Tuesday, 22 November 2022

A Hebrew Family Romance; Sir Edward Sassoon, Bart. M.P. (1856-1912) Liberal Jewish Cemetery, Pound Lane, Willesden

Serious Motoring Accident at Cannes. Jan. 20. Sir Edward Sassoon met with a serious accident this morning. Whilst he was motoring to the golf links the car encountered a restive horse, and though the chauffeur took a sharp turn to the left in the hope of avoiding the animal, there was a collision of great violence. The car, after striking the horse, ran into tree, and, rebounding, fell over a six-foot embankment. Sir Edward received a terrible shaking, and his face was badly cut. The horse had to be destroyed.

Daily News (London) - Saturday 21 January 1911

When the 55-year-old MP for Hythe Sir Edward Sassoon died quietly at his Park Lane house on Friday 24 May 1912 the newspapers were quick to point out that he had never really recovered fully from his motoring accident on the French Riviera the year before. Sir Edward’s wife, Aline Caroline de Rothschild, had died in 1909 at her parent’s house in Paris and so their two children inherited the considerable family fortune; the newspapers reported that “he leaves a son, Philip, and daughter, Sybil, who made her first appearance in society this season. It is thought that these will now be two of the most wealthy young people in England.”

Sir Edward’s body was cremated privately at Golders Green in the early morning of Sunday 26 May. The ashes, still warm from the furnace, were taken to Victoria Station where a specially chartered train was scheduled to depart at 1.30 for Brighton carrying the mourners as well as Sir Edward’s mortal remains. A closed hearse and several carriages met the train at Central Station and the funeral procession then made its way down Queens Road to the sea front, past the pier and along Marine Parade to number One Eastern Terrace where the large house built by Sir Edward’s father still stands. The funeral cortege made its way a hundred yards up Paston Place where at the corner of with St George’s Road, at the back of what was then the rear garden of Eastern Terrace stood the family mausoleum, built in 1892 by Sir Edward’s father, Sir Albert Sassoon. The funeral arrangements had been kept secret so there were not many people around when the cortege first arrived at the mausoleum, though a sizeable crowd of curiosity seekers soon gathered. Inside the mausoleum Rabbi SJ Rocco conducted what the Sussex Daily News called “an impressive service” in Hebrew assisted, in English, by Rabbi Jacobs of the Jewish Synagogue in Brighton, Rabbi Conque of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in London, Rabbi Levinson and a Mr Lubetzki of Brighton. Sir Edward’s ashes were laid at the side of his father’s embalmed body and covered with white arum lilies by Mr Biggs, the mausoleum caretaker. At 4.30 the mourners all returned to London on the chartered train to take part in a 6.30 memorial service held at the Sassoon house at 25 Park Lane.   

The Sassoon Memorial up for sale in 1956 (www.mybrightonandhove.org.uk)

DEATH OF SIR EDWARD SASSOON, M.P.

HEBREW FAMILY'S ROMANCE

Sir Edward Sassoon, Bart, MP, died at his residence in London yesterday, aged 55. He had represented' the Hythe Division in the Conservative interest since 1899. At the last election Sir Edward was returned without opposition. The Sassoons are a Hebrew family of very great antiquity. They claim to be descended from Shephatiah V., son of David. There are numerous references to the Sasoons in Hebrew mediaeval literature, the name, indeed, is to be in found in the Talmud. For generations they were a well-known family in Bagdad, famous for their wealth and their integrity. Some years ago, one David Sassoon received notice that a plot was foot to sack his house and murder its inmates. He contrived to escape, and fled with his wife and children by the Persian Gulf to Bombay. There he founded the house of Sassoon, the only important firm not in the hands of Parsees. About 1863, after the death of David Sassoon his son, the late Sir Albert. then known as Abdallah, came to England in company with his half brothers Reuben and Arthur. Sir Edward Sassoon, born in 1856, was a son of Sir Albert, succeeding to the title in 1895. He was educated at London University. In 1887 he married Aline, daughter of Baron Gustave de Rothschild. She died in February, 1909. It was at a by-election in the early part 1899 that Sir Edward was first returned to the House of Commons as the member for the Borough of Hythe, defeating Sir Israel Hart by a substantial majority, and at the general election in the following year, he was re-elected without opposition. He enjoyed Parliamentary life, and was earnest in the pursuit of his duties. He was an enthusiast in the cause of Imperial cables, which he frequently advocated in Parliament. He was an honorary major in the Duke of Cambridge's Hussar Yeomanry. Sir Edward resided for two years in China, and gave much study to Oriental problems. He was also an authority finance and bimetallism. He emphasised his connection with the East by the ownership of two residences in India, Garden Beach, Poona, and Sans Souci, at Bombay. He also had a magnificent residence in Park Lane, London, and at Trent Park, Sandgate. He is succeeded in the Baronetcy by Mr Philip Albert David Sassoon, who was born in 1888. His only daughter is Sybil Rachel, who was born in 1894.

Aberdeen Press and Journal - Saturday 25 May 1912


The mausoleum in the 1960's (www.mybrightonandhove.org.uk)

The Sassoon Memorial is now a grade II listed building. The Historic England website says that it was built in “1892. Stucco. Tent roof of copper. Square in plan with wing to south. single storey over basement. In imitation of Nash's Mughal-inspired design of the Royal Pavilion.” The copper dome was originally covered in gold leaf. Sir Edward’s son and heir, Philip decided that a mausoleum at the bottom of a garden was not an appropriate place for his ancestors to lie, especially as he wanted to sell the house. In 1933 the bodies of his father and grandfather were reburied in Willesden and the mausoleum sold off. It served time as a decorators storeroom, a furniture depository and, during World war II, an air raid shelter. In 1949 it was sold again and became a pub, The Bombay Bar. The story was reported widely in the newspapers, including in the New York Times which ran it became the headline ‘Baronet’s Tomb to be Saloon’.

TOMB TO BE PUBLIC-HOUSE

SASSOON BURIAL PLACE.

A square, glass-domed mausoleum in St. George's Place, Brighton, once the burial place of Sir Albert Sassoon, one of the founders of the Sassoon family fortunes, is to become a public-house. The mausoleum, where the body of Sir Albert lay for 37 years, has served in its time as a decorator's storehouse and an air raid shelter. It has been bought by a local brewery, who plan to use it as an extension to a public-house next door. The public-house has only a beer licence and to obtain a wine and spirit licence another public-house nearby will be closed. It is estimated that the conversion will be a long job. The building has no windows, but light enters from the glass dome. The district in which the mausoleum is situated is surrounded by hotels and boarding houses. The tomb was built by Sir Albert Sassoon at a cost of £B,OOO. He died in 1896 and his body lay in the mausoleum until removed in 1933 and re-interred in London.

Belfast Telegraph - Saturday 27 August 1949

In 1956 the mausoleum was acquired by the Hanbury Arms which stands next door and was reopened as a ballroom. It was renovated in 2006 and became a private members club for a short time before entering its current incarnation as the Proud Cabaret, Brighton’s premier drag club compered by the incomparable Ms Dolly Rocket. The venue, according to its present owners “is truly astonishing. Our Drag Queen cabaret show is accompanied with world-class musicians and award-winning acrobats, fire breathers and burlesque beauties. Be prepared to be amazed.” If a night on the tiles seems likely to stretch beyond your usual bedtime then do not despair, “we're not just a Cabaret restaurant,” say Proud, “sashay down to Proud Cabaret Brighton for our fabulous Drag Extravaganza Bottomless Brunch. With raucous entertainment and bottomless booze, this is all singing, all dancing, brunching experience.” Not your usual mausoleum visit then?  


Tuesday, 15 November 2022

Que horas são, meu coração? The unusual journey of Dom Pedro's heart

 

When we say, in English, I left my heart in… (San Francisco or wherever), it is merely a figure of speech indicating our fondness for a particular place. When Dom Pedro I, Emperor of Brazil, left his heart in the Portuguese city of Porto, he left it literally, in a jar of formaldehyde. Last summer we arrived in Porto on the 21st of August, the day Dom Pedro’s coração was removed from a mausoleum in the church of Lapa, where it had laid more or less undisturbed for the last 187 years, and was sent by military jet to Brasília to take part in Brazil’s bicentennial celebrations. I knew nothing about this until we were in the hotel in the evening watching SIC Notícias. My ignorance cost me the rare opportunity of seeing the heart of a king, as Dom Pedro’s had been, very briefly, put on public display in the church before being sent on its 8000 kilometre journey to South America. It is unusual, to say the least, for a disembodied heart to form the focal point of independence celebrations and to be received, after travelling in the passenger seat of a Brazilian air force jet, with all the pomp and ceremony that would have been accorded a living head of state including a cannon salute, a guard of honour and full military honours. After arriving in Brasília Dom Pedro’s heart was allowed a much-needed night of rest at the Palácio Itamaraty before taking a Rolls Royce next morning to an official reception with Jair Bolsonaro in the Presidential Palace.  In the skies above Brasília six military jets drew a vapour trail heart to welcome the heart. Whether all this was strictly necessary given Brazil’s many economic and military problems especially as the rest of Dom Pedro’s body has been in Brazil for the last 50 years, largely forgotten in the crypt of the Monument to Independence in São Paulo.

Dom Pedro and his muttonchops in Brazil

Dom Pedro had a short but eventful life. His father Dom João VI, acted as regent for his mentally unstable grandmother, ‘mad’ Queen Maria I and his mother was Doña Carlota Joaquina, the daughter of the King of Spain. At the time of their marriage his father was 18, his mother just 10; she tried to bite off his ear on their wedding night. It was a deeply unhappy union; Doña Carlota never reconciled herself to life with her husband or in Portugal, refusing to be sexually faithful (Dom Pedro’s own paternity is not a matter of certainty) and going as far as plotting to overthrow him with a group of disgruntled Portuguese nobles. As the second son of the miserable marriage, Dom Pedro only became heir to the Portuguese throne when his older brother died of smallpox at the age of 6.  As a 9-year-old he was forced to flee to Brazil, along with the rest of the dysfunctional royal family, when the Napoleonic army invaded Portugal. The only liberal in a family of absolutist monarchs, he grew up at loggerheads with his father and hating his mother, who he referred to as ‘a cadela’, the bitch. When his father was forced back to Portugal by the Liberal revolution of 1820, Dom Pedro took advantage of his position of Regent in Brazil in 1822 by impetuously declaring the liberation of the colony from Portuguese rule in an impromptu speech made to his followers from the saddle of a bay mare whilst out riding. He became King of Portugal in 1826 but after just two months abdicated in favour of his daughter, who became Maria II and was known popularly as a Boa Mãe, the good mother of her country . In 1831 he was forced to finally return to Portugal to fight in a civil war against his younger brother Miguel, who had usurped the crown from Maria. He married twice, had numerous extra marital affairs and 14 known children by 5 different women. He died of tuberculosis in the Palácio de Queluz in Lisbon in September 1834 at the age of 35.


As he lay dying in Portugal Dom Pedro dictated a 14-page letter of exhortation to the people of Brazil. This letter, dated at 4am on the 23rd September 1823, the day before he died, gave his instructions on what was to happen to his corpse:  

Brasileiros! Eu deixo meu coração à heroica Cidade do Porto, teatro da minha verdadeira glória, e o resto do meu despojo mortal à Cidade de Lisboa, lugar de minha nascença. (Brazilians! I leave my heart to the heroic city of Porto, the theatre of my true glory, and the rest of my mortal remains to the city of Lisbon, the place of my birth.)

When his doctors removed the heart they must have been astounded at its size; it is hugely engorged and its weight is often said to be 20lbs. Now this surely can’t be right? Even a large human heart rarely exceeds one pound in weight – in fact any male heart weighing more than a pound is considered to be suffering from cardiomegalya, abnormal enlargement of the cardiac muscle. 20lbs would be about right for a giraffe heart. A human heart that size wouldn’t fit into the chest cavity unless you removed everything else that is supposed to be in there! Don Pedro’s heart may be big but it cannot weight 20lbs. It took eleven years for Dom Pedro’s heart to reach its final resting place; political instability in Portugal led to endless delays about where it should it buried and so it remained at Queluz under armed guard until a final decision was made. On 4th February 1836 the heart was sent via the battleship Jorge IV to Porto with a 70 strong guard of honour, a journey which lasted 3 days. The heart is kept in a glass jar of formaldehyde, the jar is inside a silver urn, which is held in a gold reliquary and the whole ensemble stored in a mahogany coffin. The coffin is kept behind a copper plaque inside a mausoleum which requires five different keys to open it. Stealing Dom Pedro’s heart is almost mission impossible.  

Dom Pedro I on his deathbed in Queluz, by José Joaquim Rodrigues Primavera, 1834.

His body, left to the city of Lisbon, was interred alongside his royal ancestors in the Pantheon of the House of Braganza in the Monastery of São Vicente de Fora in Lisbon. The body remained there until 1972 when the military junta in Brazil requested that it be repatriated to Brazil in time for the 150-year anniversary of independence. It was the dying days of the Estado Novo, Salazar had died in 1970, and the country was embroiled in a set of disastrous wars in almost all of its colonial possessions. Virtually friendless on the international stage, Brazil’s military dictatorship was one of Portugal’s few allies. So when they asked for the corpse of a dead king Portugal was happy to agree and to throw in a couple of dead Princesses as well, to keep Dom Pedro from getting lonely in his new home in the specially built crypt of the Monument to Independence in São Paulo.


Tuesday, 8 November 2022

As I wend my way to heaven I'll be full of Cherry Pie; David Jersey (1687-1755), St. Mary Magdalene, East Ham


Here lieth the body of
David Jersey
Victualler of the Parish of
Wanstead who departed this
life 1 May 1755 Aged 68 years.
Also 4 Daughters of above
who all died young
Likewise here lieth beneath the body
of Ann Jersey, wife of the above 

29 nine year old David Jersey of East Ham married Anne Garrin of Barking at St Stephens, Coleman Street in the City of London on 6 July 1721. David Jersey, victualler, was the landlord of the George and Dragon in Wanstead, a coaching Inn originally built in 1716 and serving as a staging post between the daily coach from Aldgate and the Essex coaches. Apart from what is recorded on his epitaph and in the marriage register at St Stephens we know very little about him. As sell as the four daughters who died young he also had a son William, who was baptised at St Mary Magdalene's in East Ham on 7 March 1730 and was buried there on 17 June of the same year. His daughters were called Esther, there were two Ann's, the first dying in 1723 and her sister and namesake being born the following year and then dying at the age of 7 in  1731, and a Mary.  

The marriage record of David Jersey and Ann Garrin at St Stephens, Coleman Street

One intriguing remnant of his life still remains in Wanstead. The coaching inn was demolished 
in 1903 and a new pub built on the site (now a Weatherspoons) and the name shortened to the George. Nothing remains of the old Inn except an old inscribed stone dated 1752 which was rescued and set into the wall of the new building. The stone is a memorial to a cherry pie that cost half a guinea (10s6d) on the 17 July “that day we had good cheer/ I hope to so do maney a Year.” The lettering on the stone has been touched up over the years and as a result the name Jersey has gradually lost the final e and the issue has grown to increasingly resemble the r standing next to it. To the uninitiated the surname now looks more like Jerry or Terry than Jersey. An illustration from 1906 in 'The Old Inns of England' by Charles Harper confirms that the name was once clearly legible as D. Jersey. Local legend has it that the stone commemorates a cherry pie stolen by a local workman who was fined half a guinea for his crime. As the minimum sentence for stealing a pie in 1752 was hanging or lifetime transportation to Van Diemen’s Land the story seems unlikely to be true. Another theory is that it may commemorate a monster pie festival similar to the Tollesbury Gooseberry Pie festival – Wanstead was famous for its cherry orchards in the eighteenth century.  But no one really knows why David Jersey wanted to immortalise a very expensive Cherry Pie.  

The memorial stone as it is now

The memorial stone from 'The Old Inns of England Vol II' by Charles G. Harper (1906)

Tuesday, 1 November 2022

'All The Living And The Dead' Hayley Campbell, Raven Books (£18.99)


Rather mortifyingly, this book made me cry in public. I was reading a chapter called ‘Tough mother’ about the author’s visit to meet Clare Beesley, the head bereavement midwife at Heartlands Hospital in Birmingham. The harrowing subject of still births proved too much for my rickety emotional defences to cope with and even though I was on packed rush hour tube in Mile End Station my eyes filled with tears. At least I managed to avoid audibly sobbing. I cried all the way to Liverpool Street, where I wept on the escalators when I changed trains to the Metropolitan line, and I carried on quietly snivelling until I reached Kings Cross. I’m in my 60’s so no one paid any attention but it was still an uncomfortable experience and one that has never happened to me before. It is the cumulative details and the pure, unalloyed heartbreak that got to me; I can’t reduce the experience to a quote from the book but this passage gives you some idea;

Clare shows me the cupboard of knitted hats and baby clothes – mostly white, different sizes from handmade tiny ones to full-term. The knitted caps serve a cosmetic purpose here rather than one of warmth, ‘’’: as a baby passes through the birth canal the planes of its skull overlap so it can fit, but if there is excess fluid in the baby’s body – as a result of its death – the planes of the skull can dig into the brain, deforming the head. Clare says she puts the little cap over it and no one can tell the difference. Next to the bonnets are brass-hinged wooden jewellery boxes, or so I think, until she stands on her tip toes to reach one, opens it and it’s empty but for a white lace doily. ‘These are the coffins for the very little ones’, she says, holding it up so I can see inside. I had no idea that a bereavement ward existed, let alone coffins for babies as big as my car keys.

I had started the book with some reservations and Hayley Campbell had quite a bit of work to do to overcome these. I have an issue with book endorsements on newly published hardbacks; no one has had a chance to read and review the book so these endorsements inevitably come from the authors friends or acquaintances. Hayley Campbell has some big hitting friends; on the front cover we get Neil Gaiman and Audrey Niffenegger no less; not many authors would be able to garner accolades from literary heavyweights like these. On the back cover we get, amongst others, Nigella Lawson, Caitlin Doughty, Tuppence Middleton, and Charlie Gilmore. In her opening pages Hayley tells us that her father is Eddie Campbell, the comic book artist who illustrated Alan Moore’s ‘From Hell’. Neil Gaiman is an old friend of the family and Hayley wrote her first book about him.  Audrey Niffenegger is her step mother! So, when Niffenegger says the book is “essential, compassionate, honest”, it can’t be taken as an impartial opinion. 

Hayley Campbell in Brompton Cemetery, photo by Chieska Fortune Smith/Daily Telegraph

Rather annoyingly Niffenegger turns out not to be wrong.  Campbell’s book is very good and her own discomfort with the subject matter makes this a very different prospect from anything by Caitlin Doughty or Mary Roach’s breezy ‘Stiff’. There are times in the book when the subject of death threatens to overwhelm the author and a dead baby sends her perilously close to being traumatised. Campbell persists in her journey because, she says, “I think there is urgent, life-changing knowledge to be gained from becoming familiar with death, and from not letting your limits be guided by a fear of unknown things: the knowledge that you can stand to be near it, so that when the time comes you will not let someone you love die alone.” In each of her 12 chapters we meet a death professional, “those who work around death every day” and who are asked to show us “what they do and how they do it – to explore not only the mechanics of an industry, but how it forms a foundation for what it is they do. The Western death industry is predicated on the idea that we cannot, or need not, be there. But if the reason we’re outsourcing this burden is because it’s too much for us, how do they deal with it? They are human too. There is no them and us. It’s just us.” Campbell meets with funeral directors, grave diggers, embalmers, executioners, pathology technologists, death mask sculptors and others. Her book is often funny, sometimes very moving and always fascinating. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 18 October 2022

Tales from the crypt; St Mary the Virgin, Wanstead

 

The only place I visited at this years Open House event was the crypt of St Mary’s in Wanstead. Our guide for the short tour was Sian Paterson who was knowledgeable and funny and made sure that we didn’t brain ourselves on the pipe for the water mains that cuts across the entrance tunnel as we descended. The foundation stone of St Mary’s was laid in 1787; the crypt must have been completed before work started on the main body of the church. It runs the entire length of the building, about 25 metres, with an additional 10 metre entrance tunnel leading from the churchyard. Inside there are, I think, 15 vaults running either side of the main passage, the odd number being presumably being because the vault housing members of the Child family (including the Earl’s Tylney) must be considerably larger than standard. A vault originally cost £105 for a parishioner and £125 if you were from outside the parish boundaries. That would have been quite a hefty sum in the early 1800’s but each vault has space for several coffins and I would imagine the lease is in perpetuity so in theory the occupants can rest undisturbed until the last trump. The crypt is constructed in red brick with stone imposts on the pillars on which often sit candle stubs left over from the times when families still came to visit or left by the bricklayers when they bricked up the vaults. Vault walls have ventilation holes large enough to view the coffins inside and Sian showed us how to shine the torch from your mobile through one hole while you viewed the interior through another.  

A portion of the bricked-up entrance to one vault has been knocked down at some unknown point in the past and the coffins disturbed. It was originally thought that this had happened in the 1950’s and that the perpetrators were intending to steal the lead linings of the coffins. You can clearly see that the lead has been cut and peeled back, some seems to have been removed but some large pieces are still in place, peeled back as though to allow access to the inner coffin. A visitor to a previous Open House in the crypt told Sian that he had been in the church choir in the 1950’s and it was a rite of passage for new choirboys to be taken down to the vaults and dropped over the broken wall to stand next to the coffin! He also told that her that the vault had been broken into long before then. Some locals like to think that perhaps body snatchers had been at work; the date on the vault is MDCCLXXXVIII (1788) which is the right timeframe for resurrectionists (and shows that the vaults were being used while the church was still being built) but why would the vault have been left open? The robbery must have taken place at a later date. If the robbers were after lead why did they leave so much of it? Maybe they were looking for jewellery left on the corpse? Who knows – maybe someone other than a petrified choirboy needs to get inside the vault and check. 

There are several vicars buried in the vaults and at least a couple of Lord Mayors. Sian introduced us to Sir William Curtis, affectionately known as ‘Billy Biscuits’ and who is described in the History of Parliament as "a portly and bottlenosed bon vivant". Sir William was born in Wapping in 1752, the son of a sea biscuit manufacturer. In time the family business extended to ship owning and their vessels carried convicts to Australia and engaged in whaling in the South Seas. Sir William owned a large house called Cullands Grove near Southgate and was famous for the lavish banquets he hosted there, George IV sometimes attended them. In time he became an MP, served as Lord Mayor of London and was created 1st Baronet of Cullands Grove in 1802 by George III. He died in Ramsgate in 1829; on the day his body was removed from his residence Cliff House, the large funeral set out through a town in which the shops “were closed ; minute guns were fired from the yacht till the return of the Procession; and although the weather was wet and stormy, every one appeared eager to pay this last tribute of affection and respect to departed excellence” according to the London Evening Standard of 27 January. “The party accompanied the funeral to the second Milestone beyond the town of Ramsgate. The body will remain the first night at Sittingbourne, the second at Dartford, and will pass through London on Wednesday on its way to Wanstead” the newspaper added.


SIR WILLIAM CURTIS's WILL The will of the deceased worthy Baronet having been duly proved, and administration granted, in the distribution of extensive property, real and personal, we find the following items:—

Item. I bequeath my physic to the dogs; remainder in fee to the physicians who attended me, in recompense for their singular sagacity, in discovering that "my last disease was mortal." The gally-pots I leave to Lady Sefton, who is admirer of porcelain; and as Lord Deerhurst is a patron of boxes he is welcome to those that held pills and boluses.

Item. To Mr. Michael Angelo Taylor, I leave my handsome footman, who is a capital plate cleaner, as he used regularly to swab the dishes on board my yacht. He has no objection to any work he may be put to; and is remarkably light in his ascents and descents the back stairs. He will have only look to his livery—and he will be answerable for his breeches and stockings.

Item. To Mr. Brougham, my courage, being a JUDGE in that matter.

Item. To the Duchess of Saint Albans, my charity; with the injunction that she shall not spend more than fifteen shillings in advertising every five given, in consequence of its impulse.

Item. To Rowland Stephenson, my activity, a reward for his honesty, in not stopping, when his partners did.

Item. To the Commissioners of Customs for Ireland, for the signal service which they did to merchantmen, in permitting my pleasure yacht to have the first entrance into new docks Dublin, whereby she became free in her moorings, with divers other advantages, too numerous mention, I bequeath one penny per man, to purchase salt to their potatoes. 

The entrance to the Childs/Tylney vault - the heart of the 2nd Earl Tylney, John Child,still sits outside the vault in the glass bottle it was shipped in from Florence. 




Friday, 7 October 2022

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie; Highgate East Cemetery

 

Unless they are particularly unusual, I don’t normally pay much attention to modern memorials when I am visiting cemeteries. As a general rule of thumb, the more recent they are the less interesting they will be. A production line headstone of polished black granite, churned out in a Chinese factory, embellished to order with photo and trite verses, etched with flowers, football club crest, or crucifix, and despatched to England in a shipping container from Nanjung or Guangzhou, will cost less than a grand.  A simple stonemason’s product, made from British stone, with minimal lettering and decoration will cost you at least four or five times that. There aren’t many mass produced Chinese memorials in Highgate cemetery though. I don’t know what the current price is but back in 2018 a grave cost £19,975 plus a £1,850 burial fee. It was, and no doubt still is, Britain’s most expensive graveyard and anyone who can afford to be buried here will not baulk at the cost of adorning their final resting place with a modish headstone; vulgarity is forbidden in Highgate’s middle-class Elysian Fields.  

Walking around the cemetery a couple of weeks ago I found myself paying attention to the hitherto ignored headstones of the North London bourgeoisie. In a path by the boundary wall by Waterlow Park I stumbled across the grave of Andrea Levy. I paused because I know who Levy is; the author of ‘Small Island’ and ‘The Long Song’ died of cancer in February 2019, just before the pandemic shut the UK down, and before she had the chance to draw her retirement pension, at the far too young age of 62. Her headstone follows the classic template for the new memorials, a simple slab of dressed black stone with elegant typography announcing her name and profession, novelist, her dates, 1956 to 2019, and an enigmatic three-word epitaph - ‘This is life.’ The purpose of these brief epitaphs is, I assume, to give us a flavour of the deceased’s personality. Levy’s fails I think because the meaning isn’t clear and so it doesn’t really tell us anything about her. This is life? What is? Being dead and buried in a cemetery? Isn’t this death, not life?  


Levy was cremated and judging by the size of the plots, this is true of most of the modern memorials. Just across the path from Levy stands the grave marker of Sally Hunter. Squashed up against the boundary wall the plot is only big enough to bury the remains from a cremation. The stone is another plain black rectangle with white lettering giving Sally’s dates, 1958 to 2015, her profession and her epitaph; ‘LAWYER should have been a marine biologist’. It is a much better epitaph, wistful, funny, memorable. Film director Gurinder Chadha, whose movies include ‘Bhaji on the Beach’ and ‘Bend it like Beckham’ explained where the epitaph came from; “Sally was one of my best friends, she fell into Law at university but never wanted to be a lawyer. Her big passion was snorkelling, diving and the sea. she would escape to Egypt, or anywhere she could snorkel, at a drop of a hat. She was a very well read, witty, passionate person who made the wrong choice in career life. We miss her terribly.” 


The headstone of Joe Alvarez is unusual because it mentions that he was a father. In very stark contrast to the older gravestones in the cemetery, where the deceased is often defined by their relationships, ‘beloved wife of…’ ‘husband of…’ ‘…and their children….’ etc., the modern memorials at Highgate are monuments to bourgeois individualism with no mention of significant others. As though they lived in a social vacuum, or that they don’t want to share their moment of glory with anyone else, even if they were married to them for half a century. At least Joe Alvarez, publisher and press photographer who died of cancer at the age of 46, mentions the relatively young family he left behind when he died in 2019.

Next to Alvarez are the remains of Paul Winner (1934-2019). His headstone demonstrates another notable trend amongst some of the modern memorials – apart from his name and dates and an image of the roofline of a distant castle seen over the tops of trees, the only information given are the words ‘Dream Conductor’. I presume this is how Mr Winner liked to see himself but in real life he was a well known PR consultant of Latvian Jewish descent, a keen amateur artist who studied at Oxford, ran his own highly successful PR company, was married with two children and lived in Hampstead. From his obituary in The Times; “When Winner started out at the marketing agency Lonsdale-Hands in 1964, many British company directors did not believe in public relations. Richard Lonsdale-Hands, its patrician chairman, initially did not know what to make of the puckish young man. Winner was given the unpromising job of marketing the White Fish Authority in 1966. The chairman soon revised his view when Winner served up a mouthwatering proposition by phoning newspapers to champion the 100th anniversary of “the marriage of fish and chips”. The date of the centenary is contested, but editors with pages to fill cared not. Winner added fat to the fryer by ensuring that all parliamentary candidates at the 1966 general election had fish and chips delivered to help them through the night. A vinegary package was even sent to the prime minister, Harold Wilson. The campaign generated coverage all over the world, including a leading article in The Times.”

Close by is the grave of Daniel St John Smith, whose plain headstone gives no dates and simply states ‘International Man of Mystery’. I could find out absolutely nothing about this human enigma. 


According to his grave stone George Ross 1935-2011, was a Philosopher, Teacher, Physicist, Romanian and Nudist. It is another grave marker with a suggestive but essentially meaningless epitaph;  “If…” His Times obituary says “George Ross was an intellectual bohemian who, before he applied to leave his native Romania in 1963, was set for a career in physics. The communist state employed Ross, who graduated fourth in the country, as a bottle- washer and a glassblower in a light-bulb factory before letting him go. A kind, emotional man, who spent the rest of his life teaching physics and philosophy of science, mainly in London, he never abandoned the high moral principles that made life under a people’s dictatorship unbearable.

Born in 1935 into a wealthy and distinguished Sephardi family in Bucharest, Ross grew up multilingual. One grandfather spoke 14 languages. A second taught him geometry like Socrates taught the slave boy, by drawing lines in the sand with a stick. Ross longed to study philosophy, but since the communist curriculum offered only dialectical materialism, he chose physics, and kept up his real interests, and his wide reading, in private.”  At the age of 28 George emigrated with his mother to Israel where he met his future wife Rosemary Emanuel from North London at the Weizmann Institute. Rosemary’s parents through a lavish wedding for the couple in London; “plunged into synagogue life,” says The Times, “the ardent individualist was shocked by being expected to conform; not a good omen for his married future. Though appropriately learned, he never wanted to be a practising Jew.”


Paul Nathan, 1924 -2016, was apparently a Physiologist and Farmer and judging by the star of David and the pebbles left on his headstone, also Jewish. His epitaph is ‘Eating chocolates and telling stories’. It is relatively easy to find details of his published papers on physiology (‘Antigen Release from the Transplanted Dog Kidney’ 1966 in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences when Nathan was based at the Jewish Hospital of Cincinnati) but I couldn’t find many, or indeed any, biographical details.

No mention of wife or children on the memorial of Ian S. McDonald (1936-2020) is not due to any reluctance on his part to acknowledge the part they might have played in his life; he didn’t have any.  Although many of the North London bourgeoisie feel that their life is best summed up by their profession, a little part of them rebels and wants to be remembered for something more than their career. McDonald who was a ‘Civil Servant in the MOD Prominent in the Falklands War’ was also, his headstone would have us believe, a Raconteur.  He was the official spokesman for the MOD during the Falklands conflict and was frequently featured on news programmes, becoming almost a household face for a few months. His restrained style of delivery, sometimes described as ‘sepulchral’,  but “heavily bespectacled, dark suited and with a penchant for erudite aphorisms, he gained the public’s confidence and the grudging respect of the media.”

The saddest epitaph I saw was for a Jonathan Howel Ellis (1959-2020) – “Best project finance lawyer in the world”, a quote attributed to someone called Jon. I hope it wasn’t Jonathan himself who came up with this sad summation of 61 years spent on Earth.

Friday, 23 September 2022

Drive your cart and plow over the bones of the dead; the display of human remains in museums

 

With my new found in South American mummies I decided to revisit the remains of ‘Guimaral’ at the Wellcome Collection, which, very handily, is just a brisk 20-minute walk from my office along the traffic fumes of Euston Road.  I have seen him before, and he is very memorable, but nevertheless I was keen to get reacquainted. It was a Thursday evening and the Wellcome was quiet; despite the proximity to my workplace I haven’t been back there since the ending of Covid restrictions. On the ground floor everything seemed pretty much as it was back pre-pandemic except that the Blackwells book store behind the café has disappeared and the security staff seem to have lost any interest in checking bags. But on the second floor there have been some unexpected changes; ‘Guimaral’ had once reigned as the undisputed draw of Medicine Man, the Wellcome’s tribute to its founder Henry Soloman Wellcome but at the place he had lived since the gallery opened in 2007 all I found was an empty display case. A notice informed me that the “naturally preserved or ‘mummified’ body of a young man who died approximately 600-800 years ago” had been removed from being exhibited as a result of “changing ethical standards around displaying human remains and in light of work reviewing whose perspectives receive prominence in our collections.” The notice made clear that until now the Wellcome regards itself as having “prioritising the gaze of science and museum visitors over the burial intentions of the culture of origin.” Even worse the mummy had been obtained in the 1920’s at “a time when human remains were often acquired for anthropological study, including to support the development of racist scientific theories about supposed racial hierarchies.” Having voiced concerns about the burial intentions of the culture to which the mummy belonged the Wellcome then has to admit that it does not actually know what his cultural origins are; “we will research this man’s geographical and cultural origins,” they say “in order to inform appropriate future care.” Until the museum can establish this the mummy will presumably remain in storage, an object too controversial to be seen by the general public.

How very different things were back in 2007 when the Wellcome Collection opened in its new building. James Watson (of DNA fame) presided over the opening ceremony and the Guardian reported on 17 June that “Britain's newest national museum - dedicated to medicine and its impact on life - will open its doors this week to reveal some of the strangest artefacts connected with human anatomy: a blade from a French guillotine, a robot used in the sequencing of the human genome, an Andy Warhol painting of the heart, a Chinese torture chair and a 14th-century Peruvian mummy.” Clearly the desiccated Peruvian (if that is what he is) was a major element of the Wellcome’s modern take on the Wunderkammer and one that was no different from anything else in its list of oddities, a guillotine, a robot, a painting, a chair and a dead Latin American.  Shortly after the opening the Naked Scientists Blog (01 July 2007) visited Medicine Man and spoke to staff about public reaction to the collection. Visitor Services Assistant Brittany Hudak told them that “I think that so far people have tended to gravitate towards the Peruvian Mummy, or even people coming in the door have asked ‘where's the mummy?’  Which goes to show that the fascination of the mummified body is apparently still alive and well.” Ken Arnold, the Head of Public Programmes for the Wellcome added “This is a mummified male figure in a sort of foetal position with its very delicate skin draped over the skeleton.  It's between five and seven hundred years old.  One of the things that I'm sure intrigued Wellcome is that fact that actually this is completely naturally preserved.  It's simply wrapped in textiles and then dried.  It shows that the people who did this had a strong understanding of how to preserve biological material.  Also, of course, what we're able to do now is apply modern scientific techniques to study objects like this.” In fifteen years the Peruvian mummy has effortlessly changed status from star attraction to bone of contention along with the Shuar tsantsa, often called a shrunken head, which lived in the display case opposite. Both have been removed from display until the Wellcome decides what to do with them.

Skeletal remains; one of 20,000 in storage at the Museum of London (photo Amanda Ruggeri)

It was in 2000 that Tony Blair and Australian premier John Howard, issued a joint statement pledging to increase repatriation of Indigenous Australian human remains back to their communities, saying that “the governments recognise the special connection that indigenous people have with ancestral remains, particularly where there are living descendants.” At the time, under English law, national museums were banned from permanently giving up anything in their collections, a position which effectively nullified the joint statement. In 2004 the Labour Government passed the Human Tissue Act, prompted by a scandal at Liverpool’s Alder Hey Children’s Hospital where medical staff had stored body parts from dead children without their parent’s permission. The Act contained a clause allowing nine, named national museums the power to transfer human remains less than 1,000 years old out of their collections “if it appears to them to be appropriate to do so for any reason”. Since then, the nine named institutions have received many requests for the repatriation of human remains from Governments and communities around the world, and have had to wrestle with the ethical issues raised by the acquisition and storage of the dead. In a UCL blog written in 2017 Julia R Deathridge ponders the question ‘should human remains be displayed in museums?’ “In the past human remains were regularly collected from excavation sites and displayed in museum cases with little thought put into the person that they once were. However, feelings towards the use of human remains in the UK have begun to change in recent years.” She points to the 2005 Department for Culture, Media & Sport Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums and says that since then “human remains have been given a unique status within collections and are no longer treated as objects.” It is a refrain you often hear in the argument – human remains are not the same as other objects, their status is completely different. But is that right? And what would the dead themselves have wanted? Would they want to be on display in a museum, would they have given their consent? Professor Geoffrey Scarre of Durham University thinks not; in a 2003 article on ‘Archaeology and Respect for the Dead’ in the Journal of Applied Philosophy he argues “it is fairly certain that an Egyptian pharaoh would not have wished to be translated from his tomb in the Valley of the Kings to a glass case in the British Museum… Ancient Egyptians took very seriously the issue of their welfare after death. For Egyptians of all ranks, one of the main tasks of this life was to make suitable preparations for the prosperity in the next…” I am sure that is all true but the real question for me is should we care what the dead want? Should the wishes of the dead take precedence over the wishes of the living?

In a response to Deathridge’s blog the artist Susan Elaine Jones wrote “I feel the importance of displays of human remains is invaluable. The last hundred years may be unique in human history in terms of not seeing human remains and engendering a culture of death denial. Historically, attending death beds, visiting church ossuaries and saintly relics and dissections for public education (not just behind closed doors of medical schools) all took their turns in human history of displaying the dead and helping the living come to terms with their mortality. It seems a peculiarly modern whim that the only way to show respect is to hide our dead. With death happening in hospitals rather than at home, and a culture of closed coffins, it isn’t surprising that the public have to turn to displays in museums, Body Worlds, and even death awareness events such as Dying for Life to be able to look their inevitable future of death in the face, and so make the most of their lives. For all these reasons, I would argue strongly that most displays of human remains are both essential and respectful.”

Whilst I agree with Jones’ view there is no getting away from the fact that the acquisition and display of human remains in museums was often (but by no means exclusively) underpinned by a world view that viewed non-European cultures as other and inferior. The issue of whether human remains should or should not be displayed in museums is therefore contaminated by questions of racism and exploitation. The two issues can be unravelled – Gunther Van Hagen’s Bodyworld exhibitions elicit their own share of controversy but the dead all consented to be on display. Personally I don’t see why human remains should not be on display but I have no religious or spiritual beliefs and I think only human arrogance makes a human corpse a special or privileged object. All flesh is grass. As Blake said; “drive your cart and plow over the bones of the dead.”


Friday, 16 September 2022

'The temptations of a passion contrary to reason....'; John Child, 2nd Earl Tylney (1712-1784), St Mary the Virgin, Wanstead

The Earl's heart, shipped to England in a jar, still waiting for admittance to the family vault

 

No one seems to be quite sure where the body of John Child, the 2nd Earl Tylney, lies. He died in Naples on the 17th September 1784 and it would seem logical to have buried him in the English cemetery there which had been interring his compatriots since 1726. But there is no record of his grave there. The year before his own death, he had been with his nephew, Charles, in Rome when he died of malaria. Charles was buried in the eternal city’s English Cemetery and perhaps Tylney’s body was taken to Rome and he was buried there? Again there is no record. He is sometimes said to have been laid to rest at the antico cimitero inglese degli Livorno, the old English burial ground at Leghorn. This would be wonderfully ironic, as he would have been buried just a few yards away from the Scottish novelist Tobias Smollett who died in Tuscany in 1771 and whose grave is at Leghorn.  Smollett, whose undisguised gusto for the seamier side of life earned him the sobriquet the Learned Smelfungus from Laurence Sterne, had, in Roderick Random, caricatured Tylney as Lord Strutwell, an aristocrat who was “notorious for a passion for his own sex”.  Whilst Tylney’s name does appear on a tombstone in the cemetery it is not his own, but belongs to his nephew. The inscription is in Latin - losiae Child Iuveni Suavissimo lohannes Comes Tylney Patruus maerens posuit anno MDCCLXXIV; Josiah Child, the sweetest young man, Earl John Tylney mournfully laid him to rest in the year 1774.  We may be unsure of the whereabouts of the Earl’s body but we know exactly where his heart is; following the instructions in his will, it was removed and sent to England in a glass jar, to be buried with his ancestors in the family vault in the crypt of St Mary the Virgin in Wanstead. His dead relatives seem not to have been keen to receive him; 238 years later his dessicated cuore, in its sealed Murano glass vase, stands forlornly atop a pile of paving slabs and a broken font in the corridor of the crypt, still waiting admittance to the vault. His name and dates have been inscribed on the huge memorial slab that seals the entrance to the Child/Tylney tomb but his mortal remains stay firmly outside, given the cold shoulder for over two centuries. 

Under normal circumstances John Child would not have inherited his father’s title. He was born in 1712, the third son of Richard Child the 1st Earl Tylney. His two older brothers had both predeceased their father and so it was John who became the 2nd Earl in 1750 and inherited the magnificent Palladian mansion of Wanstead House when the 1st Earl died. He was educated at Westminster School and at Christ Church in Oxford. In 1734 his father stood down as an MP from his Essex seat to allow the 22-year-old John to stand in his place. The voters were not impressed and humiliatingly he was not returned. He seems not to have embarked on a grand tour after leaving university; perhaps his father was anxious about letting him out of his sight after losing his two elder brothers. He does not seem to have started his travels until he became Earl in his own right.   On 6 December 1751 the Derby Mercury reported that “on Wednesday an Express arrived at the seat of the Hon. Mr. Child, at Walthamstow, which occasioned a Report that the Earl of Tylney was one of the four English Gentlemen lately robbed and murdered, as they were travelling from Mantua to Turin.” Despite family anxieties the Earl was alive and well and determined to continue his peregrinations on the continent. His love for Italy would have been some consolation for him when, in the early 1760’s he was forced to flee abroad to escape the repercussions of being caught in flagrante with a pair of handsome footmen. Or at least that is what Jeremy Bentham believed; in his manuscript essay Pederasty, written in 1785, a year after the Earl’s death, he writes about Smollett’s portrayal of Lord Strutwell and comments; Much about the time when this novel was published a Scotch Earl was detected in the consummation of an amour after the manner of Tiberius with two of his servants at the same time. The affair getting around, he found himself under the obligation of going off to the Continent where at the close of a long life he died not many years since. In the margin of his manuscript Bentham identifies the ‘Scotch Earl’ as ‘Lord Tylney’.

John Child, 2nd Earl Tylney, seated centre, with his gentleman friends at Sir Horace Mann's house in Florence, detail from a picture by Thomas Patch (c1765)

In Italy he set himself up in Florence in a ‘pretty house and a small garden where he has a great quantity of golden pheasants’ according to one contemporary. William Beckford, a fellow exile fleeing from disapproving English attitudes towards homosexuality, approved of Tylney’s  ‘fine house all over blue and silver, with stuffed birds, alabaster cupids, and a thousand prettinesses more...’ but Robert Harvey, a Norfolk gentleman, ‘could not avoid thinking of his superb palace on Epping Forest and comparing it to his neat but small house here.’ Tylney was, he lamented ‘an unhappy man who could not resist the temptations & instigations of a passion, contrary to reason & at which nature shudders.’ He did not live in permanent exile and seems to have travelled back to Wanstead from time to time, continuing to take an interest in the affairs of the estate and to commission works, including the grotto, in the gardens and grounds. In August 1763 Aris's Birmingham Gazette reported on an expensive purchase for Wanstead; “the French King for Want of Money, refused lately to purchase an elegant Piece of Tapestry that was made for him. It was afterwards purchased by Earl Tylney for £2500”.  Much as he seems to have loved the estate and despite, or perhaps because of, the extravagant spending on the house the Salisbury and Winchester Journal reported in August 1772 that rumours of Prince William Henry, Duke of Gloucester “having purchased the Earl of Tylney’s seat upon Epping Forest, is absolutely without foundation.” The newspaper went on to claim that “the Earl cannot sell it without the concurrence of the heir at law, Sir James Long, which has been often solicited, and as repeatedly refused.”

In The English Way of Death (1991) Julian Litten gives a fascinating account of a masquerade supposedly organised by Tylney in 1768 in the grounds of Wanstead House;

“Many lights appear in the trees and on the water. We are off and have great excitement fishing up treasure… tied to bladders. His Lordship is hailed from the shore by a knight, who we are told is King Arthur, have you the sacrifice my Lord, who answers no, then take my sword and smite the water in front of the grot and see what my wizard has done, take also this dove and when asked, give it to the keeper. Off again to some distance from the grotto, the lights are small and the water still, the giant eagle appears and asks, have you the sacrifice, no my Lord answers, so be it and disappears in steam.

His Lordship smites the water with King Arthur’s sword, all the company are still, a rumble sucking noise comes in front of the opening of the grotto the water as if boiling and to the horror of all the company as though from the depth of hell arose a ghastly coffin covered with slime and other things. Silence as though relief, when suddenly with a creaking and ghostly groaning the lid slid as if off and up sat a terrible apparition with outstretched hand screeching in a hollow voice, give me my gift, with such violence, that some of the company fell into the water and had to be saved and those on the shore scrambled in always confusion was everywhere. We almost fainted with fright and was only stayed from the same fate by the hand of his Lordship, who handed the keeper the dove the keeper shut its hand and with a gurgling noise vanished with a clang of its lid, and all went pitch. Then the roof of the grotto glowed two times lighting the water and the company a little, nothing was to be seen of the keeper or his coffin, as though it did not happen. [sic!]”

Litten speculates that King Arthur’s words ‘see what my wizard has done…’ are a coded reference to John Joseph Merlin, the only man in London who had the technical ability to create such an extravaganza of automata and special effects. Litten’s source note for this story is almost as intriguing as the story itself; “I am indebted to Stuart Campbell-Adams for this quotation, said to have come from the journals of an Italian noblewoman who had spent some time at Wanstead House, Essex. His information is that these notes were rescued from the Tylney papers either by a maid or a relative of Catherine Tylney Long (Hon. Mrs Long Wellesley) prior to many of the records being burnt.” A 2019 report on the Wanstead Park grotto prepared for the City of London corporation by Alan Baxter Ltd gives the above quote in full whilst noting “the dubious provenance of the source, coupled with the chronology of Lord Tylney’s time in Italy, casts doubt on its veracity. However, it has been reproduced here, heavily caveated, because it offers a flavour of the possible, theatrical uses for the Grotto.” Sally Jeffrey in The Gardens of Wanstead (1999) has similar doubts. She also quotes the passage in full but adds a footnote “the description has not been checked, since I have so far failed to locate Stuart Campbell-Adams who provided the information to Julian Litten. Any information on this source would be gratefully received”. I think I did manage to trace Stuart Campbell-Adams to an address in Walthamstow, but unfortunately, he died in 2016. We may never get to the bottom of this mystery.

Earl Tylney's desiccated heart can be just about made out inside the patterned glass.
 
And another mystery to finish from the Dublin Evening Post of Saturday 05 February 1780, a four legged bird, a harbinger of the Earl’s imminent death?

A few days ago, a very extraordinary and uncommon bird was shot in the Earl of Tylney’s park at Wanstead, Essex. It has four legs, which are placed diametrically opposite each other; its size is something less than that a goose. It is web-footed like a duck, with this difference, that the web is quite black, but as fine in texture as the wings of a bat; its neck is prodigiously long, very small, and something resembling an eel; with very remarkable eyes, which are extremely small; and its bill or beak of an uncommon form. It has certainly the most beautiful plumage that ever was seen, being tinged over with almost every colour that is seen in the feathered tribe.

A prodigiously long, eel like neck and fabulous multicoloured plumage?  Part of me really wants to believe in this fabulous creature but another part of me just wonders if the huntsman had never seen a cormorant before? The iridescence on the feathers might well be startling if you have never seen it close up.  

Friday, 9 September 2022

The ghosts of St Mary's churchyard, Wanstead E11

 

If you believe that sort of nonsense there are at least four apparitions that haunt the churchyard at St Mary’s in Wanstead, though two of them are a double act, so perhaps they only count as one?  The dullest, in hue at least, is the grey lady who has been unsuccessfully scouring the churchyard on moonless nights for at least a hundred years, looking for her missing husband. Gray ladies are, of course, ten a penny and no one pays much attention to her. There is a skull and crossbones headstone for a Thomas Turpin in the churchyard; the occupant is reputed to be Dick Turpin’s uncle. The housebreaking, highway robbing 18th century thug supposedly visits his uncle periodically though without Black Bess, which is quite unusual for a sighting of Britain’s busiest ghost. If you don’t see him in Wanstead then you need to take yourself off to St George’s Field in York, close to where he was executed in 1739. He can also be found haunting various pubs including the Bell Inn in Cambridgeshire, The Chequers in Bickley in Kent, and the Old Swan in Milton Keynes, where you at least can get a decent pint of beer while you wait for busy Dick to show up. If you still don’t have any luck, try the Bath Road at Longford, the deserted village of Stretton Baskerville in Leicestershire, Stubbings in Berkshire, Edlesborough in Buckinghamshire, Hounslow Heath, Traps Hill in Loughton, or Garswood near St. Helens. There are more but I can’t bring myself to list them all; Turpin really is Britain’s most unquiet spirit.

The third ghost, definitely my favourite, is a skeleton who wheels a coffin loaded onto a handcart around the burial ground.  Some say he is looking for his wife but if that is the case why is he pushing a coffin? Is he going to put her in it? Doesn’t he realise he is too late? At some point in his circumnavigation of the churchyard he passes an ornate tomb where a white lady (fully fleshed) emerges and embraces him. Some say that the corpse of the lady in white was stolen by body snatchers but this does not make the meaning of the pantomime with the skeleton any clearer. 

The grave of Thomas Turpin, allegedly uncle to dastardly Dick, Essex's most famous thug

There has been a church on the site of St Mary’s for at least 800 years; the first record of the parish dates from 1208.  Some of the memorials in the churchyard predate the current church; the oldest headstone is for James Waly who died in 1685. The new church was built between 1787 and 1790, the architect was Thomas Hardwick. JMW Turner was briefly in the employment of Thomas Hardwick and his boss sent him off to Wanstead to produce a watercolour of the old church before it was demolished. Turner’s picture shows a square towered church surrounded by a churchyard filled with headstones and chest tombs. A gravedigger stands waist deep in a half excavated grave observed by a gentleman in a bright blue frock coat, black felt hat, breeches and white stockings who leans casually on his walking stick. The new church Pevsner described as being “worthy in its appearance of the noble aspiration of the mansion." The mansion has, of course, been long demolished but the elegant Georgian church is now Grade I listed. 


The oldest newspaper story I could find mentioning the churchyard (apart from the graverobbers of 1824) was this from the London Mercury, 27 August 1837, about the overly hasty burial of an initially unidentified body found in Epping Forest:

SHOCKING OCCURRENCE — An inquest was held on Saturday evening last at the Eagle Inn, Snaresbrook, on the body of a gentleman of the name of Cooper, which had been found in a very decomposed state in Epping Forest. A lengthened investigation took place, but as no satisfactory evidence was produced the jury returned a verdict ‘that the deceased was found dead in Epping Forest, with a pistol wound through his body; but whether such was inflicted by his own hand or by any other party there was no evidence to the jury;' and the body was interred on the following morning in Wanstead churchyard without funeral rites. (There was nobody to pay the parson.)

In consequence of a letter written by Mr. Baker, a surgeon, and which appeared in some of the Sunday journals, the friends of the deceased called upon that gentleman, and on Sunday they proceeded to Snaresbrook for the purpose of identifying the body, but, to their great astonishment, they found that the inquiry had been held and the deceased interred; but, on the clothes being produced, the identification of the unfortunate gentleman was fully established. He was a single, man, and had held responsible situations under Government. He left his residence in Crown street, Westminster, on last Friday fortnight, at which time he was in a very low dejected state of mind, arising from his affections having been blighted. Soon after he absented himself his brother, who resides in the Regent's Park, received a letter from him (deceased), of which the following is a verbatim copy:

"Thursday Evening.  Dear Brother, I thought it best to send a few lines to you, so that you might break the melancholy news to my poor dear mother, who, I am afraid, will take it greatly to heart. I do indeed intend to make my exit. I have provided myself amply with the means to effect my purpose; it is, indeed, a premeditated act, and which I have contemplated for a long time; this is all owing to my dear Emma. I wrote to her, saying she would hear disagreeable news of me, but of what nature I gave her no reason to guess. Dear brother, support and strengthen our dear mother for my sake. So far from being dejected I feel quite happy respecting the change I am about to undergo. Farewell for ever.  F. Cooper"

The deceased was respectably connected. On Monday Mr. Baker, the surgeon, applied to the Lord Mayor for his opinion respecting the indecent manner in which the deceased had been interred.


Another body found floating in a pond on Wanstead Flats in 1856 was never identified. This is from the Essex Standard of Friday 08 August 1856;

An inquest was held on Friday last, before C. C. Lewis. Esq. at the Eagle Inn, Snaresbrook, touching the death of a man unknown, found dead in a pond at the rear of Clark's Buildings, Wanstead.— A witness having deposed to the fact of finding the body, the jury returned a verdict of "Found dead in a pond; but how deceased came to his death there is no evidence to show." The body is described as from 35 to 40 years of age. 5ft. 8in. or 9in. high, dark complexion, hair and whiskers; dressed in blue striped blouse, black waistcoat, cord trousers, blue striped shirt, cotton handkerchief, blue ribbed stockings, blucher boots, and black cap with peak. The body was interred the same evening in Wanstead churchyard.


A seaman’s funeral at the churchyard from the Shipping and Mercantile Gazette of Monday 16 January 1882:

The remains of Captain Sim, the much-respected veteran Mariner, aged 94 years, were conveyed to his last resting-place on Saturday in Old Wanstead Churchyard. Numerous friends (about 150) were there to pay their last tribute of respect; amongst them were many ancient Mariners—viz., Captains Carr, Mainland. M'lntyre, Price, Frost, Paddle, Ike; also Messrs. George Ward, Strang, T. B. Walker, Wilkinson, Sherman. &c. The deceased always took great interest in the Merchant Seamen's Orphan Asylum. The worthy Secretary and his wife, with 12 of the Seamen's orphans, were in attendance, the girls with baskets of white flowers to strew on the coffin; also some of his female attendants, one with an anchor of white flowers, and others with white wreaths of flowers. There were several mourning coaches and private carriages.


Another funeral, this one from the Leytonstone Express and Independent - Saturday 21 April 1883:

A TOUCHING SCENE—On the 10th inst., in the presence of as large an assemblage as has been seen since the death of the late rector, there was buried in Wanstead Old Churchyard, a young girl, Sarah Ann Smith, aged 15. who, with her parents was well known in Wanstead. She was a member of the Girls' Friendly Society. About 30 of her fellow members followed her to her last resting-place, all of whom bore some tokens of mourning and flowers. We understand that the circumstances of her death were very sad. She was living in Clapham and was killed by an accidental fall from a high window. Great sympathy has been felt for her parents who are much respected in the neighbourhood, where the deceased was born and brought up.


From the Staffordshire Sentinel of Tuesday 19 March 1929:

RAIL CRIME MYSTERY, Mrs. Winifred East, of Gordon Road. Wanstead. the victim of the London tram murder. whose decapitated body was found on the line at Kidbrooke. S.E. early last Thursday. was buried this afternoon in St. Mary's Churchyard. Wanstead. Scotland Yard officers to-day visited Swansea in connection with their inquiries into the mystery.

The Derry Journal of Monday 18 March 1929 gives more details of the circumstances surrounding Winifred East’s death:

WOMAN’S TERRIBLE DEATH, HEADLESS BODY FOUND London detectives are probing the mysterious facts connected with the death of Mrs. Winifred East (28), the wife of an auctioneer, whose decapitated body was found on the Southern Railway between Kidbrooke and Eltham. A young man who is known to have entered the carriage in which Mrs. East travelled, and left at a later station, is being sought the police. When the driver of the electric train had just passed Kidbrooke station he saw in the distance dark object lying between the two sets of rails. As he came closer, he saw that it was the decapitated body of a woman. He reported the matter to the stationmaster at Well Hall, the next stopping place. After establishing the woman’s identity, the police searched the train in which she was known to have left Barnehurst, and the discovery of number of her personal belongings under a seat were able to determine the actual compartment in which she travelled. The coach was run into a siding, and Supt. Brown and other C.I. D. officers made a close examination of the compartment.

The murder was never solved. 


And finally, a rather harrowing story which has nothing to do with the churchyard but occurred in the local area. It is a little masterpiece of stomach-churning concision from the Illustrated Police Budget of Saturday 21 January 1899. Whatever happened to poor Mary Bradord?:

Strange Affair at Wanstead. It reported from Wanstead that Mary Bradford, aged 26years, who has been employed as a kitchen maid at a large private residence in Cambridge Park, Wanstead, for about two years, complained to a fellow-servant on Friday of being unwell, and went upstairs, saying she would be down again directly. As she did not return, the other servant went to her bedroom door, which she found locked on the inside. Hearing a baby cry, she asked Bradford if she was better, and received a reply that she would be downstairs immediately. The girl left and returned to the kitchen, followed shortly afterwards by Bradford. The housemaid then left the kitchen and went to Bradford's bedroom, which she found in great disorder and confusion. On lifting the lid of an old deal box she discovered the dead body of a newly-born female child, wrapped in a coarse apron. Returning the kitchen, she taxed Bradford with being the mother, and it is stated that Bradford admitted that she was. and begged her fellow servant to “try and forget it.” and keep it quiet from the people of the house. The other girl, however, informed her mistress. A doctor was sent for, and it is alleged that stated he would communicate with the coroner for the district. At half past eight the following morning the housemaid took some breakfast to Bradford and on entering the bedroom was astonished to find the bed empty and the girl gone. The dead body of the child had also disappeared. The housemaid states that about a quarter of hour earlier she heard someone in the hall quietly, but took no particular notice of the fact. The police had made every inquiry, and although four days had elapsed no tidings of either the girl or the dead child had been discovered. How she could travel in her weak state of health, without attracting the attention of anyone seems marvellous. She had always stated that she had no friends or relatives in London, and it is surmised that she has drowned herself after disposing of the child’s body. It may be added neither the girl’s mistress nor her fellow-servants suspected her condition. A thorough search has been made throughout Wanstead Park and Epping Forest of all the bushes and ponds, but without result. The police are pursuing their investigations at all the workhouses and infirmaries, but up to the present are without a clue. It has been ascertained that about three weeks ago Bradford told her fellow servant that she had been married to engineer.