Monday, 4 October 2021

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman; Hester Hammerton (1711-1746) All Saints, Kingston-Upon-Thames


I came upon an account of the life of Hester Hammerton, the once celebrated female sexton of Kingston-upon-Thames in Kirkby’s Wonderful and Eccentric Museum. For those unfamiliar with this publication it is an early 19th century compendium of the marvellous and the bizarre; it contains biographies of the singular characters of the age (the Chevalier D’Eon and Joseph Merlin for example), accounts of calamities, (shipwrecks, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes etc), details of monstrous births, (four legged cockerals, two headed calves and numerous conjoined twins), prodigious eaters (a polish man who regularly ate 5 pounds of raw beef and 10 tallow candles at one sitting) and stories of miraculous escapes from death (Elizabeth Woodcock of Impington who survived 8 days buried alive in snow). Whilst written to appeal to the sensation seeker it has to be conceded that its articles are generally well informed and that its contributors often took pains to establish their facts.

Kirkby’s tells us that Hester Hammerton was baptised on March 16 1711. Her father Abraham performed the office of sexton of All Saints Church “in which his daughter was accustomed to assist him.” Hester and her brother-in-law Thomas German were both with their father on the 2nd of March 1730, digging a grave for a Mr George Hammond of London. Also present were Richard Milles and Sarah Smith. They were digging too close to one of the main pillars of the Chapel of St Mary; the vicar Dr Rawlinson, explained in a letter to a friend exactly what happened next:

On Monday last, our sexton, with his son and daughter, being employed in digging a grave, part of the ancient chapel of St Mary’s fell in upon them, killed the sexton and one other man, Richard Mills, on the spot, bruised and wounded several others and buried in the grave both the son and daughter for above three hours, during which time many were employed in digging out the rubbish, in order to get at the bodies that were buried. After the removal of the timbers, and several loads of rubbish, they heard very plainly some loud groans and cries in the grave. Soon after, they came to the heads of two persons: the man was speechless and almost dead, having his head closely confined between two stones; the woman was not so much pressed; but being immediately taken care of by Dr. Cranmer, they are both in a fair way of recovery. The Bailiffs and Churchwardens by their great humanity and diligence on this occasion had a great share in preserving the lives of the two persons abovementioned, by the speedy removal of the rubbish and by keeping off the crowd who pressed in upon the labourers in great numbers. The damage besides the lives already lost is computed to amount to above £1000.

The entry from the parish register at All Saints showing the burial of Abraham Hammerton and Richard Milles on the 5th March -'killed by the fall of the church' and Sarah Smith on the 15th.  

Abraham Hammerton and Richard Milles were both killed on the spot but the vicar was writing too soon to know that Sarah Smith would also eventually die of her injuries. Abraham and Richard were both buried on the 5th March, Sarah was not buried until the 15th. Hester and her brother-in-law Thomas both survived and Hester inherited her father’s position as sexton to the parish though luckily her injuries prevented her first job being the melancholy one of digging her own father’s grave. Kirkby’s describes Hester as a ‘strong, lusty woman of a comely countenance.’ It claimed that injuries received in the accident prevented her from ever wearing stays again and says that ‘her usual dress therefore was a man's waistcoat and hat, a long loose gown and a silk handkerchief tied round her neck.’ On Sundays she would bow to convention and ‘dress extremely clean and neat, in a gown of the then fashion, a mob cap with frilled border and ribbon, and a nosegay in her bosom.’  The writer says that Hester ‘was very fond of all kinds of manly diversions, such as cricket, football, bull baiting, also of smoaking and associating with men but nevertheless, she preserved her moral character unimpeached. If any person offered to take liberties with her, she never failed to resent the affront and her fist inflicted merited chastisement on the offender. She possessed great bodily strength and would dig all the graves and ring the great bell herself. She died at Kingston and was buried February 28 1746 in the 35th year of her age.’

Hester's burial recorded in the parish register for 28 February 1746

Hester was instrumental in apprehending Philip Wilkinson and William Sweet, two Londoners who came down to Kingston with the intentions of robbing the communion plate from the church. Hester wandered into church to ring the two o’clock bell and found the two men ripping off the gold lace and fringe of the pulpit hangings. Incensed the doughty Hester grabbed one of the men by the collar and threw him over the reading desk and into the pew below. Whilst she was occupied the other thief crept up on her from behind and hit her over the head with a blunt instrument, stunning her and allowing both robbers to flee the scene. A few days later a boy was caught lurking around the church and suspected of being somehow being involved in the robbery. He denied this but said that if he was released, he would tell the authorities who had robbed the church. His information led to the capture and arrest of Wilkinson and Sweet. The pair were tried at Kingston Assizes on 10th April 1735 and being found guilty of sacrilege, sentenced to death.  The Derby Mercury of 17th April gives this account of their execution;

On Thursday, soon after One o'Clock, Philip Wilkinson and William Sweet, were executed in the Market-Place at Kingston. They said they forgave the Boy and the Woman who were instrumental in their Death; desired the Prayers of the Spectators; and just before they were turn'd off, declar'd, as they were dying Men, that they were innocent of the Fact for which they suffer'd, nor had they been guilty of any Robbery whatsoever; and that they never saw the Boy or Woman before they came to appear against them.

Kirkby’s gives the following postscript to the story;

The bodies of the above two men, after execution, were carried into the Castle Inn yard, and no particular account was given of them afterwards. As christian burial was refused them, on account of the crime of sacrilege, of which they had been convicted it was not till above seventy years afterwards that a discovery was made, which seems to clear up this matter. August 25 1807 - As some workmen were digging a hole in the garden of Mr. John Smallpiece the butcher, near Clattern-bridge (late Mr. Laming's garden) the skeletons of two men lying together were discovered. These were conjectured to be the remains of Wilkinson and Sweet. The garden in which they were found was a bowling green, and belonged to the Castle Inn, at the time when the bodies of those two men were left in the yard, and there is no reason to doubt that, as it was generally supposed, they were buried in that bowling green.

Friday, 24 September 2021

A hidden gem; the headstone of Godfrey Mercer (1696-1730), St. Mary's & All Saints, Chesterfield, Derbyshire

I was in Chesterfield earlier this week for a funeral. Despite being in exactly the right location funerals are, frustratingly, not occasions that usually present the opportunity to do any cemetery exploring. I would have quite liked to have a look around Brimington Cemetery (which apparently dates from the 1870’s), but I was otherwise occupied at the crematorium and it is bad form to slip off after the service to roam aimlessly around the headstones as though you don’t give a fig for the deceased. I arrived at Chesterfield 15 minutes before my lift to the funeral which did give me the opportunity to walk the two hundred yards from the station to St Mary’s and All Saints church with its famous crooked spire. My photograph is taken from the wrong angle and doesn’t do it justice. Dating from 1362 local legends generally attribute the twist in the spire to the Devil; a blacksmith drove a nail into his satanic majesty’s foot causing him to hop with pain across the town and kick out at the spire in anger as he passed. Or alternatively, when the devil roosted on the spire one night and wrapped his tail around the spire to anchor him to his perch the parishioners rang the bells to scare him off. The startled devil flew up without bothering to unwind his tail and the spire twisted as a result.  If the Devil didn’t twist the spire folk lore says it was a local virgin who got married in the church. The church was so surprised to see a virgin bride in Chesterfield that it twisted itself around to have a good luck. It is also said that it will untwist itself when another virgin gets married in the town. Sensible people attribute the twisting of the spire to the warping of the unseasoned wood used in its construction and other building defects such as the lack of internal cross bracing and the heavy used of lead tiles on the south side of the roof. 

I had time to have a quick look around the church yard to see if there were any interesting memorials. There are still headstones standing on the north side of the church, all of them dating from the 19th century as far as I could see. There was nothing particularly eye catching though apparently there is a French officer, a P.O.W. from the Napoleonic Wars, buried there with a headstone in French and English. On the south side of the church yard the headstones have all been cleared and some of them stacked against the boundary walls. The south wall is taken up with a hundred or so large ledger stones; whether they came from the church yard or from inside the church itself I don’t know. They are stacked four or five deep and it is impossible to see any of them clearly except the smallest at the front. Along the western wall is a mixture of ledger and head stones. Hidden behind a larger headstone is a beautiful stylised memento mori dating from the 1730’s; its concealed position makes it very easy to miss and very difficult to photograph. 

Godfrey's burial is recorded in the parish register as taking place on 7 December 1730

Beneath the excellently preserved headstone, until it was relocated against the wall, once ‘lyeth the body’ of Mr Godfrey Mercer ‘who dyed Dec ye 4th 1730’. The parish register records that he was buried on 7th December, the only interment that took place that day.  St Mary’s burial register graphically demonstrates the prevalence of child mortality in the early 18th century – there were seven burials between the 5th and 11th of December and 5 of them were children. Details of Godfrey’s life are spare – he was baptised at Chesterfield in 1696, the son of John Mercer. We don’t know his occupation or where he lived in the town but we do know that he married when he was 26, on 23rd June 1723 to Mary Shentall aged 22. Bride and groom were both from Chesterfield but the marriage took place at St Giles in Matlock.  The couple had no children before Godfrey died aged just 34 in 1730. Mary lived until she was 70 but never remarried; the parish register records her as Mary Widow Mercer when she was buried on 1st April 1771.  

A record of happier days; Godfrey's marriage to Mary took place in June 1723 at St Giles in Matlock

Tuesday, 14 September 2021

"A first class eccentric"; William Vincent Wallace (1812-1865) Kensal Green Cemetery

“He is a first-class eccentric,” said Hector Berlioz, the great French composer and conductor, in Les Soirées de l'orchestre (1852) of his friend, the Irish composer, William Vincent Wallace. “We have spent together, in London, many half-nights over a bowl of punch, he narrating his strange adventures, I listening eagerly to them. He has carried off women, he has fought several duels that turned out badly for his adversaries, and he was a savage yes, a savage, or pretty nearly one, for six months.” Berlioz then spends the rest of his feuilleton recalling how Wallace, with his “his customary phlegm” narrated his half year amongst the natives of New Zealand. Wallace was in Sydney and fell into conversation with the captain of a frigate. As they contentedly puffed on a couple of cheroots the captain invited Wallace to join him on a voyage to New Zealand. Wallace inquired about the purpose of the trip and was told that it was “to chastise the inhabitants of Tcwaewa-Punamu Bay, the most ferocious of New Zealanders, who took into their heads, last year, to loot one of our whaling-ships and eat its crew. Come along with me, the crossing is not a long one, and the expedition will be amusing.” Wallace accepted with alacrity and a few days later was under full sail to South Island with the English Frigate.  The amusement started almost as soon as the frigate was at anchor in Tcwaewa-Punamu Bay. The captain had given orders to tear a few sails, break a couple of yard arms, hide the guns and the company of marines on board and for just ten men to stay on deck and do their best to look lost and aimless. This gave “our frigate the appearance of a poor devil of a ship half disabled by a gale and no longer answering its helm,” Wallace told Berlioz “as soon us the New Zealanders caught sight of us, their customary caution made them remain quiet. But after counting only ten men on the frigate, and believing from our wretched appearance and the uncertainty of our movements that we were shipwrecked mariners asking for help rather than an attacking party, they laid hold of their weapons and made their way towards us from every corner of the shore. Never in my life have I seen so many canoes. They came from land, sea, bushes, rocks, everywhere. And remember that several of these boats contained as many as fifty warriors.” Once they were thoroughly surrounded the captain gave the order to throw open the ports and let the Maori warriors have a few broadsides from the ship’s guns.

Wallace enthusiastically joined in the ensuing slaughter “with my double-barrelled gun, and a dozen grenades handed me by the master-gunner, I, for my part, destroyed the appetite of many New Zealanders, who had perhaps already dug the oven in which they had counted on baking me.” He says that he could not count the number of men that he had killed and enthuses “you cannot conceive the effect of my grenades in particular. They burst between their legs and sent them flying sky high!” Meanwhile “our commander stamped about, shouting through his speaking-trumpet: One more broadside! Give them bar-shot! Shoot that chief with red feathers! Out launch, out cutter, out yawl! Finish the swimmers off with the handspike! Knock them on the head, my lads I God save the Queen!” When the fighting finished “the sea was strewn with corpses, limbs, tomahawks, paddles, and wreckage from the canoes, while here and there the green waters were flecked with big crimson puddles.” Two chiefs are taken prisoner during the battle and an interpreter called to explain to them why they were attacked. “'Oh,' exclaimed the big chief, stamping violently on the deck, and gazing at his companion with savage enthusiasm, ‘Very well, then. The whites are great warriors!' Our procedure evidently filled them with admiration. They judged us from the standpoint of art, like connoisseurs, noble rivals, great artists.” Having taken the days extraordinary events in his stride Wallace is rather put out to discover that the captain plans to sail directly to Tasmania, a journey that will take rather longer than Wallace had reckoned on spending away from Sydney. When the ships surgeon asks to be left in New Zealand Wallace begs leave to join him living with the “cannibal chiefs”. He loses no time in going native and adopting the life style of the people he has just taken so much pleasure in slaughtering and by dint of prowess at the hunt is able to “captivate two charming little native girls, as lively and coquettish as Parisian work-girls, with large, sparkling black eyes, and eyelashes the length of my finger. Their shyness once conquered, they followed me like a couple of llamas, Mere carrying my gunpowder and bag of bullets, MoTanga the game I brought down during our excursions; at night each of them in turn served me as a pillow, when we slept in the open. Such nights, such stars, such a sky! That country is paradise on earth.” Not content with two acquiescent hand maidens to cater to his every whim Wallace fell in love with the chiefs sixteen-year-old daughter. His initial advances are rebuffed but our intrepid traveller soon discovers that the way to a princess’ heart is through a keg of tobacco. The princess, “delighted at possessing the precious keg, which she had persisted in not asking for from pure coquettishness, loosened her hair at last and dragged me palpitating towards the field of phormium” (the New Zealand flax plant). Wallace and his princess soon celebrate their marriage with a wedding feast at which a young female slave is roasted for the main course (Wallace, of course, refuses to partake though the ships surgeon helps himself to a slice of shoulder which makes him violently ill). He then lives in connubial bliss until it is time to return home; “when I announced my departure to her, what tears, what despair, what convulsions of the heart!” (From his bride of course, not from Wallace). On the day he leaves the distraught princess produces a knife and demands a token of her husband’s undying love. Instead of castrating the renegade she bares his chest and then “slashed me twice, making a cross-shaped incision, whence the blood spurted forth in jets. Immediately the poor child flung herself on my chest, which was streaming with blood, laid against it her lips, cheeks, neck, bosom, and hair, and drank my blood, which mingled with her tears; she screamed, she sobbed.” And if that wasn’t enough his “two charming little native girls” are also inconsolable; “Mere and Moi'anga had sprung into the water before the cutter's departure; I found them at the frigate's companion. There was another scene, amid heart-rending shrieks. In vain did I keep my eyes fixed on the Britannic flag; my strength failed me for a moment. I had left Tatea fainting on the beach; at my feet the two other dear creatures, swimming with one hand and waving farewell signs to me with the other, repeated in their wailing voices: 'O Walla, Walla!' (their way of pronouncing my name). What efforts it cost me to climb the ship's ladder! As I mounted each step, it seemed to me that I was fracturing a limb.”

William Vincent Wallace, composer, virtuoso on the piano and violin, and, judging by his stories to Berlioz, incorrigible fantasist, was born in Waterford in 1812. His father was regimental bandmaster with the North Mayo Militia and Wallace was taught to play several instruments growing up including the clarinet, organ, violin and piano. He became the cathedral organist at Thurles in County Tipperary when he was 18. He also taught music at the local Ursuline convent where he fell in love with, and married, one of his pupils. He did travel, emigrating to Australia in 1835 where he separated from his wife in 1838,  just before travelling to New Zealand and engaging in his Ménage à quatre with his three island girls. From New Zealand he sailed across the Pacific and visited South America and the Caribbean before moving onto the United States and then returning to England. He stayed in London for a while (where he met Berlioz) before touring the continent and then moving to New York where he became an American citizen. Seemingly unable to settle anywhere he returned to Europe and died in France in 1865. His operas Maritana (1845) and Lurline (1847) were huge popular and critical successes.  

The Dublin Evening Mail of 25 October 1865 gives an account of his funeral in Kensal Green Cemetery reprinted from The Star.

FUNERAL OF VINCENT WALLACE. The mortal remains of Vincent Wallace, who breathed his last ten days ago at the Chateau de Bagen, in the Pyrenees, were brought to England last week, and were Monday morning laid in the cemetery at Kensal Green. The chief mourners consisted of his three sons (two being by the lady whom he has now left a widow, and one by former wife) and his nephew. The body of the lamented composer was followed on its last journey, from the chapel where part of the burial service was read, to the grave which had been prepared for its reception, by some thirty or forty personal friends of the deceased, all of whom are well known to the general public. The ready, active sympathy with the misfortunes of others which the musical profession invariably evinces prompts them not merely to assist their brethren while living, but to pay them due respect when dead. So around the last resting place of Vincent Wallace were assembled composers who had been his rivals as well as his friends, singers who had interpreted his works, and journalists who had spread abroad their fame. Among those present were Professor Sterndale Bennett, Benedict, Mr Macfarren, Mr Arthur Sullivan, Mr Brinley Richards, Mr Henry Smart, Mr Osborne, Signor Ferrari, Signor Lablache, Mr Henry Leslie, M Lemmens, Mr Wood, Mr Weiss, Mr Hogarth, Mr Campbell Clarke, and many others for whose names we can find no space. Thus surrounded, within view of the giant city whose autumnal dreariness his graceful genius had so often lightened, Vincent Wallace was laid down in the narrow bed in the like of which all must sooner or later rest. When the solemn words, “Earth to earth," had been said to their accustomed ghastly accompaniment, many pressed forward to take their last look at the coffin, the simple inscription on which ran thus: “Vincent Wallace, died October, 1865, in his fiftieth year." The grave is exactly opposite that of Tom Hood, conspicuous by reason of the graceful memorial which, thanks to the enthusiasm of some young admirers of his genius, was raised just thirteen years ago. So after all his troubled, eventful, adventurous life—after travelling on every continent and sailing across every sea—Vincent Wallace comes home at last to rest, mid worthy companionship, in the cemetery that is honoured by so many illustrious names.

Sunday, 12 September 2021

Remembering 9 11


There are some events so momentous that most of us remember where we were and what we were doing when we first heard about them. In the early afternoon of 11th September 2001, I was sitting at my desk on the top floor of Bridge House in Stratford, then the location of the London Borough of Newham’s Housing Department. I recall it being a sunny day but this could be a false memory, a translation of that day’s blue skies in New York, seen countless times since in video reruns of the day’s events.  Twenty years ago I didn’t own a mobile phone (though almost everyone else over the age of 12 and under 60 did) and Google was in its infancy – there was no continuous stream of data delivered to work desk tops, no instantaneous news up dates via the internet. Instead, I received a phone call from my wife, on my direct work landline number, shortly after lunchtime. She was at home looking after our two young daughters, one of them was just a month old and from her slightly hysterical tone I was worried something was wrong with the baby. She isn’t a native English speaker and 20 years ago she struggled sometimes to understand the language used on TV news programmes. “I think the third world war has broken out,” she told me, “Someone is blowing up the skyscrapers in New York, there are bombs going off everywhere. Is it the Russians?” I looked around the office, most of my colleagues were in somnolent early afternoon mode, slouching in their chairs and tapping languidly at their keyboards or conducting hushed conversations over the phone, apparently without a care in the world. It seemed unlikely that a world war could have broken out without anyone knowing about it. I told my wife to slow down and tell me exactly what was happening on the TV screen. She started to describe planes flying into the sides of high-rise buildings, the shots were different angles and she couldn’t tell how many buildings were involved. “I think they are saying it is terrorists,” she eventually said.  

The twentieth anniversary has brought a lot of TV coverage looking back at the appalling events of that day. On Tuesday I watched a harrowing documentary called ‘9/11: Life Under Attack’. Manhattan in 2001 was a city bristling with amateur and professional film makers and the attacks on the Twin Towers had half the city reaching for their camcorders. The documentary features footage filmed from people’s apartment windows, their balconies, the roof of their buildings and from the streets. Sadly, bomb attacks on the citizenry of large cities are a staple of modern warfare; Guernica, the blitz in London, the carpet bombing of Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Aleppo, Raqqa. But the attack on the Twin Towers was the best documented, the most filmed. Slaughtering the innocent inhabitants of a city from the air is an appalling act of barbarity and stupidity whichever country, regime or organisation carries it out and no matter what reason they find to justify it.  

Simon's family with a portrait of their lost relative. 

I visited New York in February 2020, just before the pandemic closed down inessential foreign travel and went to the National September 11 Memorial & Museum on the 17th. There were white roses on the names of some of the victims on the memorial. I wasn’t sure why when I took a photograph but have since discovered that the staff at the memorial place a white rose against the name of each victim on their birthday. If he had lived Simon Marash Dedvukaj would have been 45 on the 17th February 2020, but he died aged 26 on 11th September. He was born in Brooklyn in 1975 to Albanian parents. He was a janitorial foreman for ABM Industries based on the 95th floor of the North Tower. His parents had spotted a potential bride for their son at a wedding in Albania and they persuaded their son to go there to see the girl. He had been married to Elizabeth for just ten months when he died. He was buried, twice, in the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Westchester County. His first funeral took place in 2002 but in 2005 his family received a call to say that further remains had been identified by DNA as belonging to Simon and a second funeral was held with 150 people attending.

Monday, 2 August 2021

A family fortune: Thomas Goss Shore (1795-1868), Abney Park Cemetery

If only by sheer bulk the memorial in Abney Park Cemetery for Thomas Goss Shore is imposing. It is a solid 8-foot square of dressed stone topped with an urn which must weigh at least a couple of tons. The inscription is unilluminating, merely telling us that he died on 28 May 1868 at the age of 73 and that ‘his end was peace’. Also commemorated are an Ann Shore wife of Thomas Shore of Ayr Cottage in Edmonton, who died in 1860, ‘the above mentioned Thomas Shore’ (i.e. husband of Ann) who died in 1889, their daughter Sarah Ann and their son Daniel. It is Daniel that has always intrigued me; he was “reported drowned in China Seas by foundering of SS Ferntower August 29th 1886 in his 26th year”.

Thomas Goss Shore died a wealthy man. According to probate records he was worth almost £12,000 when he died a bachelor at Devonshire Place in Stoke Newington, leaving his fortune to his nephew and only relative Thomas who is reported as being a plumber living at the same address. An advert in the Melbourne Age of 31 August 1868 suggests Thomas may have had a long-lost brother who disappeared in the gold fields of Bendigo in the early 1860’s:

SHORE, JOHN, formerly of the City of Norwich, in England, Journeyman Baker, who was the son of JOHN and SARAH SHORE, and who emigrated to Melbourne, Victoria, in October, 1854, In ship Misaporo(?), who was last heard of at Bendigo Gold Holds, about seven years ago, if living, or If dead, his friends or representatives, If any, are requested to communicate with the undersigned, with proper evidence of his or their identity, to entitle him or them to a share of the personal estate of his uncle, Mr THOMAS GOSS SHORE, who died in London, on Saturday the 28th  May last. Dated this 19th day of June, 1868. Messrs GRAY, JOHNSTON & MOUNSEY. of No 5 Raymond Buildings, Grays Inn, London, England, Solicitors for the administrators of the said Thomas Goss Shore.

I am unable to discover how Thomas Goss Shore made his money or anything else about him other that he was born in Norfolk in 1795 to Brightman and Mary Shore, was baptised at St Peter Mancroft and had a brother called John.  Thomas’ nephew, John’s son Thomas, left Norfolk and married a woman from Stoke Newington. At the time of the 1851 and 1861 census Thomas and Ann were living at 39 Tottenham Road in Islington, just off the Balls Pond Road. By 1871 they had moved to a larger house at 29 Beresford Road, next to Newington Green. Thomas was no longer a humble plumber; he gave his occupation as ‘owner of houses and properties’ and the family had at least one live-in servant. Two of his children, 16-year-old Brightmore (almost named after his grandfather?) and 10-year-old Daniel were not listed on the census return as they were boarding with schoolmaster George Higgins at 42 Clifden Road, Homerton. Brightmore later became a land surveyor and Daniel became a merchant seaman; he was awarded his second mate certificate on 28 June 1882. I presume he was second mate aboard the SS Ferntower of Liverpool (formerly the SS Bosphorus) when foundered during a typhoon off the mouth of the Saigon River, in the East China Sea in 1886. 50 crew and passengers were drowned as explained by the Morning Post on 21 October 1886:

SHIPPING CASUALTIES.  The China mail received at Plymouth yesterday bring the details of the loss of the British steamer Ferntower, with 50 lives, during a typhoon, off the mouth of the Saigon river. In the course of the gale one man after another was washed overboard. The vessel was thrown on her beam ends and sprung a leak, while volumes of water poured through the smashed skylights. By constant pumping the vessel was kept afloat for some hours, but eventually she gave a violent plunge and went down head foremost. There was no time to launch the only undamaged boat, and the majority of the passengers and the seamen on deck were thrown into the water, others being carried down with the vessel. The deck-house became separated from the wreckage, and on this some of the officers and sailors clambered. For three days and nights they floated about on this raft. They were without food, and had almost abandoned hope when the British steamer Vindobola hove in sight and rescued them. The survivors were so overjoyed that their rescuers thought them mad, but they soon recovered and told the story of their privations. The drowned, including the captain, were over 50 in number.

Daniel Shore's Second Mate Certificate

Monday, 26 July 2021

The gate at number 6 Rua de São Jorge; Cemitério dos Ingleses, Lisbon


The Portuguese version of Time Out says that a trip to the English cemetery in Lisbon is “uma oportunidade de ir a Inglaterra sem apanhar chuva”, a chance to go to England without catching the rain. It also says that the “gate at number 6 Rua de São Jorge is a kind of shortcut to a very small, and very specific, portion of England.” In contrast English visitors have always focused on the cemetery’s exoticism, picking out every detail that makes it un-English. A correspondent from the Westminster Gazette went there in 1901 looking for the grace of the cemetery’s most famous inhabitant, Henry Fielding;

The English Cemetery at Lisbon, which is, I believe, the first Protestant burial-ground that was tolerated in the Peninsula, lies on a height at the back of the town. A succession of steep streets lead from the Tagus up to the Estrella Church, whose dome and towers are a landmark for seamen. In front of the church there is an open space, from one corner of which a narrowish street leads yet higher, almost into the outskirts of the town. On the left as you go up are shuttered houses; on the right a rough, white, plastered wall, over the coping of which the curling tops of the cypresses appear. We call it the English Cemetery; but to the natives it is known as Os Cyprestes — The Cypresses. Half-way up the street there is a green door in the wall, surmounted by the arms of England, with a bell-handle and wire by the side. You pull the handle and a feeble tinkling responds from the other side. A woman opens the door, and you pass through unquestioned, and are left to wander down the avenue of aged cypresses in front of you unmolested. Few travellers visit Lisbon, and far fewer visit Fielding's grave. The graveyard is some acres in extent, surrounded by high walls, intersected by pathways and thickly planted with venerable cypresses, straggling mimosas, and woody bay trees. On either side of the gravel paths, the tombs and gravestones rise among a tangled profusion of southern weeds. Tall scarlet geraniums and blue periwinkles are mingled with the grasses and the undergrowth. There is a group of aloes in an arid corner, and prickly cactuses grow against the sunny walls. The avenues of cypresses cast a grateful shade; the evening air is beginning to become cool; but the hum of insects and the warbling of innumerable birds give one a feeling of the South—the scent of box-hedges in the sun is mingled with the evening perfumes of the flowers. The scene is enchanting to one who arrives from a country where he has left winter weather and east winds.

Westminster Gazette - Tuesday 30 April 1901

The English cemetery is Lisbon’s oldest; the rights of British subjects to engage in Protestant worship and the need for a site “fit for the burial of their dead” was Article 14 of the 1654 Anglo-Portuguese treaty negotiated by Cromwell’s Protectorate and the Portuguese government. Opposition from the Catholic clergy stopped the accord being put into practice for over 60 years. English consul Poyntz was only able to confirm that space for a protestant burial ground had been secured in 1717 and the new cemetery opened in 1721. Even then the Tribunal da Inquisição ordered that a perimeter of cypresses be planted along the perimeter to hide the chão dos hereges, the heretics burial ground from the eyes of passing Catholics. In 1804 a corner of the cemetery was partitioned off for a Jewish burial ground, the first in Portugal since King Manoel the First had ordered the expulsion of the Jews from his Kingdom in 1497. The church of St George was built inside the grounds of the cemetery in 1822. The first church burnt down in 1886 and the current church built on the old site.  

Henry Fielding is by far the most famous person buried in the cemetery but there are some other interesting memorials. A simple wall plaque commemorates Thomas Barclay who died in Lisbon in 1793. Barclay was born in Strabane in Ireland in 1728 and emigrated to Philadelphia in his mid-thirties where he became a prosperous merchant and ship owner. He sided with the rebels during the war of independence and was made the new republics Consul in Paris in 1781 and sent to Morocco to negotiate a treaty with Sultan Sidi Muhammad ibn Abdullah in 1786. Barclay’s wall plaque contains several inaccuracies according to the official version of his life. He was not the first consul of the United States to Portugal as it claims; Barclay was in Lisbon to collect funds for a mission to Algiers where several Americans were being held hostage. He became ill in Lisbon and died on January 19, 1793, of inflammation of the lungs. The plaque says that he died in a duel! Evelyn Edson in an article for the Scottsville Museum in Virginia adds that the duel was “with a Spanish nobleman, who had cast aspersions on the character of American women.” I could not trace any newspaper accounts of his death which might shed light on the discrepancy. 

Not everyone buried in the cemetery is English. Arguably the most impressive tomb belongs not to Fielding but to Christian August, Prince of Waldeck and Pyrmont who died in Portugal in 1798. The prince was born in 1744 and accompanied Goethe for part of the writers Italian Journey in 1786-88. Goethe called him “a perfect and well educated prince”. He became a general in the Austrian Army and served in several campaigns. He came to Portugal in 1797 to take over command of the Portuguese land army at the request of Queen Maria I but succumbded to illness almost as soon as he was in the country, dying shortly afterwards in the Royal Palace in Sintra. His impressive pyramidal memorial was donated by the Prince-regent, the future King João VI.

Many of the cemetery’s permanent inhabitants seem to have arrived here by accident.  Lieutenant B. Wallace of HMS Minotaur was “while on duty on the 1st of January (1877), was killed by a yard falling on his head” and was buried next day in the cemetery. Clement Colvin formerly of the India Office and lately director the Eastern Telegraph and Eastern Telegraph Extension Company (Limited), Winchester was visiting the Marquis of Montserrat at Sintra when he unexpectedly dropped dead of apoplexy. He was buried in the cemetery on 28 of August 1901. Also dying at Sintra in 1944 where 3 Canadian airmen who flew their plane into a hillside by accident. 

Then there is this from the Herts Guardian, Agricultural Journal, and General Advertiser of  Saturday 20 June 1863:

The Journal de Commercio records a melancholy accident which occurred on the 2b'th ult. at the patent slip Porto Brandao, on the south side of the Tagus. Mr. Thomas White, of Portsmouth, the chief engineer of the works, was giving some order, when a stone from one of the cliffs commenced rolling, and would have fallen'. on him. A workman seeing his danger, called out to him and pushed him to remove him out of the way. The push was so violent that Mr. White fell heavily, and his head came in contact with the stones, causing congestion of the brain, which proved fatal on the 2Sth. The man who thus endeavoured to save Mr. White was struck by the stone, and so seriously injured that he was removed to the hospital, where lies in a precarious state. The funeral took place on the 30th at the English Cemetery, Lisbon, with every demonstration of respect from the Government authorities, and universal regret was expressed that the deceased had not lived to see the completion of the important works which he had so ably and successfully superintended.

And more accidental deaths in the military in 1950 when 6 British naval officers, one of them the grandson of the novelist H. Rider Haggard, managed to kill themselves by driving a car off the end of a quay in Setubal and into the River Sado whilst on their way to a party;

CAR FALLS IN RIVER Commander Archibald Rider Cheyne. Naval Attache at the British Embassy in Lisbon. and five officers from a British destroyer flotilla (two lieut.-commanders and three lieutenants) were drowned last night when a motor-car in which they were travelling took a wrong turning in the narrow quayside streets at Setubal and fell 25 feet into the River Sado. They were on their way to a party given by an ex-naval officer, Captain Benson, at his country home, "Quinta Venezelos." Commander Cheyne, who was driving the car, had returned from Captain Benson's home to change from his uniform into civilian clothes and to nick up a further batch of officers to attend the party.

THE DRIVER'S HANDICAP The drowned officers were from British naval units which arrived at Setubal to-day for a five-day courtesy visit. Antonio Pereira. the British Naval Attaché’s chauffeur, who was not in the car, told Reuter that with the headlamps on and the quay wet, as it was, it was almost impossible to see where the quay ended. Commander Cheyne, a grandson of the novelist Rider Haggard. leaves a widow and a young son and daughter. His wife, whom he married in 1938. was Miss Marie Louise Brett. daughter of Mrs. Maurice Brett (the actress Zena Dare). The bodies were recovered from the car after four hours' rescue work in which Setubal dock workers co-operated with divers from the British warships.

DANGER SPOT Antonio Pereira, the British Naval Attaches chauffeur, who was not the car. told Reuter that, with headlamps on. and when the quay was wet. it was almost impossible to see where the quay ended The funeral is on Monday at the British Cemetery in Lisbon

Belfast Telegraph - Saturday 21 October 1950

On Saturday 28 October 1893 The Era reported the sad death of a pantomimist:

Death of a Pantomimist. Mr Arthur Williams, the well-known pantomimist, died on the 13th inst. at Lisbon. The deceased was fulfilling an engagement with the Renad Brothers in the Portuguese capital. On the 11th he was with the company as usual, and retired to rest apparently in his usual condition. On the 12th he did not appear at breakfast, and shortly afterwards some of his friends called to see him. They knocked at his bedroom door and as they received no answer the door was forced open, and they found him dead in his bed, the cause of death having been cerebral apoplexy. Mr Williams was buried on the 14th inst. in the English Protestant Cemetery, Lisbon. The funeral was attended by most of the members of the company to which he belonged. He was only forty-one years of age, and has left a widow and two children totally unprovided for.

Friday, 16 July 2021

"A most awful tragedy"; Medi Oliver Mehra (2003-2014) Kensal Green Cemetery


When an 86-foot-long half circle of Corinthian columns, suddenly appeared in Kensal Green a few years ago I was slightly puzzled to see such a large new structure in the cemetery and assumed it was a memorial garden for the crematorium. Only one memorial ever appeared inside it, a life-sized statue of a boy who according to the inscription had died shortly after his eleventh birthday in 2014 but it still never crossed my mind that this enormous structure was a single grave memorial until I read ‘A Tomb with A View’ by Peter Ross. Kensal Green is the most exclusive and therefore the most expensive cemetery in the UK.  A 6’6” x 2’6” standard burial plot in a path side location costs a hefty £22,000; that is £1375 per square foot (plus £1550 for the excavation by mechanical digger). I don’t know the total area of the Medi Garden, as it is officially known, but it must be at least 3000 square feet. I have no idea either what the General Cemetery Company charged for the ground but if the rate was the equivalent of its grave fees, it would have cost millions. The memorial itself was built by Sino Sculpture using 350 tonnes of granite, 150 tonnes of steel and 200 tons of concrete. It is decorated with angels holding torches, books and flowers. 

There is no other monument on this scale in any UK cemetery. The price tag for the memorial reflects the enormous grief of Iranian businessman Mehdi Mehra and his wife Mary-Ann Bowring at the loss of their 11-year-old son Medi Oliver Mehra who died in a horse-riding accident in 2014. The Hampstead & Highgate Express of April 15 2015 carried the story of the inquest:

An 11-year-old Hampstead schoolboy died of severe head injuries after hitting a tree in a horse riding accident, a coroner has ruled. University College School (UCS) pupil Medi Mehra died on July 15 last year after he fell off a horse and hit his head at a polo club in Oxfordshire. He died at the scene despite wearing a riding helmet. Medi, of Maida Vale, lost control of the horse he was riding without stirrups when it cantered while he was also controlling another horse on a rope, known as leading. Oxfordshire coroner Darren Salter ruled his death was an accident, and said: “It was apparent Medi was a relative beginner in terms of riding ability. I do think there was a significant increase in the risk by having Medi leading a horse with no stirrups.”

The court heard that Medi’s father, Mehdi Mehra, asked friend and professional polo player Pedro Harrison to look after Medi and have him work in the stables at the club for a few days. Mr Harrison’s groom William Newman was the only adult with Medi when he died. He was riding one horse and leading four others at the time. Mr Newman told Oxfordshire Coroner’s Court: “Medi seemed quite confident on a horse, he seemed happy. I thought I’d push him a bit more and told him to take his stirrups up and have a canter. “But then there was a gradual increase in speed as Medi lost control, and I quickly lost sight of him over the crest of the hill.” Mr Harrison, who was in his yard at the time, said: “I heard Medi scream. “I looked up and saw him riding past on the grass, still leading the horse, and going very fast. I got in my car immediately and went after them. When I found Medi he was lying by the tree and had blood coming from his nose and ears.” Mr Newman told the court: “I obviously over-estimated his riding ability and hugely underestimated the horse’s quietness. It’s something I regret hugely.” Before Medi died, his mother Mary-Anne Bowring had specifically chosen an older horse called Rubia for Medi to ride on. But on the day he died, he was riding another horse. She said “there was no way in hell” she would have left Medi stay with Mr Harrison if she knew he would ride a different horse. But Mr Harrison said Mr Mehra had told him to give Medi “whatever horse I thought was suitable.”

Mr Salter told the court: “This is obviously the most awful tragedy, an accident.”

Friday, 9 July 2021

The Death of the King of the Beggars; Andrew Whiston (1770-1826) St Saviour's churchyard, Southwark

Detail from "30 Extraordinary Characters..." showing Andrew Whiston in his homemade carriage

When Andrew Whiston, a renowned dwarf, died on Monday 3rd April 1826 the surgeons of Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospitals offered £100 for his body.  Hearing of his death, and knowing that he had no relatives, the night constable of St Saviour’s parish called at his lodgings to claim the body but found his fellow lodgers unwilling to surrender the corpse. They claimed that Whiston had not paid his rent for a month and admitted that they planned to settle the debt by selling his cadaver to the surgeons. The night constable was having none of it; he took charge of the body and removed it to the watchhouse where he could keep an eye on it. As no relatives came to claim him Whiston was buried by the parish on April 7 in the churchyard of St Saviour’s (now Southwark Cathedral). To stop the body being claimed by resurrectionists the sexton dug a grave 14 feet deep and placed Whiston’s child sized coffin at the bottom. There were three other parish funerals that day; 15-year-old James Harvey, 54-year-old Elizabeth Marks and 58-year-old William Walters. The sexton placed the three paupers’ coffins on top of Whiston’s and then filled up the grave. As far as we know the resurrection men did not manage to get their hands on Whiston’s mortal remains.

Contemporary accounts of Andrew Whiston (or sometimes Whitson or even Weston) described him as a ‘miserable’ or ‘wretched -looking object’, as ‘little, diminutive, and deformed’, and as a ‘remarkable production of the human species’. Just two feet four inches tall and known as the King of the Beggars, he was born in Dundee in 1770 but spent most of his adult life in London where he wheeled himself around in a handmade cart between his home in Southwark and his prime begging spots north of the river in the Adelphi.  His unusual appearance and irascible disposition earned him a degree of fame in Regency London; Pierce Egan featured him as one of the picturesque cadgers in ‘Life in London’ and his exploits frequently made the newspapers. On 29 December 1825 the Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser reported that the magistrates at Union Hall had listened to the evidence against a ‘respectably attired young man, named Stokes’. The young man was accused of being one of a gang of raucous and high-spirited young men who had ‘exceedingly ill-treated' the dwarf by burying him beneath a pile of mud. Stokes was acquitted after he explained he had tried to come to the rescue of the dwarf but had been interrupted by a patrol of Bow Street runners who immediately assumed he was the guilty party and, after exchanging a few words with him, “struck him on the eye”; the newspaper admitted that “the defendant bore visible marks of having received a severe blow”. When Andrew was placed on a chair to give his evidence, he admitted that he could not say whether the defendant had assaulted him or not.  Stokes was acquitted and the case was about to be dismissed when the members of the Bow Street patrol suddenly felt the urge to acquaint the magistrates with the true character of the victim;

Some of the Officers now said that the dwarf was great nuisance in the street; that he was very prone to insult females as they passed, using towards them some of the lowest and most indecent expressions of which the English language was capable; that he was apt to abuse all passengers when he was intoxicated, which in fact took place almost every night; for although he subsisted chiefly by begging, and could drink 30 glasses of gin, yet obtained enough of money to do this, from the Public; and, finally, that he was a sort of pet among the porters, who often treated him, and laughed at his indecent allusions; and was, indeed, occasionally encouraged by them in his wonted abuse towards the more respectable part of the passengers.

From the Morning Advertiser of Monday 10 April 1826;

CORONER’S INQUEST ON THE BODY OF ANDREW WHITSON, COMMONLY DESIGNATED THE KING THE BEGGARS. On Friday last an Inquest was held at the Rose and Bell public-house, Bankside, Southwark, before R. Carter, Esquire, on the body the above-named extraordinary diminutive individual, an account whose death appeared in most of the public prints during the last week. The Jury, upon being sworn, proceeded to St. Saviour’s watch-house, where the remains were placed in order to secure them from the clutches of the Resurrectionists, many of whom hovered about the neighbourhood on the report of his death gaining wind. The body was deposited in a box purposely contrived for its reception, and from its peculiar formation was, perhaps, one the most remarkable productions of the human species. The legs were curved, and had the appearance thin planks, having no calves; the shin bones were greatly protruded, also his chest, which was excessively contracted, and which might well be termed Pigeon breasted. His bead was of an extraordinary size, and his neck short and thick, which peculiarities evinced a predisposition to apoplexy. This extraordinary man when alive, was about two feet four inches height, and was thirty-three inches round the body, twenty-seven inches round the head, and thirteen inches from the chin to the crown. From the heel to the knee-joint he measured sixteen inches, ten from the knee-joint to the hip-bone, and seven inches and a quarter round the wrist. He was double jointed throughout, and possessed considerable strength, particularly in the hand, he slept on the floor, dressed and undressed himself, without assistance. The machine upon which travelled about the town cost him, wheels and all, about three shillings, and generally lasted him about three years.  

Richard Uwell, a shoemaker, residing in Holland-street, Southwark, deposed, that he had known the deceased from seeing him pass up and down the street in a little truck or box on four wheels, which he impelled along with the assistance of crutches. He obtained his living principally by begging, and resided in William’s-court. On Monday night last witness was drinking at a public-house called the ‘Duke on Horseback’, Holland-street, with a man named Mist. Between nine and ten o’clock, Little Andrew as he was called, entered the tap room, and addressing witness, said, “I say, boy, take and carry me home, for I feel unwell all over”. Mist, the man who was with witness, observed, that they would convey him home between them if he gave them a pot of beer. Andrew consented, and they accordingly proceeded with towards his lodging, each taking him under the arm, the way in which he was usually carried home when he was unable to go by himself. On reaching the end of the court they set him on the pavement, when another man came up and requested they would place him on his shoulders and he would carry him home. They did so, and witness and Mist went away. 

A detail showing Andrew Whiston as the head of the cadgers' table from George Cruikshank Illustration to Pierce Egan's 'Life in London- Tom and Jerry "Masquerading it"', 1821 

The Coroner here observed that a report had gone abroad in the neighbourhood, that the deceased was carried home with his head downwards. He asked the witness whether there was any foundation for such a report? The witness declared that the deceased was carried along in a perfectly upright position, and   and no tricks whatever were played upon him.

James Keaton, the man who carried the deceased on his shoulders up the court, deposed that when the last witness and Mist set down the deceased, he perceived his head droop down. Believing it was caused by intoxication, he did not feel any surprise at that circumstance, but went forward to the lodging and knocking at the door, it was opened by the landlady, who seeing it was her lodger (Little Andrew), immediately shut the door, saying that he should not enter the house. Witness then set down the deceased outside the door and informed the watchman of what had taken place, who eventually gained admission for him into the house, in the space of about ten minutes. Soon afterwards the landlady called the watchman saying that she believed Andrew was dead. Upon entering the room, the deceased was discovered sitting at a table which was purposely made for him, with his head reclining upon it. He then appeared to be dead, and on the arrival of a surgeon, life was pronounced extinct. One of the Jury asked the witness whether he could state the deceased was in liquor? Keaton replied, that to the best of his belief the deceased was sober at the time. As no surgeon was in attendance to give evidence as to the immediate cause of the deceased’s death, one was sent for, who described it to have occurred in consequence of apoplexy.

The beadle here informed the Coroner that a person was in attendance, who claimed the body of the deceased. It was asked upon what ground, whether he was a relative to the deceased? The beadle said the individual was in no way related to the deceased, that he had merely got a document in his possession, whether true or fictitious, he (the beadle) could not say, authorising him to receive the body after death.  The person however refused to come forward and put in his claim. Upon which the medical man observed, that as none of the deceased’s relations were anxious to bury him, he was convinced the College of Surgeons would consider it a great favour to have the body presented to them for the benefit of science. The Coroner, however, stopped short the application, observing that when the verdict was pronounced, he would immediately issue his warrant for the interment of the body.  It would be then given up to the parish authorities, who would of course act in a legal manner with it. The Jury having retired for a short time, returned a verdict that the deceased ‘Died of Apoplexy’. The day after the Inquest sat on the body it was conveyed to St. Saviour’s burial ground, and interred in a grave fourteen feet in depth from the surface, over which were placed other coffins in order to secure it against the resurrection men who were anxious to have the corpse to dispose of.

Saturday, 3 July 2021

The Elusive Satanists of Abney Park

“It’s used a lot by Satanists” says Iain Sinclair, London’s foremost psychogeographer, as we approach a menacingly derelict church.  “Stoke Newington’s an epic centre of black magic. You can see the symbol of the eye in the triangle on the wall there. A lot of bodies have been dug out of graves, it’s a fake gothic church that has been overwhelmed by a gothic reality.”

Interview with BBC (2006)

Over the years Abney Park has acquired a murky reputation though for most people it’s not Iain Sinclair’s Satanists that they find troubling. Rustykey on tripadvisor says “very disappointed to find out that this beautiful place is actually a dangerous and unsafe area. Lots of homeless, weird and dangerous people...Wouldn't recommend to go in there alone.” Colin P from Chelmsford whose father, amongst other relatives, is buried at Abney, is a bit more explicit about what the weird and dangerous people get up to and, after complaining that the lush undergrowth makes it difficult to access graves, tells us “Unfortunately my mother is now refusing to come to the Cemetery to visit my father’s grave, due to the amount of men having sex openly with each other!”  I have spent many dozens of hours in the cemetery since I first went there in the early 90’s and I have never seen men openly having sex. In my experience they always retire discreetly into the bushes with nothing more to give them away than a little shaking in the shrubbery.  I don’t think I have ever seen a Satanist either but unless they were kitted out in full regalia like the cast of ‘The Devil Rides Out’ I don’t think I could tell the difference between a demon worshipper and your average Methodist or Anabaptist. The cemetery’s reputation has travelled far; tru_echo, a female photographer from the States who specialises in taking pictures of abandoned buildings in Detroit (327 homicides in 2020 in a city of 3.5 million) worries on the Fodor website about coming to London (126 murders in 2020 for a population of 9 million) and in particular about visiting Abney Park which she would love to photograph; ‘I've read everything from it being a safe place where families hang out to reports of satanic rituals taking place at night (recently, and I've seen some photographic evidence of this, including a decapitated pigs head left on a trail) and at least one person being attacked.’ Helpful locals assure her that the cemetery is safe and that reports of black magic are greatly exaggerated but whether she believed them or not I don’t know.

In a 2010 article in the now defunct Pen Pusher magazine Hackney author Jeremy Worman wrote of the Chapel; There used to be occult symbols – a pentagram, an ankh, an upside-down image of Christ on the Cross – painted on to the church. On a bench outside the chapel was the inscription: ‘Do What Thou Wilt is the Whole of the Law’, a quote from Aleister Crowley, the most evil of magicians. In the eighties there were articles in the local press about satanists and witches holding ceremonies here (I gather there is still a group of black magicians practising their craft in the locality). These inscriptions have now been removed. Yet to stand here at night is to sense a force that is frightening.” I can imagine that standing by the chapel at night, in the pitch black (there is no lighting in the cemetery!) knowing that you are stuck there until someone opens the gates in the morning would be quite frightening. I am not convinced that the sensation would be anything to do with occult forces though. When the Victorian Society listed the cemetery chapel as one of the countries most endangered 19th century buildings in 2014, it rather sensibly put down the rumours of Satanism to overactive imaginations “over the years the site became overgrown and the chapel suffered severe vandalism,” it said, “even the chapel’s catacombs’ contents were scattered leading to rumours of black magic.”  

I diligently followed up Jeremy Worman’s assertion that the local press featured stories of black magic and witchcraft in the cemetery but was unable to locate any of these old articles. The nearest I came was a short piece in the Reading Evening Post in May 1986 which raises more questions than it answers:

SKULL CASE REMAND A sex change woman has been remanded by magistrates for allegedly taking a skull from a cemetery which was discovered by a man rotavating his garden at Sparsholt near Wantage. Unemployed Vivienne West, aged 26, of St Stephen's Gardens, Bayswater, was accused of removing part of a corpse from Abney Park Cemetery at Stoke Newington in March. She was remanded on unconditional bail until June 5 by magistrates at Highbury Court.

How did the skull end up in Wantage? And how did they know that 26-year-old Vivienne West had taken it from Abney Park? Vivienne sounds an intriguing character but I haven’t been able to find out anything else about her.

Searching for the elusive Satanists of Abney Park I did come across one truly horrific story from the 1980’s. On the morning of 11 August 1985 14-year-old Keighley Barton took the family Alsatian Rex for a walk on Wanstead Flats. All 11.30 the agitated dog returned alone to the family home in Sebert Road, Forest Gate; Keighley had disappeared. Her stepfather, Ronald William Barton, was convicted of her murder in October 1986 despite her body never having been found. Barton was a serial sex offender whose underage girls as his victims. In 1980 he had been convicted of two acts of gross indecency with his eight-year-old stepdaughter; amazingly he was given a 12-month suspended sentence and allowed back into the family home.  He was rearrested in 1982 accused once again of sexual abusing Keighley but because she refused to testify the case was dropped. Only in 1985 did Keighley’s mother find the will to throw Barton out of the house and keep him out with a court injunction.  Barton took revenge on his estranged wife by abducting and murdering Keighley. Whilst on remand he told fellow prisoners that he had disposed of her body by putting it in the boot of an old car and getting the vehicle crushed for scrap. Following his conviction he told the prison governor that he had dumped the teenagers corpse in Abney Park Cemetery. It took a two-week search for the police to finally locate the decomposed remains. The Daily Mirror of 19 February 1987 reported on Keighley’s inquest:   

Murdered schoolgirl Keighley Barton was stabbed 11 times by her stepfather as she fought for her life, an inquest heard yesterday. The 14-year-old received five chest and six arm wounds, in the frenzied attack, said pathologist Dr Peter Vanezis. He examined Keighley's body after it was found in undergrowth where it had lain undiscovered for 14 months. A verdict of unlawful killing was returned at Poplar Coroner's Court in East London—and the funeral next Wednesday will end 18 months of anguish for Keighley's mother, Teresa Barton. Keighley vanished in August 1985. Stepfather Ronald Barton, 46, joined in the searches—but he had killed her to cover up sex offences against her and in revenge for Keighley's mother splitting with him. He was finally arrested, and jailed for life last October. The next day he told the governor of Wandsworth Jail in London that he had hidden the body in 32-acre Abney Park cemetery in North London. After a two-week search Keighley's decayed remains were finally found under a jungle of bushes. Det Supt Charles Farquhar, who led the hunt for Keighley, said yesterday: "It is very sad--but at least the family now have peace of mind and can bury her decently."

The grave of PC 403 William Frederick Tyler who was shot by Latvian anarchists during the Tottenham Outrage of January 1909

Monday, 31 May 2021

'Say what a Wife should be and She was that'; The Great Churchyard, Bury St. Edmunds

Committed taphophile that I am, when I visited Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk the sight I was most keen to see was John Baret’s famous cadaver tomb in St Mary’s church.  Baret was a wealthy merchant who died in 1467; his monument was already in the church waiting for him at his funeral as it had been completed 4 years earlier to his own detailed specification. The design is unusual with the shrouded and emaciated cadaver taking centre stage on top of the tomb; most English cadaver tombs show the skeleton or cadaver beneath an effigy of the deceased as he was in life. Alas Covid 19 restrictions meant St Mary’s was closed except for Sunday services even though across the great churchyard the former St James, now the Cathedral, was open and allowing visitors. The churchyard took the edge off my disappointment; it is large, it is old (founded as a burial site in the early 12th century) and it still contains 1200 memorials many of them from the late 18th and early 19th century. The part containing most of the headstones has been allowed to revert back to nature and it was hard to see them in the waist high cow parsley that now covers them. I missed many of the best ones (I really should do my research before I visit) but the ones I did see were impressive. And it was a beautiful day, after a month of almost daily rain and temperatures that struggled to get into the low teens the sun came out in a perfect blue sky and the thermometer hit 20C, spring at last.  

Turning into the churchyard (of Bury Cathedral), which is a beautiful place, you may see the shapeless ruin of the charnel-chapel, a good view of the north side of St. Mary's with the Notyngham porch, and a fine old house of 1730, once the "Clopton Asylum," now devoted to Church uses. In this churchyard it was that on New Year's Day of 1722 Arundel Coke, barrister, invited his brother-in-law Edward Crispe to take a stroll after supper; and had a man waiting with a bill-hook, who fell upon Crispe and hacked him and left him for dead.

Coke went back to his house and said that Crispe would be in shortly, and spoke more truly than he thought, for soon afterwards Crispe did crawl in covered with blood. He was mended up, and Coke and his accomplice Woodburne were tried under the Coventry Act for slitting Crispe's nose. Coke's defence was that he did not intend to slit Crispe's nose, but to kill him; and was insistent to know whether the nose could be said to be slit within the meaning of the statute, when the edge of it was not cut through. Lord Chief Justice Sir Peter King was of opinion that it was duly slit, and Coke was hanged.

M.R. James - Suffolk and Norfolk - A Perambulation of the Two Counties (1930)

The attempted murder of barrister Edward Crispe is the most famous incident that took place in the churchyard. Crispe lived in the churchyard with his wife; his assailants were Arundell Coke his brother-in-law and fellow barrister and a hired assassin; a local thug called John Woodburn. The Whitehall Evening Post of January 18 1722 described the accusation against Coke;

Mr Crispe has charged him with enticing him out of his House, where he and his Wife had been at Supper, into the Church Yard, hard by, on pretence of visiting one Mrs Monk, against whose House Mr. Coke forced him up the Wall and held him while he was knock'd down by a Man, who came up upon a whistle given by Mr. Coke, who bid him strike, which he did with a Hedge bill, or Hook, such as they crop Trees with. One Woodburn a Labourer, a Man of an infamous Character for a common Thief, was suspected to be the Person that committed this barbarous butcherly Act.

Crispe’s injuries were horrific; they were described at Coke’s trial by Sturgeon the surgeon, who had attended him on the night of the attack;

Mr. Sturgeon the Surgeon deposed, that being sent for, came to Mr. Crispe at Coke's, about 11, found him wretchedly cut in seven Places; first from the Right ear thro' the cheek to the Upper lip, just under the nose whereby his Teeth were laid bare, the Jaw-bone damaged, and his Cheek hanging down to his shoulder.  Another on the double Chin, a very deep wound, from the extremity of one Jaw-bone to another. It will be tedious to describe the other wounds, only that of the nose because it was the Gift of the indictment. It was not downwards, nor quite overward; for the ridge of the Nose was not touch'd. Only on the Right side of the Nose, where the Nostril begins to stand out, it was cut through, so one might see into the Nostril ; but neither Bone nor Gristle was cut or dannified.  The Wounds not healed were all opened and shown to the Court and Jury.

Coke and Woodburn were prosecuted under the Coventry Act against malicious maiming with intent to mutilate. Their defence, ingenious but fatally flawed, was that they were not guilty because their intention had been to murder Crispe rather than mutilate him. They were found guilty and were the only two men ever to be executed under the act.

As we walked through the churchyard in the evening, we found ourselves in the company of a hooded figure who swore and screamed, not at us apparently, but at some voice only audible to himself. With no boundary walls or fences the churchyard has long been a place of resort for the citizens of Bury with no better place to go. A concerned citizen wrote to the Bury and Norwich Post in August 1882;

THE CHURCHYARD at BURY ST. EDMUND'S. Sir,— lt is rather a painful contrast to pass from the interior of either of the beautifully restored Churches of St. Mary or St. James, where the wants of the living worshippers are so well cared for, into the adjacent Churchyard, where the neglected forefathers of the town sleep. The Churchyard seems a mere play- ground for children, and the graves and tomb- stones are a lounging- place, if not worse, for idle men and women. Various remedies suggest themselves; the several plots of the Churchyard could, at no great cost, be enclosed with iron railings; or a proper recreation ground could be provided for the youth of Bury. It would surely be better to apply to the Bishop for permission to make the Churchyard into a public garden for the use of the town, than to see it as it is sadly and shamefully desecrated, whilst pretending still to be hallowed ground. In common, I doubt not, with many others, it would be a pleasure to be allowed to help forward a project which would conduce to the com fort of the living and the honour of the dead, and I venture to press the subject in your columns, because I can sign myself, Your obedient servant, A NATIVE OF BURY ST. EDMUND'S. 11th August, 1882

There were further complaints in the newspaper and in 1886 a leader commented that attempts to deal with the behaviour of the ‘idle men and women’ of the town who used the churchyard had been given up by the council a few years previously because the problems were ‘insurmountable’. “Since then,” the journal said “the evil has certainly grown less obnoxious; perhaps we might say it has not increased. To this end one or two things have contributed, notably the opposition offered to the licensing of the Six Bells, and the action of the Church in transforming that property to its present laudable use. But the snake is only scotched: it is not killed, and that, for the honour of Bury, is what is required. There are those in the town, doubtless, who would favour a scheme of inclosure, and to that it may be necessary to resort. So much opposition would be aroused by this, however, that it is just as well to see if there is not some less heroic method. We believe there is, and have no hesitation in mentioning it. Make it a matter of police, and the abuse can be stopped in a fortnight. Let the magistrates show by two or three sharp convictions that they are determined to keep the churchyard free from the characters who resort to it, and the evil will sink to very small proportions.”

The great churchyard is noted for the quality of its epitaphs, most of which are sadly now illegible, wind, rain and frost having taken their toll on the headstones. A memorial tablet on the external wall of St Mary’s reads:

to the Memory of
Mr. Thos.  Dorling
and Mary his wife
He died Febry. 4th. 1754.
She died May 8th. 1740.
Say what a Wife should be
and She was that.

The churchyard contains the remains of a 13th century charnel house (once used to store the bones of the disinterred dead, moved to make space for fresh burials) which is now covered in memorial tablets. The most famous belongs to a young girl killed by lightning;

Here lies interred the body of
Young Maiden of this Town
Born of Roman Catholic Parents
And Virtuously brought up
Who being in the act of Prayer
Repeating Her Vespers
Was instantaneously killed by a flash
Of lightning August the 16th 1786
Aged 9 Years

And one for a printer who died in 1818;

Here lies the remains of L. Gedge, Printer.
Like a worn-out character, he has returned to the Founder,
Hoping that he will be re-cast in a better and
more perfect mould.

A military epitaph; 

The Public Ledger and Daily Advertiser of Tuesday 25 December 1821 reveals this possibly apocryphal epitaph from the great churchyard;  

The following Epitaph appears on a stone in the church-yard Bury St. Edmund's:— Here lies Jane Kitchen, who when her glass was spent She kick’t up her heels, and away she went.

I’m sceptical because on Saturday 19 January 1861 a correspondent to The Suffolk Chronicle or Weekly General Advertiser & County Express attributed a very similar epitaph to one Joan Butcher:  

To the Editor of the Suffolk Chronicle, Mr. Editor, —You had some peculiar epitaphs in a recent number. I send herewith some equally peculiar:— Formerly in the Churchyard at Bury St. Edmund's. Here lies Joan Butcher, who, when her breath was spent, Kicked up her heels and away she went.

By 1883 Jane Kitchen or Joan Butcher had become Deborah Dent, and her epitaph was being reported in various newspapers including the St. Andrews Gazette and Fifeshire News on 17 February: A churchyard near Bury St Edmunds has the following couplet : Here lie, the body of Deborah Dent, She kicked up her heel. and away she went.

Burial records for the great churchyard list none of the three heel kickers as having been buried there.