Monday, 21 May 2018

Saints, Sinners & Photographers; St Mary's Catholic Cemetery, Kensal Green

I have taken photos in St Mary’s Catholic Cemetery in Kensal Green on previous occasions with no bother from anybody. I was crouching on a patch of gravel trying to get a shot of a headless but otherwise well muscled St Michael flourishing a broken sword to vanquish a dragon so diminutive that it could have been crushed by one of his saintly sandaled feet. One of the grounds staff (they no longer go by the evocative job title of gravedigger) stalked up behind me and demanded to know if I was taking photographs. With a camera in my hand it was hard to do anything but admit I was.

“Have you spoken to Janice?” he asked. I had no idea who he was talking about. “Janice. In the office….you have to speak to Janice, in the office, if you want to take photos.” I climbed to my feet as he beckoned me to follow him.

The office was a modernish brick annexe next to the Chapel. We both stood quietly and politely at the wooden counter watching a woman, Janice no doubt, look through some papers at her desk. When she finally glanced up, her colleague nodded at me and quickly explained “he was taking photos but he hasn’t spoken to you.” Message delivered he disappeared without waiting for a response. With great reluctance Janice put down her papers and leisurely made her way over to the counter.
“What can I do for you?” she asked.
“I was told to speak to you if I wanted to take photos of the cemetery.”
“Ahhh. You want to take photos of the cemetery,” she eyed me distrustfully for a moment and added “and why would you be wanting to take photos of the cemetery?”
“Err. Because…because I’m interested in cemeteries?” I said, sounding unconvincing even to myself.
“Because you are interested in cemeteries is it? OK,” she regarded me doubtfully. “And what will you be doing with these photos? You won’t be putting them on Facebook will you?”
“Yes, Facebook. You’ve heard of Facebook? Or Instagram? Letting other people see them. Because that’s not allowed. Our customers don’t like it. They don’t want to see the cemetery on Facebook.”
“I don’t have a Facebook account,” I lied, “I won’t be posting anything about the cemetery on Facebook.”
“Posting? You won’t be posting anything? Are you sure?”
“I’m sure…” I’m nearly sixty but I felt myself blushing.
“OK,” she said dubiously, “in that case you are allowed to take pictures. We get some funny people coming here to take pictures,” she leaned over the counter confidentially, “very funny people. Devil worshippers. They come here to take pictures. And some men bring women with them and get them to take their clothes off to pose on the graves or climbing up the trees.”
“I haven’t brought any women with me,” I gushed with the relief of being able to be truthful, “and I can definitely promise that I will be remaining fully clothed for the whole time that I am here.”
She looked disdainfully at me for moment. “You’re not funny you know,” she said before dismissing me from her presence with a waft of her hand and turning away to walk back to her desk.

St Mary’s catholic cemetery opened in 1858 on surplus ground purchased from the General Cemetery Company next door at Kensal Green. It is one of only two catholic cemeteries in London (the other is St Patrick’s in Leyton, opened 10 years later in 1868). Like St Patrick’s it has seen better days and is generally looking a little rundown and  tatty but it resolutely remains a working cemetery. Both cemeteries are filled almost to capacity (over 165,000 people are buried at St Mary’s in 29 acres, that is 1.375 corpses for every square meter of ground) and additional burial space has been created by piling a six foot layer of earth on top of old common graves. The resident population of St Patrick’s, being heavily dominated by the Irish and Polish contingents of the catholic faithful, has only one, modern(ish – 1960’s) mausoleum but St Mary’s, with its west London  bias towards the Mediterranean and Latin,  has 23, some of them quite spectacular. I’ll deal with the mausoleums of St Mary’s in a separate post. St Patrick’s is short on celebrity burials but St Mary’s is packed with worthies and luminaries of every stripe from Prince Louis Lucien Bonaparte, philologist nephew of Napoleon, to Sax Rohmer the creator of  Dr Fu Manchu, to England’s most popular ever drag artist Danny La Rue and Mary Seacole, the Jamaican born nurse who opened the British Hotel in Balaclava during the Crimean War. 


Unsurprisingly St Mary’s has more than its fair share of significant religious figures buried in the cemetery. In 1850 Pope Pius IX issued the Papal Bull known as Universalis Ecclesiae which re-established the catholic hierarchy in England and Wales after its 300 year abolition following the reformation. The first two Archbishops of Westminster in the newly re-established church, Cardinal Wiseman (1850-1865) and Cardinal Manning (1875-1892), were both buried at St Mary’s but then exhumed in 1907 and reinterred in the more eminent surroundings of the newly completed Westminster Cathedral. The cemetery also lost the body of Margaret Sinclair, a Scottish Poor Clair nun from the convent in North Kensington, declared Venerable by Pope Paul VI on 06 February 1978. Despite pressure from her devotees for her canonisation the requisite couple of verified miracles have never materialised. She spent just a couple of years buried in St Mary’s before she was dug up and shipped to Mount Vernon Cemetery in Edinburgh where she was reburied ‘during a storm of wind and rain’ according to the Aberdeen Press on 23 December 1927. Catholics find it hard to leave their saints alone – Margaret was dug up again in 2003 and removed to the Parish church of St Patrick in Edinburgh. At least her remains remain together; in previous centuries they may well have been broken up and the relics shared around a number of churches and other religious sites hoping to drum up more custom from the faithful.

Because St Mary’s is consecrated ground I was surprised to see newspaper stories about the funeral s of suicide victims in the cemetery. The Gloucester Citizen of 12 November 1932 related the mysterious tale of “Fraulein Ernestine Koestler, the 23-year old Viennese girl who shot herself in the boat train at Victoria Station on Tuesday.” When she was buried at St Mary’s “resting on the coffin was a solitary wreath of a hundred red rosebuds without any inscription, and a brass crucifix. Immediately behind the hearse was a car, the sole occupants being Mr. Ernest R. Treatwell, of Sheldon-avenue, Highgate, who was a prominent witness the inquest, and a young man friend.” Another story in the Dundee Evening Telegraph of 19 December 1934 was about the funeral of ‘mystery bachelor’ (according to the headline) 26 year old John Beresford of Hanover Square who had also committed suicide. At the inquest into his death the coroner recorded a verdict of suicide whilst of unsound mind – perhaps it was this that allowed him to be buried in St Mary’s? According to the newspaper less than a dozen people were in attendance at the funeral service at the Grosvenor Chapel in South Audley Street. The funeral had been arranged by a firm of solicitors after Beresford had written in his suicide note that ‘no doubt someone will come forward with an offer to bury me…’ There were four wreaths at the altar rail but only one of them had a card “From Mr and Mrs Sykes and Bagshot.” The newspaper explained that “Bagshot was the parrot about whose welfare the dead man left a letter addressed to the manager of the flats…… Only six People were present at the graveside when the interment took place at St Mary's Cemetery, Kensal Green. The burial was carried out in accordance with the dead man's last wishes, that it should be done with simplicity in a quiet place.” Bagshot was too distressed to comment, apparently.

On Monday 26 April 1915 there were extraordinary scenes at the cemetery when 7 year Maggie Nally was buried. Maggie had been sexually assaulted and murdered in the ladies toilet at Aldersgate Underground Station (since renamed Barbican) on Easter Sunday. The funeral cortege set off from the family home in Amberley Road, Paddington, said the Daily Record and “in the thousands of people who had collected women preponderated, but there was also a large number of children of all ages. The crowds stood ten deep on either side of the road, and in many cases bad waited for more than an hour in the hot sun. Amberley Road every window was filled with people, who watched the carrying of the little coffin from the door to the hearse. The bearers were four members of the Army Service Corps, dressed in their khaki uniforms. There were many people even on 'the roofs of the houses and that of the factory opposite the child's home. Two mounted policemen and a dozen officers on foot kept passage free for the procession. Many women brought small bunches flowers to the house in the last half-hour before the funeral started. It was noticeable, too, that a number of the women among the crowd wore some sign of mourning, even if it were only a black veil. The departure from the house w as delayed for some time as the large number wreaths, many of which only arrived when the funeral was ready to leave. They completely covered the hearse and the tops of the two mourning coaches.” This was in the middle of the First World war but serving soldiers forgot about their own horrors to write and telegraph their sympathies to the family. Private John Coates of the Northumberland Fusiliers, wounded in Belgium and recuperating in the Royal Infirmary Manchester sent a pencil sketch of the girl and a letter to her parents “ Dear Mr. and Mrs. Nally, I hope you not think bad in taking the liberty of sending you sketch of your child, but I have done it with the best of motives.” And “Corporal Cvril Howland, of the Army Service Corps, enclosed in a letter from Somewhere in France a postal order to buy a wreath, and card with the words: From the front. With deep and sincere sympathy, from Corporal E, C. Rowland. A.S.C. British Expeditionary Force. For a little angel' In a letter he asked that this card might placed on Maggie’s grave.” And then there was the  telegram that “came from a number of bluejackets on warship somewhere off the west coast of Ireland, expressing the deepest sympathy, but the name of the ship had been deleted the Censor. At the graveside, where Mrs. Nally was almost in a state of collapse. Canon Windham appealed to the man who had committed the crime confess. said Let him one manly deed and give himself to justice.” Canon Windham was wasting his breath of course, the murderer never confessed and the police never caught him.  

On 24 August 1896 John Aitkin, the victim of the ‘Marylebone Coffee House Tragedy’ was buried in front of a large crowd at St Mary’s despite the unseasonably wet weather. John owned and managed a coffee shop at 71 Marylebone Lane, Oxford Street. In his sober houses, the Illustrated Police News revealed, his main hobby was the breeding and keeping of fancy rabbits. His sober hours were few and far between though as Aitkin had been ‘addicted to drink’ since catching sunstroke in India whilst in the army. On the 19thh August the police had been called to the coffee shop where they found Aitkin bleeding profusely from a wound in the neck. When asked what had happened he told the police that “I annoyed my wife. It is not her fault. I did it myself with a knife." He died half an hour later and the police arrested his 71 year old wife Emma on suspicion of murder. The post-mortem revealed that Aitkin’s carotid artery had been neatly severed in two and a distraught Emma confessed to the police that during an argument with her inebriated husband she had picked up a knife and flung it at him from across the room, never expecting to hurt him, let alone sever his neck from 16 feet away. She had a better aim that she imagined though clearly her husband forgave her as he tried to take the blame onto himself.    

Thursday, 10 May 2018

The Tombstones of Old Leyton: St Mary the Virgin churchyard, Leyton

THOUGH the Churchyard is by no means a large one, it is yet much larger than it was, having been added to from time to time. It is doubtless this necessity for enlargement that has robbed it of any really old tomb stones, all that remain being comparatively modern, and not of any remarkable interest…..The earliest date seems to be 1705.
John Kennedy ‘A History of the Parish of Leyton, Essex’ 1894

Although considerable efforts have gone into cleaning it up over the last few years St Mary’s still has one of the untidiest churchyards I’ve seen in London. Until relatively recently the place was overgrown with shrubs, brambles and ivy to the point of being almost impenetrable in places. Drug addicts used the undergrowth as a screen from prying eyes and thorns and spines on the brambles were much less of a hazard than broken glass and discarded needles to anyone braving the scrub to try and find a grave. The rampant flora also toppled graves and pulled down memorials, often aided and abetted by local gangs of youths with nothing better to do. But the Friends of St Mary’s churchyard and the Leyton History Society cleaned the burial ground up, clearing out much of the undergrowth and hopefully stacking the parts of toppled memorials together as though one day someone might go to the bother of reconstructing them. Although the mounds of carefully sorted rubble do give the unfortunate impression of a bomb site the churchyard is now a relatively pleasant place to spend time in, a secluded oasis in the centre of Leyton. So pleasant in fact that the street drinkers have now abandoned their former refuge in the park and now congregate with their cans of cheap yet potent Polish lager at the back of the church.
John Kennedy, the author of ‘A History of the Parish of Leyton, Essex’ was the vicar of St Catherine’s in Leytonstone, opened in 1893 on Hainault Road.  His own church had no burial ground and his dismissive account of St Mary’s churchyard may be coloured by the tinge of envy. As London churchyards go it is relatively large and there are currently two listed monuments, the Tench and Moyer memorials; at the time Kennedy was writing Sir John Soane’s memorial for Samuel Bosanquet hadn’t succumbed to hooliganism and Sir Thomas Bladen’s sarcophagus was still standing on the path behind the alms houses….. ‘not of any remarkable interest’ indeed! Even his earliest dated tombstone is wrong – set in the outside wall of the church is what must have once been a freestanding headstone embellished with a skull belonging to 70 year old Mr Gilbert Kennedy (not a relation of the vicar of St Catherine’s as far as we know)) who had died on February the 20th 1693.

On Saturday 27 May 1905 the Tower Hamlets Independent and East End Local Advertiser carried an intriguing article on another lost monument:
THE STRANGE MONUMENT. The Strange vault in Leyton Pariah Churchyard has been opened, and many have had the opportunity of going inside to see the twelve coffins there, including that of Sir John Srange, Master of the Rolls, who died in 1754. The woodwork of this coffin has entirely disappeared. The names of the deceased are being engraved on the outside of the tomb. A gentleman in the City, interested in Leyton, has contributed E2O towards the expense.
Sir John Strange who, according to John T. Page in his ‘Epitaphs, curious, notable and historical” (which, as far as I can tell, remains unpublished except as excerpts in newspapers of the early 1900’s) “started his career as a solicitor’s clerk carrying his master’s bag to Westminster - and finished as Master of the Rolls.” Strange’s supposed epitaph is still well known and frequently makes the sort of lists and collections of unusual arcana that find so welcoming a home on the internet (‘Funny Epitaphs From History’ ’10 Most Hilarious Tombstone Epitaphs’ Examples of Funny and Bizarre Epitaphs’ etc). Sir John’s ‘most hilarious’ epitaph is:
“Here lies an honest lawyer, that is Strange.”
The fact that this is still in the top ten of most amusing epitaphs almost 300 years after it was written underlines the generally low standard of graveyard humour. When they bother to mention where he is buried most accounts claim that Sir John is buried in the Rolls Chapel. This is not true, he is most definitely buried in Leyton. Neither the inscription on his grave in the churchyard nor his memorial inside the church (which is written in Latin) bears the famous epitaph, which seems to be an early example of an urban myth.     

There has been a church on the site of St Mary’s since at least 1200 when it was granted along with the rest of the manorial holdings to Stratford Abbey. For many years it was a poor Essex parish with the vicarage worth a mere 40 shillings a year in 1254, rising to £7 12s in 1535 and just £30 in 1604. The value of the living then didn’t rise at all for the best part of 60 years, making it difficult for the parish to recruit a clergyman. By 1669 the parishioners had to raid their own pockets to find £69 a year to add to the £30 living to secure the services of the parish’s most famous incumbent, the antiquary  John Strype, who died at the age of 94 in Hackney in 1724 but being brought back to Leyton to be buried.  In the 18th century Leyton’s combination of bucolic charm and proximity to London made it a favoured location for country seats amongst the merchants and bankers of the city; the population of the village and the relative wealth of its clergyman exponentially expanded as a result. By the 1760’s the existing churchyard was too small to comfortably accommodate the increased number of burials produced by a burgeoning population. 

The vestry minutes of 1762 record an approach to Colonel Gansell to see whether he would be willing to sell the freehold of “a piece of the garden ground belonging to the Workhouse, not less than 80 feet in length, & the whole width for the enlargement of the Churchyard,” to which Colonel Gansell’s response was, yes. (This may well have been the same piece of ground, adjacent to the churchyard on which Colonel Gansell’s father, in 1718, “on the occasion of enlarging his garden… dug up two acres of ground, and found under the whole very large and strong foundations : in one place all of stone with considerable arches, and an arched doorway (about ten feet high and six feet wide) ornamented with mouldings, with steps down to it: in many of the foundations there were great quantities of Roman tiles and bricks.” Gansell senior on ordering a pond to be dug also discovered “some old timber morticed together like a floor was discovered, with several Roman coins, Consular and Imperial, and some silver Saxon coins.” Some time previously, John Kennedy tells us, “a large urn of coarse red earth had been found” in the churchyard itself.). Over the next fifty years the vestry acquired further parcels of land including a row of cottages and the gardens of the alms houses, which were incorporated into the churchyard. There were no further opportunities for enlarging the churchyard but the local population continued to grow exponentially as the former village was gradually absorbed by the monstrously swelling capital. The vestry made the best use it could of every square inch of ground but the churchyard inevitably soon became filled to capacity. By 1896 the Borough council passed a closure order prohibiting ‘forthwith and entirely’ any further burials within the parish church and the churchyard.

In February 1928 the Reverend James Glass and Stewart Wilkins, the sexton of St Mary’s, were summonsed by Leyton Borough Council for carrying out an illegal burial in the churchyard. The case was unusual enough to attract national attention when the startled vicar found himself in the dock at Stratford Police Court accused under the Burial Act 1855 of permitting a burial in unauthorised ground. The court was told that it had come to the notice of the council that burials were going on at the churchyard and in July the previous year they had written to the vicar who had replied with a promise that it would not happen again. On September 30 a Corporation superintendent had carried an impromptu inspection and “saw in the churchyard an open grave, and part of coffin exposed. He saw a pick or fork sticking into it, the lid was off, and the contents were covered with mould” (Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer 23 February 1928). The grave had been dug to accommodate a Mr Frank Fox, late of High Road Leyton, who was originally from Sheffield but had relative already buried in the churchyard. His widow had begged the sexton to find a place for her husband and the ever helpful Mr Wilkins had done just that. The Reverend Glass’s lawyer claimed that the vicar had been away for the three days during which the burial had been arranged and had only arrived home when the funeral was about to take place. He said the vicar had not accepted any fee for carrying out the burial service. When the sexton was called to the witness box he admitted to having received £10 1 shilling from Mrs Fox of which 1 guinea was paid to the vicar for his burial fee and the rest paid out to the gravediggers or on other disbursements. The Police Magistrate fined the vicar and the sexton £5 each and 10 guineas costs. As neither of them committed any further offences against the Burial Act 1855 Frank Fox became the last person to be interred in the churchyard.    

Monday, 23 April 2018

The Lost Memorials of London; Sir Thomas Bladen (1698-1780) , St Mary's, Leyton

According to David Ian Chapman’s “The Grange” published by the Leyton and Leytonstone Historical Society, Sir Thomas Bladen’s tomb stood just off the main path in the churchyard of St Mary’s, Leyton, just behind the alms houses.  This substantial tomb with a black stone sarcophagus, possibly basalt or granite, resting on four lions paws (coade stone?) and mounted on a pedestal, has completely disappeared. Not a trace of it remains. When it disappeared, no one knows. It was certainly still around in 1894 when the Reverend John Kennedy wrote his ‘History of the Parish of Leyton’ and mentioned it and luckily around 1820 someone pained a water colour of it which is now in the Wakefield Collection at the London Metropolitan Archive.  
Sir Thomas Bladen was born in Annapolis, Maryland, on the 23rd February 1698, the son of William Bladen, originally from Yorkshire who had settled in the new world in 1690. William became fabulously wealthy and sent his eldest son back to England to be educated in 1712. When William died in 1718 Thomas inherited 16,000 acres of land and 26 slaves, which he immediately sold off. He probably engaged in trade (his uncle was a director of the Royal African Company) and in 1727 he became a member of parliament for Steyning. He married Barbara Janssen at St Stephen Walbrook in the City of London in 1731 and was by then wealthy enough to buy the Glastonbury Abbey estate from the Duke of Devonshire for a cool £12,700. In 1743 he returned to Maryland as the Governor of the province, appointed by Lord Baltimore (who just happened to be his brother in law). His governorship lasted just four years because the colonists found him “tactless and quarrelsome”. He is best remembered for introducing ice cream (in particular strawberry ice cream) to the colony, serving it at state functions, and for Bladen’s Folly, a palatial governor’s residence which was started in 1744 with a grant of £4000. When Sir Thomas ran out of money to complete the project he returned to the Maryland Assembly to request additional funds. They took great pleasure in refusing the request and censuring him for his extravagance. The almost completed mansion stood empty for the next 50 years, becoming derelict and only being saved when it was gifted to the newly founded college of St John’s who restored and extended the building which today stands as the centrepiece of their Annapolis campus.

Sir Thomas returned to England in 1747 and from the mid 1750’s lived at his Leyton mansion, the Grange, dying quietly in 1780 and being buried in the churchyard of St Mary’s. 
Birds Eye View of the City of Annapolis

Friday, 13 April 2018

A slaver's memorial; Sir Fisher Tench (1673-1736) St Mary the Virgin, Leyton

The Tench memorial commemorates an era when human trafficking was a respectable career choice

On Tuesday the 9th November 1736 the immensely wealthy London merchant Sir Fisher Tench was buried with great ceremony in the churchyard of St Mary the Virgin, Leyton. The popular almanac The Political State of Great Britain printed for T Cooper at the Globe in Paternoster Row gives a unusually detailed account of the obsequies:

The late Sir Fisher Tench, Bart, having given very particular Funeral directions for his Interment on Tuesday the 9th of November.  About Three in the Afternoon his Corpse was carried through his fine Gardens and Grounds adjoining (as directed in his Will) to Low Layton Church in the following Manner First Six Conductors in Black Gowns and Scarves with Staffs. Then six poor Boys leading as many poor Girls all cloathed in dark Grey with Black Hatbands and Gloves; these had five shillings a Piece given them, also a Bible with a Common-Prayer Book which they carried under their Arms. Then six old Men leading as many old Women who were cloathed as the Boys and Girls; to each of these were given ten Shillings and a Book entitled The Whole Duty of Man which they carried under their Arms.  Then the Clerk and two Clergymen. Then came the Corpse of the Deceased in a Coffin with Black Velvet with a gilt Plate (expressing that he died October 31 Aged 63) borne by six poor Men, covered with a Pall of Black Velvet.  Sir Nathaniel Tench Bart, his only son followed as chief Mourner.  Then fourteen Servants of the Deceased seven Men and seven Women walked two and two in deep Mourning. Then ten Tradesmen who served the Deceased walked two and two in Black Cloaks, Hatbands and Gloves, and they closed the Procession;  and the Corpse was interred a little after Four in the Family Vault on the west Side of the Church yard and Tomorrow a Funeral Sermon will be preached at Low Leyton Church.

18th century funeral procession

Sir Fisher left instructions and 10 Guineas in his will for the preaching of a funeral sermon based on Ecclesiastes 2.4; ‘I made me great Works, I builded me Houses, I planted me Vineyards, I made me Gardens and Orchards and I planted Trees…’ (The London Magazine of November 1736 commented "Words exceedingly applicable to the house and gardens of that gentleman at Low Layton, which are reckoned among the most elegant in the country; & at the same time most beautifully set forth the vanity of all sublunary enjoyments.") As well as the day after the funeral, the sermon was to be preached on the following Sunday ‘by the Rev Mr Capoon but he not coming down as was expected a Clergyman in the Neighbourhood did the Duty of the Day but the Sermon was not then preached though there was a very numerous Congregation assembled to hear the same…’ observed The Political State.  In the months following the funeral his son raised the now grade II listed Portland stone memorial over the family vault that dominates the view of the churchyard from the street.
Sir Fisher was a hugely successful city merchant who transformed himself into a country gentleman. He was born in 1673, the son of Nathaniel Tench, Governor of the Bank of England from 1699 to 1701. Sir Fisher was an Assistant in the Royal African Company (prime movers in the triangular trade of shipping manufactured goods to Africa, slaves to the Caribbean and sugar to Europe), a Director of the South Sea Company (again heavily involved in slaving as well as causing the speculative mania known as the South Sea Bubble which ruined hundreds of investors in 1720) and owned a plantation in Virginia (worked, of course, by slaves). He had political as well as business interests and was High Sheriff of Essex in 1711 and became an MP for Southwark in 1713. In 1715 he was made a Baronet. He built the most magnificent mansion in Leyton in the 1700’s, known simply as the Great House. The Reverend John Stype, vicar of Leyton, a friend of Sir Fisher’s and probably the clergyman who directed his funeral, described The Great House in his updated edition of John Stow’s Survey as a “modern erection is the magnificent and beautiful seat of Sir Fisher Tench, Bart., adorned with large and most delightful gardens, plantations, walks, groves, mounts, summerhouses, and pleasant canals, stored with fish and fowl, and curious vistoes for prospect." Edwin Gunn wrote a more detailed description in his monograph on the property for the Survey of London in 1904, ironically just a year or so before it was finally demolished. Gunn gently disparages the idea that the house was designed by Sir Christopher Wren; “In common with most other buildings of the period not assigned by direct documentary evidence to other authorship, the design of the Great House has been attributed to Sir Christopher Wren…… In the present instance….while many admirable points are displayed in the treatment, a certain lack of the dominant "idea" with which Wren was able to infuse even the least important of his works, militates strongly against the assumption of direct connection between that great designer and the building as executed.” He also notes that “tradition has been very active in relation to the Great House. It is useless to repeat all the idle stories in local circulation, most of which are too absurd to need refutation, as for example one which jointly attributes the authorship to Inigo Jones and the ownership to Queen Elizabeth's Earl of Essex.” One tradition which he does not pooh-pooh is the claim that the cupola on the bell tower of St Mary’s “may indeed well have come from the Great House, since it is unusual to find a house of this type without some feature of the kind.”

Whilst always claiming never to believe them Gunn deigns to repeat every scrap of local lore relating to the Great House. This includes stories of Sir Fisher imprisoning highwaymen in the cellars of the mansion and hanging them from the trees in his magnificent garden (“probably….an elaborated traditional version descriptive of his shrieval duties” he speculates). If lifelong involvement in slave trading and slave owning, helping to create the South Sea bubble and gossip of hanging highwaymen wasn’t enough, his sullied reputation suffered further blows as one of the managers of the Charitable Corporation, a semi-philanthropic concern, which lent small sums to poor persons on pledges at legal interest to avoid them turning to pawn brokers and money lenders. Sir Fisher’s second son William became the Corporation’s cashier and was implicated when a scandal broke involving the broker George Robinson. The crooked broker extracted money from the three directors of the company, ostensibly to lend to the worthy poor but in reality to cover the director’s heavy losses on the stock market (said losses all having been incurred following the advice of George Robinson, of course). William died unexpectedly in 1731 and so escaped having to account for his actions to the select committee to investigate the scandal set up by Parliament in 1732 and chaired by Samuel Sandys. Sandys, to the surprise of many, exonerated Sir Fisher of all blame saying that he was ‘not justly to be censured’ for his dealings with the Corporation.  John Perceval, the Earl of Egmont, probably reflected widely held opinion when he  commented in his diaries that although Sir Fisher left the Corporation when he found evidence of irregularities he ‘suffered his son to remain cashier till his death who was guilty of frauds’, and that he must have known ‘of his son’s roguery, because he affirmed in a gentleman’s hearing that his son’s employment as cashier was worth him £600 a year, though his salary was but £150; and further that Robinson gave his son £100 a year, which could not be but that he might abet Robinson in his rogueries’. Following the scandal and William’s death Sir Fisher retired from public life and was dead himself after just four years of retirement at Leyton. He was succeeded as Baronet by his surviving son Nathaniel but not for long; within a year bachelor Nathaniel was dead himself and with him the short lived baronetage of Low Leyton.

Standing close by the Tench family vault was once a simple headstone with black lettering commemorating the death of an early member of Leyton’s black community. The burial register records the bare facts relating to “George Pompey a Black Servant to Sir Fisher Tench” including the date of his burial September 3 1735. The headstone has either been lost or the inscription weathered away to invisibility but The Political State’s article on Sir Fisher’s funeral records his servant’s epitaph:
     Here lyeth interred the Body of
George Pompey
Late Negro Servant to
Sir Fisher Tench, of this Parish, Bart
During upwards of 20 Years Service,
Was most diligent and faithful
And though born a Heathen
Lived and died truly a Christian
Conscious of Innocence of Life
Met Death with an undaunted Courage
And if concerned
‘Twas only to part with so good a Master
An Example worthy of all Servants to imitate
He departed this Life the 31st of August 1735
In the 32d Year of his Age

Household slaves started their careers young

The epitaph contains the only details we have of George Pompey’s short life. Whether he was born into slavery or a kidnapped African we don’t know. He may have come from the Virginia plantation but equally he may have been acquired by the family in some other way – black servants were fashionable signifiers of wealth in Georgian London. To have been a house servant almost certainly meant that he had been chosen for the role as a child as we can see here, George can only have been 12 when he came to work for the Tenchs if he was to fit in 20 years of service in a lifespan of just 32 years. The position of black servants in England was ambiguous; they were politely referred to as servants implying that they were free agents but most of them were slaves in reality, unable to live as free men and totally dependent upon their masters. Household slaves in England and in the colonies were often give classical names drawn from Shakespeare or other sources, and Pompey was a particularly popular choice. Like the family hound, the most prized quality of a black, was their loyalty. Piety was another prized quality. Could Sir Fisher really have believed that the dying black man’s only concern was the prospect of death parting him from his master? And that he really was ‘so good a master’?   

Friday, 6 April 2018

The Lost Memorials of London: The Bosanquet memorial, St Mary the Virgin, Leyton

Remarkably little of the work of the celebrated architect and collector Sir John Soane remains intact. The memorial he built for friend and patron Samuel Bosanquet in the churchyard of St Mary the Virgin in Leyton survived 150 years, far longer than much of his work. In my 1965 copy of “The Buildings of Essex”, Nikolas Pevsner, who describes the memorial as being “of typically Soanian Neo-Greek detail”, seems apparently unaware that it had been demolished 8 years previously. Ptolemy Dean in Sir John Soane in London rates the lost memorial as better than the De Loutherbourg monument in St Nicholas’ Chiswick and ‘second only to Soane’s own tomb’ in St Pancras Gardens. He describes the fate of the monument as ‘one of the saddest of any of Soane’s works’ and notes that the ‘minutes of the Churchyard Committee, although incomplete, record the renovation and levelling of a number of the tombs during 1957… A photograph of the Bosanquet tomb is annotated “tomb demolished 1957-1958 as a result of damage by Hooligans.”  The work was carried out by the local firm T.R. Hurry & Sons. Soane’s Portland stone base survives, along with the original stone railing plinth. Above this a new granite slab was cut with the original inscription wording by Messers Hurry. The fate of Soane’s substantial displaced stone copings and scroll stones remains unknown.’  A grainy monochrome photograph taken in 1953 by Dorothy Stroud, one time assistant curator of the John Soane Museum, and a clay model of the memorial by Soane is all that is left of the once impressive tomb.    
In this old postcard of St Mary's the Bosanquet monument can just about be made out to the left of the tower
Clay model of the memorial by Sir John
and now in the museum at Lincoln's Inn Fields
Samuel Bosanquet (1744-1806) lived in Forest House in Leyton and came from a Huguenot family with strong trading links to the Middle East.  He was Deputy Governor of the Levant Company and was also a Director of the Bank of England and eventually its Governor during the period 1791-1793. Sir John Soane had first become acquainted with a Bosanquet in Naples during his 1778-1780 Grand Tour of Europe. There he stayed with Richard ‘the rake’ Bosanquet, a first cousin of Samuels, who had been a Director of the East India Compnay before giving it up to lead a life of leisure and pleasure in Southern Europe. Richard eventually squandered his fortune in luxurious living and rash speculation in stocks. He died in 1809 having never married but having fathered, according to his will “Captain Johnson my reputed son” who in turn had “by the child of a convict of Botany Bay, the mother already mistress to another man, two children. To my executors £2,000 to be laid out in the Equitable Insurance Office for paying to each of those children at age 21 the sum that they think equivalent for £1,000.a child.” Sir John remained on friendly terms with Richard the rake until his death in Falmouth and through him came to know the rest of the family. He carried out various commissions for Samuel, including work at Forest House, and after his death seemed, as Dean outs it, 'genuinely moved to produce something worthy' of his friend whose portrait still hangs in the breakfast room at Lincoln's Inn Fields.   

Samuel Bosanquet

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

'The Worm at the Core; On the Role of Death in Life' Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg & Tom Pyszczynski (Penguin £9.99)

And yesterday I saw you kissing tiny flowers,
But all that lives is born to die
And so I say to you that nothing really matters,
And all you do is stand and cry
Led Zeppelin ‘That’s the way’

‘Live every day as though it will be your last,’ always struck me as an absurd piece of advice. If today was your last day of life would you bother going to work? Pay the mortgage or the gas bill? Clean the house? Feed the kids? Change your underpants? Or would you spend the day getting drunk, having sex, revenging yourself on your enemies (without fear of the consequences) or blubbing inconsolably about your imminent demise? All that 'live for the moment' stuff is just nonsense - if we took it seriously we would find ourselves jobless, divorced and broke in a matter of days. If everybody lived for the moment civilisation would fall down around our ears within a week.  The only way we, humanity, can bring stability and predictability to our world is by contriving to ignore the fact that we are going to die and carrying on as though we are going to live, if not for ever, then at least for a century or two.  American psychologists Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski are fascinated by the human ability to stare death in the face and simply not see it, though they seem, on the whole, to think that our capacity to ignore our inevitable demise is rather a bad thing and something we should strive to get over.

The three psychologists shared a common passion for Ernest Becker the American social anthropologist who, when dying of colon cancer, had observed that most other people seemed blithely unaware that one day their precarious existence would be snuffed out by death. He theorised that society, civilisation, is an elaborate defence mechanism to shield us from the devastating knowledge that we are mortal. Only by pretending that we live forever are we able to get up in the morning and face the day. Becker’s views were not so different the Greek philosopher Epicurus who had come to similar conclusions two thousand years ago, so there is nothing new in these ideas. Greenberg, Solomon and Pyszczynski have spent their careers building on the notions of Epicurus and Becker and have come up with a scientifically testable hypothesis they call ‘Terror Management Theory’ which states the basic psychological conflict between our instinct for self preservation and our knowledge of the inevitability of death results in a state of terror which is then managed by embracing cultural values that provide life with enduring meaning and value.  The sudden revelation that ‘all that lives is born to die’ threatened our burgeoning consciousness and even the survival of the species:  
The awareness of death arose as a byproduct of early humans' burgeoning self-awareness, and it would have undermined consciousness as a viable form of mental organization—hurling our terrified and demoralized ancestors into the psychological abyss and onto the evolutionary scrap heap of extinct lifeforms— in the absence of simultaneous adaptations to transcend death. But our ancestors ingeniously conspired to “Just Say No” to reality by creating a supernatural universe that afforded a sense of control over life and death, enabling them to bound over the “yawning chasm” and cross the cognitive Rubicon that triggered humankind’s evolutionary explosion.

Consciousness of the ephemerality of human existence came early to the species - Neandertal's bury their dead

Having posited an awareness of death as an early feature of developing human consciousness the authors discuss how social and cultural norms protect us from the full implications of that knowledge. They cite research which shows that judges were prompted to set a bail figure nine times higher for an alleged prostitute after being made to think about their own deaths.  Even subtle reminders about death make us more likely to be patriotic – in one study Germans interviewed in front of a shop showed no particular preference for things German, but those interviewed in front of a cemetery preferred German food, German cars, and even German holidays to foreign alternatives. As well as making us more judgemental towards those who do not share our values and more patriotic the authors argue that “over the course of human history, the terror of death has guided the development of art, religion, language, economics and science. It raised the pyramids in Egypt and razed the Twin Towers in New York.”  

This is an interesting and readable book. I don’t have any argument with the contention that our mortality underpins every aspect of our existence or dispute that humans are very good at ignoring the prospect of their own demise. It also seems self evident that the fear of death plays a significant part in religion and that art, at least for the artist, represents an opportunity for a type of ersatz immortality if their work proves popular enough. All this seems self evident and not particularly contentious. The authors go much further than this though and see the repressed fear of death as being the driving force behind much of our psychology and our social and cultural life. Death looms as large in their view of human motivation as sex does to orthodox Freudians, and for the same reasons is, in the final analysis, not completely convincing.

Monday, 26 March 2018

Cemetery in the snow - St Patrick's Catholic Cemetery, Leyton

The weatherman said ‘thaw today’ and so, after several days of snow, I had to make a mad dash to capture some of the white stuff on film before it melted away for good. Snow always looks its best when it is new laid and virginal but I was at work during the days when the blizzards struck  and only had any free time at the tail end of what is getting to be (because of global warming?) an increasingly rare phenomenon; London snowfall. I wanted some cemetery pictures and couldn’t make my mind up between Brompton in Earls Court and St Patrick’s in Leyton. I plumped for St Patrick’s because it is closer (just a few stops down the Central Line from me) and because I thought it would have had fewer visitors during the cold snap and therefore be more likely to have undisturbed snow.  
St Patrick’s is an interesting cemetery; it opened in 1868 and is one of only two Roman Catholic cemeteries in London. It is unique in being the only London cemetery of any note without its own Wikipedia page, despite it probably being the capitals most visible cemetery. Its visibility is the result of the Central Line running along its entire northern boundary so that every day thousands of commuters watch it flash by on the run into Leyton or Leytonstone stations (depending on which direction they are coming from). There is a pedestrian bridge over the tube line from where it was once possible to get an excellent view of the cemetery. The wonderful Marc Atkins took the justly famous photo below from the bridge before the pedestrian bridge was encased in a clear plastic tunnel. The plastic swiftly became opaque through scratches and the effects of inclement weather and the view of the cemetery was apparently lost for ever. The plastic has now gone but only to be replaced by a thick metal mesh (those inconsiderate suicides who end it all by lobbing themselves in front of tube trains have a lot to answer for) which does allow a broken view but it is impossible to get the wide angled view that Atkins took – as you can see from my miserable attempt at the same shot above.  
Marc Atkins' shot of the cemetery from the old pedestrian bridge over the central line

St Patrick’s is intensively worked– 170,000 burials in its 43 acres by the 1980’s and still very much in use today.  The graves are tightly packed together with seeminly every square inch of land within the walls used; new areas for burial are being created by piling six feet of earth over areas of old graves. Some oft quoted research by online estate agents discovered that houses near cemeteries are often worth up to 25% less than comparable properties in the same area that don’t have a view of the local burial ground. It claimed that house prices near St Patrick’s were particularly affected by this phenomenon; in fact it claimed the ‘grave effect’ was the worst in the country “the average property price overlooking St Patrick’s Cemetery in Leytonstone is £258,400, compared to the postcode average of £511,311. That’s half the average property price in the E11 postcode” despairing home owners were told. I am not convinced; E11 is a sharply divided postcode, with house prices in deprived Leyton and Leytonstone being a fraction of those in affluent Wanstead. What is there to object to in overlooking a cemetery? Peace and quiet and neighbours that never bother you; I’m surprised it doesn’t attract a house price premium.

I had the cemetery to myself as it was bitterly cold with the sub zero wind still carrying the tang of Siberian tundra gusting between the graves. The cemetery wall provided some protection from the icy blast. I was lucky it was still there as at least twice in the last year thieves had attempted to steal it; John Sears the cemetery superintendant, told the Daily Telegraph “the last thing in the world you think is going to get stolen is your wall." It is not the wall per se that is attractive to thieves but what it is made of – yellow London Stock bricks. This classic London brick was made from the late seventeenth century until the close of the Victorian era and is now in high demand because some local authorities insist on them being used as a condition for granting planning permission to build extensions in conservation areas or if the property is listed. The glut of wealthy home owners wanting to expand their living space has pushed up the price of salvaged stock bricks to giddy heights – there have been reports of bricks going for as much as £15 though £1.50 seems a more normal price to pay. The market in black market yellow bricks had led to a wave of attempted brick thefts across East London. Garden walls (and cemetery walls) are particularly vulnerable as they can be easily demolished by anyone with a SUV who doesn’t worry about scratching their paintwork – a good push in first gear is often all it takes to reduce a wall to rubble which can be stowed in the back of the car and hauled off to an architectural salvage yard.

After half an hour wandering the graves, trying to find decent angles for my shots, I was joined by a woman walking her dog, a ferocious looking Rottweiler/Timber Wolf cross that prowled around the place as though he owned it. I was busy minding my own business, trying to set up a decent shot and avoiding frostbite. There was just the two us and the dog in 43 acres but the two of them circled around me as though they were drawing in for the kill. Every time she passed me the woman glared at me, making sure she caught my eye and that I was aware of her hostility. It can’t have been that she was intimidated by a lone (ageing) male, skulking suspiciously amongst the tombstones; she had the Hound of the Baskervilles chaperoning her ready to rip open the throat of anyone who gave her so much as a crossed look. The only possible thing she could have objected to was my taking photographs. She seemed mortally offended though didn’t actually say anything to me. St Patrick’s doesn’t have a no photography rule as far as I know. It does have a no dogs policy though – I noticed it on the prominently displayed bye-laws as I went in. For me using a cemetery as a dog toilet is far more disrespectful that taking photos of graves. Not that I would say that though to an irate woman leading a slavering one headed Cerberus around on a flimsy leash. 

Despite several visits I have never been able to locate any of St Patrick’s notable graves – Mary Jane Kelly the final ripper victim, Timothy Evans who was mistakenly hanged for the murders at 10 Rillington Place, or the Nun’s who died on the wreck of the Deutschland in 1875. I was keeping my eyes open for the Hitchcock family graves (relatives of famous one time Leytonstone resident Alfred) and for anyone with the surname Aley, as it was likely to be the site where inept James Aley of Ilford, tried to kill himself in 1904, by drinking Oxalic Acid (several pints of the cleaning agent would have been required but he only had one bottle on him):   

ATTEMPTED SUICIDE HIS MOTHER’S GRAVE. At Stratford Monday James Aley, a weak looking lad of Granville-terrace, Ilford was charged with attempted suicide by drinking a quantity of oxalic acid in the Leyton Catholic Cemetery. PC. Davis said on Saturday morning the prisoner was brought to him by the Superintendent of the Leyton Catholic Cemetery. On being  charged, he said;— Yes, I took the poison. I am tired of life. Mother and sister are buried there. Leave me alone; I took some to kill myself. Father and step-mother keep jawing me because I can get no work; I left home at eight o’clock Thursday morning, and slept at night on the Wansted Flats. I tried for work on Friday, and walked about all night.
Prisoner; It’s all through my step-mother. Mr. Carter JP: Haven’t you any brothers or sisters?—Yes; but they don’t live at home. Step-mother drove my sister away. Mr. Carter; You will be remanded; and we will see if we can get you work. The  prisoner was found by the Superintendent lying on his mother’s grave, and by his side was a bottle of oxalic acid, some of which he had drunk.
Barking, East Ham & Ilford Advertiser, Upton Park and Dagenham Gazette - Saturday 09 July 1904

When Sheldon Goodman of the Cemetery Club visited St Patrick’s he found the Nun’s grave and Mary Kelly’s with little apparent effort. His ability to home in notable graves is legendary, according to him anyway. He doesn’t seem to spend hours aimlessly circling cemetery paths or working his way methodically up and down endless rows of seemingly identical tombstones only to not find the grave he is after. He just whips in, sniffs the air a couple of time and sets off in hot pursuit of the scent of whichever dead person he is tracking down. After a couple of hours in St Patrick’s my fingers were too numb to press the camera shutter and I was in danger of losing my toes to frostbite. I decided to call it a day and return in more temperate weather to make a last attempt to find the Nun’s at least.  

Friday, 16 March 2018

The Lost Memorials of London; The Raymond Mausoleum, Ilford

What was once Ilford’s best known monument was unceremoniously demolished in 1923 by the Port of London Authority because it was inconveniently sited in the middle of a large plot of land they had acquired for use as playing fields.  The triangular castle (very similar to Severndroog in Oxleas Wood on Shooters Hill) was built in 1765 at a cost of £420 by Sir Charles Raymond of Valentines House in Ilford. Sir Charles, a ship owner, banker and a member of the East India Company, intended what became known as Raymond’s Folly to be a mausoleum complete with a crypt containing fourteen loculi to hold the family coffins, a ground floor chapel and an upper floor refreshment room for use during interments. According to local antiquarian George Tasker in his 1901 volume ‘Ilford Past and Present’, a descendant of Sir Charles stumbled across family documents which revealed that his ancestor had failed to see eye to eye with the Bishop of London, Richard Terrick, over the finer points of the consecration ceremony for the mausoleum. The Bishop put his foot down and refused to consecrate the building which meant that it was never used for the purpose for which it had been built. It survived as a farm outbuilding, tenant farmer accommodation and even as an Admiralty observation tower during the Great War, until the fateful day when the land on which it stood was sold to the Port of London Authority.   

Sir Charles Raymond
Sir Charles was born into a family of seafarers in Devon, at Withycombe Raleigh near Exmouth, in 1713. He made his maiden voyage to Bengal and Madras as a 16 year old on an East Indiaman captained by his uncle.  He came into his first command as a callow youth of 21 when the East India Company promoted him to the captaincy of the Wager. Trading on his own behalf as well as for the Company, Sir Charles became a powerful and wealthy man, retiring from the sea relatively early to concentrate on a career as an East India merchant, banker, manager of the Sun Life Insurance Office, a director of the South Sea Company and High Sheriff of Essex. He was made a baronet in 1774. He married Sarah Webster, the illegitimate daughter of John Webster of Bromley in 1743 who bore him five children. The family originally lived in Wellclose Square (one of London’s semi mythical locations where they would have been neighbours of Emmanuel Swedenborg, Hayyim Falk, the Baal Shem Tov of London, and poet Thomas Day who was born there in 1748) but moved to Upton in West Ham in 1750 and to Ilford in 1754 where he bought Valentines House and the neighbouring manor of Highlands where the mausoleum was later to be built. Sir Charles kept a menagerie of exotic animals at Valentines, including peacocks and a pair of secretary birds from South Africa, and laid out new gardens. From one of his vines Capability Brown took a cutting in 1768 from which the great vine of Hampton Court was propagated, now the longest vine in the world and a venerable 250 years old.      Sir Charles also collected curios and objet d’art and crammed the mansion at Valentines with them so thoroughly that one contemporary said the whole house could “be called a Cabinet of Curiosities”. Among his prize items were a dark marble statue from the island of Elephanta, a unique leather bound folio containing 814 Chinese paintings of oriental plants and insects with their medicinal uses described in Chinese and English, Hogarth’s painting of Southwark Fair  and quantities of Chinese porcelain, some of it painted with his own coat of arms.    

Memorial Tablet to Sir Charles in St Margaret's Barking
As well as the mausoleum Sir Charles built a new house at Highlands which he leased to his sister in law and her husband, Captain Webber. When Captain Webber died his widow stayed on in the property. In 1778 Sir Charles wife died and was buried at St Margaret’s Church in Barking. Soon after her death Sir Charles moved out of Valentines and into Highlands with his sister in law. Sir Charles died on 24 August 1788 and was buried with Sarah in the Raymond vault at St Margaret’s.  The unused mausoleum quickly became Ilford's premier tourist attraction and innumerable postcard depictions of it exist from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Severndroog Castle on Shooters Hill built on 1785 to commemorate Commodore Sir William James the destroyer of the island fortress of Suvarnadurg (unpronounceable to southeast Londoners, hence Severndroog) on the western coast of India