhill Fields shows, it would appear, that its occupant was laid there more than a century after the philosopher, his namesake, had been consigned to his tomb in Essex.



Friday, 12 October 2018

Mussulman Rites in an English Churchyard; The Lost Memorials of London, Khwāja Shāhsuwār (1582-1626), St Botolphs, Bishopsgate


In the ‘Additions and Corrections’ to his 1790 edition of John Stow’s A Survey of London Thomas Pennant says of St Botolph’s, Bishopgate, that “In the coemetery of this church is the very remarkable tomb in the altar form of Coya Shawsware a merchant and secretary to Nogdi beg the Persian embassador….” By the time of the 1813 edition the wording has been changed to ‘in the coemetery of this church formerly stood..’ The first Muslim tomb in London had disappeared sometime in the previous 20 years.  
 
The first reference to the tomb had been made in the fourth edition of Stow’s Survey edited by Anthony Munday and Humfrey Dyson and published in 1633. Munday was an older contemporary and possible collaborator of William Shakespeare’s and one of Philip Henslowe’s stable of Elizabethan playwrights.  He seems to have been a consummate hack and would turn his hand to prose if there was money in it. He worked on the third edition of the Survey published in 1618 and collaborated with the scrivener and book collector Humfrey Dyson on the fourth edition (the effort made by both men seems to have killed them– they both died in the year of publication). The deceased was a 44 year old Persian merchant Khwāja Shāhsuwār, phonetically transcribed by Munday as Coya Shawsware. In the book Munday’s account is illustrated with a line drawing of the altar tomb:

Khwaja's tomb in the fourth edition of  John Stow's
'A Survey of London' by Munday and Dyson
This Monument was erected to the memory of one Coya Shawsware a Persian Merchant and a principall serwant and Secretary to the Persian Ambassadour with whom he and his sonne came over.  He was aged 44 and buried the tenth of August 1626. The Ambassadour himselfe,  young Shawsware his sonne and many other Persians (with many expressions of their infinite love and sorrow) following him to the ground betweene eight and nine of the clocke in the morning. The rites and ceremonies that (with them) are due to the dead were chiefly performed by his sonne, who sitting crosselegged at the North end of the grave, (for his Tombe stands North and South) did one while Reade, another while Sing; his Reading and Singing intermixt with sighing and weeping. And this, with other things that were done in the Grave in private (to prevent with the sight the relation) continued about halfe an houre. But this was but this dayes businesse: for, as this had not beene enough to performe to their friend departed, to this place and to this end (that is, Prayer, and other funerall devotions) some of them came every morning and evening at sixe and sixe, for the space of a moneth together. And had come (as it was then imagined) the whole time of their abode here in England, had not the rudenesse of our people disturbed and prevented their purpose.
Sir Robert 'don't call me Shirley' Sherley
 
Much may have changed in England over the last four hundred but the rudeness of its inhabitants and their inability to spell their own language remain as constant as the rain and grey skies. Khwāja was a member of the retinue of the Persian Ambassador, Naqd Ali Beg, sent by Shah Abbas the Great, to support and no doubt keep a close eye on, the adventurer Sir Robert Sherley who had preceded him to London to persuade the King to support the Shah in his war with the Ottoman Turks. Sir Robert was the younger of the three Sherley brothers, sons of Sir Thomas Sherley of Wiston in Sussex, the one time High Sheriff of Surrey and Sussex who had lost a spectacular amount of money engaging in financial speculation with the royal funds entrusted to him as Treasurer-at-war to the English army in the Netherlands. With their father accused of fraud and up to his neck in debt to the Crown Sir Thomas’ three sons were forced to look for ways to make enough money to extricate the family from their ruinous financial position. The eldest son, also Sir Thomas, went into that well established career path of any Elizabethan gentleman looking to make a quick profit – privateering. His initial successes in state sponsored piracy came to an abrupt end when he found himself in the admiralty court after taking a vessel near Hamburg which turned out to belong to friendly Dutch merchants. A more ambitious scheme to become a buccaneer in the Levant led to his humiliating capture by the Turks and even more humiliating imprisonment in the Tower of London once ransomed, accused with interfering with the royally sanctioned trade of the Levant Company. The two younger brothers Anthony and Robert took up general adventuring, making themselves available for any dangerous mission offered by anyone willing to pay and were sent to Persia by the crown in 1598. Their mission seems to have been to serve as military advisers coaching the Shah’s generals in the secrets of western military discipline, a quality urgently required if the Persian army were to successfully rebuff the territorial advances of the Ottomans. After just a few months in Persia Sir Anthony returned to Europe with messages for the Queen from the Shah but leaving his younger brother in Persia. He never made it back to England, the continental powers doing everything they could to divert, distract and delay him on his route home. He was received by virtually every ruler in Europe, including Tsar Boris Godunov in Moscow, Rudolf II in Prague, and the Pope in Rome. He was showered with honours, arrested, sent to Morocco as an envoy of Rudolf, imprisoned in Venice and ended up living in Poverty in Madrid but during all his various adventures, always refused permission to return to England. His failure to return to London was viewed as treasonable by the English crown and he effectively became a refugee in Spain.
 
Meanwhile Shah Abbas, frustrated by Sir Anthony’s apparent disappearance and long silence sent his younger brother back to Europe in 1607 to find out what had happened. The ruling powers of Europe subjected Sir Robert to all the same wiles and trickery as his brother but he managed to avoid becoming as hopelessly entangled as his sibling, actually making it back to England by the summer of 1611. He stayed at home for just 18 months before King James commanded him to return to Persia in January 1613. It took him two years to arrive back at Shah Abbas’ capital where after a few months rest he was despatched back to Europe, a journey that this time took him almost eight years; he finally arrived in January 1625. He presented letters of credence, in Persian, to King James at Newmarket and was given a house on Tower Hill from where he spent the next year trying to persuade the King to engage in trade with the Persians. Late the following year he received news that a new Persian Ambassador had landed in England, this time a Persian, Naqd Ali Beg despatched by a Shah Abbas frustrated at his decade long wait for news from the West.

Naqd Ali Beg, a portrait commissioned by
the East India Company in 1626 
Naqd arrived in England in February 1626. The East India Company accorded him full honours ensuring that his arrival was celebrated with due pomp and circumstance. They borrowed a royal coach and eight horses for the final stage of his journey into London and made sure that he was accompanied by not only the directors of the company but by a contingent of courtiers led by the Royal master of ceremonies, the Earl of Warwick.  The Persian ambassador was due to be received by the recently crowned King Charles a few days later but on the morning of the reception Sir Robert Sherley visited him in his lodgings with the Earl of Cleveland and other members of the court. The visit did not go well. The ambassador refused to rise to his feet when he received the party of English gentlemen sitting on a chair with his legs crossed under him in the Persian manner.  When Sir Robert produced his letters of accreditation from Shah Abbas, Naqd lost his temper, leapt to his feet, grabbed the documents and tore them in half before punching him in the face.  One of his entourage then attacked Sir Robert, knocking him to the floor and raining blows on his head. The other English men present pulled the Persian off Sir Robert and the Earl of Cleveland warned the ambassador that only respect for his master was stopping them from killing him. Thus began a feud between the two ambassadors that only ended with the death of the Persian the following year. In the meantime both claimed to the only genuine envoy of the Shah, and engaged in constant backbiting and bad mouthing of the other, much to the irritation of the King.

Sir Thomas Herbert, who later travelled to Persia as part of the first official English embassy to Shah Abbas later wrote in his Some Yeares Travels into Africa and Asia the Great wrote that “of the events of their enforced stay we hear little, save of trouble given to the company by the extravagant demands of Naqd Ali Beg and by his quarrels with a Persian merchant (Khwaja Shahsawar) who had come with him. This person died in August, 1626; but his son carried on the dispute and, and the Privy Council was forced to intervene.” He gives no details of the quarrel or why the Privy Council felt itself obliged to interfere. Despite the bad feeling between the Shahsawars and Naqd Ali Beg, the ambassador was present at the funeral of Khwaja when he died in August. We know few other details of the Shahsawars; the grief of Khwaja’s son Mohammed seems not to have stopped him falling in love with an English woman and apparently wanting to convert to Christianity. He was not alone in being attracted by the charms of the women of London; Naqd also started a relationship with a ‘lewde strumpet’ with whom he became so enamoured that he wanted to take her back to Persia. King Charles soon lost patience with the squabbling Persian envoys and sent them back to Persia with Sir Dodmore Cotton to take Shah Abbas’ advice on which of them was his genuine envoy. It was a ill fated embassy; Khwaja’s son died of a burning fever in the Arabian gulf, Naqd Ali Beg committed suicide and Sir Robert Sherley and Sir Dodmore Cotton died the following year before returning to England.  

Mahomet, a Persian merchant returning for Persia in our ship, died of a burning-fever, his father Hodge Suar having paid nature her last tribute in London the year before. Nemo ante obitum beatus was verified in this person; but a happy man we hope this Mahomet died if, throwing away the rags of Mawmetry [i.e. Muhammadanism], he clothed his soul with the robes of true faith in Christ, whom we were told, a little before he left the world, he called upon as the only efficacious means of his salvation; again I say happy, if unfeignedly. At his putting into the sea the captain of our ship honoured his funeral with the rending clamour of four culverins, his carcass at that instant being committed to the mercy of the sea, no less sure a treasury than the earth till the Resurrection.
Thomas Herbert

We came to anchor in Swally Road Nogdi-Ally-beg, the Persian Ambassador (Sir Robert Sherley’s antagonist), died, having, as we were credibly told, poisoned himself – for four days eating only opium. The Mary (where he died) gave him eleven great ordnance at his carrying ashoe, his son Ebrahim-chan conveyed him to Surat (10 miles thence) where they entombed him him not a stones cast from Tom Coryat’s grave…
Thomas Herbert



Friday, 28 September 2018

Hung, flayed and crucified; the gruesome fate of James Legg (1731-1801)

 
In the May the Royal Academy finally opened the doors to its £56 million redevelopment to the public. The event received much coverage in the media including terrestrial TV news coverage. I was watching it on Channel 4 news which took you on a tour of the new gallery spaces, the new bridge linking Burlington House with the Burlington Gardens building, the refurbished vaults and the new auditorium. They were interviewing someone, possibly Tim Marlow the RA’s recently appointed Artistic Director; I wasn’t really listening because my attention was transfixed by something in the background to the interviewee’s head shot. A life size model of a man being crucified. Some change in my demeanour, a shifting forward in my seat, widening of the eyes, a sharp intake of breath, I’m not sure what, alerted my wife that that I was taking more than usual interest in the programme.

“What is it?” she asked. I pointed to the crucifixion behind the interviewee’s neatly trimmed hair.

“That’s James Legg, the Chelsea pensioner, who was executed for murder then handed to the anatomists, who crucified him in an experiment then flayed his corpse and made a plaster cast…” I told her. She rolled her eyes and went back to leafing through her magazine, taking no further interest in the subject. I was much more interested in the 200 year old plaster cast than I was in the £56 million refurbishment of the Royal Academy. James Legg normally languishes in the RA’s vaults, seen only by students. He has occasionally been put on public view over the last two centuries but his public appearances are normally pretty brief and I have never managed to catch one of them. From the news report he looked to be on prominent display. I went to see him this week, the first opportunity I have had since seeing the news item in May, and didn’t even bother looking round the new gallery spaces, the new bridge or the new auditorium. I only had eyes for James.          

On October 28 1801, 70 year old Chelsea Pensioner James Legg was convicted of the murder of fellow pensioner William Lambe at the Old Bailey. The only witness to the murder was Lambe’s wife. She told the court that she was surprised that Legg, whom she had known for years, had shot her husband with a pistol because “I took him to be a very solid man, for he washed his own linen, cooked his own victuals, and took the sacrament regularly…” But on the morning of October second, in the common room of the Royal Hospital Mrs Lambe got up a little before seven to find Legg walking about “swearing, and quite in an ill humour, I thought; I asked him what was the matter, when he began to swear the more, and said, I will turn you out of the room, if you speak another word.”  William Lambe was still in bed, perhaps Legg’s threats to his wife woke him up for when she opened the door to their room he was just getting up. Legg brushed past her and put a pistol into his hand. Still half fuddled with sleep Lambe, according to his wife “took it, turned it about, and looked at it, and said, what is this for; the room was dark, and then he threw it into the common room; my husband had just put on a little flannel waistcoat, and stood up against the door.” Legg rushed up to him and fired his own pistol into Lambe’s chest, killing him immediately; “he endeavoured to call my name, but could not…” said Mrs Lambe pathetically. Legg seemed to be challenging Lambe to a duel, newspapers reported that he had said “You must get up and fight me,” as he threw the gun at Lambe but when the pistol was examined later it was found to be primed with gunpowder but to contain no bullet.

A Chelsea Pensioner in uniform

None of the witnesses at the trial had any idea why James Legg would want to kill William Lambe. When questioned Charles Coates, another pensioner and one of the first on the scene after the shooting told the court “I said, good God, why you have killed him, he is quite dead, how could you do so; he (Legg) paused, and said, I gave him a pistol in his hand, to come out and fight me like a man, he would not, but threw it down, then I fired….” The newspapers had reported that the two men had been at loggerheads over the coal ration but this seemed a poor motive for murder. So senseless did the killing seem that some witnesses suggested Legg was out of his mind.  Joseph Ryland, a tobacconist, swore that Legg did not seem in his right senses “This year past, he used to buy tobacco of me; one day, about half a year ago, he talked very wild, and said he was going to have a company, and be in commission afresh, under Lord Cornwallis in Ireland.” Ann Grant a nurse at the Old Infirmary testified “the prisoner was in the hospital, under my care, from the beginning of the year to the 10th or 11th of May; and, during that time, I saw a very great change in him, which I never saw before; a lowness, a melancholy and deranged state; knowing him so long, I took the opportunity of asking him what was the matter with him, and the reason of his melancholy; he told me his mind was confused; that he had no rest night or day; that he was hurried from place to place, and could not tell what he was doing; and I really was afraid he would make away with himself.” Mr Justice Heath was not swayed by this thin evidence of insanity and finding Legg guilty condemned him to death by hanging and, once dead, to anatomisation by the surgeons.


There was great public interest in James Legg. The Morning Post reported the scenes at Newgate Chapel the following Sunday when the condemned sermon was due to be read:

On Sunday morning a great number of persons attended the Old Bailey chapel to hear the condemned sermon. The principal objects of attraction were Smith, the pretended Parson, and Leigh, the Chelsea pensioner, both capitally convicted last week... The price of admission was at first a shilling; it soon rose to two shillings, and shortly after to three. From the increasing demand for places, and the affluent appearance of the visitors, the door keepers now thought they might sport box prices, and were on the point of demanding a crown a-head but unfortunately the place by this time was completely full, and the reflux of a disappointed tide put an end to any further solicitation for admittance. Still, however, numbers hovered about the place, waiting to receive an account of what passed within from their more lucky friends. From this state of suspense and expectation they were relieved much sooner than they could have had reason to hope. No condemned sermon was preached, the unfortunate objects of their curiosity did not appear in the Chapel, and the audience were dismissed after a short prayer. This disappointment was followed with loud murmurs against the Chaplain, and loud demands to have their money returned and, strange to tell, many Gentlemen did not leave Newgate without actual compulsion. 

The condemned sermon being read at Newgate Chapel

The same newspaper also gave a full account of the execution the following day:

Yesterday morning, a few minutes after eight o’clock, James Legg, the Chelsea pensioner, and Richard Stark, who were both convicted of murder at the present Old Bailey Sessions and ordered for execution were launched into eternity, opposite the debtors door of Newgate amidst the execrations of many thousand spectators who were assembled as early as half past seven o'clock, to witness their behavior at the place of execution.

Legg’s manner was as unconcerned during his confinement in the condemned cell as on his trial…. Throughout the whole of his confinement, he betrayed no fear of death, was always collected; and when he was about to ascend the scaffold, he took Mr. Kirby by the hand, and said, "I mind this no more than I would entering the field of action”. He afterwards shook hands with all around him, and turning to his companion Stark, who was weeping bitterly, said, 'Be a man, and die with spirit." He made use of many other exhortations, and so far succeeded as to make Stark hold up his head. Before they were turned off, Legg looked around, bowed to the populace, smiled, and appeared quite unconcerned. After hanging the usual time (an hour), their bodies were carried to the dissecting-room on Saffron-hill and this day they will be exhibited for public inspection. Legg was in the 25th regiment of foot about sixteen years, was born in Shropshire…. His appearance was prepossessing, an open countenance, about six feet one inch high.

Écorché

The intention of the court was that Legg should be publicly dissected but the corpse was claimed by a staff surgeon at the Chelsea Hospital, Joseph Constantine Carpue, who had agreed to take part in an unusual experiment at the request of three prominent artists, Thomas Banks, Richard Cosway and Benjamin West.  All three were Royal Academicians; West was in fact the second President, having taken over the position left vacant on the death of Sir Joshua Reynolds. Banks was a celebrated sculptor, Cosway a portrait painter and the Anglo-American West a painter of historical subjects. These three distinguished men had been debating for some time the questionable anatomical accuracy of crucifixion scenes. They approached Carpue to help them determine the exact effects being nailed and hung from a cross would have on the human body. Conducting the experiment on a live human being would be likely to land them all in serious trouble so they settled on the next best option, experimenting with a fresh corpse.

Thomas Banks
Benjamin West
Richard Cosway

According to Carpue, Legg’s body was removed to a temporary building “erected near the place of the execution; a cross provided. The subject was nailed on the cross; the cross suspended…the body, being warm, fell into the position that a dead body must fall into…When cool, a cast was made, under the direction of Mr Banks, and when the mob was dispersed it was removed to my theatre.” Carpue then flayed the crucified corpse, removing every shred of skin and subcutaneous fat to expose the muscle beneath. Banks made another plaster cast of the body, a classic ecorché. Both casts were later displayed in Banks studio, creating huge public interest before being moved to the Royal Academy where the sculptor hoped they 'might be useful to the Students of the Royal Academy & also to the professor of Anatomy at the time of his giving his lectures as they may be mov'd from the Antique Academy to the Lecture room & back again with very little trouble'. In the 1820’s they were moved to Carpue’s own museum of anatomy. St George’s Hospital inherited the two casts from Carpue and during the First World War the ecorché ended up back at the Royal Academy. The other cast has been lost.

James and friends, now apparently on permanent display in the Royal Academy vaults