Sunday, 22 November 2020

A place of worship for the 'very destitute and degraded' people of Barkingside; Holy Trinity churchyard, Mossford Green


The first burial in the churchyard in the present register took place in 1840. By an unfortunate oversight, the earlier burials seem to have been mostly in the part of the churchyard near the road, and thus, as the pariah increases, the finer and more ornamental tombs have had to be placed at the back of the church. Could the position have been reversed, and the finest tombs placed near the road, the appearance of the church from the Vicarage and from the road would have been more pleasing, for some of these tombs are among the prettiest works of art in the pariah, which is not perhaps saying much for the aesthetic taste of local builders. The parish church was built at a bad period -1840 -and its style is a somewhat corrupt kind of Norman. There is a striking difference between this building and the real Norman - take for instance St, Bartholomew the Great at Smithfield.  After all it has a simple effect. and after London smoke, visitors from town admire its cleanly cream colour and simple decoration, Perhaps, as the Twentieth Century advances. and the true principle, of "art as the hand maid of religion," become more fully realised, it will be made more worthy of its position. Internally, also, it lacks architectural beauty.

Essex Guardian - Saturday 11 April 1903

Holy Trinity, Barkingside is the sort of building Pevsner inevitably had something disparaging to say about. If I could find my copy of the ‘Buildings of England – Essex’ I would tell you what it was but I seem to have mislaid it somewhere. The anonymous author of the 1903 Essex Guardian series ‘Where Ilford Goes on Sunday’ (to church of course, where else?) reckoned that the parish “has such an interesting history that the trouble is not how a find sufficient material, but how to confine the facts at our disposal into the limited space one article. Barkingside Parish Church, or Holy Trinity, Barkingside, to give it its full title, is a fine old edifice, standing in the middle of the parish. It was built nearly sixty years ago, and has a seating accommodation for about four hundred people. The outer walls of the edifice are almost hidden from view by the mass of ivy which has clung around it.” The ivy has gone and the ‘fine old edifice’ of 60 years is now 180 and has had a couple of facelifts. One added a chancel in 1898 and the vestries were added sometime last century. The churchyard was the only burial ground in the parish until 1923 when a new cemetery was opened next door to serve the growing community. I came here looking for the grave of the rather intriguing Reverend Wladislav Somerville Lach-Szyrma who was vicar of Holy Trinity from 1890 until his death in 1915 but despite the small size of the churchyard and the large size of his grave stone I was completely unable to locate it. I required a second visit and the help of the current vicar to finally track it down – but that is a story for another day.  

Thanks to the residents of Ilford who had written to the church commissioners in 1838, requesting that a new church be built for the ‘very destitute and degraded’ people of Barkingside, Edward Blore’s yellow brick ‘corrupt kind of Norman’ church was built in 1839-40 replacing an earlier church or chapel that was marked on maps as Mosfoot Parish Church. The oldest headstone in the churchyard carries the date 1790. Barkingside was a very rural parish, quite outside the ambit of the capital, for most of the 19th century; in 1876 James Thorne said the village was “merely a gathering of a few small houses along a crossroad, and a few others by a scrubby green; the inhabitants are chiefly engaged in agriculture.” He only noticed its existence because 3 years earlier Dr Barnado had been given the lease of Mossford Lodge as a wedding present and had opened his first home for girls there. The growth of the Barnado’s estate of children’s homes seems to have acted as a catalyst for more general growth in the area. In 1903 Barkingside Station, which is now on the Central Line, was opened by the Great Eastern railway. Memorials to the dead children of Barnado’s and to victims of railway accidents are both features of the churchyard.  

BARKINGSIDE. The Church and Unbaptized Children — Some unpleasantness was caused in Barkingside a few days since by the refusal of the Vicar (Rev. N. Perkins) to bury the unbaptised child of James Vince. The child was eleven months old. Through the intervention of friend of Vince’s, the Rev. W. Stepney, of Ilford, undertook to officiate, and he conducted a funeral service in the Methodist Free Church, and completed the service at the graveside.

Chelmsford Chronicle - Friday 27 September 1889

When the Reverend Perkins wasn’t refusing to bury unbaptised children his illiterate sexton was getting himself into trouble for burying still born babies without a proper death certificate after accepting a scribbled note on a scrap of paper from an unlicensed midwife as sufficient authority to carry out the interment:

A WARNING TO SEXTONS. - In consequence of some irregularities in the burial of a child at Barkingside, an inquest was held at the Maypole Inn, Barkingside, on Wednesday before Mr. C. C. Lewis, upon the body of a child named Cross, aged five days, son of Thomas Cross, a labourer. The father stated that his wife was delivered of twins on the 5th inst. (Monday), and was attended by Mrs. Staff (midwife). One of the children died on the following day, and the deceased died on Saturday. The body of the former was delivered to F. Linsell (the Sexton at Barkingside Churchyard) by the witness on Wednesday evening, and by him buried. Linsell asked witness for a certificate, and he gave him the piece of paper produced. This had written on it, "Baby died 5th August, 1889. Mrs. Staff." Julia Staff stated that the deceased was seized with a fit and died in a short time. Mr. W. J. Beer, surgeon, said the general appearances indicated death from convulsions. The Jury returned a verdict in accordance with the medical evidence. The Sexton (Linsell) attended before the Coroner, and expressed his regret for what had taken place respecting the burial of the first child, saying he was new to the duties, but he would take care that such a thing did not occur again. He quite understood that it was a stillborn child, and, being unable to read, he did not know what the purport of the paper handed to him wee. The Coroner pointed out to Linsell the requirements of the Act in regard to the burial of stillborn children.

Barking, East Ham & Ilford Advertiser, Upton Park and Dagenham Gazette - Saturday 17 August 1889

There is a newer memorial in Barkingside Cemetery next door which at least carries the names of all of the deceased children:

In the Parish Churchyard, Barkingside, a monument was unveiled to the memory of 320 children of Dr. Barnardo's Village Homes interred there.

Essex Chronicle 1910

ILFORD MAN MUTILATED BY A TRAIN AT WEELEY. A fatal accident occurred to Mr. Thomas Fountain, of Barkingside, llford, at Weeley, on the Tendring Hundred branch of the Great Eastern Railway, on Monday evening. The unfortunate gentleman, who, with his partner, Mr. R. Roberts, of Barkingside, was constantly travelling on the line at this period of the year to purchase root crops, was hurriedly making his way to the station in order to catch the last train which was due. The deceased attempted to walk over the level crossing, in spite of his companion's dissuasions, to reach the up platform, although had he gone on the footbridge it would have been more expeditious. Mr. Roberts, who was some little distance behind, did not see what occurred, and thought his partner was safely on the train. Being unable find him, he called to Mr Rowan, the station master, who, on looking behind the train, saw the body of Mr. Fountain in a terribly mutilated condition, it having been carried a distance of several yards. The body was removed to the outhouse of the Railway Tavern, and about £10 were found in the pockets of the clothing. Mr. Fountain leaves a widow and family, he was about 55 years age. The inquest was held the Railway Hotel, Weeley, on Wednesday, by Mr. J. Harrison, coroner. Mr John Fountain, of White's Farm, Ilford, identified the deceased as his brother. He was dealer and farmer, and was a little near sighted, but was not deaf. Samuel Crowe driver of the train, stated that he did not feel the engine strike anything, and was not aware of the accident until he was informed at, St. Botolph's station. Police-Constable Skipper produced the property found on the deceased, which included £6 in gold coins. The jury returned a verdict of  Accidental death, but added a recommendation that the bridge should be moved to the other end of the station. The Foreman said that not one person in twenty went over the bridge. He himself had only used it once.  A Juror is said to have seen children crawl underneath goods trains. The Coroner said would forward the recommendation to the proper quarter.

Chelmsford Chronicle - Friday 04 December 1896

On Saturday afternoon Mr. Thomas Fountain, of Barkingside, who was accidentally killed on the railway at Weeley, was buried in the parish churchyard, Barkingside. There was a large attendance of the inhabitants; and the ceremony was conducted by the Rev. W. S. Lach-Szyrma (vicar), who gave appropriate address.

Barking, East Ham & Ilford Advertiser, Upton Park and Dagenham Gazette - Saturday 12 December 1896

Friday, 13 November 2020

Rhubarb & Arsenic, a cautionary tale; The unfortunate end of the Hickman family of Kensal New Town (St Lukes, Chelsea)

Thomas Hickman, who was thirty-three years of age, was originally a glass-worker, but for the last seven years he had been a constable of the metropolitan police, D division, which force he quitted about three months since, and since then has supported himself by carting home washed linen for laundresses, who abound in that locality [Kensal New Town]. On Sunday last they prepared a piece of baked mutton for dinner, with the addition of a rhubarb pie, to which they all sat down about two o'clock, and, as is the custom with many families of the poorer classes, they partook first of the rhubarb pie before the meat.

Morning Post - Friday 04 June 1847

In the late 1830’s London’s urban sprawl arrived at the open fields of North Kensington, on the far side of the Grand Union Canal and to the east of the new cemetery at Kensal Green. Middle Row in what was grandly called Kensal New Town was a new street of jerry-built cottages and laundries with West Row and East Rows to either side, Southern Row to the south and Kensal Road to the north. A set of two room cottages given the glorified name of Penton Villas was, in 1847, the home of the Hickman family. The 33-year-old patriarch was Thomas, a former policeman who now made his living by delivering laundry. He was married to Harriet and they had 6 children, 12-year-old Thomas, James who was 10, Harriet, 6, 4-year-old Mary Ann, John, 3, and 16-month-old Henry. At the end of May Harriet’s unmarried sister Caroline Bonamay, having just lost her situation as a live-in servant and with, for the moment, nowhere else to go, came to live with the family temporarily. 

The burial register of St Lukes showing the entries for the Hickmans on 04 June 1847

On Sunday 30 May the two sisters prepared a traditional Sunday lunch for the family of baked mutton and rhubarb pudding. Caroline took it upon herself to light the fire and not having any kindling, she rummaged through the kitchen cupboard and found a nearly empty bag of flour. As there was a second, much fuller bag of flour in the cupboard, she emptied the contents of the first bag into the second, noticing as she did so that the flour from the first was much whiter and finer. She meant to mention this to her sister but as she busied herself using the now empty flour bag to get the fire going, she forgot all about it. The dinner was duly prepared and at lunchtime the family sat down at the table to consume it, pudding first, as was apparently the habit of the lower classes.  The rhubarb pudding was demolished in short order but the mutton was never touched because as soon as the last of the pudding had been eaten the family started to feel unwell. Thomas Hickman went out into the yard and over to the railings surrounding the house of his neighbour Ann Sullivan.  Mrs Sullivan assumed that he had come to deliver the slice of rhubarb pudding he had promised her children earlier that day but instead Thomas begged for her help as he said the family had been taken ill. She went round to the Hickman’s cottage where she found them all in a very bad way indeed. She wasted no time in running to fetch Mr Abercrombie a local surgeon who came back to the house with her and immediately suspected poisoning on being told that the whole family had felt unwell after eating the pudding.

Mr Abercrombie quizzed the family about who had had access to the flour before the pudding was made and the pudding itself before it was boiled. No one but the family he was told. The question about the flour jogged Caroline’s memory and she finally mentioned that she had put something into the pudding supposing it to be flour. When she added that she had taken it out of the kitchen cupboard Harriet turned to her husband and said “Hickman, it must be some of the white powders you keep about in the house.” Her husband replied “Oh, then it is Nitrate of Silver”. Mr Abercrombie thought not, nitrate of silver is highly corrosive and was not likely to the substance responsible for the poisoning. “Then it must be the white arsenic,” Thomas said, adding that he thought it had been thrown away years ago. Mr Abercrombie briefly considered using a stomach pump to treat the family but decided that his apparatus was likely to become clogged and ineffective with lumps of half-digested rhubarb and pastry. He settled for a simple emetic; Thomas insisted on the children being treated first and himself last. Despite Abercrombie’s best efforts one of the boys died in the afternoon and Thomas and four of the other children all died within a short space of time just after midnight. Only Harriet and Caroline and 12-year-old Thomas survived.

Cottages in East Row, Kensal New Town similar to the Hickman's in Middle Row

THE POISONINGS AT KENSAL NEW TOWN additional particulars. The intense interest excited throughout the neighbour- hood of Kensal New Town, Kensal-green, &c, by the above unfortunate and melancholy occurrence, appears not to have in the slightest degree diminished, large numbers of persons having, from early yesterday morning, congregated in the front of the Penton Vilas, until late last evening, anxiously inquiring as to the state of the survivors, and discussing the circumstances connected with the tragical affair. The wretched state of the survivors of the family, pressed down by the effects of the poison they had swallowed, the loss of so many members, and of their natural protectors, induced the medical gentlemen attending them, to make a strong representation to the parochial authorities of St. Luke, Chelsea, on their behalf, which we are happy to say, was most warmly responded to by the parish officers, who immediately despatched Mr. Bush, the relieving-officer, who visited the cottage on Monday evening, and gave directions for their having everything that their destitute and weakened state required. No case has for a long time occurred in which the sympathy of the benevolent is more called forth than in the present, where six out of nine members of a family have been removed by the hand of death, and the remaining three, who have been reduced almost to death's- door, have no funds out of which to inter their deceased relatives, who must consequently be buried by the parish. Yesterday morning, in accordance with a warrant issued on the previous day, by Mr. Wakley, the Coroner for the western division of Middlesex, a post mortem examination of the bodies of Thomas Hickman, the father, and James Bonamey Hickman, the second son, was performed by Mr. Brown, the surgeon, of Kensal-green, assisted by, and in the presence of, Mr. Abercrombie, the surgeon who was first called in, Dr. Chowne, lecturer on medical jurisprudence at Charing-cross Hospital, Dr. Robert Barnes, of Notting- hill, a medical friend of Mr. Abercrombie, and Mr. Brown's assistant. The operation was performed in the front room of the cottage (which consists of only two rooms) in which all the six dead bodies were lying.

Morning Post - Wednesday 02 June 1847

Thomas Wakley the Middlesex Coroner (and founding editor of The Lancet) opened his inquiry at the Portobello Arms on Tuesday 01 June. After swearing in the jury he told them that “the affair was such an awful one, that it would require a few days for consideration, in order that a proper and cool inquiry might be made into the matter.” He ordered further post mortems to be carried out on the rest of the family and told the jury that they would be going to see the bodies that morning and once that had been done the inquest would be adjourned for a week. According to the Morning Post the jury “then proceeded to the cottage to view the bodies. The sight was a peculiarly distressing one. They were all lying in the front room, the father on a stump bedstead, the second son was lying on a deal table under the window, and the rest in other parts of the room. The Jury appeared much affected at the sight of a father and five children, all cut off within 22 hours.” The following day Mr Abercrombie carried out the additional post mortems requested by Coroner Wakley and on Friday June 4 the five deceased members of the Hickman family were all buried at St Lukes in Chelsea:

The funeral of the five children and their father, Thomas Hickman, took place yesterday morning, in the burial-ground of Chelsea New Church. Mrs. Hickman's mother, Mrs. Hickman's two sisters, including the unfortunate Caroline Bonamy, and one or two friends, followed the remains to the grave

London Evening Standard - Saturday 05 June 1847

Mr Wakley’s inquest was reconvened the following week and came to the following conclusion:

The Coroner examined the witnesses as to the terms on which Mr. and Mrs. Hickman lived, and with a view to ascertain whether at any time threats had been used by any member of the family. Having satisfied himself on these points, he went carefully through the evidence, expressing his conviction that the death of Hickman and hii family had been caused by the arsenic which had thoughtlessly been left about, but that Mrs. Hickman and Caroline Bo- namy were totally ignorant of its nature when they mixed it up with the flour of which the pudding was composed. The Jury unhesitatingly returned a verdict to that effect.

Morning Post - Thursday 10 June 1847

Thursday, 29 October 2020

Premature burial of a baby at Abney Park Cemetery (1885)

From the London Daily News of 21 October 1885

This story was very widely reported in late October 1885 appearing in at least 70 national and provincial newspapers. All the stories consist of just one almost identical paragraph though there are a variety of headlines: child (or infant) buried alive (or nearly buried alive), child almost interred alive, burying a live child, narrow escape from being buried alive, strange scene at grave, startling discovery at grave,  an extraordinary story (or affair or case), Remarkable case of premature burial, and trance and premature burial…. The story first appeared on 20 October when it was reported in at least 11 newspapers across the UK from the Evening News in Portsmouth on the south coast of England to the Evening Express in Aberdeen on the north coast of Scotland.  Surprisingly in light of the 19th century obsession with premature burial and given the wide spread reporting of the story no one seems to have followed it up. Makes you wonder if it was really true.

Abney Park Cemetery is, of course, in Stoke Newington where Edgar Allan Poe, author of ‘The Premature Burial’ was a boarder at the Manor House school for 8 years from 1815 to 1823. Just a decade after this incident Dr William Tebb and Walter Hadwen founded the London Association for the Prevention of Premature Burial in 1896 with the aim of diffusing “knowledge regarding the pre-disposing causes of the various forms of Suspended Animation or Death-Counterfeits”. One of their concerns was that medical practitioners were not obliged to view a body before certifying a death so in many cases they were relying on the word of next of kin, ministers of religion or undertakers. In most cases death would have been self-evident but occasionally errors would be made. When they were made not many would awake in the nick of time and get themselves pulled out of their graves at the last minute.  

Do many babies still get buried alive? I was rather horrified when I googled it to see recent stories of squalling infants being dug up in cemeteries, waste ground and in woods across the world from Brazil, to India, China and the United States. In most cases they had been deliberately interred alive by parents who didn’t want them and most still had their umbilical cords attached. One hopes the incident in Abney Park cemetery was just human error… 

Friday, 23 October 2020

Reanimated! The shocking fate of George Foster (1769-1803)

The parish register from St Andrew's Holborn showing the baptism of baby Louisa Foster 

There were two baptisms at St Andrew’s, Holborn on 12 March 1802, both of them workhouse babies from the parish workhouse on Gray’s Inn Lane.  Mary Beauchamp christened her son George, no father was present or recorded, and George and Jane Foster had their infant daughter Louisa baptised.  George had married Jane Humphrey at St Clements Dane on 26 June 1794 and Louisa was the Foster’s fourth child; one had died in infancy but the other two had, to all intents and purposes, been abandoned in the Barnet workhouse. George Foster according to his employer, coachmaker James Bushwell, was “one of the most diligent men he had ever employed.”  In the harsh economic conditions at the start of the nineteenth century his diligence earned him 24 shillings a week in summer and 21 a week in winter but this was not enough to enable him to support his own children or to secure a regular place of residence. When not in the workhouse George Foster lodged, without his wife and children, in a house in North Row, Grosvenor Square though he often only slept there one or two nights a week. Jane Foster lodged with her mother when she could, in Old Boswell Court. George’s landlord did not feel that man and wife were on particularly good terms because Jane wanted the family to live together and George was not keen. George told one of his workmates that he “was determined not to live with her any more.” She often called at North Row looking for George and wanting money from him. Perhaps alcohol contributed to the families unsettled lifestyle; there is some evidence from their last day together that drink may well have played its part. Within a year of the christening at St Andrews, George, Jane and baby Louisa were all dead.

Illustration from Giovanni Aldini's 'Essai théorique et expérimental sur le galvanisme'

On Monday morning 6 December John Atkins, a boatman on the Grand Union Canal, made a harrowing discovery, the ice-covered body of a drowned baby had somehow wedged itself under the bow of his barge at Westbourne Green. He promptly informed the authorities and Sir Richard Ford, Chief Magistrate of Bow Street and so effectively London’s police chief, instructed him to drag the canal looking for further bodies. In the meantime, the dead baby was removed to Chelsea workhouse where a few days later it was seen by Margaret Bradfield, George Foster’s landlady. When she was later asked at his trial if she had recognised the deceased she responded “it was the prisoner's child; I pulled up its eye-lids to look at the colour of its eyes; its name was Louisa.” It took three days of dredging by bargemen to find the corpse of a woman entangled in a submerged bush “close by the window of the Mitre Tavern”. The landlady and waiter of the Mitre both recognised the body as a customer from the previous Sunday afternoon who had drunk rum and porter in the company of an unknown man. No further bodies were discovered and George Foster was not taken into custody until after Christmas. He was interrogated by Sir Richard Ford himself and made the following statement:

‘My wife and child came to me on Saturday se’nnight, about eight o’clock in the evening, and slept at my lodgings that night. The next morning, about nine or ten o’clock, I went out with them, and walked to the New Cut at Paddington; we went to the Mitre tavern, and had some rum, some porter, and some bread and cheese. Before that we had stopped at a public house near the first bridge, where we had some beefsteaks and some porter; after which she desired me to walk further on by the cut, so I went with her. I left her directly I came out of the Mitre tavern, which was about three o’clock, and made the best of my way to Whetstone, in order to go to Barnet, to see two of my children, who are in the workhouse there. I went by the bye lanes, and was about an hour and a half walking from the Mitre to Whetstone. When I got there, I found it so dark that I would not go on to Barnet, but came home that night. I have not seen my wife nor child since; I have not enquired after them, but I meant to have done so to-morrow evening, at Mrs. Hobart’s. -- I came home from Whetstone that evening between seven and eight o’clock; I saw no person in going to Whetstone; nor did I stop any where, at any public house, or elsewhere, except the Green Dragon, at Highgate, where I had a glass of rum. My wife had a black gown on, and a black bonnet; the child had a straw bonnet, and white bed gown. My wife was a little in liquor.’

The Mitre Tavern, opposite Wormwood Scrubs on the Regents Canal
On 19 December Jane Foster was buried in the churchyard of St Paul’s in Hammersmith, the old church that was demolished in the early 1880’s to make for the current church (much of the churchyard was later lost when the Hammersmith flyover was built). As well as the official parish register the curate of St Paul’s also kept a personal notebook in which he calculated his quarterly bill to the board of the workhouse for burying the paupers and made aide-memoires of the deaths he needed to register sometimes with piquant details of how the deceased had met their end.  John Smith, for example, was “killed by a horse at the black bull” in November 1801 and John Cooper appears to have met his end in November 1803 in a bathing tub. The curate noted that Jane Foster was aged 34 at the time of her death and added that she was “drownd in the New Cutt in the wood”. At the bottom of the page he later added a footnote “the above Jane Foster & her infant child was drownd in the New Cutt by her Husband who was Hanged for it Jan Monday 17 1803”. Sadly baby Louisa was not buried with her mother but was interred the following day 3 miles away at St Luke’s in Chelsea (not the church on Sydney Street but Chelsea Old Church on Cheyne Walk).  
The entry on Jane Foster in the curate's notebook
Baby Louisa Foster in the burial Register of St Luke's, Chelsea

A Coroner’s jury delivered a verdict of accidental death on the Jane and Louisa Foster and George Hodgson, the Middlesex Coroner, later testified that he had viewed the bodies and also had them examined by a surgeon and that neither he nor the surgeon had observed any sign of violence. Despite this George’s story was not believed by Sir Richard Ford and he was charged with the murder of his wife and child. At the trial at the Old Bailey there were hints that Jane Foster may have taken her own life. The landlady of the Mitre reported that her parting remark on quitting the tavern had been “this is the last time I shall come here,” though she said this was not said despondently but more in a huff. Another witness, Sarah Goring in whose house the Fosters had lodged four years previously was asked if Jane Foster has “ever said any thing to you respecting her inclination or disinclination to remain in this world?” No she said, adding “I was very much surprised to hear she was in the work-house, because he was a very tender husband and a good father.” George’s employer and four other witnesses gave him a good character but his story of walking to Whetstone, more than 9 miles away from the Mitre tavern, in an hour and a half and of walking almost 20 miles in a little over three hours, was not credible. And why would he be lying? The only possible reason as far as the jury were concerned was to hide his guilt. They found him guilty as charged and he was condemned to hang and his body to be handed to the surgeons for dissection.

A hastily put together report by the Recorder of London recorded grounds for clemency in evidence not produced at the trial. The Rev. William Agutter, Chaplain of the asylum for Female Orphans in St George’s Fields, had written a letter to the Recorder “regarding a long consultation with Ann Arnold who was friendly with the dead woman. Arnold stated that Mrs Foster had parted from her husband and had gone into the workhouse. Mrs Foster and the child had since left the workhouse and were destitute. Arnold had told Mrs Foster to leave the child at the workhouse and obtain a nursing position, but she would not as the children 'were used so very ill.' Mrs Foster is stated to have said "If we die, we die together," and that "if something was not done for her she would put an End to her Misery." Eleanor Deker, who had met Mrs Foster at Arnolds, confirmed this statement and said they both thought that 'some mischief' would happen to Mrs Foster.” 

Illustration from Giovanni Aldini's 'Essai théorique et expérimental sur le galvanisme'

In the week that George Foster went on trial Giovanni Aldini, the nephew of Luigi Galvani, was astonishing polite London society with his demonstrations of the power of electricity. On 6 January 1803 the Morning Post reported:

Dr. Aldini, now in London, lately exhibited at the house of Mr. Hunter, some curious experiments on the body' of a dog newly killed, by which the company then present were exceedingly astonished by the powers of Galvanism. The head of the animal was cut off. The head and body were put beside each other, on a table previously rubbed with a solution of ammonia. Two wires communicating with the Galvanic trough, were then applied, the one in the ear, the other at the anus of the dead animal. No sooner had those applications been made, than both head and body were thrown into the most animated muscular motions. The body started up with a movement by which it passed over the side of the table. The head equally moved; its lips and teeth grinning violently. A curiosity has been expressed to have these experiments tried on a criminal newly executed. Dr. Aldini has communicated his discoveries, in an ingenious paper, to the Royal Society. He is soon to publish an English work on this subject.   

George Foster was soon to satisfy the curiosity to see the dead dog experiments repeated on a human being. Since his trial he had ‘he had scarcely taken the smallest nourishment’ and had been so troubled by his conscience that he had made a full confession to his crime and in response to questions would only say that “I ought to die.”  On 18 January at three minutes to eight in the morning he was brought out from Newgate wearing the same brown greatcoat and red waistcoat that he had worn through his trial. He was so enfeebled that he could not walk unassisted the short distance from the prison to the place of execution and had to be helped up the stairs to the scaffold that stood outside the debtor’s door of the Old Bailey. The reporter from Bell’s Weekly Messenger noted that when he ascended the platform “his air was dejected in the extreme, and the sorrow manifested in his countenance, depicted the inward workings of a heart conscious of the heinous crime he had committed.”  According to the Newgate Calendar after “passing a short time in prayer with Dr Ford, the ordinary of Newgate, the cap was pulled over his eyes, when the stage falling from under him, he was launched into eternity.” The calendar also reports that he ‘died very easy’ with the help of his friends, who had stood beneath the scaffold with the express purpose of pulling on his legs to break his neck and cutting short his sufferings. What happened next was reported in full in the Morning Post of 22 January:

The body of Forster, who was executed on Monday last for murder, was conveyed to a house not far distant, where it was subjected to the Galvanic Process, by Professor Aldini, under the inspection of Mr. Keate, Mr. Carpue, and several other Professional Gentlemen. M. Aldini, who is the nephew of the discoverer of this most interesting science, shewed the eminent and superior powers of Galvanism to be far beyond any other stimulant in nature. On the first application of the process to the face, the jaw of the deceased criminal began to quiver, and the adjoining muscles were horribly contorted, and one eve was actually opened. In the subsequent part of the process, the right hand was raised and clenched, and the legs and thighs were set in motion. It appeared to the uninformed part of the bystanders as if the wretched man was on the eve of being restored to life. This, however, was impossible, as several of his friends who were near the scaffold had violently pulled his legs, in order to put a more speedy termination to his sufferings. The experiment, in fact, was of a better use and tendency. Its object was to shew the excitability of the human frame, when this animal electricity is duly applied. In cases of drowning or suffocation, it promises to be of the utmost use, by reviving the action of the lungs, and thereby re-kindling the expiring spark of vitality. In cases of apoplexy, or disorders of the head, it offers also most encouraging prospects for the benefit of mankind. The Professor, we understand, has made use of Galvanism also in several cases of insanity, and with complete success. It is the opinion of the first medical men, that this discovery, if rightly managed and duly prosecuted, cannot fail to be of great, and perhaps, as yet unforeseen utility.
Giovanni Aldini by William Brockedon (1830) in the National Portrait Gallery

Later rumour had it that the raised right arm and clenched fist had connected with the nose of Mr Pass the Beadle of Surgeons Hall who suffered such a fright that he returned home and died the same night. Aldini’s grisly but theatrical demonstrations were a great success though not everyone was impressed. The American Thomas G. Fessenden who was in London at the time wrote, under the pseudonym Dr Christopher Caustic, the “Terrible Tractoration: A Poetical Petition Against Galvanising Trumpery, and the Perkinistic Institution. Addressed to the Royal College of Physicians.” This includes the following lines about Aldini:

For he, ‘tis told In public papers,
Can make dead people cut droll capers 
And shuffling off death's iron trammels, 
To kick and hop like dancing camels!  
To raise a dead dog he was able, 
Though laid in quarters on a table; 
And led him yelping, round the town, 
With two legs up, and two legs down! 
And this most comical magician 
Will soon, in public exhibition, 
Perform a feat he's often boasted, 
And animate a dead pig roasted!  
With powers of these Metallic Tractors; 
He can revive dead malefactors; 
And is reanimating, daily, 
Rogues that were hung once, at Old Bailey!
And sure I am he'll break the peace, 
Unless secured by our police; 
For such a chap, as you're alive, 
Full many a felon will revive. 
And as he can, no doubt of that, 
Give rogues the nine lives of a cat; 
Why then, to expiate their crimes, 
These rogues must all be hung nine times!

Friday, 9 October 2020

Peter Ross 'A Tomb With A View; The stories and glories of graveyards' (Headline £20)

Graveyards themselves are essentially colons: they can introduce a narrative. Graveyards are opportunities for storytelling, for understanding who these people were and who we are.

Peter Ross in an interview for the Times

“I grew up in Graveyards. The dead were my babysitters, my quiet companions.”; Peter Ross opens his new book as though he is the protagonist of a novel by Neil Gaiman. In reality the award-winning Scottish journalist grew up in a house just like the rest of us though the house he lived in seems to have been a stone’s throw away from Stirling Old Town Cemetery where as a callow youth he went fishing for tadpoles or admiring the view across the city from an outcrop called Ladies’ Rock. To Ross graves were, and are “shelves full of stories”. Perhaps unsurprisingly the first living person in his new book is the ubiquitous Sheldon K. Goodman, who tells Ross “burial grounds are like libraries of the dead, indexes to lives long gone.”  I have a good deal of sympathy for that view; it is pretty much my own attitude towards cemeteries. For all our professions of lifelong fascination with cemeteries the truth is that 20 years ago graveyards were a bit of a niche interest and hardcore taphophiles were rare creatures indeed.  Cemetery books were published infrequently and cemeteries themselves were often lost and abandoned places. Graveyards have become fascinating in the age of the internet because on-line newspaper archives and genealogical sites make research of cemetery occupants much easier to do. And with their several million occupants UK burial grounds provide enough raw research material to keep bloggers and writers busy for at least another couple of hundred years. Is taphophilia the new trainspotting?   

The author in his element - Peter Ross in Greyfriars Kirkyard, photo by James Glossop for The Times

Ross’ book is a collection of journalistic short pieces on cemeteries in the UK and Ireland. He visits burial places in London, (Brompton for Sheldon’s Queerly Departed tour, Highgate, and Kensal Green), looks at Milltown cemetery in Belfast and its intimate connection with the troubles, visits the grave of Phoebe Hessel, the Stepney Amazon at St Nicholas in Brighton and Peter the Wild Boy in Hertfordshire, war graves on the Scottish Islands and attends a wedding at Arnos Grove cemetery in Bristol.  At Kensal Green he clears up a mystery that has puzzled me the last couple of years when he meets Mehdi Mehra, an Iranian businessman who built an extraordinary memorial to his eleven-year-old son Medi, who died in a riding accident. “Around his son’s grave,” Ross says, “he built a memorial on a scale the Victorians would recognise.” This is something of an understatement – the memorial is so huge it dwarfs everything else in the cemetery. It is so large it isn’t even immediately recognisable as a memorial. A 30-metre-long half circle of Corinthian columns built using 350 tonnes of granite, 150 tonnes of steel and 200 tons of concrete and decorated with angels holding torches, books and flowers, this is monument on a scale the Ancient Egyptians would recognise rather than the Victorians. At Glasnevin cemetery we hear the harrowing story of charismatic tour guide Shane Mac Thomáis who became an unexpected celebrity after appearing in a documentary about the cemetery One Million Dubliners. On March 19 2014 CCTV cameras captured Mac Thomáis entering the cemetery at 7.00 in the evening. Walking towards the main part of the cemetery he paused, turned around and saluted the camera. His body was found hanging from a tree next morning. His grave is now almost as big a draw at the cemetery as that of Michael Collins.

Ross is a good writer; this could so easily have felt like a collection of newspaper features loosely connected by theme but it doesn’t. The book is as concerned with the living as it is with the dead (something for which it has been criticised!) but the exploration of what draws the living to the dead is what in the end elevates this above similar offerings on the same subject. It is extremely readable, very polished and definitely highly recommended. 

Kensal Green - the 'Belgravia of death'.

Friday, 2 October 2020

The Perils of Foreign Travel; Julia Slater (1834-1858) Kensal Green Cemetery

The rather fine memorial for Julia Slater caught my eye when I was recently in Kensal Green Cemetery mainly because I couldn’t remember having seen it before. I was slightly puzzled because given where it is in the cemetery, I must have walked past it dozens of times – how could I not have noticed it? It was only when I started researching it that I discovered that it had been extensively restored and that I had seen it before, and indeed photographed it.  The renovation has so totally transformed it that it is hard to connect the crumbling pile of masonry that it was before the restoration with the rather spectacular monument that now stands in the same place. The memorial is Grade II listed. FoKGC had been wanting to restore it for some time but planning permission was only applied for in August 2016. Planning consent was granted by the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea in October 2016. The estimated costs for the works were £7990 (excluding VAT) but I suspect the final costs would have been significantly more than this. I don’t know who did the actual restoration but they made an excellent job of it.   

The memorial is an unusual triangular monument on a circular plinth made from Portland stone. The three faces of the triangle carry relief carvings of allegorical female figures, Faith holding a book and cradling a large cross, Hope with an anchor and Charity suckling an infant and with a child at her knee. There are carved palm trees at the three corners. Before restoration it was in a very poor condition, shrouded by encroaching trees, a gaping hole at one corner of the triangle, and covered in moss.  

Julia Slater, who died on 27 May 1858 at the age of 24 was the wife of Major Mortimer John Slater of the 5th Bengal European Regiment. She was born in 1834, in St Martin’s Lane, Westminster, the second daughter of John Pannett Bull, a successful haberdasher. She married her army officer husband on 06 February 1855 at Christ Church in Turnham Green where her father owned a second home, Arlington House. Within two months she was pregnant and on her way to India with her husband. Her son, named after his father, was born on 03 January 1856 in the British cantonment of Ambala in Northern India. Perhaps she was sent home to England with her new baby because she was already unwell. In England she went to live at the house of her father at 15 Hyde Park Street (just across the road from the house of Mr WH Smith, bookseller) where she died within a few months of arriving home. Her husband had been obliged to stay in India where he was eventually promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel. He came from an artistic family his father John was one of three brothers who like their own father, became professional artists. He was born in 1824 and was educated at Marlborough. Presumably not having inherited any artistic talent he joined the Army of India and served in the first Afghan War. His abilities seem to have been administrative rather than military and he eventually became the Pension Paymaster based in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. In 1863 he was allowed to go home on leave where no doubt he looked forward to seeing the young son he hadn’t set eyes on since he was a baby. Unfortunately, he died on board HMS Nimrod on his way home on 29 October and was buried at sea. The baby Mortimer John Slater followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the army. He died on New Years Eve 1897 at the age of 41 in Up Park Camp, British Army Headquarters in Jamaica. Julia rests alone in her splendid sepulchre, without her husband or her son, a lesson in the perils of foreign travel. 

Monday, 28 September 2020

Robbing the living for the sake of the dead; Barnes Common Cemetery

The Hedgman Memorial 

These two acres of sandy ground were originally purchased by the church authorities for £10 and a further £1,400 was spent on providing a chapel and landscaping. The cemetery was closed in 1954 and acquired by the Borough from the church in 1966 with the intention of turning it into a lawn cemetery. As a first step the chapel and lodge were demolished and the boundary railings removed, making it fair game for all manner of unsavoury happenings and many headstones smashed. The vandals may have been encouraged by Barnes sinister reputation that preceded the 1970s. Stories of murder and hauntings include that of a ghostly nun who is said to hover over the place where the body of an unfortunate Mrs Thomas was once exhumed.

Hugh Meller & Brian Parsons ‘London Cemeteries’ (2011)

Autumn is upon us; the days shrink as the nights draw in, Covid-19 infections double every 7 days, the economy teeters on the edge of collapse and another lockdown seems imminent. Since last week cemetery tours are now one of the few acceptable ways that people can take part in social gatherings involving more than 6 other humans without being herded up, baton charged and tear gassed by Her Majesty’s Constabulary.  And so I used what may well be one of our last days of semi-freedom, a pleasant and unseasonably warm and sunny Saturday afternoon in late September, to join a group of fellow cemetery enthusiasts at Barnes Common to take part in the ‘Graves in the Wood’ Cemetery Club tour hosted by that most genial and knowledgeable of taphophiles, Sheldon K Goodman.  This was my third tour with Sheldon; I’d previously been around Hampstead with him and also spent an October evening in the pitch dark with him and Sacha Coward in an unlit Tower Hamlets cemetery that was far busier than I’d ever seen it during the day (gangs of teenage cider drinkers in vampire makeup congregated around benches or other surfaces flat enough to sit on, mobs of pumpkin wielding east end urchins roamed the paths and the undergrowth crawled with single men on the prowl (only for each other, luckily,) Sheldon is running another after dark tour this Halloween, join him, it’s great fun). Barnes Common Cemetery is one of Sheldon’s regular tours and not somewhere I had ever been before (despite living and working in the area for most of the 1980’s). 

The 18th century motif on the mid 19th century Frickley grave

Barnes is tiny, a mere two acres of burial ground that has reverted to woodland since it closed in the 50’s. It isn’t unusual in having returned to nature, it isn’t any more overgrown than Abney Park or Nunhead or even Highgate East. What is unusual is that the cemetery walls and railings were removed so that there was no longer any boundary between it and the rest of the common. Now the unsuspecting Sunday stroller when taking the air on the common may suddenly find themselves in the middle of a cemetery without knowing how they got there. Some people apparently find this unnerving. Its diminutive size is partly the result of never being allowed to expand beyond that initial two-acre plot. In 1889 when the vestry of St Mary’s, the owners of the cemetery, released plans for an extension they were surprised by the vociferousness of the opposition. The West London Observer of 20 July 1889 set forth the case against the proposal; “the Barnes people must not be allowed to cut and carve their common any further, even for the purpose of extending their cemetery. Barnes Common is of value to the living —it can be of no kind of advantage to the dead,” fulminated the leader writer, pointing out that recent legislation meant that commons within three miles of a town were no longer just the concern of the commoners and that the neighbouring boroughs had a legal right to step to prevent encroachment. It demanded that in “Hammersmith, in Kensington, in Chiswick, Fulham—indeed, all over West London steps should be taken once to let those see whom it may concern that no further interference with Barnes Common will be tolerated under any pretence……the long and the short of it is, the Vestry of Barnes will have to abandon this latest proposal of theirs to add piece of the common to the cemetery. To do so would be rob the living for the sake of the dead.” The plan to extend the cemetery was dropped and Barnes only received its much-needed additional burial space when the municipal authorities opened East Sheen cemetery in 1906.

The impressive, but utterly ruined, memorial for John Pullen of 107 Castelnau

For a small cemetery Barnes has more than its fair share of interesting permanent residents. Sheldon started his tour at the graves of landscape painter Edward ‘Moonlight’ Williams (died 1855 just a year after the cemetery opened) and his two sons, also landscape painters, Henry John (who took his wife’s surname of Boddington and died in 1865) and George Augustus (died 1901). Edward had three other sons who were also painters and two of which, like Henry John, changed their surname so that the art market wasn’t flooded with a plethora of virtually indistinguishable Williams’s. Collectively they were dubbed the Barnes’ school, their work of the sort that adorns nostalgic Christmas cards or, at one time, chocolate boxes. Just a few yards on from the Williams’ grave is the memorial to 27-year-old William Hedgman, the largest, though for me not the best, monument in the Cemetery. The memorial is big – I’m no good at judging distances or heights but it has to be over 20 feet high, the angel at the top is the only statue that has retained its head in the whole cemetery so it is clearly too tall for the vandals (though it has lost its nose somehow). Sheldon said that William’s father James was the proprietor of the first commercial swimming pool in London (I think I have that right). The memorial covers a sizeable vault and the family exhumed relatives from Abney Park to fill up some of the vacant loculi. Other graves we visited included Samuel Rabbeth, (1858–1884) a doctor at the Royal Free Hospital who contracted diphtheria after performing a tracheotomy on a four year old child and finding the windpipe blocked with mucus, sucking it clear with a tube. The child didn’t survive either. Rabbeth is also commemorated at Postman’s Park. And Francis Turner Palgrave compiler of The Golden Treasury, Ebener Cobb Morley, father of the Football Association, and the area where the common grave of Julia Martha Thomas is located. Julia was murdered in 1879 by the notorious Kate Webster who dismembered Julia’s body, boiled the flesh off the bones, allegedly skimmed off the fat and tried to sell it as dripping to a local butcher, and threw whatever was left into the Thames. Kate was eventually hung for her crimes and whatever had been collected of Julia’s body buried in Barnes. The head was missing for many years and only turned up in 2010 under David Attenborough’s patio.  Our last port of call was the badly damaged grave of George Chirgwin a flamboyant music hall star known as the white eyed kaffir who died in 1922;

WREATHS IN THE FORM OF A VIOLIN. The funeral of Mr. G. H. Chirgwin, the White-Eyed Kaffir, took place on Friday at Barnes Cemetery. The chief mourners were Mrs. Chirgwin and her two sons.  There was a large crowd of sympathisers, while many of Mr. Chirgwin’s professional friends were present, including Sir Oswald Stoll, Mr. Charles Gulliver, Mr. Harry Tate, Mr. Joe Elvin, and Mr. Cragg (“Papa”). There was a large deputation from the Music Hall Artistes Railway Association, and representatives of the Music Hall Benevolent Home, Twickenham. An extra hearse was filled with wreaths, two of which were in the form of the White-eyed Kaffir’s fiddle. One was composed of mainly white chrysanthemums and bore on it the representation of the famous white eye in small mauve and white flowers. (Gloucester Citizen - Saturday 18 November 1922)

Sheldon’s tours always finish with a singer from the music hall and a rendition of one of their better-known numbers. Chirgwin started off as a straightforward minstrel singer until he added a white diamond around the eye to the usual blackface (and sometimes went ‘negative’ with a white face and a black diamond). Sheldon gave us one of Chirgwin’s minstrel numbers called ‘The Blind Boy’ written by Robert Lee and George Washington Moore of the Christy Minstrels. Sheldon was doubly hampered by having to perform in a visor and sing in falsetto but as usual he gave a spirited performance even though ‘The Blind Boy’ isn’t the catchiest number in his graveside repertoire. We all enjoyed and I suspect so did Chirgwin lying at rest beneath our feet. 

Samuel Rabbeth (right)

There were a couple of memorials that caught my eye which Sheldon didn’t mention. One was the gravestone of William Frickley who died in 1858 which bears a rather nice example of a flying hourglass with an ouroboros, a snake with its tail in its mouth, a symbol of eternity. The motif isn’t uncommon – I had seen a very nice one the previous week in the churchyard of St Thomas in Navestock, Essex. That one was dated 1772; by 1858 the motif was very old fashioned indeed and not really in use any more. The Frickley grave sticks out like a sore thumb in a high Victorian cemetery because it is such an anachronism, a tombstone from the Georgian period. Perhaps William Frickley had antiquarian tastes The memorial which impressed me most was for John Pullen of 107 Castelnau, who died on 05 October 1903. John was a rich man; probate records show him leaving an estate worth £15502 12 shillings and tuppence. His memorial is rather fine and shows a sadly now headless female figure standing next to what is now an empty niche (but which may well have originally held a portrait of the deceased). Photographs on Geograph and Flickr show that the female figure on the memorial still had her head as recently as 2013; someone seems to have removed it around 2014. None of the memorials at Barnes are listed.    

Detail on the Palgrave grave

A trawl through the newspaper archives revealed a couple of interesting stories about the cemetery. The Beverley brook is a small river that runs for 9 miles between Worcester Park and the Thames between Putney and Barnes. It flows close the cemetery and in 1900 the cemetery authorities seem to have dammed a small tributary stream with unforeseen consequences. In the Pall Mall Gazette of 11 July 1900 there was a report about a meeting of Barnes District Council:

Child’s Coffin Floating Barnes Cemetery. It was reported last night, at a meeting of the Barnes District Council that Barnes Cemetery had become so waterlogged that when child’s grave, made fifteen months ago, was opened for a new interment, the coffin was found afloat. Steps are being taken to remedy this state of things, which is believed to be due to the damming of a stream near the cemetery.

The Bradford Daily Telegraph of 12 July had more details:

Owing to the damming back of a stream near the Barnes Cemetery, the latter had become so waterlogged that when a grave was opened the coffin was floating about. In another case the gravedigger put branches the bottom of a newly made grave to hide the water, and when the coffin was let down the mourning party were splashed. Means will be taken to remedy the evil; the matter having been reported to the District Council.

In 1909 an elderly woman keeled over and died whilst attending a funeral;

Mrs. Charlotte Greenhill. aged seventy-seven, of Norfolk-square, Hyde Park on whom an inquest was held at Mortlake died suddenly from heart disease while attending a funeral at Barnes Cemetery. Her executor stated that she told him she prayed every night that she might not live to the morning. (Exeter and Plymouth Gazette - Tuesday 04 May 1909)

And then there was the Barnes Cemetery Tragedy of 1927 as reported by the West London Observer on 14 January, the rather sad story of the lonely cemetery lodge keeper who gassed himself because he was “absolutely fed up”;

"Suicide whilst of unsound mind" was the verdict recorded by Alderman Dr. Michael Taylor, J.P., at a Mortlake inquest on Wednesday on Frank Lenan, aged 56, lodge keeper at the Barnes Common Cemetery, who was found dead with his head in the gas oven at the cemetery lodge on Tuesday, 4th January. A brother-in-law, William Cornet, of Cleveland Road, Barnes, identified the body, and said that the deceased, who was a widower, was a cheerful and healthy man. He had no troubles, and had never shown any signs of mental derangement. Edith Cornet, a sister, said that the deceased had no children, and his wife died twelve months ago. He lived by himself at the cemetery lodge, and did everything for himself, except prepare his dinner, which was brought to him daily. On Sunday the deceased spent the evening with them and when he departed, at about 10.46 p.m., he seemed quite cheerful. On Monday witness sent her daughter with his dinner, but she understood that after waiting for sometime, her daughter left the basket outside the door. Witness went herself to the lodge the next morning and found that the basket was still outside the door. She looked inside the door and saw a boot protruding, and came out again. The Coroner then produced a letter to the witness which read, "I wish Mrs. Cornet to have £l00, Betty Cornet £3O, and the remainder and home to Mrs. Giles, my sister, of Kingston. Thanking all for their kindness to me. Absolutely fed up. —Yours, etc., Frank Lenan. Pass book and deposit book at the Midland Bank." Mr. Cornet mentioned that there was more than the sum mentioned credited at the bank. Mrs. Emmie Giles, of Shortlands Road, Kingston, a sister, said that she visited the deceased every Friday. He had sometimes said, "What a life! Nobody to speak to." and witness thought that the deceased felt the loss of his wife. Thomas Edward Dainton, the commonkeeper, who said that he had known Lenan all his life, thought that he had officiated as cemetery keeper for 12 years. On Tuesday, Mrs. Cornet came to him and they went together to the lodge. He opened the back door and saw a boot protruding from behind the door. He then found the deceased lying on his left side with his head in the gas oven, covered over with an overcoat. P.C. J. Pettit, who was called in, said that the man was already dead. Dr. J. B. Scott, a divisional police surgeon, said that the body was pink from the gas fumes. Following a postmortem examination he attributed death to asphyxia, caused by coal gas poisoning. 

As he sat on his favourite bench in the Cimetière du Montparnasse he often recalled the day when he and his wife – his first wife – had first stumbled upon the mysterious lost and overgrown cemetery on Putney Heath, on the way to Barnes. Unlike the well-laid-out cemeteries of Paris and indeed of France as a whole, neatly walled and with all the tombstones set in orderly rows, this one seemed to have no clear boundaries and the tombstones appeared to grow like the tress in whose midst they appeared, randomly and without logic. Many of the statues had been vandalised over the ages and there were a great many decapitated angels. Originally perhaps there had been some attempt at order and symmetry, for somewhere near the centre a space had been cleared and a memorial to a certain William Hedgeman, in the form of a large cross standing on an inscribed plinth, had been erected. But three of the four paths leading to it from the sides had lost all semblance of straightness, the way had been blocked by fallen trees and more gravestones, overgrown now by creepers and moss…. They had been walking across the Heath one Saturday morning on their way to the pub in Barnes…when they had come across the cemetery. They must have passed within yards of it on numerous previous occasions without stumbling upon it, and even after many visits there was always the sense of suddenly and unexpectedly entering a lost world.

Gabriel Josipovici – ‘The Cemetery in Barnes’

Gabriel Josipovici is one of our more underrated writers (that’s why you have never heard of him!). The 79-year-old published his first book in 1968 and his most recent piece of published fiction is ‘The Cemetery in Barnes’ a intense and ambiguous novella about a translator and his relationship with his first wife in Putney, his years of solitude in Paris and life in the Abergavenny mountains in Wales with his second wife. In Paris the unnamed protagonist translates second rate novels, wanders the city in his free time exploring the Parisian cemeteries of Père Lachaise, Montmartre and Montparnasse, is haunted by the death by drowning of his first wife on the Thames towpath and listens obsessively to Monteverdi’s opera ‘L'Orfeo’ in which Orpheus descends to Hades to recover his own dead wife Eurydice. It is a dark and brooding piece of work and, as you would guess from the title, the cemetery on Barnes Common plays a key symbolic role.  

Thursday, 17 September 2020

The poisoned parson & the travelling corpse; more tales of exhumation at Highgate Cemetery

Pity the poor gravedigger; digging graves in Victorian cemeteries was dirty and dangerous work. With no mechanical aids to assist, a gravedigger would have had to rely on mattock, shovel and brute strength to remove three and a half tons of earth to create the six-foot-deep trench required by a standard coffin. If it was difficult burying the dead it would have been even harder digging them up again when the earth was loose and more liable to slippage and the coffin and its contents would have started to decompose. Getting a coffin into a grave merely requires it to be lowered in on ropes. Getting it out again means some poor soul had to risk serious injury or inadvertent premature burial by descending into the newly opened grave and manhandling the coffin into a position to run the ropes underneath it to allow it to be hoisted out. And once they had done all that and the police, the lawyers, and the medical men had finished their grisly inspections, they were expected to rebury the corpse all over again. Exhumations would not have been the highlight of the job.  

Not all exhumed bodies were reburied in the same cemetery of course, some would have been taken elsewhere to be buried. In October 1890 the Canterbury Journal, Kentish Times and Farmers' Gazette reported on the case of a restless widow who could not bear to be too far away from her deceased husband, a former clergyman;

A SINGULAR STORY. A BODY THRICE EXHUMED AND FOUR TIMES INTERRED. A widow lady named Jcnes last week took her departure from Canterbury accompanied by the remains of her husband, who expired two years ago. Mr. Jones, who, we believe, was a clergyman, died at Portsmouth, where his body was duly buried. Subsequently his widow removed to Highgate, and having obtained the authority of the Home Secretary her husband’s body was exhumed and re-interred in Cemetery, having been previously enclosed in a second coffin. About eighteen months ago Mrs. Jones came to reside in apartments in Canterbury, and again she had her husband’s remains exhumed, the corpse being brought to this city and buried in the new Cemetery at St. Thomas’s Hill, the ceremony being conducted by the Rev. P. W. Loosemore. Before re-interment another coffin was made in which the other two were placed. Once more Mrs. Jones determined to shift her place of residence, and again she obtained the permission of the Home Secretary to exhume her husband’s remains. Mr. Wiltshier, of Canterbury, was employed to make another coffin and convey the corpse to Liverpool, whither the lady has now gone to reside. Her husband’s body has thus been re-interred for the fourth time. The expense incurred on each occasion of the exhumation and re-interment is stated to have been about £30. A marble cross was erected over the grave of Mr. Jones in Canterbury cemetery with the inscription engraved thereon “rests from his labours.” A more remarkable case than this was probably never heard of.

Ensconced within four separate coffins Mr Jones would have resembled a Russian doll by the time of his final burial.  Mrs Jones would have found it much more convenient to travel with her dead husband accommodated in a cinerary urn but cremation was a novel and rather radical method of disposing of the dead at the time. The first crematorium in the UK had been founded in Woking in 1878 with the first cremation, of a horse (they were just practicing), on 17 March 1879. Legal objections prevented further cremations taking place until 1884 and so Mrs Jones was left with little choice but to continually exhume her husband if she wished to carry on visiting him regularly whilst peregrinating around England. 

The Reverend Henry Walker of 1 Fitzroy Square was a retired clergyman who died at home om 10 March 1844 and was buried in the recently opened new cemetery at Highgate. Within a few days of being buried his eldest daughter, Jane Power, and her husband Edward who was a barrister, complained to the authorities that the “deceased had been found dead in his chair, and that he might have come to his death from an over-dose of pills of morphia, either administered by his own hand or that of someone else.” They suspected foul play and on Edward Power’s insistence the recently buried clergyman was exhumed and an inquest held into his death. Chairing the inquest was the hyperactive Thomas Wakley, who in addition to his duties as the West Middlesex coroner was also editor of The Lancet and the Member of Parliament for Finsbury. The Inquest was held in the Gatehouse Tavern on Highgate Hill just a short walk from the cemetery which is where the coroner and the jury started the day by viewing the exhumed body, still in its lead coffin, in the catacombs. After seeing Rev. Walkers corpse, the party returned to the Gatehouse and the inquest proper began.  Thomas Wakley told the jury that it been his ‘painful duty’ to request Rev. Walker’s disinterment because “a member of the family had demanded that an inquest should be held. The law rendered it imperative on the Coroner in whose jurisdiction the body should be, when such a demand was made to hold an inquest, and however much he might regret it in the present instance, he was compelled to hold that inquiry.” Jane Walker, the clergyman’s widow was called to give evidence first. She told the packed inquest that “she found him dead, or, as she thought at first, fainting, in his sitting room, on the 10th of March, about nine in the morning. He was seated in his chair, partly undressed.” She had called for help and the servants had gone to fetch the vicar’s surgeon from his house in Charlotte Street, just a short walk away from the Square. After a short examination the surgeon pronounced his patient dead. A distraught Mrs Walker told the inquest “he took no opiates that l am aware of, nor any other medicine but that which was prescribed for him. He had never made any attempt on his life. He was too religious and good a man. I solemnly believe that he died a natural death.” Next to give evidence was Mary, another of the vicar’s daughters. She told the inquest that she had given her father his two morphia pills at 8pm the previous evening. According to the Morning Post of Friday 31 March 1848 the Edward Power then barraged the coroner with questions to be put to his sister-in-law; 

Mr. Power here submitted a number of questions to the Coroner to be asked of this witness, to which she replied with great bitterness — My father was never under any restraint during my recollection. I never supposed he was not of sound mind. I never heard any one breathe anything of the sort except that man (pointing to Mr. Power). He is the libeller. M. Power said the restraint being denied, he begged to hand in a letter, which, if the witness admitted it as her father's handwriting, he demanded should be read to the Jury. The witness having done so, the letter, which was addressed to his eldest daughter, Mrs. Power, was read. It was dated the 8th of February, 1848, and addressed "Mrs. Jane Power, to the care of Mr. Tims, 3, Charlotte-street, to be called for." The following is the extract referring to the restraint: —

"My dear Jane — Soon after we parted yesterday it poured in such torrents that I became quite nervous on your account, as well as for the dear little girl, fearing both might take cold by exposing yourselves to it. I shall be glad to hear from you to-morrow that you may both have escaped such danger; but I must beg of you to direct your letter to Mr. Tims, 3, Charlotte-street, Fitzroy-square, till called for, and I will give : Mr. Tims instructions on that score; for your handwriting (is known by the whole family, and by the Seymours. It might very possibly involve me in dispute, which I, in my I present nervous state wish to avoid." The remainder of the letter was upon family, matters, and was signed — "Yours very affectionately, " H. Walker."

When Jane Power was called to the witness stand she told the inquest that she had last seen her father on 06 March when he had visited her at home in Pimlico; “In answer to questions put by the Coroner, at the suggestion of Mr. Power, The witness said deceased told her he was much worried at home, and was very uncomfortable. He expressed a wish to go abroad again, and on her remarking that he was too weak, deceased replied that he could pay for a nurse, who would treat him quite as well as he had been treated at home; and that he could be buried cheaper abroad. The witness also complained that she and her husband had been refused to attend the funeral.” There was clearly an ongoing family feud between Jane and her husband and the rest of the family. The poor Rev. Walker seems to have felt stuck in the middle and no doubt the family squabbles didn’t help improve his ailing health. Mr Wakley was no doubt exasperated by Edward Powers’ continual interventions in the inquest, trying to inflate every minor discrepancy in the testimony into a cause for grave doubt about how his father-in-law had died. And what were the Powers actually alleging?  Were they seriously trying to imply that the rest of the family had conspired to murder the Reverend? Or that he had taken his own life? Edward Powers seemed to veer between these two possibilities without coming to a clear accusation. Eventually Mr Wakley cut to the chase by calling the very eminent Dr. Richard Quain of Harley Street (great grandfather of Ian Fleming and author of Quain’s Dictionary of Medicine) to the stand. Dr Quain had been asked to carry out the post mortem on the Rev. Walker’s exhumed body. He told the inquest that he had found “considerable disease in the kidneys and urinary passages. The heart was very large, and the brain soft and much irritated by a point of bone pressing upon it. He had subjected the blood, some serum found in the pericardium, and the contents of the stomach, to the most perfect analysis, and the result was, that there was a considerable amount of urea in the blood, and the most minute traces of morphia in the stomach.” He told Mr Wakley that the cause of death was the state of the hear, kidneys and the urea in the blood. He was unequivocal in declaring the “death to have resulted from purely natural causes.” At this point the Coroner declared that there was no point in protracting the inquiry, that the jury should consider its verdict, which could of course only follow Dr Quain’s conclusion of death by natural causes. Edward Powers refused to bow to the inevitable however and leapt to his feet and demanded that Mr Wakley read to the jury once again the original grounds on which permission to hold the inquest had been granted. With gritted teeth the Coroner complied with the request reminding the jury that the allegation had been that the “deceased had been found dead in his chair, and that he might have come to his death from an over-dose of pills of morphia, either administered by his own hand or that of someone else.”  The reminder did Powers no good, the jury swiftly returned the only possible verdict of death by natural causes. We do not know if the breach between Jane and the rest of her family was ever mended but it seems unlikely.  

Thomas Wakley’s successor as Coroner for Central Middlesex was the equally energetic Dr Edwin Lankester who also a surgeon, the president of the British Association, an esteemed naturalist and friend of both Charles Darwin and T.H. Huxley. In September 1866 he was in charge of the inquest into the death of Richard Golding an 80-year-old retired engraver who despite being a man of some means had died in filthy lodgings in Stebbington Street, Somers Town the previous December and buried at Highgate on 2nd January. The new Home Secretary, Spencer Walpole, has signed an order for Golding’s exhumation due to allegations that his last medical attendant, a Dr James Part of Camden Road, may have unduly influenced his patient into making a will out in his favour and then poisoned him.  Golding had been a successful engraver when younger; Benjamin West had asked him to engrave his ‘Death of Nelson’, Robert Smirke his illustrations for Don Quixote and Gil-Blas and, amongst many others, a portrait of Princess Charlotte of Wales after the painting by Sir Thomas Lawrence. He made a lot of money during the years he was in demand but his career stalled when he was middle aged and he went into semi-retirement, living off his capital and passing his time angling. For over 20 years he lodged with a mother and her unmarried daughter, both called Frances Southgate at their house in Eve Terrace on Pancras Road. 15 months before his death he had suddenly decided to change his lodgings and moved into Mrs Todd’s rather run-down premises in Stebbington Street, Oakley Square, just five minutes away in Somers Town. The Southgates visited Golding in his new quarters and were present when he died during the Christmas holidays.

The inquest was held at the Angel Inn on Highgate High Street and after formally commencing the proceedings the Coroner’s first act was to send the jury off to Highgate Cemetery to view the body warning them that “this body had been interred since Christmas last.” When the green faced jurymen returned to the Angel the first witness called was William Booth, upholsterer and undertaker of Camden Road who confirmed that he had been the undertaker responsible for burying Golding (on the instructions of Dr. Part), that he had viewed the body exhumed at Highgate and he was certain that it was Richard Golding. Next up was Frances Southgate the daughter. She told the inquest that she had been to see Golding on Christmas day and that he was in bed with a cold. He refused to see a doctor and instead was determined to make a will. She went back to see him on Boxing day and found him worse. This time he agreed to see a doctor and sent her off to fetch Dr Part from Camden Road. According to The Express of 14 September 1866 Frances then said:

he came on Boxing-day about 3 o'clock. I was there when he came, and although I was not in the room, I heard him give Dr Part instructions for his will to give to a solicitor. He gave him the pictures, plate, and portfolios, and I heard him mention my own and my mother's names. He said, "Frances Southgate, widow, and Frances Southgate, jun." I did not hear what was said because of the noise of the children, but I heard him tell Dr Part that he had received great kindness from my mother. Dr Part said to me at the door, "Mr. Golding has left a legacy for you and your mother, and at your mother's death the whole will come to you." Dr Part promised to send a nurse, but none came. The deceased seemed better in the afternoon of Boxing-day, and the day after he seemed much better, and ate two rounds of toast. I think I was there the whole day. That afternoon Dr Part brought his solicitor and Captain Brooker, who was his son-in-law. He did not tell Mr. Golding that Captain Brooker was his son-in-law, but he called Mrs. Part "mother." I never heard the will read. I did not see Mr. Golding sign the will, but he told me all about it when they were gone. He laid hold of my hand and said, "I am glad I have made my will, Fanny. I have left your mother £700, and I have left you £700, and I have left Dr Part my pictures in the portfolios and £50. He is well paid. He has got my will, and is executor."  

When Frances went back to see Golding the following day, she found him in convulsions and sent for Dr Part who limited his treatment to a little sherry and water and a couple of pills. Golding died three hours later and Frances claimed Dr Part immediately removed a pocket book with £40 in bank notes in it and two silver watches. Golding had died in his trousers and much to the horror of Miss Southgate the doctor said he should be buried in them. Mrs Southgate the mother was also present at this point and when she objected the doctor told her that he was the executor and he could send Golding’s body for dissection if he wanted to. Mr Beard, the solicitor acting for Dr Part asked her about a bag of money she had tried to remove from Golding’s room on the day of his death. She told Beard that Dr Part had demanded that the money should he handed over to him, which she did. Beard asked her if Dr Part had told her that there was £110 missing from the bag and she burst into tears and said “yes, after he had taken it all away by himself.” Dr Lankester, clearly feeling uncomfortable about this line of questioning wondered if it had any relevance to the cause of death. Beard contended that “as this witness had charged Dr Part with ransacking the house and taking away silver watches and money, he had a right to show her conduct in the matter.” The coroner said that he had heard enough of this part of the case and dismissed the witness. The solicitor who prepared the will was then called. He described the general circumstances in which he had drawn up the will and obtained Golding’s signature. He admitted that Dr Part had given him his initial instructions; “I prepared the will in accordance with those instructions. Having done so I attended and saw the deceased, and read it over in his presence. I read the whole of it. The decreased was perfectly sensible, and spoke of knowing Dr Part for upwards of 20 years, and having great regard for him as being connected with the Artists' Fund. The will was read to deceased in the absence of Dr Part, while Dr Part had gone to get the ink for him to sign it. After I had read it deceased said it was quite right, and executed it in my presence.” As the results of the post mortem were not yet available the inquest was adjourned at this point.

When the inquest was resumed Mr Beard insisted that Frances Southgate be recalled. He then proceeded to examine her in some detail about the pills Golding had taken the day before his death. She claimed the pills were provided by Dr Part. How did she know that? Beard asked. Because Golding has told her, she said and because the pill box had Dr Part’s name on it. The pills made Golding drowsy she claimed but you did not mention this to Dr Part when he attended, Beard asked and she admitted she had not. Southgate told the inquest that “previous to the death of the deceased he never expressed a wish to be buried in his trowsers. He always wished to be buried in a Christian-like way.” Mr Beard asked her if she knew that Prince Albert had been buried in his trousers and she had to confess that she did not. Mr Beard produced letters to his client from Frances Southgate accusing him of stealing Goldings property, inveigling him into making a will in his favour and poisoning him. He also read letters from his client to Miss Southgate accusing her of stealing the £110 mentioned the previous day and of making up the accusations against him because she had been disappointed to find that Golding had only left her £100 in his will not the £700 she had expected. Mrs Todd, Golding’s landlady was recalled but had nothing much to say other than she had made cocoa for the deceased but he had been too ill to drink it. Then Professor Julian Edward Disbrowe Rodgers was called to give his evidence on the results of the post mortem examination of the deceased (The Sun 20 September 1866);

[the professor said] I have made an examination of the stomach, spleen, liver, and other portions of the intestines of the deceased. I first made a search for alkaloids, and I found a mere trace of morphia. I have made a special search for strychnine, and anything that would produce convulsions, without discovering any trace. I have also made an examination for metallic poison; and here I would say, as I am bound to speak the truth, that in the stomach I found a small quantity of arsenic. In the intestines I did not find a sufficient quantity to say it was arsenic, and in the liver none. I need not say that the greatest care had been taken in preparing for the examination. I discovered the arsenic by Reinch's test. I made a special examination of the liver, and from finding arsenic absent I came to the conclusion that no quantity of it had been swallowed that could destroy life or shorten it for any length of time, for had that been the case I must have found it in the liver.

Coroner—You are quite sure you found arsenic in the stomach?
Witness—Yes, quite sure.
Coroner—Did you look for other poisons?
Witness—Yes, and found none.
Coroner—Have you formed an opinion as to the cause of death?
Witness —Yes. There is nothing inconsistent in a man so afflicted as deceased was with bronchitis. Convulsions sometimes precede death from bronchitis. The throwing up of the arms would be an effect to get air.
Coroner—Where do you think the arsenic came from?
Witness—My impression is that there must have been an error in making of the medicine.
A Juror—Do you think the arsenic you discovered could have been contained in the cocoa the deceased took a short time before his death.
Witness—No. Had it been made in an enamelled saucepan, that might possibly account for it.

Mrs. Todd was here again recalled, and in answer to the coroner, said she did not boil the cocoa in a saucepan. She made it first into a paste in a teacup, and then poured boiling water upon it....

Dr Part, at the termination of the evidence of Professor Rodgers, was examined, and said that his great endeavour was to alleviate the sufferings of Mr. Golding, who had been during his illness very much neglected. He denied ever using any persuasion to induce the deceased to make a will in his favour.

The Jury’s verdict was death by natural causes. No charges were ever brought against either Frances Southgate or Dr James Part.

On Friday 23 July 1869 the Islington Gazette reported on another of Dr Lankester’s cases this one involving the exhumation of an 11 week old baby who had died following a vaccination of cow pox (intended to provide at least partial immunity from the deadly small pox which in the 1790’s, the time Edward Jenner discovered innoculation, was killing around 10% of the UK population every year (without a single suggestion of a lockdown)). The cause of death was given as erysipelas, a bacterial infection of the skin also known as St Anthony’s fire;

On Monday, Dr Lankester held an inquiry at the “Brookfield Arms" Tavern, Highgate New-town, relative to the death of William Emery, infant son of a ham and tongue dealer, of Great Portland-street, Marylebone, who was alleged to have died through the introduction of impure matter into the system in the operation of vaccination. The inquiry resulted from one held a few days ago by Mr. Bedford, the coroner for Westminster, in which the same allegation was made, both children being vaccinated at Dr Allen's surgery, 11, Soho-square. The verdict of the jury in the case before Mr. Bedford was one of death from natural causes, Dr Clark stating that the death was due to erysipelas, consequent on vaccination, not from the vaccine matter, but from the punctures in the arm, the vaccine not taking effect. Mr. Emery was present at that inquest, and, having lost his child from the same cause, pressed for an inquiry. His child was buried at Highgate Cemetery, but in conformity with the wishes of the father, the body was exhumed, and the present inquiry was held. Mr. Lewis senior attended on the part of the father of the deceased; and Mr Mirams represented Dr Allen.

Mr Aaron Emery, father of the deceased, identified the body as that of his son, who was vaccinated at Dr Allen’s establishment, the 31st of May, being then eleven weeks old. Four wounds were made in the right arm, one of which appeared to be very deep, and bled very much. On the 7th June the child was taken back, the four vesicles having taken, and two of them were opened, and some of the matter introduced into the arm another child. Two days after symptoms of a dangerous character set in, principally proceeding from the largest wound, whence the matter had not been taken. The inflammation spread all over the arm, which swelled to double its size. Dr Allen and his assistant attended, and the swelling decreased in the arm, but went into the body, back, legs, and scrotum. From the 9th day of June till its death on the 4th July, the child appeared be unconscious. It only dozed, and started up shrieking with agony.

 Mr. Thomas Masse y Harding, F.R.C.S., said he had been a public vaccinator for more than twelve years. He had made a post -mortem examination of the deceased, and found, notwithstanding its illness, that it was a very fine, well-nourished child. The immediate cause of death was exhaustion from erysipelas produced by the vaccination —he thought by the cow-pox virus being introduced into the wounds. He had vaccinated from 4000 to 5,000 children, and he had never had death. His brother and Dr Ballard, of Islington, had also vaccinated some thousands, and they had only had one death each. If erysipelas set after vaccination he might not know it, as parents would take their children to their own doctors. An unclean lancet or other instrument used for making the excoriations for the reception of the lymph might produce erysipelas. If matter were taken from an arm and introduced into another after the eighth day it was likely to produce erysipelas, the matter becoming deteriorated. The matter was never taken from the cow. He had vaccinated from 4,000 to 5,000 children, and it was not taken from the cow, but from arm to arm. The cow-pox was similar the small-pox.

Some discussion here ensued, in which was introduced the discovery of vaccination by Dr Jenner, and its ultimate adoption. It was shown that out of 1,600 patients admitted into the Small-pox Hospital, 1,300 had been previously vaccinated : but those who had been vaccinated received the disease (which only came once in a lifetime) in a very mild form—it was modified, and less severe in those successfully vaccinated; 30 out of every 100 were susceptible and liable to small-pox if exposed to it, but it would not be fatal. Mr. Harding (in reply  to Mr. Lewis) said he had seen the child from which deceased had been vaccinated, and it was perfectly healthy, as were also the father and mother. Dr George Allen, 11, Soho-square, said he had been a vaccinator since he was 15 years old, and had performed as many operations as 100 in a day, and he had never seen fatal case before. He believed the erysipelas was produced after vaccination, through some fault in the child. He knew nothing of the children who were vaccinated before or after Mr. Emery's child. Before he administered the matter to a child he did not inquire whence it came. The matter was not direct from the cow, and it would not deteriorate for years. He had used such matter for thirty years. Mr. Harding said Mr. Badcock, of Brighton, used supply the institutions with lymph from the cow. The jury ultimately returned a verdict of "Died from erysipelas, caused by vaccination."