Monday, 18 May 2020

The man who took the piss out of London; Sir Joseph Bazalgette (1819-1891), St. Mary's Churchyard, Wimbledon


The hygienist is a hero. He overcomes the most visceral repugnance, rolls up his shirt sleeves, and takes on the cloaca. He faces the foul unnameable and speaks of that thing of which no one else will speak. No one else dare name it for fear of soiling the image of his knowledge. He alone speaks of it; he alone makes it speak.

Blood, milk, shit, sex, corpses, sperm, sewers, hospitals, factories, urinals – for three quarters of a century, the hygienist has spoken of these ceaselessly. He is the prince consort of bourgeois civilisation, of colonialist Europe as embodied by Queen Victoria. Excremental issues are at the heart of his accounts, memoirs, observations, reports, letters, essays bulletins, etc.

Dominque Laporte ‘Histoire de la merde: Prologue’ (1978)

A tap dripped in the sink behind the counter. Albert thought with awe of the vast resources behind that tap: the miles of pipes, of mains, the reservoirs, the rivers, the rain. He imagined with what wonder an African immigrant must regard the water supply: “It comes in pipes, you just have to turn a tap thing, man. And that same water is the same as the Queen drinks. When I turn that tap thing, man, I’m connected with the same water that she uses. And the sewers, man, thy connect, too, she don’t use no special sewer, they all connect up and side by side hers and mine come out at Barking Creek. That’s a democratic country for you, man.”
B.S. Johnson ‘Albert Angelo’ (1964)

The death of Sir Joseph Bazalgette removes from this generation one who must be memorable in its annals. What Baron Haussmann was to Paris Sir Joseph Bazalgette was to London. He drained and purified London, and he did much to beautify it giving the Thames a swifter course, by building Embankments planted in boulevard fashion with trees, and by constructing bridges. The main system drainage, defective as theorists may call it, is his. The theorists can do nothing better practically, or they would have given their views application long ago. Sir Joseph Bazalgette liberated London from many nuisances. That London has still a few nuisances left is not his fault. Complete success is impossible. There is one monument of his skill as engineer that will endure as long as any monument in Venice. That is the Embankment between Blackfriars Bridge and Westminster. The health of London was advanced immensely by this great work and its consequent enterprises.

Montgomeryshire Echo - Saturday 21 March 1891

The cathedral of sewage - Abbey Mills pumping station in Stratford
Before the Metropolitan Board of Works’ chief engineer, Joseph Bazalgette, was called upon to solve the problem, London’s waste had gone straight into the Thames converting the river into the world’s largest open sewer. Because it is so strongly tidal a turd dropped into the Thames at Westminster can take up to a fortnight to travel out into the open sea. When the tide is flowing out anything riding it will make good progress downriver for six hours or so before the tide turns, at which point it will gaily journey back almost to the point at which it originally embarked. A river full of faeces can swish up and down on the current for days on end, gradually rotting and becoming increasingly offensive. In 1858 London suffered the notorious ‘great stink’ when low rainfall lowered the level of the Thames and weak tides failed to carry away the sewage lying in the river. Unusually hot weather fermented the faecal soup until it was so rank that huge swathes of the population fled the city to escape the stench that led to an epidemic of giant bluebottle flies, necessitated curtains soaked in chloride of lime being hung in the Houses of Parliament to allow the business of government to continue and saw tons of chalk lime, chloride of lime and carbolic acid dumped into the river in a desperate and futile attempt to treat it and make it less noxious.

The cholera epidemics that periodically swept London and killed hundreds were bad enough but Parliamentarians incommoded by the vile stink of rotting faeces was the last straw. Clutching hankies doused in eau de cologne to their faces the Commons passed the Metropolis Local Management Amendment Act which gave the capitals Metropolitan Board of Works the powers necessary to construct drainage and sewerage systems that would finally rid the Thames of filth for ever. Work started in 1859 on the construction of 82 miles of intercepting sewers north and south of the river which would link 1200 miles of sewers and drainage channels and carry it to one main outfall sewer and treatment plant on either side of the river. Abbey Mills pumping station was completed in 1868 and originally powered by steam. Its job was to pump the effluent in the low-lying intercepting sewers up to the main outfall sewer. From here it would flow downhill to Beckton for what was, in the early days, mainly cosmetic treatment, aimed at making the odour of the sewage as unobjectionable as possible before pouring it back into the Thames at Barking Creek.


There are early photographs of Bazalgette inspecting the progress of work on what is now known officially and euphemistically as the Greenway, but was once more bluntly and honestly called the Great Northern Outfall Sewer on Plaistow marshes. The chief engineer of the Metropolitan Board of Works stands proprietorially in the foreground in top hat, frock coat and muddy trousers with the gaping mouths of the huge brick-built tunnels behind him.  This massive raised sewer carries the flushed evacuations of the 3 million bowels and bladders of London north of the Thames down to Beckton Sewage works at Barking Creek for treatment and disposal. When HRH's are in residence in Buckingham or Kensington Palace it is only a matter of time, if one stands for long enough on the Greenway, before a royal turd passes a mere yard or two beneath one’s feet. Good form would, surely, be to salute it on its way but of course it is impossible to be exactly sure when the monarchical movements are in the vicinity. B.S. Johnson has a character note in Albert Angelo that her majesty “don’t use no special sewer, they all connect up and side by side hers and mine come out at Barking creek. That’s a democratic country for you, man.” Rather than a sign of egalitarianism the identical treatment of plebeian, aristocratic and royal bodily waste is an indication that faecal matter, no matter what its origin, is never more than just shit.  


Bazalgette was born in 1819 in Enfield; the unusual surname is the result of his Huguenot ancestry. His grandfather was an émigré tailor and his father a Royal Navy Captain who saw service in the Napoleonic wars. He became articled to the celebrated Irish engineer Sir John Benjamin MacNeill in his mid-twenties and went to work in Ulster and China where the practical experience of drainage and land reclamation he gained would prove invaluable in his later career. He set up his own civil engineering practice in 1842 and married in 1845. He suffered a nervous breakdown in 1847 as a result of overwork and when he returned to work it was as the assistant surveyor to the Metropolitan Commission of Sewers. The Commission was in the midst of a crisis when Bazalgette joined in 1849; the previous year the commission had ordered the closing of all cesspits and the connection of all domestic drains to the sewage system which discharged all its effluent directly into the Thames. The decision led to an outbreak of cholera which killed 14,137 people. Bazalgette was in his element. He became the chief engineer for the Commission in 1852 and then for the Metropolitan Board of Works in 1856. His main works were all done under the aegis of the latter organisation and included not only the whole scale reform and rebuilding of London’s drain and sewage systems but the construction of the Albert, Victoria and Chelsea embankments, Putney, Hammersmith and Battersea Bridges and the remodelling of Charing Cross Road and Shaftesbury Avenue. He had a vigorous constitution and fathered 11 children and rode for two or three hours a day during his retirement in Wimbledon saying “I find it splendid exercise for counteracting the effects of a sedentary life.” He also kept cows and made hay. He would have been startled on Monday 02 March 1891 to read in the newspapers that he had died the previous Saturday but once he got over the shock would have been gratified by the flattering eulogies and obituaries in the newspapers. The newspaper accounts of his death proved to be only marginally premature, he died on the 15th March.

The foundation stone of the Western Pumping Station in Grosvenor Road, Pimlico was laid in 1873 and was completed in 1875. The pump house is 71 feet high and the chimney 192 feet (just ten feet shorter than the Monument) and cost £183,000. The Pumping Station was part of Bazalgette’s improvements to London’s sewage system and could lift 38,000 gallons of raw sewage an hour 18 feet from the local drains and sewers to the main Low Level Sewer which runs from here to Abbey Mills in Stratford. 
The Surrey Comet of Saturday 28 March gave a detailed account of Bazalgette’s funeral;

The remains of the late Sir Joseph Bazalgette C.B, whose death was chronicled in our last issue, were interred on Saturday afternoon in the family vault at the parish church, in the presence of a large assemblage of persons of every class and creed, the poor, in whom the deceased was specially interested, being very fully represented. The funeral was a walking one, the deceased’s late residence being only a short distance from the church. The body was enclosed in coffin of polished oak with brass fittings, and was covered with a purple pall. The inscription on the plate was "Sir J. W. Bazalgette born 28th March, 1819, died 15th March, 1891." The principal mourners were deceased's five surviving sons… [there follows a long list of persons present at the funeral]. As many of the deceased’s servants as could be spared were also in attendance to pay a last tribute of respect to the memory their honoured master. The procession was met at the western entrance by the Vicar of Wimbledon, the Rev. Canon Haygarth, who read the opening sentences of the Burial Service as the coffin entered the church, where it was deposited on trestles in the nave, while the first portion of the service was conducted. The family vault is situated at the back of the church, the last interment having been that of Mr. Norman Bazalgette, M.A., Sir Joseph’s son, in December 1888. The coffin having been placed in position on the tomb, the Vicar concluded the funeral obsequies. The deceased was always of a very retiring disposition, having a great aversion to ceremony and publicity, and in accordance with his desire no wreaths were placed on the coffin, but several floral designs were afterwards laid on the tomb.

The imposing Portland stone mausoleum is actually second hand. Sir Joseph seems to have acquired it a few years earlier when his son Norman died from the heirs of John Anthony Rucker who had died in 1804. Rucker commissioned the mausoleum (described as a 'pyramid with an iron railing and vault underneath', by  W A Bartlett in The History and Antiquities of the Parish of Wimbledon, Surrey in 1865) from a Mr Gibson of Hackney. Rucker was born in Hamburg in 1718 and naturalised in 1745 and was part of a large merchant family with extensive banking interests. He never married and when he died left £53,000 in cash to various nephews and nieces. His estate at West Hill , his slaves in Grenada and Tobago and his mausoleum he left to his favourite nephew Daniel Henry Rucker. Daniel was happy to spend his uncle’s fortune but not grateful enough to even consider being buried with him. Rucker lay alone in his vault for almost seventy years until Sir Joseph bought it and put Norman into the niche at Rucker’s side. When his own turn came his coffin was placed above Rucker’s.  


Thursday, 14 May 2020

Hic! Hic! Hic! - the Martyrdom of St. Edmond and St, Andrew's Church, Greensted-juxta-Ongar


Greensted-juxta-Ongar is a hamlet 23 miles from central London and deep in the Essex countryside. Until it closed in 1994, it was just a 20-minute walk from what was then the last stop on the eastern section of the Central Line at Ongar. It is a bit more difficult to get to these days; it is a 6-mile trek on foot from Epping station or 9 miles from Brentwood. It is famous for having the world’s oldest wooden church and for being one of the overnight resting places of the miracle working remains of St Edmund the Martyr as they were taken from London to Bury-St-Edmund’s. “The church is famous all over England as the only survivor – and what an unlikely survival – of a log- church. Moreover, it can with some probability be dated c. 1013, the year of the passing through of St Edmund’s body,” says the great authority on English architecture, Nikolaus Pevsner in the Essex volume of ‘The Buildings of England.’ Since 1954 when Pevsner wrote the date of the wooden nave has been pushed forward by half a century to the early 1060’s but there is no disputing that the existing building predates the Norman conquest and is the only surviving log built Saxon Church in England and that it is the oldest wooden church in Europe.

A wooden church has been on this site since the late 7th century shortly after St Cedd, a Saxon trained in the monastery at Lindisfarne, was sent south to convert his pagan brethren in the land of the East Saxons, Essex. Earlier wooden buildings have been uncovered beneath the chancel of St Andrews and are probably the remains of these earlier churches.  The nave walls, as can be seen in the photo, were built from vertically split oak logs and held in place by an oak sill. The sill was replaced in a major restoration in 1848 and a brick plinth was added to strengthen the walls. The dormer windows are Tudor, the brick chancel dates from the early 16th century and no one is sure when the Tower was built but like many church towers in Essex it is a timber construction with clap board laid over an oak frame. Although dedicated to St Andrew the church has strong links with St Edmund, and a carving on one of the roof beams at Greensted shows a wolf guarding his severed head.

According to Edmund’s earliest biographer, Abbo of Fluery who wrote his Passio Santi Eadmund over a hundred years after the King had supposedly been martyred, he was crowned King of East Anglia at the age of 15. In 869 Edmund was captured by the marauding Danish army of Ubbe Ragnarsson and Ivar the Boneless.  Abbo relates how Edmund refused to fight Ivar, and was beaten senseless with cudgels in the hall of the Dane. When Edmund called on Christ for help, he was taken outside and lashed to a tree. The Danes were curious to see if his God would save him. They then shot him full of arrows “as with bristles of a hedgehog,” as Abbo put it. His corpse was then decapitated and the head flung deep into the woods. When his subjects recovered the corpse, they struggled to find the missing head. The men looking for the head became separated and began to call ‘Where are you?’ to their companions. ‘Hic! Hic! Hic!’ a voice replied, ‘Here! Here! Here!’. Following the voice, they discovered the severed head of the king lying between the fore paws of a wolf. The ferocious animal appeared to have been guarding the holy man’s head as it relinquished the relic without so much as a growl and walked off into the forest. St Edmund was buried at the Benedictine Abbey at Bury St Edmunds but his body was later exhumed and removed to London for safekeeping. Legend has it that all traces of the arrow wounds had disappeared from the corpse and that the head has miraculously re-joined to the body with only a thin red line to show that they had ever been severed.  The body was returned to Bury St Edmunds in 1013 and it was during this second journey that the remains of the martyr rested at Greensted.




Thursday, 7 May 2020

Diocesan Graveyard Law; St Peter's Churchyard, Aldborough Hatch


Maybe it is my imagination but the London sky looks bluer to me during lockdown than it ever did in normal times. It is quite frustrating to be stuck indoors hunched over a laptop, trying to work from home, when the sun is blazing in a perfect cerulean sky. Particularly when you are only allowed out an hour at a time. A couple of weeks ago I used my hour (well, maybe a bit more than an hour, please don’t tell the police) on a beautiful spring morning to take a long stroll to St Peter’s churchyard in Aldborough Hatch.

Aldborough Hatch is one of those rare places in London where the city abruptly ends and the country suddenly begins. St Peter’s is a brisk ten minute walk from Barkingside Underground Station and the Central Line, across a footbridge, skirting a golf course, passing through a farmyard and by a converted chapel, then along a footpath that runs along the side of a field to where the church stands alone on the edge of Fairlop plain facing the open Essex countryside. At the back of the church is a Council Estate, the perimeter of the great Wen – from here it is 27 miles of concrete, cement, brick and tarmac all the way through the centre of London, across the Thames and out the other side to suburban Kent and Surrey. The unchecked expansion of the capital stopped here early in the last century, as if London had suddenly lost its appetite for further growth, and the hamlet became a frontier town with commuters in its semi-detached villas and resentful farmers vigilantly guarding their fields and livestock against further incursions of the city. 


In the 1860’s when St Peter’s was a typical mention of the hamlet in the newspapers would have been; 

Six fine agricultural horses, valued at £240, were stolen the other evening from a farm at Aldborough Hatch, Essex. The animals were traced in the direction of London for some distance, and then the clue failed. (Western Daily Press - Monday 15 March 1869)

Fifty years later, in the golden years prior to the first world war, the stories reflected that clash of city and country cultures that signalled Aldborough Hatch’s transformation into a London suburb. In February 1911 the Chelmsford Chronicle reported on a case in Ilford County Court. Henry Charles Pawsey a farm labourer of Aldborough Hatch was suing Dr Frederick McKee of Cranbrook Road, Ilford for damages for injuries sustained when the good doctor’s motor car had knocked him down on 08 October the previous year. Mr Metcalfe, Henry Pawsey’s barrister said that his client had suffered a broken leg and that the “circumstances were made additionally serious by the fact that defendant had chosen to excuse himself by saying that the plaintiff was drunk at the time. Witnesses would say that plaintiff was a very respectable man, that he was the best workman his employer had ever had, and that he was absolutely sober.”  The court heard from George Manning, a baker, that his horse was standing on the main road at the time of the accident when Dr McKee had roared past him in his motor car “at about eight miles an hour.” Shortly afterwards he heard a car horn sound three times and a shout. In the witness box Dr McKee explained that two men had been in the middle of Aldborough Road as he drove in the direction of the Hatch. He sounded his horn for the men to clear out of the way but just as he was passing one of the men swayed into the roadway and was caught on the mudguard of the car. Dr McKee put on his brake and went to the assistance of the fallen man, asking his name and address “but he was unable to give them. He assumed that the man had been drinking; both men in fact were drunk.” Dr McKee put his medical expertise into practice and finding that the man’s leg had been broken put it into a splint and then got him into his car and drove him home. On the way Mr Pawsey sang songs and thoroughly enjoyed the novel experience of whizzing along in an automobile. Judge Tindal Atkinson told the court that the plaintiff had “not brought satisfactory evidence of negligence. People must be cautious, he said, in crossing the roads nowadays, even in the quietest parts of the country.”   


An 1851 act of Parliament ‘disafforested’ nearby Hainault and 100,000 trees were felled in just two years creating open farmland. Large farms were laid out with housing for farm labourers. The act allowed for land to be set aside for a church and in 1861 the Crown Commissioners of Woods and Forests granted £1000 for the building of a church to replace a nearby chapel of ease and £20 a year towards the salary of a rector. The building was designed by Arthur Ashpitel, a Hackney born architect who was friendly with the artist David Roberts and travelled to Rome with him, who designed the ornament cast on Big Ben and who built churches, almshouses, schools and pubs, almost exclusively in the predominant gothic revival style. St Peter’s is one of six churches in London built from the Portland Stone debris of the Old Westminster Bridge. Wikipedia repeats the speculations of Ron Jeffries, author of ‘Aldborough Hatch, The Village in the Suburbs’ that the builders of the church “also had the contract to demolish Westminster Bridge, which was built of Portland stone. Rather than use bricks from the brickfields of Ilford, it was cheaper to transport the stone by barge and horse and cart.” Ashpitel would never have designed his gothic church to be built in brick, it was clearly always meant to be a stone building. Luckily Westminster Bridge was being demolished at the same time and the rubble being sold as building material. See Bell's Weekly Messenger of Saturday 25 August 1860;

Sale of Old Westminster Bridge.— On Tuesday the sale of old Westminster Bridge, to clear the way for the completion of the new structure, was commenced at the bridge by Messrs. Eversfield and Horne, of Parliament street, when several hundred tons of Portland stone in blocks, granite kerb, pitching, etc., forming the material of the old bridge, were sold by auction. The different lots all fetched good prices, the stone being in first-rate condition, a great portion of it was purchased for the railways now in construction in the metropolis. The sale is to be continued from time to time until the entire bridge is disposed of. The works of the new bridge are advancing steadily; it is anticipated that New Westminster Bridge will be entirely finished the autumn of 1861. 


Construction of old Westminster Bridge commenced in 1739 and wasn’t completed until 1750. It was considered a modern wonder of the world at the time, an unrivalled feat of engineering, the building of which was painted by Richard Wilson, Samuel Scott and, on numerous occasions, the Venetian maestro Canaletto. In the early morning of 03 September 1802 William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy were driven in a post chaise over the stones of which St Peter’s is built on their way to Calais to visit William’s illegitimate daughter Caroline and her mother Annette Vallon. The Napoleonic wars had stopped the poet seeing his 9 year old daughter for several years but the peace of Amiens had been signed the previous year and William had a final chance to see her before his marriage. That early morning glimpse of London as William drove over the bridge inspired one of his most famous poems; Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802

Earth has not any thing to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;
Ne'er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!
The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still! 

By 1850 the old Bridge was developing serious structural defects and subsiding badly. Plans were made to build a new bridge immediately to the west of the old, adjacent to Charles Barry’s newly built Houses of Parliament. The old bridge was demolished as the new bridge was nearing completion and divers used to dismantle the piles driven into the bed of the Thames.   St Peter’s was consecrated on 6 May 1862 and the new Westminster Bridge opened on 24 May.


The oldest grave I could find in the churchyard was for Lydia Sarah, wife of Walter Goodman of Clapton who died aged 23 on April 28 1880, 160 years ago. Walter remarried and lost his second wife, Mary (affectionately known as Pollie) at the age of 37 on November 30 1984. He economised by sticking her in the same grave as Lydia and popping her details onto the same headstone. The original churchyard wasn’t big but it still took the 1920’s to run short on space. An extension was added in the early 1930’s (judging by the dates on the oldest memorials). There are no memorials of any note, for the most part they are mass produced slab headstones which the odd angel and a couple of Christs from the 1950’s. There was a wooden cross marking a burial from 1916 but surely it could not be the original grave marker? There were two subsequent burials in the same grave, from 1925 and 1941 and even that seems too long ago for a wooden marker to have survived in good condition, even one as well looked after as this one seemed to be with its relatively fresh coat of paint and new white lettering.      


There are a number of commonwealth war graves, more than you would expect in a small rural churchyard. There were nearby airfields at Hainault in the first world war and at Fairlop in the second and in the old part of the churchyard is the grave of 2nd Lieutenant Harry Walter Jassby a Canadian RAF officer from Montreal who died just a week before the end of WW1 when his Sopwith Camel was involved in a mid-air collision with another aircraft.  Harry Jassby was Jewish, a fact which was overlooked when the decision was taken to bury him in a Church of England churchyard. His commonwealth war grave headstone bears a Star of David and a Hebrew inscription, the epitaph 'in life he flew  the azure sky, in death he flew to heaven high' and there were three pebbles carefully placed on the top which means someone is maintaining the Jewish tradition in this Anglican place of burial. There was also a poppy wreath laid on Remembrance Day last year by the South West Essex & Settlement Reform Synagogue Bnei Mitzvah Class 2019 on behalf of the synagogue and the local Jewish community. 

In the extension close to the new vicarage is a memorial to Rose Jacobs who died in 1961. On the base of the statue of a man waiting to be given water from a jug by a woman modestly clutching a shawl over her breast is the inscription “But whosoever drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst; but the water that I shall give him shall be in him a well of water springing up into everlasting life.  John XiX” from the Kings James Bible. The vicar who would have buried Rose was the rather endearing sounding Lawrence Pickles who liked to swim in the lake that still existed then in the adjacent meadows and wasn’t averse to gardening in the nude. 


Whether the poor man who was found dead in a nearby field in October 1907 is buried in the churchyard I don’t know:

POISONED IN A FIELD at ALDBOROUGH HATCH. An inquest was held at Ilford, on Monday, by Dr. Ambrose, on an unknown man, aged about 55, who was found dead in field at Aldborough Hatch. P.C.  Woolmer said there was nothing identify the body. Near it was lying a book with the title, "British Rule in India." The following day a bottle which had evidently contained laudanum was found. —Dr. Drought said an examination showed that death was due to laudanum poisoning. The man had probably been dead hours when he was found. —The jury returned a verdict that death was due to overdose of a narcotic poison, self-administered.

Chelmsford Chronicle - Friday 11 October 1907





Thursday, 30 April 2020

"Design for Death" Barbara Jones (Andre Deutsch 1967) Out of print


“Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.”
Virginia Woolf ‘Street Haunting: A London Adventure’ (1930)


I own a lot of second hand books but the for the most part I know little or nothing about where they came from or who their previous owners were. Some have tantalising clues about their former lives. Book plates are rare but inscriptions quite common (‘To Patricia, I’m sure you will love this, Thomas Croatia 1987’) or the owners name (surely only people who possess a handful of books can be bothered to write their names in them?). I’ve found letters in second hand books (though nothing very exciting), shopping lists, newspaper clippings and pressed flowers. Some have library markings showing that they once belonged to Midwestern universities in Idaho or Ohio, or public libraries in Leeds or Bristol, before they were retired from active service. It is often ex library stock that most often has pencilled or, sacrilegiously, inked marginalia from readers who feel obliged to record their responses to the text (“What rot!” “is this true?”). These are nothing more than tantalising hints though into what is otherwise a book’s lost history.  


In contrast I know a lot about the past of my copy of Barbara Jones’ ‘Design for Death’. It is a first edition published by Andre Deutsch in 1967 which sold, according the price on the inside cover, for what would have a rather steep 63 shillings (or 3 guineas in posh money). That is equivalent to about £48 now, which incidentally is about what it would cost you now to buy a decent second hand copy of it (few books retain their monetary value over half a century). It was bought by Michael Gray, a young antique dealer from Marlborough. Michael was quite a well-known character in Wiltshire; he was born above the family emporium, Duck’s Toy Shop in the High Street, and briefly worked as a solicitor’s clerk in Bristol after leaving school before returning home to make his living as an antique dealer. He published at least 3 books of local history, archive photographs of the Marlborough area and was a pioneer conservationist who was appalled at the destruction, in the name of progress, of the towns physical fabric in the 1960’s and 70’s, much of it at the hands of the local council.  In 1982 he succeeded in persuading the local authority to save the threatened 17th century Merchant’s House in the high street and preserve it for future generations; it is now one of Marlborough’s best-known buildings. Michael’s copy of ‘Design for Death’ ended up on my bookshelf after he died in late 2018. Michael’s son Sam is a colleague of mine who happens to know of my strange obsession with death related material. He spotted it while sorting through his father’s effects and very kindly extracted it from the large pile of books destined to be sold as a job lot to a book dealer to give to me. I’m very grateful for the gift because this is a wonderful book which I had never heard of.


I hadn’t of Barbara Jones either, despite her being a contemporary of John Piper, Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious and Edward Ardizzone at the Royal College of Art and often mentioned in the same breath. Women artists often struggle for recognition and she certainly was no exception to the general rule. She was born in 1912 in Croydon in a comfortable middle-class household. Her father had a saddlery and harness business in the days before the internal combustion engine finally replaced equine muscle power. She studied at Croydon High School and Croydon Art School before escaping the South London suburbs forever at the Royal College of Art where she graduated in 1937. After graduation she worked part time as a teacher at the Royal College whilst simultaneously trying to build a career as a commercial artist. During the war she was heavily involved in the Recording Britain project and after the war she created murals for the 1946 Britain Can Make It Exhibition and worked for P&O painting murals on their cruise and passenger ships. She had an enormous love of British vernacular art and in 1951 curated the influential Black Eyes and Lemonade exhibition of folk art at the Whitechapel Gallery. The exhibition featured horse brasses, corn dollies, canal boat and fairground artwork, ship's figureheads, and the outfits of Pearly Kings and Queens. Following the success of the exhibition she produced her first book ‘The Unsophisticated Arts’ which featured her own drawings of material drawn from taxidermy, fairgrounds, canal boats, seaside, riverside, tattooing, food decoration, waxworks, toys, rustic work, shops, festivals and funerals. She went on to publish works on follies and grottoes, English popular art during the first world war, erotic postcards and, in 1967, Death. 



One of her close friends was Rose Macaulay and whilst Barbara might not have been as consummate a stylist her prose is lively and idiosyncratic and just as good as her illustrations. Her opening paragraph gives a hint of what is to come:

Everyone dies. For thousands of years, uncountable millions of corpses have been given funerals, and the living have always been faced with the problems of valedictory ceremonials for the dead and what to do with the corpses. Most of the have been buried, burnt, preserved, put in the sea, or exposed to the air. Quicklime, acids, eating, and shrinking are more rare, and on the whole the overtly scientific methods go with unnatural death, so that earth, air, fire and water are the most common agents of disposal.



‘Design for Death’ is concerned with the physical culture surrounding death, and for that reason it is a companion volume to ‘The Unsophisticated Arts’ (the last chapter of which was devoted to funerals). “The intention of this book,” she says unashamedly, “is to look mainly at the things made today or recently in England or the United States. The other things are here for comparison, or because I like them; liking is the hard base of everything, so I have drawn what I like.” There are handful of photographs in the book and a few illustrations culled from coffin makers catalogues but other than that all the pictures in this copiously illustrated tome are her own. As she says (and despite the insistence that most of her examples will be drawn from England or the US), she draws whatever appeals to her and that includes cheap floral arrangements, shrunken heads, catafalques, Congolese anthropoid coffins, shrouded corpses, hearses, tombs, Mexican calaveras and English beer mugs. She is not much impressed by modern funerary culture (and it hasn’t got much better since the 1960’s) “The artefacts…are now badly designed. It is easy to understand why; people are less interested in death than they used to be.  In primitive societies, death is accepted and respected; it is everywhere…..  In small settled communities acceptance gets weaker, but since nothing much happens there in peacetime except farming, death has high entertainment value. Urbanisation finally kills acceptance, and today death is hardly talked of, is indeed seen as top tabu subject…”


A glance at the contents page tells you that the book has chapters on the Corpse, the Shroud, the Coffin, the Hearse and the Undertakers Shop, the floral tributes, printing and the word, the Procession, the Cemetery and the Crematorium, the Tomb, Relics and Mementos, where death gets you and, finally, Loving Death. I can’t recommend this book highly enough and I’m clearly not the only one who rates it if a copy costs £50. I can’t resist one last quote, Jones’ trenchant observations on the modern cemetery;

Necropolis is metropolis, smaller. There is the old centre with a temple, trees and avenues, clot and space together, hundreds of houses built individual and expensive, and the mellow air of fixed habitation. Metropolis has a newer, meaner, conglomeration around the railway station; necropolis has a newer conglomeration around the crematorium or a new gate. Both of them have mean reduced suburbs on the outskirts, thousands of little houses only distinguished by the name on the gate and at some seasons by the flowers in front. The only difference is that the metropolitan suburbs are pink with occasional green pantiles and the necropolitan ones are white with occasional green chips.

Wonderful stuff



Friday, 17 April 2020

It's not about the money!; Plumstead Cemetery, Wickham Lane, SE2


Clergyman, n.  A man who undertakes the management of our spiritual affairs as a method of bettering his temporal ones.
Ambrose Bierce "The Devil's Dictionary" (1911)


The first funeral at Plumstead Cemetery took place on Friday 27th June 1890. The deceased was 39 year old Dr. Henry Smith, the son of Mr E.T. Smith, the chairman of the Plumstead Burial Board, who pulled strings to get his son buried in the new cemetery, even having to get special dispensation from the Home Secretary, as it was not yet officially open for business. Henry had been unwell for some time. He had been given leave of absence for three months from his job as the Analyst for the Woolwich Health Board (where his older brother was the Medical Officer) back in January. His used his leave to travel to the South of France where he hoped the climate would be beneficial for his failing health. He had initially become ill two or three years before, after working at the Hospital for Consumption in Brompton and was presumed to have contracted tuberculosis from a patient. A long stay in the Midi under the care of his sister did nothing to improve his consumptive lungs. The week before he died, “feeling the king of terrors near”, as the Kentish Independent put it in his obituary, he set out with his sister to return to England. He made it no further than Paris where his alarmed sister sent a telegram to her father and older brother, asking them to come at once. Mr E.T. Smith and his eldest son took the first train to Dover where they were greeted with a further telegram letting them know that poor Henry was already dead. He returned to England in a lead lined French oak coffin with black iron handles and a brass nameplate with the inscription ‘Henri Smith Juin 20 1890’, arriving at the Woolwich Arsenal station on the Tuesday morning and being taken to his father’s house at the top end of Burrage Road in Plumstead. On Friday, at 2.30 in the afternoon, the coffin was taken back down Burrage Road in an open carriage to Holy Trinity Church in Beresford Square, Woolwich, where his father had been a worshipper for more than 50 years. The mourners, who followed in plain broughams, included members of the District board, the burial board and the Vestry, took part on a special service arranged by the Reverend Horsley. After the service the cortege reforme and made its way up to the new cemetery where another short service was held in the brand new mortuary chapel. At the grave side the choir sang the hymn “Now the labourer’s task is o’er” while the coffin was lowered into the ivy lined grave.  


Like Charlton, Greenwich and Woolwich, Plumstead has a quietly spectacular hillside location. It is a relatively late cemetery, only opening as we have seen in 1890. Until then the town had managed to bury its dead in the churchyard of St Nicholas but rapid expansion had taken place in the 1880’s with new housing developed for the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich; burial space began to run out.  The parish burial board began to consider plans for a modern new cemetery but ironically ran into opposition from the Rector who preferred the option of acquiring a strip of land between the church and the road as an addition to the churchyard. There was a strong suspicion amongst the ratepayers of Plumstead that the vicar was more interested in his burial fees than in ensuring the decent interment of his flock. Shortly after the new cemetery was opened (28.06.1890) the Kentish Independent recalled why a new burial ground had been so important to the parish; 

Proposals are already under consideration of the Home Office for closing the old churchyard at Plumstead, and, although those who take the income from the churchyard can still point to an unused strip of ground next to the roadside, it is palpable that the grave space is already overcrowded to a fearful extent, and ought not to have thrust into it any longer the wholesale harvest of the dead. The authorities with whom action will rest will have presented them some astounding figures. It is just thirty years since the new portion of Plumstead churchyard was added to the older part. The new ground was but acre and half in area, and, therefore, sufficient for about 4,240 graves, but in the thirty years which have passed an average of five hundred persons have died per year, and nearly all the 15,000 bodies have been put under ground in this little spot. In the same time the eleven acres of Woolwich cemetery have been virtually occupied and a new cemetery provided. With fifteen thousand dead and decaying bodies opposite their windows, can we wonder at the people who reside near the churchyard fancying that the odours upon the evening air give them sensations of sickness? It may be all imagination and nonsense, of course, but, although we are taught that the earth is the speedy curer of all corruption, we take leave to conclude that there may be excessive conditions which render even this great law of nature nugatory and inoperative. Look with confidence to the Home Secretary for a peremptory closing of Plumstead Churchyard as soon as the fiat has gone forth for opening Plumstead Cemetery.


The burial board was asked to look at the possibility of opening a new cemetery in 1887 and given a two year deadline for acquiring one. “At the end of the first year they may be said to be making fair progress,” reported the Kentish Independent in January 1888 following a vestry meeting where the chair of the board, Mr E.T. Smith, had asked the vestry to sanction a loan of £7000 to purchase a “most convenient and suitable spot for their burial ground, picturesquely placed between Wickham Lane and the wooded heights of Bostall Heath, a site easily accessible from the town, and beautiful to look upon.” More controversially Mr Smith outlined the board’s plans to have just one mortuary chapel to serve all denominations “as this appears to be the plan adopted in most of the modern Cemeteries the different creeds will probably soon adapt themselves to the arrangement, and the objections which at first sight present themselves will speedily disappear in practice.” On behalf of the board Mr Smith also dismissed what the newspaper dubbed ‘the Vestry Economists’, the faction that wanted the cemetery to be a profitable speculation for the parish. The Independent agreed with the board that it did not “favour the plan of doing a good business by competing for outside custom. We know that there are Cemeteries in the north and east of London which do this, and offer various inducements to attract funerals from distant places, but we do not want to see Woolwich and Plumstead the perpetual highway of wretched hearses and funerals of the lowest class, such as we see in other outskirts of the Metropolis. The Cemetery is for Plumstead, and, to keep it respectable, the people of Plumstead will not object to pay a sufficient fee, or even an extra farthing rate once a year to help in liquidating the loan.” What the newspaper did not make explicit was that the board had thrown down the gauntlet not only in lumping Anglicans in with the other creeds and refusing to allow them their own church in the cemetery but even more controversially it proposed to not consecrate any of the grounds. The objection of the board to consecration was not spiritual – they were all established churchmen to a man – but financial and in particular to the insistence of the Vicar of St Nicholas’ that he had a right to his full ecclesiastical fees for all burials in the new cemetery.


The board proved obdurate and resisted the vicar’s blandishments regarding the thorny issue of burial fees. They hoped by not consecrating ground within the cemetery they would neatly side step the controversy. But it merely allowed the vicar to seek the help of the Bishop of Rochester and portray the board as dangerous radicals who were keen to bury the dead of Plumstead in unconsecrated ground. The Kentish Independent returned to the fray in June 1890 when it reported that the Bishop of Rochester looked likely to get his way and that a “portion of the ground must be consecrated. From that ultimatum,” the paper noted “whether we desire or not, we cannot escape. The consequence will that the vicar of the parish and the sexton and clerk, if there be any, will be entitled to their fees just though the cemetery were the churchyard. This is not just. It may be right in principle to make these officials some recompense for the loss of income, but the matter is clearly one for compromise. In the case of Woolwich, we believe, the ecclesiastical fees were voluntarily reduced, and in Woolwich Cemetery an interment in a common grave costs but 10s. inclusive. In Plumstead Cemetery it is proposed to charge 9s for the interment and 14s. 8d. ecclesiastical fees, or total £1 2s. 8d. The 14s. 8d. is the full sum now paid in Plumstead Churchyard, and cannot, with any show of reason, be maintained in the cemetery where considerations of the ground and of services rendered are absent.”   


Although the chair had buried his son in the cemetery at the end of June, the formal opening took place on Tuesday 5th August.  The delay was “in consequence of objections to consecration” noted the Woolwich Gazette which covered the opening ceremony; “From the first the Burial Board, most of whom are Churchmen, have been opposed to consecration, chiefly on account of the privilege thereby conferred upon the vicar of charging ecclesiastical fees; but, after long resistance, the Board have found it impossible to maintain their position, and have had to submit the mandate of the Bishop of Rochester, requiring that a portion of the ground should be consecrated.” The official opening ceremony was conducted by the Bishop in the presence of about 60 people. The Bishop consecrated 3 acres of the site and after signing the order of consecration delivered a brief address. “He exhorted his hearers to look forward to death,” said the Gazette, “not with dread, but as the gateway to everlasting glory. Surely they would all recognise that in death there was a universal  ground of kindredship, and how much more must they recognise a still closer ground of brotherhood, in the hope of glorious eternity in Heaven.”

The rows about burial fees continued to rumble on. A year later the excessive cost of pauper burials at Plumstead forced the board to reduce its fees by 6 shillings but the stubborn vicar responded by a mere shilling reduction in his own fees. The Woolwich Gazette reported on 01 May 1891:

EXORBITANT BURIAL FEES. The Finance Committee drew the Boards attention to the disparity of fees paid for pauper funerals, viz : Charlton, 10s.; Woolwich, 9s. 6d.; Plumstead, 12s. 8d.; Plumstead Cemetery £ 1 3s. 8d, Mr, Kemp said he could not account for the figures named for Plumstead Cemetery. The pauper funerals always took place in consecrated ground, and the vicar's fee, over which the Burial Board had no control, was 14s. 8d. The Burial Board on the representation of the Guardians  had reduced the charge for ground in the case of pauper funerals from 9s. To 3s and it was understood that the vicar had agreed to reduce his fee to 12s 8d. The Clerk was directed to write to Mr Johnson for details of the charges. 






Monday, 13 April 2020

"The Five; the untold lives of the women killed by Jack the Ripper" - Halle Rubenhold (Penguin £9.99)

Elizabeth Stride's grave in the East London Cemetery in Plaistow 

I bought Bruce Robinson’s 800 page door stopper “They All Love Jack” about four years ago but have never worked up the courage to start reading it. Can the man who wrote and directed ‘Withnail & I’ succeed in making Jack the Ripper interesting? It’s an intriguing question but 800 pages of closely printed text is a very long answer for someone who doesn’t understand the fuss about Jack the Ripper.  I like a good murder as much as the next man but quite why so much paper, ink and angst are expended on those five murders in Whitechapel mystifies me.  No one will ever know who if the five canonical victims were even killed by the same man and we certainly won’t ever know who the killer or killers were.  The thousands of pages devoted by Ripperologists to examining whether it was Walter Sickert or James Maybrick or Prince Albert Victor or Montague John Druitt or Dr Barnado get no closer to solving the mystery than scholasticism got to divining how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Is there is anything new to say about the Whitechapel Murders? Well, yes there is, as Hallie Rubenhold demonstrates in “The Five; the untold lives of the women killed by Jack the Ripper” a fascinating look at the lives of those who have previously played little more than a walk on part in the hoary old drama, the victims.  


As with any subject even loosely related to the Ripper murders the lives of the victims have been trawled over already countless times by the hordes of investigators determined to unmask the killer. In most accounts the biographies of the victims are little more than a paragraph or two appended to an endlessly detailed description of how they met their deaths. Rubenhold avoids producing a martyrology by virtually ignoring their fate at the hands of the Whitechapel murderer and, even more pointedly, by studiously avoiding almost any mention of the killer. This simple editorial decision restores balance back to the lives of the five women and allows them to be something more than the victims of London’s first and most notorious serial killer. In her account of the five women Rubenhold judiciously fills in gaps in the story with details of the social background, putting their often harrowing stories into a wider context and drawing some interesting conclusions in the process. She questions, very convincingly, the notion that all five women were prostitutes murdered as they went about their business selling sex. Only Mary Jane Kelly seems to have been actively involved in prostitution at the time of her killing and the only other victim with a background as a sex worker was Elizabeth Stride. The other three victims were destitute, down on their luck, and in failed relationships but there is no evidence at all to confirm what seems to have been a lazy and prejudiced assumption made at the time that they were street walkers. In fact Rubenhold suggests that the manner of their death suggests that they were more likely to be sleeping rough than selling sex. Poverty, alcohol and bad luck are the factors that led to their death.  


All five victims were buried in paupers graves in what were then the new cemeteries of east London. Mary Ann Nichols, the first victim, and Catherine Eddowes, were both buried in the City of London Cemetery, Annie Chapman was buried a short distance away in Manor Park Cemetery, Elizabeth Stride in the East London Cemetery in Plaistow and Mary Jane Kelly in St Patricks Roman Catholic Cemetery in Leytonstone. They would have been buried in common graves with at least 5 other people. Only two of the graves are now marked with headstones, Elizabeth Stride’s and Mary Jane Kelly’s. The City of London cemetery has two plaques marking the approximate spot where Mary Ann Nichols and Catherine Eddowes were interred (the exact grave site is not known) and as far as I know there is nothing marking the site where Annie Chapman was buried quite possibly because the area has been reused for more recent burials. 


Swedish born Elizabeth Stride was buried at the East London Cemetery in Plaistow on Saturday 06 October 1888. Her funeral was a modest affair attended by a small number of mourners with the costs defrayed gratis by the undertaker Mr Hawkes. The headstone is a relatively recent affair which has appeared in the last 20 years. Whenever I have been there has always been some form of recent tribute left the grave.

Mary Jane Kelly, or Marie Jeanette Kelly as she is described on her headstone, was buried at St Patricks Roman Catholic Cemetery on Monday 19th November 1888. The Belfast Telegraph carried an account of the funeral published on the same day;

FUNERAL OF MARIE KELLY. The funeral of Marie Jeannette Kelly the victim of the late Spitalfields murderer took place today at Leytonstone Cemetery, Essex, in the presence of a large number of people. An hour before the remains left the Shoreditch mortuary many hundreds of onlookers assembled in the vicinity and watched while the final arrangements were bring made. The coffin was placed upon an open hearse drawn by two horses, and was followed by two mourning carriages containing the man Joseph Barnett, who had lived with the deceased, and several of the unfortunate woman & associates, who gave evidence at the inquest. The coffin bore the following inscription 'Marie Jeannette Kelly, died November 9th 1888 aged 25 years’, and on it were placed two crosses, and a cross made of heartsease and white flowers.  The whole of the funeral expenses were borne by Mr. Wilton, sexton of St. Leonard’s Church, Shoreditch, who for many years has shown practical sympathy for the poorer classes.


Mary Kelly’s grave has had more than one headstone; they seem to go astray, probably stolen by souvenir hunters. Again there are often recent flowers at the gravesite. 






Thursday, 9 April 2020

Joseph Wilton and the body snatchers of Wanstead - St Mary the Virgin, Wanstead


About 1830 the parish instituted an armed watch against body snatchers. The watchmen used the vestry room in the church until 1831, when a sentry-box was erected in the churchyard. This was presumably the stone box, given in memory of the Wilton family, which still stood there in 1971.

A History of the County of Essex – W.R. Powell (1973)

It may be an east London suburb now but early 19th century Wanstead was deep in the depths of the Essex countryside and too far away from the hospitals and anatomy schools of London to suffer unduly from the depredations of resurrection men. There would have been a trade off for the body snatchers between the ease of obtaining fresh corpses and the difficulties of transporting bulky and illicitly plundered cadavers from their source to their final destination in Guy’s or St Thomas’ Hospitals. There certainly would have been less vigilance in the churchyards of somnolent Essex villages but this would have been offset by the additional risk involved in moving a dead body eight or nine miles to London. The villages of the Essex borders suffered considerably less body snatching than the parishes of the City of Southwark but the theft of freshly interred corpses was not entirely unknown. On the 26th October 1824 the Morning Chronicle reported on a raid carried out in the churchyard of St Mary the Virgin a few days previously:

Resurrection Men - On Friday night, some of these wretches made a daring attempt on Wanstead Church-yard, and in part succeeded. They first got up the body of a child recently interred and afterwards the body of a female which they placed on the edge of the grave; they then commenced on the grave of the parish beadle, and had made some progress, when they were fortunately disturbed, and made their escape with the child only. These fellows are supposed to be the same gang that last year opened a grave in Chingford churchyard from which they took a patent iron coffin, broke it in pieces and carried away its unconscious tenant.

Edwardian postcard of the 'Historic Stone Watch Box' of Wanstead Parish Church

The traumatic night of 26th October 1824 is the only instance of grave robbing in Wanstead that I can find in the newspapers. If it was and the Victoria County History is right, it took the good burghers of Wanstead 6 years to react and set up an armed watch against body snatchers. If they ever did use the stone ‘sentry box’ (which is debateable, as it’s not a sentry box at all but a tomb) they didn’t use it for very long. In 1832 Parliament passed the Anatomy Act, allowing doctors, teachers of anatomy and bona fide medical students access to the unclaimed corpses of people who had died in hospitals, prisons or workhouses. Overnight resurrection men and burial ground watch men found themselves redundant including the putative armed watch of Wanstead. If the watch had ever used the Wilton tomb as a sentry box it was pretty disrespectful of them. The monument had been built in the early 1800’s as a memorial to the sculptor Joseph Wilton who died on the 25th November 1803;

DIED - On Friday last, at Somerset House, after a lingering illness, aged 85, Joseph Wilton, Esq. Royal Academician, Sculptor to his Majesty, and Keeper of the Royal Academy. His works at Westminster Abbey, &c. evince his extraordinary excellence in his profession.

Hampshire Chronicle - Monday 05 December 1803    

The interior of Wilton's tomb is heavily decorated with graffiti dating back to the 19th century 

Joseph Wilton was born on 10th July 1722 in Charing Cross. His father, William, was a plasterer who produced ornamental plaster works for architectural decoration. William was declared bankrupt in 1728 when Joseph was 6 but soon bounced back and became a hugely successful and wealthy supplier of not only plaster but papier mâché which was produced in a factory in Cavendish Place which, according to Nollekens’s biographer J. T. Smith, employed ‘hundreds of people’ making ornaments for chimneypieces and mirrors. William was successful enough to acquire a substantial country property at Snaresbrook. Joseph was initially educated at Hoddesdon in Hertfordshire and destined to be a civil engineer but as is often the way he showed an early taste and talent for the arts. As his father effectively made his living in the arts he objected less to his son’s proclivities than fathers generally do in this scenario. In fact he arranged an apprenticeship as a sculptor with the Belgian sculptor Laurent Delvaux who had recently left London to return to his native Brabant. Wilton left Delvaux in 1744 to study in Paris at the French Academy where he won a silver medal and the lifelong friendship of fellow sculptor Louis François Roubillac. In 1747 in company with Roubillac he travelled to Italy, first to Rome where he spent 3 years and won a gold medal from Pope Benedict XIV, and then onto Naples and finally to Florence where he spent 4 years. He returned to England in 1755, living with his father in Charing Cross and becoming a much sought after sculptor. He was appointed state coach carver to the King (one of the coaches he worked is still used in state ceremonials) and shortly afterwards sculptor to his majesty. He was a founder member of the Royal Academy and a contributor to its first exhibition in 1769. And then, abruptly, he gave up working. His father had died the previous year and coming into his rather extensive inheritance Joseph decided that he preferred to spend his time in idle dissipation rather plying his mallet and chisel. It took him a little less than 25 years to burn through the fortune that his father had taken a lifetime to accumulate and he was declared bankrupt in 1793. He was saved by his friends in the Royal Academy who had him appointed as keeper and provided him with apartments at Somerset House where he died in 1803. He was buried in the churchyard of St Mary’s Wanstead and later a memorial was erected in the form of a Grecian aedicule of Portland stone with battered sides, incised panels, a round-arched entrance and domed top with corner acroteria. Some say it was modelled on the entrance to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem but most people continue to think it resembles a sentry box and never realise that it is actually a tomb. This is probably why the interior is heavily festooned with graffiti, some of it dating back to the 19th century often overlaid with more modern efforts from the likes of Caspar & Django (2010), Alan Measles and Zeus.

John Francis Rigaud, portrait of Sir William Chambers, Joseph Wilton and Sir Joshua Reynolds (1782)